nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 29, 2005
Run, do not walk, to La MaMa E.T.C., where for the next two weeks anyway you'll remember what it was you loved about theatre in the first place—that combination of unbridled fun and unbridled awe that puts the "play" in play and thrills and awakens all the senses, sends tingles down the spine, and plants a smile on the lip and, every so often, a tear in the corner of an eye.
The show that has elicited so much enthusiastic babble from me is Ellen Stewart's Perseus, a new play about the great hero of Greek mythology who slew the monster Medusa. It's dazzlingly successful theatre, especially given what an absurdly risky venture it (objectively) feels like: a new text translated INTO ancient Greek, comprising 52 scenes and 71 characters, performed by an ensemble of several dozen people representing as many different performing disciplines as they do cultures, mounted on a budget that I would estimate is about a thousandth of a typical Broadway musical's. Who but La MaMa would have the chutzpah and courage to even attempt something this brazenly uncommercial, and who but La MaMa could defy reason and pull if off so spectacularly? Yes, the seams frequently show and the stage waits feel long and the words are entirely incomprehensible, but the pure adrenalin of artists and audience members drives the piece and fills it with a kinetic energy seldom encountered. Above all, there's a constant awareness of wonder—how are they going to do that?; did you see how they just did that?—that reminds us that we're all alive and having an experience, together.
The story is helpfully synopsized in the program; it goes something like this: King Acrisius of Argos is told by the Oracle that he will have no son, but his daughter's son will slay him. He responds to this by locking his daughter Danae in a tower, and for his arrogance Zeus seduces Danae and impregnates her. Danae's son is Perseus. When Acrisius learns of the boy's existence, he throws mother and son into a chest and casts it into the sea, but Zeus assures that they survive. Perseus grows up and, assisted by the gods Athena and Hermes, undertakes his first heroic mission, to kill Medusa, an evil sorceress whose face turns all who gaze upon it into stone. Later, he rescues Andromeda, an Ethiopian princess, from a sea serpent (her parents had sacrificed her at the behest of another Oracle). He marries Andromeda and, after fulfilling the first Oracle's prophecy by accidentally killing Acrisius, he becomes king of Argos. Andromeda's parents Cepheus and Cassiopeia become constellations in the heavens, and Perseus and Andromeda found a dynasty of great Greek heroes that includes Hercules and Orestes.
All of these events and many others are recounted in the play via music (which includes the Greek text sung by countertenor Benjamin Marcantoni) and movement (dance, acrobatics, and formalized gestural/ritual choreography). We see, for example, Danae's tower constructed before our eyes by half-a-dozen actors, and Medusa and her sisters turned into Gorgons by three priestesses of the goddess Athena, who effect the transformation using elaborate wicker head- and body-dressings designed by Jun Maeda and Peter Case. Acrisius (played by choreographer Renaurd Gee) dances; Zeus (Arthur Adair) descends from Mt. Olympus (on a wire rigged through a hole in the theatre's ceiling); and Perseus (the astonishing Chris Wild) flies, battles monsters wearing magic shoes that turn him invisible, and turns any number of enemies into stone (including, in one of the show's neatest coups-de theatre, Atlas, who is turned into the mountain range that bears his name).
We "see" all of this even as we see the stagecraft, and there's the magic: Perseus is as much about the timeless story it tells as the timeless ways it tells it. And we understand it all, or nearly all (I admit that it took me a while to understand that the Chinese dancing lady was, in fact, the goddess Athena)—for Perseus is about the potency of music and movement, transcending mere language to place meaning directly in the heart and gut.
It is a remarkable and breathtaking collaboration of talents, starting with the redoubtable Ms. Stewart at the center of the thing, and including five composers, four of whom perform the music live, along with the spectacularly versatile Great Jones Repertory Company, whose members not only perform Perseus each night but also built it. (There are two pages of detailed credits included in the program, giving credit where it is positively due, from the Pegasus puppet created by David Adams to the gorgeous projections of Tusay and Mary Beth Ward.) Camille Assaf is the costume designer, and she's created scores of glorious, diaphanous garments for the company. Carol Mullins, in charge of lighting, has the important task of cuing us where to look next—for the play unfolds in the vast space of La MaMa's Annex and occupies, at various moments, practically every inch of it.
The actors are beautiful and absolutely committed to their creation. Most of them play many different roles throughout the evening; some that made a particular impression on me include Gian Marco Lo Forte (Acrisius's Spy and Dictys of Seriphos), Peter Case (Poseidon), Juliana Lau (Athena), Cary Gant (Cepheus), and Prisca Ouya (Andromeda). Kudos to everyone involved: all of the actors and other contributors to this amazing production are listed in the sidebar.
Perseus is theatre at its best and most essential: there are no flying cars or falling chandeliers here; no recycled pop songs or TV stars, either. Instead, you'll find audacity and imagination and passion, and after luxuriating in them for a while you'll wonder why you ever settle for anything else.