Herakles Via Phaedra
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 21, 2006
La MaMa is reviving Ellen Stewart's epic Herakles via Phaedra, and it is as you might expect an extraordinary work of collaborative theatre. Even its scope is audaciously grand: the telling of not one but two classic Greek myths, intertwined—those of Herakles, the great legendary hero, and Phaedra, who became a queen and then, tragically, a slave to her passion.
Herakles is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman and consequently despised by Zeus's jealous spouse Hera. She takes her revenge by casting a spell on Herakles, turning him temporarily insane; he kills his wife and two sons. He turns to the Oracle Pythia for aid, and she in turn sends him to his cousin King Eurystheus, who bids him to do the twelve famous labors as penance. While performing these mammoth tasks—which include slaying a variety of super-human beasts and cleaning the Augean Stables—Herakles encounters the Amazons, whose queen Hippolyta leaves behind a baby son, Hippolytus, who is adopted by Herakles's friend Theseus.
Phaedra, handmaiden to the goddess Aphrodite, falls in love with Theseus and then later, due to the interfering magic of the jealous Aphrodite, with Hippolytus. Neither of our eponymous characters' tales ends happily, with Herakles falling prey to the centaur Nessos, and Phaedra's forbidden love bringing tragedy to herself and her family. (In the play's finale, however, Hippolytus is restored to favor and receives the "god gift," a familiar ending to Stewart's mythological works.)
The particularly wonderful thing about Herakles via Phaedra is that all of this story-telling is accomplished with ingenuity and wit by a committed company of two dozen actors, a small band of musicians, and lots of low-tech wizardry. In Stewart's show, actors don masks to transform themselves into terrifying creatures like the nine-headed Hydra or the Bull of Crete; and elegant movement and simple set pieces are utilized to create beautiful and astonishing effects such as the death of Ariadne, who is washed away by the Mighty Wind Aelous, or the immolation of Herakles within his enchanted cloak.
Music is the most significant theatrical element of Herakles via Phaedra, propelling virtually every moment of the large and complicated plot and often conveying all the information that's required at any particular juncture. The score is based on the late Genji Ito's original, contrived for the premiere of this piece in 1988, and has been augmented by David Sawyer and Michael Sirotta. It incorporates all kinds of electronic effects and is played live by Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Benjamin Sher, and Yukio Tsuji. Much of it is unadorned by text, serving as evocative backdrop for movement choreographed by Stewart and several movement coaches (Renouard Gee, Shigeko Suga, Barbara Martinez, Kamala Cesar); both the dance moves and the music itself are eclectic and wide-ranging, drawing upon numerous influences and cultures to render the story interestingly and accessibly.
There's also a fair amount of singing—if I had to pick a genre in which to classify this work, I'd call it an opera—the best of which is performed by striking countertenor Benjamin Marcantoni, who plays King Eurystheus, commanding Herakles at his dozen labors in stirring song; and by Cary Gant, who narrates the tale and also appears in the final moments as a gangster-ish Poseidon.
Standouts among the large ensemble also include Peter Case as Herakles, Gian Marco Lo Forte as Herakles's lover Iolaus, Renouard Gee as King Aegeus and the god of medicine Aesclepius, Chris Wild as Hippolytus, JT Netterville as Theseus, Shelia Dabney as Pythia, Meredith Wright as Hera and Herakles's second wife Deianeira, and La MaMa stalwarts Brian Glover and Eugene the Poogene in numerous supporting (often quite funny) roles.
Stewart tells us at the beginning of the show that everyone in La MaMa participated in putting this massive show together, and there are two full pages of detailed credits in the program (along with an excellent plot synopsis and an essay by Michael Sirotta about the score). When you see the show, take note of all of these important contributions.
Though it ends with a rousing dance celebrating the restoration of Hippolytus, the overall mood of Herakles via Phaedra is surprisingly dark and fatalistic. In this piece (in contrast with last year's Greek play at La MaMa, Perseus), the gods are cruel and spiteful and all-controlling, manipulating the mortals who anger them, capriciously and wickedly. This is the world of early Greek myth, before mankind started to believe in free will, when fate was decreed and unmoveable. The only relief comes at the end of the piece, with the appearance of a deus ex machina who is ostensibly the Greek diety Aesclepius but whose looks and behavior are more Eastern in their nature: is he the Buddha? It's fascinating to contemplate the messages, subliminal and otherwise, that Stewart wants to convey in her work.
But mainly, it's exilharating to see all of the elements of theatre—including, foremost, the audience's engaged imagination—getting such a grand workout. Herakles via Phaedra reminds us why the stage is, as it has been for millennia, the place where citizens gather to tell epic tales of good and evil, of love and hate, of life and death.