Monday, September 27, 2010

Of Satyrs, Scholars, and Clay

Exploring the Getty Villa’s Art of Ancient Theatre
By Chas LiBretto

We’ve been spending a lot of time at the Getty Villa of late. Psittacus Productions friend and Advisory Board member Olympia Dukakis is currently starring as a single-woman Chorus in a fantastic new version of Sophocles’ Elektra, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by ACT’s artistic director Carey Perloff, and we had the good fortune to see it in previews. I’d say run, don’t walk to see it, but unfortunately I believe it’s sold out for the rest of it’s run, which ends next week.

Shortly thereafter, Homa Nasab, another member of our Advisory Board, and curator and writer of an online Arts publication called MuseumViews, set us up to interview Mary Louise Hart, the Getty Villa’s Associate Curator of Antiquities and curator of the Villa’s currently running exhibit The Art of Ancient Greek Theatre (again, run, don’t walk to this exhibit – it lasts until January 3, 2011). She took us on a guided tour through the vases, sculptures, and even the fragmentary papyrus of a lost Satyr Play that make up the exhibit, the largest collection of such materials ever gathered. We deeply enjoyed ourselves and were honored to receive an invitation to join Mary Louise Hart once again at a Symposium called Artists and Actors: Inconography and Performance in Ancient Greece, which I’ve now just gotten home from after two days immersed in the ancient world.

The Symposium was a gathering-together of many distinguished scholars and researchers, professors of classics from around North America and Europe, all of whom were to present new papers related to their current research. For myself, currently preparing an ancient Greek project be presented at the Son of Semele Ensemble Theater in January (and to be officially announced in an article on MuseumViews, hosted by at the end of the week), the opportunity to learn from the experts what creating theatre in the 5th century BC was actually like was an opportunity too good to pass up.

Even besides the play-in-progress, much of my early reading as a youth was tied to an obsession with d’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which has led to a fascination, to this day, with writers and artists who explore what these stories still say about us (people like Lewis Hyde, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe and others). It was stimulating and exciting, and I obviously find myself having learned more about the theatrical life of Ancient Greece than I knew before. I also leave with new questions, many of which I’d like to explore in a theatrical setting in January.

We were also invited to a luncheon on the second day of the Symposium, a chance for working theater-artists like ourselves (alongside another LA-based company called the Poor Dog Group, Elektra-director Carey Perloff, and Anne Bogart, whose SITI Company is slated to produce a new version of Euripides’ The Trojan Woman next summer, a production we can’t wait to see) to have face-to-face time with the scholars to discuss, specifically, how and why one would go about staging a Satyr Play.

Before I go further, Satyr Plays are a sort of extinct genre in the Greek theatre, having not survived in the way Tragedy and Comedy have. In fact, only one full Satyr Play is fully intact (Euripides’ Cyclops), and one other (Sophocles’ The Trackers) is incomplete. The rest of what we have are mostly fragments, with the implication being that dozens, if not hundreds, have been lost to us. That said, the Satyr Play was important to the Ancient Greeks, and would always finish out a playwright’s entry into the Festival of Dionysus, following three of a playwright’s tragedies. The Satyr Play was a lighter, highly entertaining parody of the old stories, featuring the furry-legged Satyrs, intruding upon often the myths the audience had just watched played out in a trilogy. Some manic, wild energy following a day of matricides, patricides, and doomed protagonists, a necessary cleansing “to give audiences hope,” as J. Michael Walton, Professor Emeritus of drama at the University of Hull, movingly put at the end of the luncheon.

Unfortunately, my two colleagues at Psittacus could not make it to the luncheon or the Symposium. They’re currently rehearsing their version of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII at the Folger Shakespeare Library, another prestigious museum presenting the play in conjunction with a large new exhibit commemorating the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s ascension to the throne. Still, in discussing what took place over the course of the weekend’s events with my colleagues, and in processing the incredible deluge of information I find myself walking away from the Getty Villa with, I get very excited about what Psittacus Productions will do with these classic works as we move into Year Two. And we have the Getty Villa and their exciting Collection and stimulating Symposium to thank for that.

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