Directed by Michael Hackett
October 14-16, 20-23 and 27-30, 1994
J. Paul Getty Museum
Reviewed by Mary-Kay Gamel,
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California 95064
Reaching the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, is a daunting experience. Visitors to the museum founded by the oil baron must have advance reservations; security is tight. After entering the gate visitors ascend a 'Roman' road made of concrete stones to the main building. Here a long reflecting pool is framed by Mediterranean plantings and a peristyle studded with ancient busts; at the far end rises the villa. By this point, modern LA seems very far away.
The Getty collection is especially focused on antiquities, and the museum's Malibu building is an exact reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri at Pompeii. In 1992 the Getty presented its first dramatic production: The Wanderings of Odysseus, a dramatic reading of sections of The Odyssey, translated by Oliver Taplin and directed by Rush Rehm. The Getty's Roman villa seems even more appropriate for New Comedy than for Homer, and the productions were supported by a lavish budget (reportedly $200,000). The Getty is in the remarkable position of being the best endowed museum in the world-so rich its curators must constantly consider how their purchases will affect the world art market. The October 1994 productions were described by John Walsh as part of the Museum's effort 'to help broaden our visitors' appreciation of our collections of Greek and Roman antiquities' as a 'means for us to understand those long-vanished civilizations. This statement suggests that this 'museum' production was focussed more on recreating the original conditions of performance than on reaching a twentieth-century audience.
In Didaskalia 2.3, however, Getty Associate Curator of Antiquities Kenneth Hamma acknowledged the need to 'balance the conventions of contemporary theater and an audience's expectations with the demands and purposes of ancient comedy and tragedy . . . allowing as much autonomy as possible for directors, actors, dramaturges, designers, and production managers to formulate their rules for translating texts and theatrical values.' Balance was evident in the personnel of this production, a cooperative effort between the Getty and UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television: the translators/dramaturgs were both classical scholars and theater practitioners, the artistic and production staff combined UCLA faculty, students, and professionals.
Many details showed the careful research which underlay this production. The (temporary) set was placed on the long side of the villa's large inner courtyard. Audience seating (flat, unfortunately) fanned out from the front of the set back into the deep portico. The set design was inspired by Roman wall paintings, especially in the House of Augustus in Rome and the Villa of Oplontis in Pompeii. The influence of Richard Beacham, translator/dramaturg of Casina and author of The Roman Theatre and Its Audience (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1992) was obvious. The set design (used, with modifications, for both shows) resembled one used for a production of Casina staged at Warwick (pictured on p. 173 of Beacham's book). The stage house consisted of three projecting porches supported by columns, with the doors to the neighbors' adjoining houses at either end. There was ample space on either side for musicians and chorus entrances and in front for playing.
Running concurrently with the production was A Passion for Antiquities, an exhibit containing a number of objects connected with the ancient theater. Audience members could visit the exhibit before the show and during the intermission, and certain staging touches made explicit reference to the collection: a large-scale replica of a mask from the collection was placed in the center of the upper story for Casina, for example, and the actor playing Parmenon imitated the posture of a 'thinking slave' statuette in the collection.
Such careful attention to archaeological detail might suggest that this production was just an exercise in antiquarianism. But shortly after the show began any doubts about its theatrical effectiveness vanished. The combination of authenticity and theatricality made for dynamic tension, not lifeless formalism, and this fruitful tension ran throughout the shows. Juxtaposing these two scripts illuminated both the subtle psychological portraiture of Menander and the metatheatrical aspects of Plautus. The outstanding translations, written for the stage, effectively conveyed the distinctions between them.
Both translators made bold choices. Faced with an incomplete script, Walton invented dialogue to replace the missing sections (his translation is available in Aristophanes and Menander [London: Methuen, 1994]). Basing his additions on the information available in the extant script, he effectively tailored them to blend with Menander's dialogue. Some of his choices are bold (e.g. the use of Shakespeare quotations to render ancient maxims), some subtle. For example, the fact that Demeas, a citizen, can't marry his mistress Chrysis, a non-citizen and former courtesan, even though he loves her, is a crucial plot detail foreign to contemporary audiences. Demeas' son Moschion's explanation of the situation in the prologue made the situation clear and also helped delineate his desire to support his father's happiness. (He can afford to be magnanimous, of course, since any child of Chrysis and Demeas would be illegitimate and hence no threat to him as Demeas' sole heir.)
Beacham's translation of Casina (excerpts quoted in chapter 4 of his book, the whole forthcoming from Johns Hopkins) is more ostentatiously brilliant. Walton's prose suits Menander's naturalism; Beacham's varied metres, rhyme schemes, and ribald puns ('I longed to taste in haste chaste Casina's embrace/and let the old man come in second place!') suggest Plautus' tonal and musical variety.
With a cast of professional actors drawn from the deep pool of L.A. talent, the quality of acting was high; the chorus of UCLA graduate students were also excellent. Ensemble casting underlined the genetic connections between these examples of New Comedy while permitting the actors to demonstrate their range.
The costume design for Samia was influenced by scenes from phlyax plays on South Italian vases. The chorus in Samia wore red half-masks on their lower faces, short tunics over their padded stomachs and rumps, and body stockings. All had large, droopy phalloi and testicles; one male figure wore flattened female breasts on top of his tunic.
Jay Bell's short, urbane Demeas struggled to keep his cool; his Alcesimus was genuinely cool. Larry Randolph's tall, rawboned Nikeratos was prickly, his Lysidamus buffoonish. Jon Matthews' Moschion was callow and gawky, his Chalinus assured. Robert Machray (Parmenon/Olympio) and Kathy Kinney (Cook/Pardalisca) could have gotten laughs for their looks alone, but their portrayals were rich and their timing impeccable; Kinney's song and dance to a Latin beat ('My name is Pardalisca and I'm here to say . . .') was a showstopper. Oddly, different actresses played Chrysis and Cleostrata, thereby losing some potential resonance between the female roles.
The naturalistic style used for Samia gave the relationships and issues psychological depth. In the first scene, for example, Moschion's reaction to Chrysis showing him his baby suggested that paternity had a transformative effect on him. This reaction laid the psychological foundation for the later scene when Moschion objects to Demeas' plan to evict Chrysis and 'her' (i.e. his) baby: 'I can see no distinction between being of one race or of another. To anyone who believes in justice, if a man's good, he's legitimate and if he's bad, he's a bastard.' As played the scene showed that he was not using empty rhetoric, but speaking for himself both as father of the baby and as adopted son of Demeas. This moment illuminated the play's overall investigation of kinship based on love and acceptance rather than biology.
Similarly, the subtle delineation of the love between Demeas and his mistress made his mistaken rejection of her more brutal: 'You'll soon find out how you rate in the city. Ten drachmas a go and a free dinner.' As Oedipal plot misunderstandings proliferate, tragic diction and references creep into the script, giving rise to potentially melodramatic scenes. Bell's Demeas, Randolph's Nikeratos, and Tress Sharbough's Chrysis all stayed a bit too much under control, so that the return of order and understanding was less powerful. The denouement, however, with Demeas' apology to his son and the wedding of Moschion and Plangon (which also suggested a new beginning for Demeas and Chrysis) was deeply moving.
Having never seen Menander performed, I'd always wondered, as Walton says, what all the fuss was about. Thanks to this production, now I have some idea--indeed, a revelation. Menander's combination of elegant plot skeleton and convincing naturalistic dialogue was sufficient proof. But another discovery was surprising. As a feminist I've gone along with the idea that the convention of keeping unmarried citizen women off the stage puts male affairs center stage. But while watchingSamia I found myself constantly wondering about what was happening with the women inside the house. Instead of the public area onstage being the arena of real action, what mattered seemed to be the unseen domestic realm. Demeas, though a rich and powerful male citizen, often seemed to be an amator exclusus from his own house, and Moschion's description of the Adonis festival made it sound like more fun than the seduction which followed. This production suggested that the telos of New Comedy is, as Madeleine Henry argues, 'the reunion of the larger social family with itself.' The central character is not the male adulescens pursuing his desire; it is 'the prostitute, a social Other' who 'restores the social Self to a state of order and harmony' ('Ethos, Mythos, Praxis: Women in Menander's Comedy' (Helios13 : pp. 141-50).
Compared to this psychological depth and affect, the Casina production came off as a brilliant, somewhat brittle farce. Its pace was much quicker and more varied, the acting style broader (including mugging, obscene gestures, farting, etc.), the movement style more energetic, even frenetic, the violence exaggerated. The contrast between the two wedding scenes--full of emotion in Samia, hilariously burlesqued in Casina--embodied the contrast in the tone and meaning of the two plays. According to one reading of this play, Lysidamus actually learns something (as does his descendant the Count in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro). Beacham's program note indicated that he takes this view: 'The wife is shown to have justice on her side and a fair claim on the sympathy of the audience. Cleostrata controls and dominates the play.'
But the production disagreed: Cleostrata was given white makeup with red clown-spots on her cheeks, an exaggerated Flavian headdress (like that of Domina in the film of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum), and a shrewish manner. When Lysidamus learned that his 'fiancee' was male, instead of being upset he used the line Joey Brown delivers in the same situation in Wilder's film Some Like It Hot: 'Nobody's perfect.' He followed his speech of repentance by flashing a Nixon v-sign and goosing Pardalisca, obviously ready to continue to lecherous career. Music was used to accentuate many moments of dialogue, and the showwas always on the verge of bursting into song and dance. Sometimes the high energy level obscured plot details--the scene of the drawing of lots, for example, was abrupt and mystifying. There was lots of sexual byplay. Cleostrata purred as Lysidamus stroked her, and the 'wedding night' when Olympio and Lysidamus try to have sex with their 'male-order bride' was graphically acted out. The homoerotic byplay, however, between Lysidamus and Olympio was oddly muted.
The set worked very well for both productions. The continuous podium above and behind the downstage action proved ideal (neither completely naturalistic nor completely stagey) for eavesdropping, hiding and other comic business. Minor changes differentiated the mise-en-scene of the two shows: blue predominated in Samia while Pompeiian red was used for Casina and the lighting design was 'hotter' for the latter, whose exuberance was accentuated by a priapic satyr fresco and garlands of flowers strung between the stage building's columns. Screens were placed in front of the doorways for Samia, removed so the swinging doors (a great idea!) could speed up the action in Casina. Beacham said the newness and artificially bright colors of the set and costumes were intended to produce a metatheatrical effect; to me they looked, like the museum as a whole, just bright and new. Casina contained an especially piquant design element: flying phalloi, carried in procession before Lysidamus at his first entrance, also looked like donkeys' heads.
Costumes were costumes rather than clothes; none looked as if it had ever been worn before. The Samia costumes made little distinction between Demeas' wealth and Nikeratos' poverty, the Casina ones little distinction between Chalinus' urbanity and Olympio's rusticity. Lysidamus' fuchsia tunic both denoted his relationship to Cleostrata (also in fuchsia) and suggested his overheated libido; the white drape he added for dress-up proved a somewhat effeminate prop of many uses.
Each show had a full musical score composed by Nathan Birnbaum and played by a live ensemble. Music was especially prominent in Casina: in addition to the overture, dances and songs, the action was punctuated by effect--a ratchet for the 'running slave,' for example. The Casina score was lively, the Samia score more plaintive and Middle Eastern. Several percussionists, placed prominently downstage, paid no attention and registered no reaction to the performance. Their indifference suggested that they were meant to be uninvolved slaves--a nice Brechtian touch.
The audience was well-to-do; at $35 a head it had to be. The Casina prologue line 'even bankers get a holiday' seemed especially apt for this crowd. As the patrons warmed themselves under portable heat lamps, snacked on elegant desserts and drinks, and drifted in to see the art exhibition while servi of another color and culture attended to their needs, these performance conditions seemed a lot closer to the private performance spaces of aristocratic Romans than to the popular theaters in which these plays were originally presented.
A new Getty museum building is now under construction in west Los Angeles; when that is completed the antiquities collection will remain in Malibu while the rest of the collection moves to the new site. No productions of ancient drama are planned at the Getty until the anticipated move is completed--1998 at the earliest. I hope that then the Getty directors will consider establishing an ongoing series of productions, focussing especially on those scripts which are rarely or never seen. Its location, facilities, and resources put the Getty in a unique position. The artistic and popular success of the October 1994 productions could be just the beginning of a monumental contribution to both scholarly understanding and public appreciation of ancient drama.
(Mary-Kay Gamel is currently working on an adaptation of Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris, entitled 'Effie and the Barbarians'.)