Take the greatest legendary beauty of the Ancient World, three of Hollywood’s most glamorous screen legends, the splendor of the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, the prodigious originality of playwright Nick Salamone, the spellbinding music of David O, and the directorial mastery of Jon Lawrence Rivera, mix all of this together, and the result is Euripides’ Helen, Salamone’s clever, mesmerizing, and oh so entertaining adaptation of the 412 BC play of the same name.

 Most of us have probably heard of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” whose elopement to Troy with a besotted Paris was said to have been at least one of the causes of the Trojan War.

According to Euripides, however, it was a Helen look-alike conjured up by the Gods that Paris actually whisked away, while the real Helen spent the war years in Egypt, where the newly crowned King Theocylmenus decided to make her his bride, an idea that did not sit well with his intended, whose heart remained faithful to her husband Menelaos, King Of Sparta. Got that?

21st Century playwright Salamone takes Euripides’ play as his starting-off point, though what Getty Villa visitors end up with is, thankfully, something considerably closer to contemporary tastes.

 Take for instance Helen’s Greek chorus, whom Salamone imagines as Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop mode, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra finery, and Vivien Leigh a la Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, who not only comment on the action but do so frequently in song. Then there’s Hattie, slave to Theocylmenus and his sister Theonoe, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gone With The Wind’s Hattie McDaniel as Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy. As for Theocylmenus and Theonoe, Salamone imagines them as a North Korean-style dictatorial duo. And when Menelaos shows up all buff and filthy from the war and accompanied by a faithful Old Soldier, his verbal sparring with Helen recalls the great duos of Hollywood’s Golden Years, say Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn or maybe Bogey and Bacall.

Alternating between verse and prose, Salamone’s ingenious wordplay sparkles from the get-go. Discussing the Hollywood publicity mill that turned starlets into stars, Cleo(patra) remarks, “You know what the columns said,” to which Lady (Blanche) replies, “Not the Iconic, not the Doric,” Cleo completing the thought with, “Our columns were strictly metaphoric.” (It rhymes too!) And when Cleo, referring to Helen’s lover, remarks, “We’ll always have Paris,” there’s not a classic movie buff who won’t get the joke.

Songs composed or adapted by musical director David O make Salamone’s Euripides’ Helen just about the closest to a musical a play can be while still remaining a “play with music,” and they are performed by a cast as vocally gifted as they are as actors.

As fancifully comedic as this version of Euripides’ Helen can be at times, there is considerably seriousness at its core, whether in the authentic, undying love that unites Helen and Menelaos, or in the character of double amputee war vet Teucer, railing against a trumped up conflict that has taken life after life and never should have happened in the first place, with Helen the particular object of his fury: “You tore a country apart, sure as if you fired the first shots. I’d like to bayonet your heart and rape your lifeless body till it rots.”

 With many cast members veterans of previous Rivera-directed Playwrights’ Arena productions, it’s no wonder Helen is blessed with one memorable performance after another, beginning with Rachel Sorsa’s glowing, glamorous, tormented, tempestuous turn in the title role. And wait till you hear Sorsa’s torchy, heartbreaking rendition of “Find Your Way Home.” Talk about star power!

Maxwell Caulfield, of Grease 2 and Dynasty fame, not only looks buffer than a 26-year-old half his age, but reveals dramatic-comedic chops honed in numerous stage appearances. The male-female sparks set off when Caulfield meets Sorsa recall the best of Hollywood’s classic screen romantic pairings.

 Chil Kong and Natsuko Ohama do forceful work as Theocylmenus and Theonoe, but it’s the one and only Carlease Burke who steals scene after scene as Mammy, a woman who knows just when to put on the Stepin Fetchit act, but is no Greek’s slave at heart. (Burke is no slouch in the vocal department either.)

Melody Butiu as Lady, Arséne DeLay as Cleo, and Jayme Lake as Cherry are all three perfection as rainbow-cast versions of Hollywood legends, whether commenting sassily on the action, joining voices in three-part harmony, or simply observing as any Greek chorus must do.

In smaller roles, Robert Almodovar makes a strong impression as the Old Soldier, while a fiery Christopher Rivas proves riveting as the embittered Teucer.

As for David O, there’s no more uniquely gifted music director than the multiple award winner, performing his own songs or adaptations here with fellow musicians Brent Crayon and E.A.

 As for Euripides’ Helen’s look, the mere fact of its outdoor amphitheater setting at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater makes for something quite special indeed, artfully adapted by scenic designer John H. Binkley and gorgeously lit by R. Christopher Stokes. Bob Blackburn’s sound design and some terrific acoustics make it easy to hear every word, whether spoken or sung to live instrumental accompaniment. Mylette Nora’s costumes couldn’t be more stunning or varied, from Helen’s slinky Greek gown to Butiu’s, DeLay’s and Lake’s Hollywood Golden Age glamour, to Kong’s and Ohara’s North Korea-inspired tunics and pants. Adam Flemming has once again come up with an imaginative video design. Thumbs up go too to hair and makeup artist Sarah Kathryn Chaney, prop master Ken Takemoto, dialect coach Luke Yankee, and fight director Edgar Landa.

Helen is produced by Diane Levine. Mary Louise Hart is dramaturge and Russell Boast and Raul Staggs casting directors. Jacklyn Kalkhurst is stage manager and Dean Hendricks, Micheal Mason, and Clare Wernet are production assistants.

With so much talent involved both onstage and off, Nick Salamone’s Euripides’ Helen (now there’s a mouthful) would make for an exciting evening of theater in any setting. At the Getty Villa, it is one of September’s must-see productions.

Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, The Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades.

–Steven Stanley
September 13, 2012
Photos: Craig Schwartz © 2012 J. Paul Getty Trust

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