I normally do not attempt to dissuade the approximately sixty (overestimate) Angeleno theatergoers from frequenting a show but I feel morally compelled to do so: think twice before seeing Playwrights’ Arena’s Helen at the Getty Villa. And, if you are still planning on going, think it through a third time.
Productions such as the aforementioned that stole ninety minutes of my life never to be reclaimed really irk me because the state of theatre both nationally and regionally is precarious enough without the proliferation of such non-plays as this one that unilaterally add credence to the previously baseless argument that arts programs in schools are worthless. One who does not know any better—or, unlike myself, did not attend Red the following night at the Taper, in which the theatrical sins of the evening prior were somewhat revisited but mostly absolved—might behold Nick Salamone’s disasterfest of an adaptation and go, “Really? American youth need to learn how to do shoddy adaptations of classical Greek drama?”
Which brings me to my central hypothesis of why this production, well, sucked: Euripides got it right (or actually, kind of wrong) the first time. You need not have attempted—and failed dismally—to help it. A story that takes place seventeen years after the Trojan War, Helen suggests that the title character was a pawn, a victim instead of adulterer: the gods stole her away to Egypt and replaced her with a double who was, in fact, the tramp we associate with having shacked up with Paris. Thus, instead of being the face that “launched a thousand ships” (Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus) she was a woman who lost her entire family and whose husband, Menelaos, was so daft that he did not realize he was banging a decoy for seven years after finally retrieving his wife (yes, well, the plot is convoluted, contrived, and misogynistic regardless: to that much Salamone et al were loyal).
The program note states that those at the helm of this production “looked to musical forms, storytelling devices, and characters from Hollywood’s golden era and beyond to present a world that a twenty-first century American could recognize firsthand.” And, look, I do not mean to say that one can never undertake an adaptation but there needs to be justification more sufficient than “because I wanna” or “because no one will get it otherwise.” Furthermore, I call your bluff: do you really mean to say that I am only capable of relating to this story when it condescends to Hollywood-speak? And do we really want to compare Helen to a misunderstood celebrity? Is such an analogy apt? Perhaps. But, my, how you so tritely and consequently pander.
The characterizations are broad and heavy-handed. Allusions to classic Hollywood films abound but, save for those of Hattie (Carlease Burke), the impersonations are cringeworthy, at best. Helen (Rachel Sorsa) is particularly stilted as she grapples with the melodramatic acting style and accent of the old-Hollywood affectation–and the best thing about Menelaos (Maxwell Caulfield) are his abs.
Also fun: this is a play with music, not to be confused with a musical, in which characters sing what they otherwise could not express sans song. In Helen, there is both little to say and even less worth uncovering the means. Yet the lounge-y elevator music that does abound is certainly fitting to both the caliber and tone of the production.
The Getty Villa is beyond beautiful and this performance space is no exception. I spent the first thirty minutes attempting to give the play a chance and the remaining sixty wishing that I had the good fortune of seeing last year’s SITI Company’s and Euripides’ preceding play, The Trojan Women, at night instead of in the afternoon: side lighting makes that playing space even more majestic. The production value was fine save for the lighting projections that looked like someone uploaded a screensaver from 1995 and haphazardly splashed it against that beautiful, beautiful building, and a moment involving a hydraulic lift and a fog machine reminiscent of Disneyland’s Fantasmic.
The short of the story: the definition of a play is not “actors speak on a stage.” And a definition of an adaptation is not “Los Angeles’ performing arts culture is defined by Hollywood so let us incorporate it so maybe people will come see our show.” Crack open a theatre theory book; do some basic dramaturgy; and as theatre practitioners—and consequently keepers of our culture and collective, artistic memory—be better than shitty fight choreography, generic anti-war sentiment, and everything else not worth another moment attempting to recall and which you crassly portrayed on that stage.
Playwrights’ Arena’s Helen—if you dare—runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8PM from September 6 through 29 at 8PM at the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater. Tickets are $42 for the general public and $38 for students and seniors.