The Soul Becomes Visible

Hippolytos, by Euripides

At the Getty Villa’s Fleischman Theater, Saturday, September 16. Shows through September 30.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

Nestled into the Malibu hillside, the elegant new Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa has the clean lines and pleasing symmetry of an ancient Greek outdoor theater. Yet the architecture was eclipsed by a startling, original, and highly accomplished production of Greek tragedy that promises wonderful things to come, both at the Fleischman (their Greek plays will continue on an annual basis) and from the talented director Stephen Sachs, who has achieved something truly brilliant with this Hippolytos.

Working from a new translation by scholar and poet Anne Carson, Sachs has fashioned a tense, driving, and accessible version of a drama that is considerably more than 2,000 years old. Hippolytos is a classic Euripidean tragedy rich with pride, pain, and humor as the gods rain down their spiteful decrees on mostly undeserving mortals. Hippolytos is a virgin dedicated to the virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis. When Aphrodite learns that this young man refuses to pay her tribute, she unleashes her jealous wrath on him in the form of a passionate lover — his stepmother Phaidra. Euripides took two shots at this myth. In the first, Phaidra was a shameless hussy and pursued Hippolytos with unreserved lust. In this version, however, the passion she feels causes her profound shame. Linda Purl was marvelous as Phaidra, and the scene in which she was borne onstage on her bed, writhing in internal conflict over her forbidden love, was one of the evening’s many highlights.

Once Phaidra has hung herself and left a note charging Hippolytos with raping her, the central conflict between father and son begins. Both Morlan Higgins (as Theseus) and Paul Moore (as Hippolytos) were tremendous — vivid, accurate, and profound in their performances of this violent yet delicate dance of rejection, despair, and — ultimately — forgiveness. The final scene in which the dying Hippolytos, struck down by his father’s curse through the god Poseidon, forgives Theseus for his fatal anger, was as moving and immediate as any contemporary drama and all the more provocative for having crossed the millennia to make us cry in Malibu today.

Fran Bennett brought the part of Phaidra’s nurse to life with tremendous wit and warmth, illuminating Euripides’ role as the father of comedy, even within his tragic frame. The direction was full of fascinating decisions, and the work of the male and female choruses was at times truly electrifying. May this be the first of many such brilliant productions at the Getty Villa.

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