Consider this: Helen of Sparta did not ignite the infamous Trojan War by running away with Paris of Troy and betraying her husband King Menelaos. The most beautiful woman in the world wasn’t even there. The gods exiled her to Egypt and then replaced the Queen with an eidolon or phantom replica. The real Helen languished incommunicado on the island of Pharos for 17 years, waiting for rescue and a return to her former life.
Dos it sound like an all-too-familiar Hollywood fate?
That’s what playwright Nick Salamone and director Jon Lawrence Rivera thought when tasked with staging Euripides’ provocative Helen at the Getty Villa’s outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater opening tonight. The rarely performed 412 B.C. follow-up to the Greek playwright’s famous anti-war play The Trojan Women, presented at the Getty last year by Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, offered the two ripe territory to explore by nature of its radical premise.
The frequent award-winning and nominated collaborators (The Sonneteer, Sea Change, Hillary Agonistes) also wanted to adapt the ancient tale to appeal to LA audiences.
“Nick and I spent a great deal of time discussing how do we honor Los Angeles?” explains Rivera, founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, which is presenting the new adaptation as the centerpiece of its 20th season. PA’s mission is to develop and produce original works by LA playwrights. “What is the concept? What is the thing that we’re doing? What you’re going to see is really an homage to LA, to Hollywood, to an era.”
“When Jon approached me about doing our own adaptation, of course I was ridiculously excited,” admits Salamone, as the two friends sit in a Getty conference room one late July morning prior to rehearsals. An actor as well as lyricist, his 10 produced plays have received bicoastal and international acclaim. “We started talking right away about Hollywood and using a Hollywood iconography, a Hollywood language, a Hollywood setting as a story telling device.”
“There was one key line in the J. Michael Walton translation used in our [March 2010] reading,” offers Rivera. “When Helen says, ‘Oh my god, somebody out there is pretending to be me.’ Some understudy, some something. When I heard that, and because [the play] is all about illusion and reality, the immediate thing for me was Hollywood. What is more illusionary than films? We look at films and think that’s the reality. No, our reality is this and people believe in what they see. I was like, how do we do that?”
“Helen is the most beautiful woman on earth and an analog, which is what we searched for,” Salamone adds. “We searched for analogs in present day culture that would let us into Helen’s world without having to use any filters. Or require an audience to possess any prior knowledge of Greek drama or Greek structure. Our references are probably a third Greek and two-thirds Hollywood. That’s the balance we struck. But since Helen is clearly the most beautiful woman on earth, we made her the most beautiful famous actress of the 20th century.”
He cites the frequent commingling of highly placed political men and actresses in past eras ranging from Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy to Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco to Marilyn Monroe with the Kennedy sons. “When a man wanted to aggrandize his masculinity he went to Hollywood and found the most beautiful woman around.”
Rivera and Salamone would ultimately pursue the same path in search of their Helen.
So how do you cast the most beautiful woman in the world?
“Nick and I talked about this a great deal as far back as a year ago,” offers Rivera. “Who is Helen? We had two ideas and one of them was that we would find the most beautiful, most spectacular movie actress available to us. And we tried. We really tried to go for that. And we always said, either we’re going to get somebody like that or we’re going to get somebody who is unknown, who can bring our vision to life.”
Rivera and Salamone approached about a dozen top actresses (whom they declined to name) with roots in the theater. Several, they say, wanted to do the piece but couldn’t commit at this time. Some were honored the two even thought of them for Helen of Troy. Rivera then acknowledges a serious offer was made to Catherine Zeta-Jones. “We got very close.”
“There were two or three weeks of discussion,” adds Salamone. “It was really fun. Ultimately, she’s doing a movie now.”
Instead, Getty Villa audiences will see Rachel Sorsa as Helen alongside Maxwell Caulfield (Menelaos), Chil Kong (Theoclymenus), Natsuko Ohama (Theonoe), Carlease Burke (Hattie), Melody Butiu (Lady), Arséne DeLay (Cleo), Jayme Lake (Cherry), Robert Almodovar (Old Soldier), and Christopher Rivas (Teucer).
“The benefit of Rachel Sorsa, who’s playing Helen, is that she had done the workshop with us,” Rivera explains. “She played Lady, the Vivien Leigh part. She auditioned originally for Helen and was fantastic. So we already knew she had the chops to do it, but if we got Catherine Zeta-Jones or somebody else, then Rachel understood that process. We’re so happy to have her. What she brings to the table is an authentic flavor of Helen.”
Caulfield also did the workshop and is a longtime friend of both Rivera and Salamone. Caulfield and his wife, actress Juliet Mills, have done benefits for Playwrights’ Arena including reading one of Salamone’s scripts, and Rivera was at his daughter’s wedding.
“He’s so game,” laughs Salamone. “We’re asking a lot of our Menelaos. There are five jokes in the play about this king of Sparta who’s wrapped in essentially a handkerchief remnant from the sail and in ours, it’s the flag. He’s a lot of fun. He’s shooting a film and worked his schedule out so that he can do this. Max brings a lot to the table.”
The entire cast was asked to bring alive the heightened acting style Rivera and Salamone required for their Hollywood vision.
“We had some people come in and audition who had a very TV bland presentation,” explains Salamone. “Every actor on stage with us a) knows that they’re doing theater, and b) knows that they’re doing theater whose modus operandi is the language of epic Technicolor, ’50s spectacle films. They all get that.”
“I think they achieve it because they all have strong theater backgrounds,” says Rivera, citing Caulfield’s 1981 Off-Broadway performance in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane. “So he came from that arena. So it’s not like we got somebody who never had acted in the theater and was trying to cut it.”
Marooned in 1963
In Salamone’s adaptation, the play takes place in 1980. Helen was spirited away in 1963 and has been completely isolated from any news about Hollywood for 17 years. Consequently, the play uses Hollywood references from the post-Hays Code era of Helen’s birth in the 1930s to the Joseph L. Mankiewicz epic Cleopatra.
“Once we realized that Helen was going to be the most famous actress of the 20th century, our chorus developed over a period of time to be essentially The Three Faces of Eve,“ says Salamone. “They represent three facets of Helen’s personality she’s needed to survive 17 years in complete isolation and captivity. In our play, they have become characters named Cleo, which is essentially an Elizabeth Taylor character but she’ll be costumed as Cleopatra; Cherry, a Marilyn Monroe character who will be costumed like Chérie from Bus Stop; and Lady, a Vivien Leigh character who will be costumed like Blanche [DuBois] in a nightie before the rape scene in A Streetcar Named Desire.“
“There’s been no other information during those 17 years,” adds Rivera. “She didn’t get to see the films of the ’70s. She doesn’t know who Jane Fonda is, she doesn’t know Deer Hunter, she doesn’t know any of those movies. She doesn’t know the other anti-war movies that have come out because the only thing she remembers is 1963.”
“She’s almost pre-Mad Men,” adds Salamone about her reference points. “So that’s the world of the play. So when the characters come in, they are stock characters from the ancient Greeks. In a Greek comedy, Menelaos would be the swaggering, dimwitted braggart soldier, but in Hollywood language he’d be Clark Gable in some of his dimmer, more stolid roles.”
Actress/comedian Carlease Burke plays Hattie, an indentured servant trapped on the island with Helen, whose story parallels Helen. The role is a specific homage to the role played by Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind. Chil Kong plays Theoclymenus, ruler of Pharos as a Charlie Chan meets Ming the Merciless, while Natsuko Ohama, who plays his priestess sister Theonoe, is an Anna May Wong dragon lady meets Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior in The Trouble with Angels.
“They’re not stereotypes in terms of who they are,” Salamone explains. “The actors are doing astonishingly brilliant work and capable of bringing great subtlety out of this. But the style and presentation of them pays homage to Ming and Dragon Lady just as Hattie uses the ‘yes, Massa, no, Massa’ sort of slave terminology from Gone with the Wind. She uses it to her own benefit as a survival tool. Just the way Helen has split herself up into these three strong but very different women in terms of her survival mode.”
David O is tailoring the play’s seven odes into songs that mesh with the Hollywood theme, from a Jimmy Van Heusen style to popular tunes from the early part of the century that might have been recycled in big-screen movies. The references are all tweaked to fit the Greek plot but with Tinseltown markers.
“I think there’s still seven parts of the text that would have been sung in a way that was accessible and recognizable to their audience,” add Salamone. “It wouldn’t be like you sitting down and expecting to experience Oklahoma! and getting Philip Glass. Greek audiences would sit down, knowing what they were going to get and prepared for it. So it was really important that the songs had to be utterly accessible to our audience sitting at the Getty Villa in Malibu, watching a play that is essentially plumbing the Hollywood sensibility to tell the story.”
From Oedipus El Rey to Sicily
On the surface, directing a Greek classic would seem at odds with Rivera’s usual company mandate and loyalty to original work by LA writers. He says it all began with Ralph Flores, former program manager at the Getty Villa’s theater.
“My exposure to Greek theater really started when Ralph called me four or five years ago to talk about doing something,” Rivera recalls. “He had seen my work around town, so he just calls and says, “˜have you ever thought of doing some kind of Greek or Roman theater? I’m like, sure, of course. I had several ideas of what I wanted to do, but I was mostly interested in doing something with Oedipus. So when I met with them I said, I’m sure everybody has come up to you with Oedipus. ‘No, no one has.’ OK, then I’d like to explore that and I’d love to bring in a playwright to do a new take on it. And God bless Ralph and Laurel [Kishi, performing arts manager.] They gave me like 17 translations. “
The playwright? Luis Alfaro. The resulting work? Oedipus El Rey, which begins in North Kern State Prison and is set amid Chicano gang culture in South Central LA. Rivera directed the Getty Villa workshop in February 2008 and its subsequent premiere at Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court in February 2010, where it earned seven Ovation Award nominations including nods for Alfaro and Rivera. It won for lighting design plus an Ovation Honor for fight choreography. It garnered two LA Weekly Awards for adaptation and ensemble. The play has been since produced at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and Washington and D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth before recently ending a much lauded run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.
In 2009, the current Getty Villa Theatre project specialist Norman Frisch, called Rivera to see if he might be interested in Euripides’ Helen. And again the Getty sent the director a box full of translations. “I really got drawn into Helen,“ Rivera confesses. “Because there was one adaptation that I really loved, so I really got into that.
Rivera directed a workshop featuring the J. Michael Walton version in March 2010, which included Salamone in the cast who added, “We had a great time with it. I think it came off very successfully, but the adaptation was very British in humor and slang. It took actually many more liberties with the text than I ultimately ended up taking.”
The experience also raised the same flags for Rivera he first faced with Oedipus. “My whole mandate is to work with L.A. playwrights. I feel that I can’t just embrace an adaptation by a British scholar and not honor the playwrights of Los Angeles. Norman said, well, who do you have in mind? Nick and I have worked together for a very long time. We had just finished his play The Sonneteer, and because of Nick’s other work in adapting mostly Chekhov and stuff like that, I said, there’s this playwright I would like to bring in.”
The two fielded questions from the museum curators about their Hollywood vision and why one of the many adaptations already in hand would not be acceptable. They were grilled about such things as their intended use of the chorus and what that group would sing among many other details. The duo ultimately passed muster and Salamone started writing. Numerous readings and workshops were held prior to the first rehearsals in late July. In between were internal notes and readings with Getty staff.
“Norman and I both went to Tufts and had the same professor,” offers Salamone, about his past experience with Greek plays. “Peter Arnott. If you pick up one of his translations, they’re very accessible. They’re kind of no-frills in that you can’t say, oh gosh, this was written in the Victorian era, this was written in the ’60s, this was written in the ’80s. And they are no-frills because Peter gave marionette performances where he played every single character. So they had to be simple, straightforward, and above all, actable. He translated, I believe, Aeschylus, Sophocles but also mostly Euripides. So I never had any sense of fear or felt that the Greeks were inaccessible because Peter made them very accessible. He deserves the credit and was a terrific, brilliant man who was always able to communicate on the level of his audience — his students.”
To Salamone, Walton’s adaptation pushed the humor more toward Aristophanes’ bawdy humor than toward Euripides. “It’s a great deal of fun but it didn’t necessarily serve an American purpose. It wasn’t dated in the sense of it being archaic. It was dated in the sense of having a kind of a Dudley Moore-ish comedic sensibility.”
He credits Mary Louise Hart, associate curator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum, for helping him and Rivera find the balance of drama and comedy in the piece. The trio hit it off “extremely well” and worked “beautifully together.” It was Hart who told them that the only way to describe Helen was as a “non-tragedy,” because it is not really a comedy by ancient Greek theater definitions.
“I’ve only ever adapted playwrights that I actually am utterly passionate about like Chekhov or Euripides,” says Salamone. “I wanted very much to be true structurally and tonally to his work. Now that’s not easy to do because, well, structurally there are no discrepancies. It’s clearly there as a road map. Tonally it’s hard because it’s hard to know what the tone was.”
What it known is that Euripides intended it to be an anti-war play. He wrote it one year after the failed Sicilian Expedition (415 BC – 413 BC) during the 27-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Athens’ disastrous attempt to seize Syracuse, the capital of Sicily, wiped out the entire Athenian military. The campaign is still considered to be one of the greatest military follies in history.
“Even though the tone is a non-tragedy it is even more anti-war than The Trojan Women,” Salamone explains. “In Trojan Women, Euripides presents the aftermath of the war and the tragedy that comes when people start a war for venal reasons. Most wars are land grabs, or fought for national prestige or treaties, things like that. The egos of the people, either personal or national. But at least the reasons, as venal as they are, do exist.
“Now in Helen, he’s saying those reasons don’t even exist. The real Helen and the real Menelaos, their marriage was fine. This was all a phantom. Not even the venal reasons were real reasons. So he’s pulling the rug out even from the venality saying it’s all trumped up. It can be manipulated any way you look at it. And so it’s really shockingly anti-war.”
Birthing Babies and Honoring LA Artists
Every successful team has a unique alchemy. When asked what makes theirs work and whether an audience member can identify one of their collaborations versus that from other teams, Rivera and Salamone evoke words like trust, good parenting and babies.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is trust,” says Salamone. “I don’t have kids. These are my babies. These are babies that come out the hard way, and you trust the co-parent to make sure that the kid’s going to live and be the best that this kid can be. So it’s nice to be able to have absolute trust because that’s so rare. When you see a show of Jon’s, if there’s a hallmark to me, it’s the simplicity. Many other directors who are extraordinarily gifted like to impose their stamp on a piece. Whereas Jon’s stamp is so deeply under and supporting the work.”
“The thing that makes this relationship work is that we’re really concerned only about bringing up the baby,” concurs Rivera. “We are interested only in telling the story, and are always sitting there going, is the audience getting this? Are they going to get it if our child came through this way? And as parents, he’s looking at the text and I’m looking at the visuals. Then we mix and match. It’s not about my direction and your play. It’s really about our collaboration. Because ultimately when the curtain goes up, they shouldn’t single out one or the other. It should be about what that product is.”
As for what they hope Getty audiences will take away from this experience, the two clearly want them to understand both how homegrown the talent is and how relevant Euripides remains today.
“What I would like our audience to take away is that we really, truly honored the Los Angeles artists in this production,” Rivera emphasizes. “That we brought the best of our people from designers to composer to actors to the crew person. This is really about our community, because I feel like other productions have had less relationship with Los Angeles and Los Angeles artists. I think the entire cast last year was all New York-based actors. And I wanted the audience to feel, and to have some pride in that, you know what? We have the skill to do this and make this work. We can do classical theater and our audiences can appreciate it. I want people to walk away going, wow! Those are all people from here? My god, that’s what we have in this city.”
“One thing we tried to do in honoring LA was to make sure the casting was diverse as possible,” adds Salamone. “And it’s not like we cast color-blind. We went through the play and made decisions about how we could bring in different ethnicities and how that would serve the play in terms of the Hollywood history, in terms of the Los Angeles history. And we came up with a really exciting, multi-cultural cast. Every single one of these cultures has been influenced by the Greeks too, so I think that was really important. And in order for people to see themselves reflected in that mirror Shakespeare says we hold up to nature, they’ve got to see themselves. This is Los Angeles. People have got to see Latino, Asian, African-American, white, gay, they’ve got to see them on the fucking stage. That’s our mandate as artists. We hold the mirror to nature. This is Los Angeles, folks. This is America, folks. We’re a melting pot.”
Salamone says that in relation to the play itself, he’d like audiences to go away thinking about Euripides, and not that their Helen was a “kind of cool adaptation.”
“I want them to understand that these are Euripides’ ideas. Yes, we’re telling it in our own sensibility, of course we are. Why shouldn’t we? This isn’t an opera in a museum. This is something that lives because Euripides lived 2400 years ago. We are talking directly to our audience the same way that Euripides was talking to his fellow citizens about things that mattered deeply. He was talking in a language with a sensibility using motifs and icons that they understood in their gut.
“Now we are telling the exact same story, plot point for plot point, that Euripides gave us. In this sensibility, directly to our audience without any filters, so that they can understand an iconography and motif that they know in their bones.”
Helen, presented by the J. Paul Getty Museum. Opens tonight. Thu”“Sat 8 pm. Through September 29. Tickets $42; students/seniors $38. Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades. Call 310-440-7300 or visit Getty.edu. Parking is $10 after 5 pm.
***All Getty photography by Craig SchwartzÂ Â© 2012 J. Paul Getty Trust