Just a few years after writing his antiwar masterpiece, "The Trojan Women," Euripides was even more despondent about the reckless imperialist course of Athenian foreign policy. His response wasn't a louder shriek of lament but a rollicking romantic melodrama — escapist fare, really, but with a radical Euripidean twist.
Conceived of during a low point in the long and costly Peloponnesian War, "Helen," a sentimental adventure tale with a biting undercurrent of social criticism, dares to debunk the rationale for the Trojan War by imagining an alternative narrative about the faithless beauty who infamously launched a thousand Greek ships. The WMD — woman of mass destruction, in this case — turns out to be an optical illusion, which apparently is all the paranoid male needs for a massive campaign of bloodletting.
The play, which is being presented at the Getty Villa's outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater in a Playwrights' Arena production, has been adapted by Nick Salamone in a lively manner that mixes too many cultural worlds but muscularly conveys Euripides' utter disdain for the waste and folly of war.
Directed by Playwright's Arena founding artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, this updated "Helen" finds time to revel in the middle-age love story of Helen and her Spartan king husband, Menelaos, and their hairbreadth escape back to their homeland, where the first order of business will be restoring a reputation that could make Lindsay Lohan's seem innocent and saintly.
Stainless and pure, Euripides' protagonist isn't the two-timing vixen of the standard myth but a mournful wife who, before Paris could have his way with her, was whisked away by divine forces to Egypt. In this revisionist account (not the first, it should be noted), the adulterous Helen who brought destruction to Troy was nothing but a phantom duplicate coined by the gods in their perverse meddling with human destiny.
In Salamone's rendering, Helen is a fugitive from Hollywood, a movie queen whose myth has been sullied by the tabloids and who has somehow ended up in the same bind as Euripides' character, seeking refuge at the tomb of Proteus.
Played by Rachel Sorsa, who is comely enough to be convincing and has a lovely singing voice to boot, this Helen is trailed by a chorus of iconic leading ladies (Melody Butiu, Arséne DeLay and Jayme Lake) and looked after by a servant named Hattie (Carlease Burke), who resents being treated like a mammy even as she delivers sass like her "Gone With the Wind" character actor namesake.
Maxwell Caulfield makes his entrance as Menelaos wearing nothing but a torn Spartan flag for shorts, his sinewy torso covered in the grime of a man who has been dragged out of the sea and forced to crawl through a sewer pipe. The recognition scene between husband and wife isn't instantaneous, as Menelaos has been traveling with the phony Helen ever since he conquered Troy and wraiths, unlike flesh-and-blood creatures, don't age.
"You look like my mother-in-law," he says callously to the real Helen, and it's not the only remark that should have her questioning whether the gods have done her any favors in giving her this second chance with this blockhead.
Still, Menelaos and Helen can't keep their hands off each other. They're too old, experienced and tired to believe in happily-ever-after endings, but they definitely don't want to fall victim to Theoclymenus (Chil Kong), the Greek-hating ruler of the Egyptian island of Pharos who has long wanted to marry her. Both Theoclymenus and his sister, Theonoe (Natsuko Ohama), have been transformed into Communist party leaders, adding another level of distracting business to an already hectic palette.
Salamone is obviously seeking modern equivalents of myths that may no longer resonate for a 21st century audience. Hollywood is a natural source for archetypes and legends, but there's something a little too free-form in the playwright's handling. Euripides' "Helen" isn't considered one of his grander efforts, but the drama is deftly developed. Salamone's antic renovation smudges the neat lines of the original without establishing its own independent vision the way Ellen McLaughlin managed in her 2002 feminist revamp of the play.
But Rivera's staging, floating on music composed by musical director David O, has its scattershot charms. The production, enriched with Adam Flemming's video design and Mylette Nora's flamboyant costumes, is a jaunty visual stew. The cast, including Christopher Rivas as a wounded veteran from the pointless Trojan War, has a ceaseless vitality. And there are plenty of hearty laughs to be had in this contemporary version of a classic that asks us to relinquish our certainties and second-guess even our own senses.
A healthy skepticism, Euripides asserts, may be all that's needed to prevent comedy from turning to irreversible tragedy. Now that's a message that never grows old.
Where: the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Sept. 29.
Contact: (310) 440-7300 or http://www.getty.edu
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutesCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times