The Judgment of Paris
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
January 10, 2009
The Duo Theater on East Fourth Street, a funky little space with incongruously classical-style paintings on the walls, turns out to be a great setting for Company XIV's The Judgment of Paris. Judgment, conceived and directed by Austin McCormick, tells the famous tale of one guy's bad call which led to the Trojan War. Billed as a hybrid of dance, theatre, and cabaret, Judgment is a highbrow/lowbrow mashup of Baroque opera, William Congreve, Jacques Offenbach, Charles Mee, Cole Porter, and Aeschylus; goddesses and heroes sexing up on the Lower East Side.
Clocking in at a neat 60 minutes, McCormick tells the tale: Paris, a young Trojan prince, has to choose between three goddesses—Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. Athena offers him riches, Hera offers him wealth, and Aphrodite offers him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Paris chooses Helen, only to find out she's already married to the ruler of Sparta, Menelaus. Paris abducts Helen while a guest in Menelaus's house, and the Greeks go to war against the Trojans. Troy is destroyed, Paris is killed, and Helen is reunited with her husband. The mortals here are victims of the gods, rather than acting under their own agency. The whole Trojan War is a trap sprung by the gods out of boredom and viciousness.
Often, these text/source material mashups yield a similarly mashed-up theatrical experience, but McCormick is an imaginative director with a strong vision. The stage is simply dressed—a dressing room mirror, a platform with lights, a few racks for clothing. Christmas lights are hung up over the stage, giving the stage a warm, slightly tacky and downscale feel; classical ballerinas in a burlesque house. The performers mill about dressing, greet the audience, and announce birthdays and engagements. Then they get going.
Three women and one man in drag (Davon Rainey) act as the nonstop dance chorus, and they can-can to beat the band. The bosomy Gioia Marchese is a delight as Aphrodite. Marchese stalks around the stage in a state of deshabille, smoking clove cigarettes and sounding like Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons. She's appealing and villainous as the scheming love goddess, who rewards Paris for his favor by bringing ruin on his city and his family.
Seth Numrich is also able as the oversexed Narrator, a Baroque version of Joel Grey in Cabaret. He has the "look but don't' touch" quality of a whorehouse barker, with his long legs, black boots, and puffed-up codpiece. (The fabulous costumes are by Olivera Gajic.) He's not quite as interesting as the warlike Menelaus, who merely stands and declaims on his lost honor. But to be fair, Menelaus has always seemed a bit of a blowhard.
One of the more exciting aspects of the evening for me—besides all the sexy parts of course—is McCormick's gift for bringing ancient myths to life in a uniquely theatrical manner. He achieves it by taking old or forgotten sources (Congreve wrote a Baroque opera?) and combining them in a way that feels fresh. Like Charles Ludlam, he reclaims the lowbrow and the neglected from the dustbin of history, and makes them new.
McCormick searches for what pleases the eye and ear, and the evening is as much about the sensual pleasures of theatre and dance as it is about Greek mythology. The press materials bill the evening as "an erotic entertainment," which is a bit of overkill, but that's what press materials are for. The evening is entertainment, and entertainment is an honorable profession. Aeschylus was an entertainer, and so was Gypsy Rose Lee.