nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
July 14, 2012
Historically, much has been made of Christianity's rise from oppressed minority to political dominance—ascetics being fed to lions in service of pagan bloodlust and what-not. Less has been said, however, about the flip side of that story: in around 312 AD the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity after a vision promised him military victory if he fought under Christian banners. This point of inflection led rapidly to the empire's official conversion and the outlawing of the Olympian pantheon.
Steven Bost's The Minervae follows Athena, Greek goddess of war and wisdom, whose favorite mortal has forsaken her for the church. Enraged at this affront, she sets out on a campaign to win back the empire on behalf of her remaining brothers and sisters, many of the gods having already vanished from lack of attention. Like Tinker Bell, gods apparently only need the focused love of applause and animal sacrifices to continue existing, but will quickly starve into nothingness without it.
Athena, played with divine poise by Rachel McPhee, plummets to the earth like a meteor, creating a fresh spring for a wandering group of Christians in need. Posing as a priestess to herself, she uses this miracle as an opportunity to retrain the group's impressionable members in pantheon theology, hoping that they will spread her doctrine back throughout the empire. She is frustrated in her efforts, however, by the competing schemes of her remaining siblings: Apollo, lord of reason; Ares, god of war; Aphrodite, goddess of love; Artemis, the huntress; and Hephaestus, the smith.
The gods are played up for all their Homeric lust and self-interest, and Bost has done a marvelous job of faithfully capturing their larger-than-life characters. He is clearly extremely well-versed in the Greek canon, and so the show is rich with enough mythic details to make classicists of all stripes and depths feel smug for catching an off-handed reference. The cast is wonderfully comfortable with the dramaturgically elaborate material, but they sometimes felt stiff with the archaic mode of the gods' speech, which is peppered somewhat inconsistently with thou's and thine's in one moment, but then a discussion of Ares discovering rough sex in the next. Perhaps this juxtaposed dissonance could be read as the god caught in transition between their old world and a new one with no place for them, but in practice it came off a bit sloppy. The plot is clever, but a bit overwrought, which makes sense for a piece that has received eight years of workshops. There is the foundation of a really interesting theological discourse in the text, but it becomes weighed down by narrative contrivance.
The play is staged in Astoria's Athens Square Park with the support of the community. At a moment when New York production models are somewhat in flux, the experience is a heartening example of the ways theater can engage with communities outside of its own artists. Although the urban white noise is considerably greater, the form evokes Greek theater's roots in outdoor, communal performance. Scenic and costume designer Tatsuki Nakamura further supports this with an elegant and classical visual design for the piece—perfectly coordinated colored tunics and simple wooden pillars evoke an effectively classical atmosphere. Dramaturgical nitpickery aside, On The Square Productions has created a smart, fun, and original piece addressing questions of faith, a rare subject among young, urban theater artists. Given the free tickets, it would behoove any Greek myth enthusiasts to come and geek out over The Minervae.