Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic, Philoctetes?

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The cast of “Toxikos.” Photo by Vincent Richards.

I love Britney Spears. There. I said it. I have a sincere love of bubblegum pop. No irony lives here. You listen to these songs, and it’s impossible not to bop your head, to smile, to learn the lyrics without even trying. It’s the kind of false adrenaline that pumps through your (okay, my) veins while watching sports movies. I know you cried when the entire Notre Dame stadium chanted “Rudy! Rudy!” It’s a pulse. It’s a rhythm. It’s elating.

I also love Sophocles, Shakespeare, Georg Kaiser, melodramas, pre-1990 horror films, and Law & Order. My nightstand currently hosts James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, two Nancy Drew mysteries, A National Geographic and the latest Vogue. This is me. I’m constantly trying to find a balance between my sensibilities for shtick, for trash, for class. My investigation into how it is these seeming opposites are so deeply engrained in me, in our culture, is what led me to Toxikos.

Deena Selenow
Deena Selenow

Los Angeles is Athens. Mount Olympus is the Hollywood Hills. Our Sophocles is People Magazine. Our Oracle’s cave is the Staples Center, where masses gather to catch a glimpse of their heroes. These celebrities (ancient and modern) are untouchable and yet they have affairs, fall in love, and have heartache just like us. We know this because it’s everywhere: on newsstands, on blogs, on TV. We watch them, we sympathize with them, we despise them, and we pity them. Our obsession with celebrity is not new. It’s as old as Athens. It’s the most human thing there is.

In “Oops! I did it Again“, Britney Spears wonders if “heroes.. truly exist.” Toxikos investigates what happens when ancient and modern pop collide. Warriors like Philoctetes, Ajax, and Heracles were the pteryges-wearing pop stars of their time. Society builds heroes, we put them on pedestals and then we watch hungrily as they fall. These are high-status people. They engage in high drama. They are untouchable. We worship them.

Ares having an affair with Aphrodite is the Britney/Justin debacle — now immortalized in Justin Timberlake and Timbaland’s Cry Me A River. We don’t know these people, but we know everything about them. It’s terrifying. It’s unfair to them. We love it.  Obsession with celebrity comes in many forms. In this country: Movie Stars and Pop Stars. In BCE Greece: Warrior, Gods and Goddesses.

By collaging David Grene’s gut-wrenching translation of the Sophocles play Philoctetes with my bastardization of the story, original orchestration inspired by Britney Spears’ 2004 hit “Toxic“, and her famous booty-shaking dance moves, the Toxikos team (including composer Paul Fraser and choreographer Genevieve Gearhart) is creating a questioning of the idea of Hero — past and present.

Ptergys. Photo courtesy of
Pteryges. Photo courtesy of

I took a Greek drama class with Charles McNulty at CalArts and fell in love with the Greeks. Philoctetes hit me hard. Here’s this guy who is arbitrarily bitten by a magical venous serpent and thus must live the rest of his life in excruciating pain. His injured foot won’t heal and his friends abandon him on a deserted island to rot. Ten years later they realize they need Philoctetes and his enchanted bow to win the Trojan War. So they return, tails between their legs, and must now convince (or trick) him to join forces to decimate Troy.

Britney Spears was chosen by some executive somewhere to revitalize the pop music movement. Celebrities are created, rise and fall for inexplicable reasons. They are just like us and then — wham! — they are gods. Then there’s me. Just weeks prior to Charles’ class, my foot had broken in five places for no apparent reason. Arbitrary. Frustrating. Painful as all hell, but no glory involved.

Toxikos engages in an exploration of two unknowns — how these characters and forms relate — challenging conceptions of what performance can be.  It’s an audience-participatory theatrical adventure with substance, spirit and a pounding heart. Philoctetes is our Britney. Our exploited hero.

Toxikos (based on Philoctetes by Sophocles. And Britney Spears.) New Original Works Festival, REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St. (corner of W. 2nd and Hope streets, inside Walt Disney Concert Hall complex), LA 90012. August 8-10, 8:30 pm.

Full REDCAT NOW schedule: Week 2 (Aug. 1-3): Jennie MaryTai Liu, Tyler Matthew Oyer, Waewdao Sirisook & Ronnarong Khampha. Week 3 (Aug. 8-10): Daniel Corral; Morgan Thorson & Meg Wolfe; Paul Fraser, Genevieve Gearhart & Deena Selenow. Thu-Sat, 8:30 pm. Through Aug. 10. Tickets: $18; Festival Pass, $36. 213-237-2800.

Director Deena Selenow creates joyful disasters that challenge perception and the myth that anything can be defined. She has directed theater, opera and site-specific performance in Los Angeles at CalArts, Highways Performance Space and REDCAT; and in New York at New York Theatre Workshop (Suspects Studio), Dixon Place, The Workshop Theater, Clemente Soto Vélez Center, the Flamboyan Theater, and various chashama locations in Brooklyn, Harlem and Lower Manhattan, among other venues. She was a recipient of the 2006 Baryshnikov Art Center Multi-Disciplinary Artist Fellowship, the 2009/2010 New York Theatre Workshop Emerging Artist of Color Directing Fellowship, and was a participant in the Walt Disney Imagineering/CalArts Educational Initiative. Deena received her BFA in drama at New York University and her MFA in directing at California Institute for the Arts.

An Interview with CTG’s Sherwood Award Winner, Mat Diafos Sweeney

“I think LA theatre is at its best when it’s reaching across forms and reinventing its relationship to a live audience, and at its worst when it’s trying to fit an existing mold or production model that made sense in New York a century ago. LA is the future- our garden is wilder, vaster, and more diverse so it should be tended differently.”

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Deena Selenow

Deena Selenow