nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 29, 2009
Come to La MaMa this June and see Ellen Stewart's Asclepius to recapture the awe and wonder that made you love theatre in the first place. Stewart has spent nearly half a century overseeing the legendary East Village "experimental theatre club" that has probably done more to revitalize and redefine American theatre, over and over again, during that period. She has harnessed her energy, her warmth, her love and gift for storytelling, her humility, and her astonishing network of talented colleagues to create this brand new play about a Greek myth that, as far as she knows, has somehow heretofore not been dramatized. Like the healing power of medicine that is the play's subject, Asclepius itself feels like a magical gift from the gods.
The story is less well-known than many from classical mythology, but follows familiar patterns. It begins when Apollo sees the beautiful maiden Coronis, who is in love with an Arcadian prince named Ischys, and falls in love with her. Though she rejects him, he rapes her and she bears his son, the title character Asclepius. Apollo's sister Artemis kills the maiden, but Apollo rescues the baby and leaves it in the care of the centaur Chiron, who teaches Asclepius about potions, herbs, and incantations. Asclepius becomes a renowned healer, eventually attracting the attention of Hades, who, fearing that the Underworld will no longer receive any new souls, demands that Zeus kill him. Zeus does so, but makes him a demigod and places him in the heavens (as a constellation of stars); Asclepius's daughters Panacea and Hygieia lend their names to notions of healing and health that we honor every day.
It is, in fact, even more complicated that this—but have no fear, because in addition to a scene-by-scene synopsis, the programs for Asclepius also include a lovely "Poem of Asclepius" by Stewart that narrates the tale succinctly. Not that any of the off-stage narration is really necessary, because the production—which is based in classical Greek theatre but includes any number of theatrical techniques, from mask to puppetry to song and dance—is clear and accessible and riveting from start to finish.
There are dozens of collaborators involved, most of them on stage, but many behind-the-scenes, notably puppet-makers Theodora Skipitares and Jane Catherine Shaw, composers Michael Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Yukio Tsuji, Benjamin Marcantoni, and Elizabeth Swados (along with Stewart herself), sound designer Tim Schellenbaum, and lighting designer Federico Restrepo. One of the things I love about Stewart's annual productions is that the program tells you pretty much who did everything, so we know for example that the gorgeous crow wings worn by Restrepo and Eugene the Poogene were created by Tavia Ito and that the translation of some of Stewart's lyrics into ancient Greek was made by J. Andrew Foster. Kudos to everyone who contributed.
On stage, a couple of dozen La MaMa stalwarts and newcomers bring the piece to life. Standouts include George Drance in the title role, bringing real compassion and humanity to this character; Eugene the Poogene as the Black Crow and Hades; Benjamin Marcantoni as Chiron; Perry Yung as Apollo; and Michael Lynch as both the King of Arcadia and King Minos. Marcantoni sings narration in his inimitable countertenor along with a chorus. Most of the action happens in movement, again borrowing from a variety of styles and choreographed by the company: expect everything from ballet and acrobatic modern dance to march formations and, unforgettably, a mourning ritual in which a chorus of women sing lamentation while crashing stones to the floor.
From all of this diversity comes the unity of boundless imagination—the audience and the ensemble share this particular gift throughout the piece, as we appreciate the ingenuity of the low-tech craft and artistry that conjure complicated stage pictures while we are called upon to fill in what's missing with our mind's eye. Stewart knows how to engage an audience better than just about anyone; we are involved in this ancient story almost as much as if we were acting it out ourselves.