Thursday, February 20

Theatricals bring ancient past to the present


Theatricals bring ancient past to the present

Getty theater uses Greek and Roman setting successfully

By Jeana Blackman

A high-pitched metallic sounding wind instrument fills the open
courtyard. Four drummers beat a response and the audience gets
their first taste of the events that are to come. The music,
combined with the Getty’s picturesque garden that serves as the
seating area, instantly creates an atmosphere different from most
other theatrical experiences.

As the spectators sit, they realize they are surrounded by Roman
columns on and off the stage. Director Michael Hackett, a UCLA
professor in the theater department, uses all of this to help
produce a style that hearkens back to ancient theater.

After the opening music reaches its climax, a single actor takes
the stage and Menander’s Greek comedy, "The Woman from Samos,"
begins. Moschion (Jon Matthews) instantly engages the audience with
the events that have led to this very moment in time, where the fun
starts. The set-up is rather complicated, but Matthews handles it
beautifully with energy, wit, and a great storytelling ability.

The plot revolves around the miscommunication between Moschion,
his father Demeus (Jay Bell), Demeus’ mistress Chrysis (Tress
Sharbough), and their neighbor Nikeratos (Larry Randolph).
Accusations fly as characters act and react based on partial
information.

The comic style of each individual combines to form a production
that is full and exciting to watch. Chrysis is the sentimentalist
while Moschion plays the naive young lover. Demius and Nikeratos
contrast delightfully as the domineering but warm-hearted father
and the clueless, bumbling neighbor respectively. Add in an
all-knowing but cowardly slave (Robert Machray) and a wonderfully
strong comedienne as the cook (Kathy Kinney) and the audience is in
for a real treat.

Everyone in the cast propels the intricate plot forward,
constantly surprising the audience with new antics and further
complications until everything is finally revealed and all is
forgiven.

In the tradition of ancient comedy, there is also a chorus that
enters occasionally and entertains in their costumes complete with
stuffed phalluses. These buffoons, although silent, keep the
on-lookers laughing throughout their routines.

Alex Jaeger, the costume designer, uses loose, flowing costumes
that enable the actors to move around and create a physical as well
as a verbal comedy. The chorus has the best costumes by far. There
are wonderfully oversized bellies, wild wigs and beards, and of
course phalluses for the three women. The two men wear body suits
with a horse’s tail in back and an erect phallus in front. All five
have fake noses that emphasize their bright eyes. Their outfits
alone evoke laughter.

The music adds yet another layer to an already delightful
performance. The neverending beat energizes the crowd and the
actors. It accentuates punchlines, underscores movement, and
provides the tantalizing background to the chorus’ dance.

Hackett’s dramatization of Menander’s comedy, written in the
third century B.C., proves that much of human nature has not
changed over the centuries. Everyone in the audience can relate to
the foibles of each character and laughs at themselves in the
process.

Plautus’ Roman comedy Casina fills out the evening, but doesn’t
fare as well as the first. This is mainly because the plot is
weaker than the first making the play drag on a bit. Part of the
problem is the cold. If you do see this show, bring warm clothing
or you’ll be an icicle by the end of the evening. However it still
has some really great moments that help keep the show alive and
make you forget that you’re freezing.

The plot is relatively simple. Cleostrata (Hope
Alexander-Willis) suspects her husband Lysidamus (Larry Randolph)
of infidelity and cleverly manipulates him out of the woman he
desires. It’s an interesting plot considering the conservative
values of audiences in Rome c. 250 B.C. Yet the plot just does not
have enough devices and twist to sustain it to the end, despite the
entertaining performances.

There is one moment that stands out from the rest of the play.
The neighbor Myrrhina (Loretta Devine) and the maid Pardalisca
(Kathy Kinney) set Cleostrata’s plan into action. They hysterically
warn Lysidamus that the woman he desires has gone crazy and is
weilding a sword waiting to kill the first man who touches her. The
whole scene is hilarious.

The set is the same except that the partition is removed and a
painting of a comical character is exposed. The costumes are the
same style and the women’s makeup is very dramatic. The music is
actually more varied and entertaining in this piece. The drummers
who were previously onstage now sit in the orchestral area, each
with different instruments. They are a lot more musical and more
fun.

In general, "Casina" is more bawdy with blatant sexual
references running rampant. But the language is more lyrical than
in Menander’s comedy. Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable
voyage back to ancient history.

STAGE: "The Woman from Samos." Written by Menander. Playing at
the J. Paul Getty Museum Oct. 20-23 and Oct. 27-30 at 7:30 p.m.
Tix: $35. For info call (213) 365-3500.

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