Breathing female life into a stubborn male classic

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The Heal Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

How do you breathe life into ancient art?

That’s the driving question behind the Getty Villa’s outdoor theater program (and arguably the Getty itself). Each September the Getty mounts a Greek or Roman play in their spectacular Malibu canyon amphitheater.

This year they’ve turned to playwright and director Aaron Posner to adapt Sophocles “Philoctetes” into a new play called “The Heal.” You’re not alone if you’re not familiar with the original but don’t let that stop you from getting tickets now. The Getty shows sell out and this one will be a hot ticket because it so masterfully finds resonance in a classic.

The original play takes place during a dark moment in the Trojan war. Odysseus has to fulfill a prophecy to end a war. He needs to get an enchanted bow that never misses. Trouble is that bow belongs to Philoctetes. Philoctetes has had a rough time. Years ago, he got bitten in the heel by a snake and that wound has never healed. (Hence, the play’s title - “The Heal”).

Philoctetes and Odysseus aren’t exactly besties so, in the original text, Odysseus enlists the son of Achilles to help him.

Playwright Aaron Posner has changed the son into a daughter and to add a little icing to that delicious decision, he’s cast a black woman.

Odysseus is also black and Philoctetes, or Phil, is white.
So what traditionally is a play of arguments between three men about the prideful wounds of war - becomes, in the new adaptation, a subtle and complicated commentary on *not only that* but toxic masculinity, race, and how stubborn a wounded white man can be.

A multiracial, wonderful, and more than a little snarky trio of women form the singing, dancing chorus. They echo and extend this male commentary in their choral interludes. Between moments of brilliantly self-aware exposition and underscoring, they offer a conscience that reminds us that while these Greek heroes may have been great warriors they were lousy husbands.

If that sounds like too much or too heavy - don’t worry. You are in good hands and not only is the journey rewarding - it’s funny.

You might recognize Aaron Posner’s name from his adaptation of Chekhov’s “Seagull” with a title I can’t say on the radio [Stupid Fucking Bird]. Like that title, Mr. Posner has a flair for swearing and that naughty irreverence masks a deep connection to his underlying texts. While he’s updating the story and making this ancient tale feel modern and reverent - it’s still a Greek tragedy and a surprisingly good one.

The team at the Getty has gotten so good at bringing these classics to life, it’s easy to forget how difficult that really is. You don’t want to miss this one so get tickets right now and make a glorious evening of it. Go early, have dinner on the terrace and then enjoy a quick, irreverent and moving ancient drama that has more than a few things to teach us today.

“The Heal” plays at the Getty Villa in Malibu through September 28th.