A classical dick joke

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

What’s the value of classical theater? Ancient Greek tragedies? Roman comedies?

That’s the question underlying the Getty Villa’s annual outdoor production. For most of the past 11 years, the Getty has tried to answer that question with a tragedy: Medea, Elektra, Agamemnon. Not this year.

This year, they’ve handed their outdoor amphitheater over to the Troubadour Theater Company and its take on Plautus' Roman comedy Mostellaria or Haunted House -- which, in typical Troubie fashion they've appended to be Haunted House Party.

Speaking broadly, to match the Troubadour's performance style, Matt Walker, the company's artistic director, writer, actor and all around impresario, has a pretty solid recipe for making work: begin with a core of actors who are familiar to the audience playing stock characters, grab a well-known plot line from a play or film, mash that together with popular music that the audience will recognize, and cajole both the story and these familiar songs into a bawdy comedic, topical whole with new lyrics and script changes, then sprinkle the top with some fun choreography and live musicians. And as they say, lather, rinse, repeat. It's a style based on familiarity and accessibility both in terms of form and content.

It's a formula that's worked for them and they've got a loyal and boisterous following.

One way to look at this Getty production is that the folks at the Getty recognized this formula and after several false starts including the company's ABBAmenon which paired the music of ABBA with Agamemnon, the Getty chose the right material for the company. Since, loosely speaking, the Troubadours are indebted to the Commedia dell'arte for their formula, and Commedia has its roots in ancient Roman comedy, you could look at this as simply connecting the company with its historical roots.

The result is basically a Troubadour show set in Ancient Rome with odd character names. They've adhered loosely to the basic plot of Plautus' original and applied their formula over the top so you've got a riff on the Talking Heads "Burning Down the House" sharing the stage with topical references to the reopening of the California Incline and happy hour at Patrick's Roadhouse. There's nothing distant, historically or otherwise about this production. If you've seen another Troubie show you'll feel right at home. It works. It fills the space. It makes the audience laugh.

It's not, at least by the standards set by the Getty's previous productions, rigorous. I'm not talking about the differences between comedy and tragedy, but artistic rigor. What I've loved about the Getty Villa's theater programming is the dogged, almost dogmatic, consistency of vision mixed with the unpredictability of embracing a company of actors and placing them up against the challenge of both the Getty's architecture and these classical texts. It's become something of an annual proving ground and a lesson in how a single idea can yield remarkable results.

To me the strength of a classical ideal, however problematic, is as a measure against which we place ourselves. The Troubies, for better or worse, see a classical column and well . . . let’s just say they see a comedic opportunity they can’t pass up.

Haunted House Party plays at the Getty Villa in Malibu through October 1.

For info on the show and to sign up for the weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

Photo by Craig Schwartz