Greek to Mee & Classic Getty

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's always been a great irony that Santa Monica's most avant-garde, European-style theater is next door to a Hooters restaurant. This juxtaposition reaches even more ridiculous heights this month as City Garage stages The Bacchae, Charles Mee's radical reworking of the tragedy by Euripides which tells of lusty females who devote their lives to the god of sexuality.

Not knowing the prices at Hooters, I can't say what $20 gets you there; but I suspect that unless guys are really there for the spicy wings, they'd be getting a much better deal next door, where a ticket to this Bacchae delivers much more bust for your buck.

Frederique Michel's fleshy production is the type of show that would have been shut down by the authorities 40 years ago, which again adds to the irony since her theater is situated in an old police garage. This collision of tastes and sensibilities is a perfect backdrop for Charles Mee's work. Mee's Bacchae is almost Dadaist theater, as he assembles a rough outline of the story, using fragments of Euripides and roughly 12 other texts.

Given the play's subject matter--women who leave the city to form their own society--many of these texts are feminist manifestos. But just as Mee is no slave to Euripides, Ms. Michel is no slave to Mee. The opening stage directions call for Tiresias and Kadmos to appear in Brooks Brothers suits, whereas as Michel has them attired in shorts, red polo shirts and loud argyle socks--this as a bevy of naked bacchanalians writhe around on the other side of the stage. In this way, Michel is a perfect match for the playwright's work, because rather than simply amplify Mee's remix of the Bacchae, she remixes it again in her own way. My one quibble with the production is that much of the music chosen was not as daring as the visuals--though I suppose the topless violinist might disagree.

Frederique Michel and Charles Mee's postmodern take on Euripides stands in sharp contrast to the more traditional view of ancient Greece's last, great tragedian showing at the Getty Villa. The Villa's recent renovation includes a new outdoor performance space built in the style of a classic Athenian amphitheater.

The Getty's inaugural production showcases Euripides' earlier, less controversial play, Hippolytos. This tragedy about the Phaedra myth was performed in a new translation by Anne Carson, which is notable for its sprinkling of modern American vernacular--expressions like "cut the chitchat" and "work with me"--into the dialogue. The staging was entrusted to Stephen Sachs, an artistic director at the Fountain Theatre. As in his excellent productions of Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances and Arthur Miller's After the Fall, Sachs again contributes clean, clear direction that gets out of the way. There's no Iraq war posturing, no Brechtian fussing about. True, some of the soldiers' costumes look like Navajo kilts, but for the most part everyone is dressed in good old-fashioned togas.

The result is a tasteful evening, that elegantly showcases the new venue and its possibilities; but this Hippolytos feels a little too much like an artifact to be viewed behind glass. A 2,400 year-old play can't simply be cleaned up and presented in attractive lighting. The director's hands-off approach is noble, but if the spotlight is to be on acting in the future at the Getty, the museum will have to start a program that teaches authentic Greek performance technique, much like the Globe Theatre's Mark Rylance did with Elizabethan-style productions. Without this, the Getty will have to turn to directors like Michel who will reinterpret classics by stressing the fashions of today. Interestingly, one aspect of Hippolytos did come alive in the Malibu night air--the music composed by David O. His score blended a cappella singing and vocal percussion. As performed by the small chorus, the music created an evocative mood that managed to sound both ancient and modern at the same time.

Hippolytos runs through this weekend at The Getty Villa's Fleischman Theater, The Bacchae continues through October 22 at City Garage in Santa Monica.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.