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Theatre Revew (Malibu): Helen by Euripides and Nick Salamone at The Getty Villa

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Poor Helen of Troy; she is blamed for the Trojan War and has gone down in history as both a legendary beauty (in Greek terms that means she must be evil) and a betrayer of home and husband. Her reputation was established in The Iliad by Homer as the cause of the Trojan War (if you ignore the fact that the gods had a big part in the proceedings). Euripides immortalized her infamy in his masterpiece The Trojan Women.

But apparently annoyed by Athens’ proclivity for war, he wrote another play, Helen, where she is an innocent. In this alternate version she never reached Troy but rather spent the war on the Egyptian isle of Pharos while the gods, ever the tricksters, replaced her with a phantom twin. When her betrayed husband Menelaus confronted her, he was overcome by her beauty and sailed with her to his home, except there was a shipwreck, but that is another tale. Actually the Greeks knew of this alternative story of Helen and enjoyed its rather perverse history. Could it be that the Greeks didn’t want to admit a 10-year war had been fought over a false woman?

The Getty Villa presents one staged classical play a year in the gorgeous Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre. Complaining neighbors prevent more productions but there are indoor presentations throughout the year. These plays, often re-imagined, are presented in coordination with some exhibit at the Villa.

This year the Villa presented a rather whacked-out version of Helen by Playwright’s Arena. Nick Salomone is the writer, Jon Lawrence Rivera is the director, and The Amazing O is the musical director who provides a mix of old, new, and eclectic songs, some original. In fact there are lots of modern references, cheeky lines, and hilarious juxtapositions in this treatment. Sometimes they seem to go too far but overall I enjoyed the experience.

Director Rivera has gathered quite a cast, with Rachel Sorsa in the title role and a nearly naked Maxwell Caulfield as Menelaus (he is in amazing shape). They are supported by three chorus ladies right out of Hollywood movies: Melody Butiu, Arsene DeLay, and Jayme Lake. Carlease Burke plays Hattie, a black servant right out of Gone With The Wind (though the character resists the role of slave). Chil Kong and Natsuko Ohama are the brother/sister rulers of the island. Robert Almodovar plays the Old Soldier as a kind of Vietnam War vet in a powerful performance. You may not like all the mixed references but you won’t be bored. Helen plays at the Getty Villa until September 29.

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