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BWW Reviews: Playwrights' Arena Presents Scintillating HELEN at Getty Villa

Playwrights' Arena presents Euripides' Helen/adapted by Nick Salamone/directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera/The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater /Getty Villa, Malibu/through September 29

Prepare to be transplanted back in time to ancient Egypt/Greece when you enter the Barbara and Lawrence Fleschman Theater at the Getty Villa for Euripides' Helen. The amphitheatre with its stone benches, the facade and main portal of the museum adorned with Grecian columns, serving as the Egyptian palace of Theoclymenus on the island of Pharos, and a starlit sky above all assist in creating a hypnotic atmosphere. It's an experience to remember, coupling the sights of the crumbling ancient world with the brightly upbeat sounds of David O's hip, contemporary music. Jon Lawrence Rivera's brisk staging, making generous use of the vast stage area, Nick Salamone's quirkily funny Hollywoodesque yet faithful adaptation, and a splendidly fun-loving cast make for this unique theatrical evening now through September 29. 

I do not wish to appear redundant, but I must repeat it's the ambiance and staging that bring so much sumptuous reality to this world of mythological fantasy. Salamone's script adds an entertaining Hollywood touch that works, by making Hattie (Carlease Burke) roll out a movie projector at the top as she sings "Motherless Child". She starts the film and then enter Helen (Rachel Sorsa) and three members of a Greek chorus (Melody Butiu, Arsene DeLay and Jayme Lake) dressed as Vivien Leigh/Blanche du Bois from Streetcar, Elizabeth Taylor from Cleopatra and Marilyn Monroe/Cherry from Bus Stop - atypical in front of an ancient Egyptian palace, to be sure, but somehow setting a crazed, delightfully amusing moviestar 'trapped in time, on a desert isle' feel that we fully accept and enjoy. Lines like "I detest cheap sentiment" are blurted out and spontaneous impressions of Bogie, Groucho Marx and others are utilized, but, that's OK, it's life upside down. The characters uselessly chastise the gods for their dilemmas, as we attempt to persevere today, smiling, laughing and taking life as it comes. Make lemonade from lemons! What else can we do?

The fragility of living has never been more slickly executed and the entire cast shine. Sorsa is beautiful to look at and full of compassion, making her Helen a convincing victim of circumstance, whether she is lying or not. Maxwell Caulfield as the shipwrecked King Menelaos is also stunning to watch as he makes his entrance covered with soot and clad only with a flag draped around his waist. His physicality is unchanged in 30+ years; he is in strong singing voice and makes his quiet moments onstage spontaneous and terribly droll. Christopher Rivas as the paraplegic soldier Teucer is outstanding in his one scene, winning sympathy, admiration and trust. Robert Almodovar is terrific as well in but one scene as Menelaos' old soldier. He adds amazing energy and great humor. Chil Kong as Theoclymenus and Natsuko Ohama as his sister Theonoe bring what humanity they can to their characters who are merely puppets of the gods. Burke as Hattie, the servant, is fiery and full of devilish charm as she cunningly belittles much of the black stereotypical behavior we have witnessed on film. When she brings Helen some food, "Here are some vittles and libation!"The trio of girls who make up the Greek chorus - Butiu, DeLay and Lake-are simply delightful at every turn.

This is a spectacularly one-of-a-kind evening of theatre that happens but once a year at the Getty Villa and that proves once and for all, as in a movie, that location is everything. Don't miss the rarely produced Helen!

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Menelaos and Helen

Menelaos surprises Helen

Menelaos and Helen Escape

Greek Chorus console Helen

Helen comforts Teucer

Menelaos protests

Menelaos and Helen confront each other

Greek Chorus and Helen dream

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From This Author Don Grigware