THE great-great-grandparents of drama — the ancient Greek and Roman playwrights — have a permanent new home at the Getty Villa museum near Malibu, where they will live off the largesse of the multibillion-dollar J. Paul Getty Trust and see how much noise, figuratively speaking, they can still make after two millennia or more.
The villa, which reopened in January as the repository for the Getty Museum's collections of Greek, Etruscan and Roman art, aims now to foster fresh takes on the texts, tales and themes of Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plautus and the rest of their decisively influential clan. Like a newborn Athena popping full-grown and fully armed from the cranium of daddy Zeus, the program debuts as the only amply funded (a first-year production budget of more than $350,000), professionally acted initiative in the English-speaking world dedicated to the annual staging of the ancients.
It was launched this year with three experimental workshop presentations in the villa's 250-seat indoor auditorium, each a radical reworking or futuristic updating of a Greek comedy or myth created by L.A. theater artists at the Getty's invitation. Now comes Euripides' "Hippolytos," the first full production in the 450-seat outdoor theater.
The aim in this outdoor space inspired by ancient theaters — including much larger ones in the Greek cities of Epidaurus and Delphi that continue to host festivals of classical Greek drama — is to stick closely to the original plays. Unlike the anything-goes indoor workshops, the productions will aim for an ancient or timeless feel. The seldom-seen "Hippolytos," in a new translation by Anne Carson, a Canadian poet, scholar and MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner, concerns an austere, fanatically celibate young hunter whose spurning of his own sexuality and his stepmother Phaidra's illicit advances ends badly for both.
In ancient lore, the power of the Olympian gods to do as they pleased bumped up against limits imposed by a higher order of things called moira, or fate. It's the villa's fate to be surrounded by wealthy, well-organized neighbors who sued to have the outdoor theater excluded from the museum's $275-million renovation and expansion, for fear of traffic jams and nighttime noise. Although the courts ruled in favor of the Getty Trust in a battle that delayed the project more than three years, the villa's outdoor productions will be governed by strict conditions set by the city.
Only 45 performances a year can be staged in the theater, a rule that would limit the Getty Villa to two outdoor productions a year. Only live voices can be amplified — and then only to a moderate peak level of 65 decibels that will be monitored at the back row. The Getty plans to end shows by 10 p.m., so the property can be cleared by its 11 p.m. curfew. Luckily, ancient plays are epic in subject but not length, typically lasting no more than 90 to 120 minutes.
In the spirit of compromise, "Hippolytos" director Stephen Sachs hopes the neighbors will extend some courtesies as well. "The last thing you want is to be in an intense scene and hear the neighbors' television set blasting out 'Desperate Housewives,' " he says, "although it might fit in, because Phaidra is the original desperate housewife."
Sachs, co-founder and artistic director of the Fountain Theatre, an 80-seat house in Hollywood, says necessity has bred invention for this, his first go at directing outdoors. For the sound design, created by local theater composer David O, he'll rely on what the original Athenian players used — singing and chanting by a 16-actor cast that includes a 10-member chorus. With help from choreographer Tamika Washington, Sachs is injecting dance and synchronized choral movement, a defining element of ancient Greek drama. Key roles are being played by some of his favorite L.A. stage actors, including Linda Purl as Phaidra and Fran Bennett, head of Cal Arts' performance program, as her servant. Morlan Higgins, acclaimed for Sachs-directed roles at the Fountain in Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" and Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances," plays Theseus, the absentee father and husband, respectively, to Hippolytos and Phaidra.
The Getty chose not to open with the hoopla that a star director and famous cast might have generated. Karol Wight, the acting chief curator of antiquities who oversees the villa, says it simply makes sense to give such an unusual and restriction-encumbered venue an ample breaking-in period. Then, after it's more of a known quantity, the villa could invite such eminences as Peter Sellars and Peter Hall to take a crack at the space, officially known as the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater.