Linear narrative rarely makes an appearance in postmodern dance-dramas. Jane Comfort’s new Persephone, surprisingly and refreshingly, contains no intertextual byplay or collaging. She retells the legend of a mother’s loss and a daughter’s double life with touching simplicity and elegant compositional craft.
The first image plunges us into the story’s heart: Aleta Hayes, clearly Demeter, rocks Cynthia Bueschel Svigals as Persephone, crooning softly and gesturing—a lesson that Svigals responds to in kind. Elizabeth Haselwood, Kathleen Fisher, Lisa Niedermeyer, and Peter Sciscioli (garbed by Liz Prince in white) form a chorus, walking in gentle, ongoing patterns that Svigals and Hayes sometimes join, but also acting as playmates. Like the two protagonists, they chant wordless little melodies that complement Tigger Benford’s sensitively nuanced music for keyboard, winds, and percussion (played live by Benford, James Schlefer, Peter Jones, and Martha Partridge).
Comfort has Hades (Olase Freeman, dressed in red) prowl around the innocent community, periodically infiltrating the fluid phrases until he can get close to Persephone, isolate her, mesmerize her, and carry her away. The choreographer melds the timeless with the contemporary to show Demeter laying waste to the earth: Hayes, a riveting performer, shrieks and wails her rage and grief, all the while ripping up the tapes that connect the sections of white flooring; those who try to comfort her also roll back the white layers to reveal the black underneath. In red-lit gloom (design by David Ferri), beneath hanging sculptures of metal, rope, and neon tubes by Keith Sonnier, Hades gradually seduces Persephone (Svigals is adept at endowing everything she does with emotional subtlety). Wearing red and yellow, the dead (including Jessica Anthony and Darrin Wright) frolic with a bestial agility that first frightens, then charms the heroine. Only Demeter’s distant howls, mingling with increasingly urgent rattlings and cymbal crashes, interfere with her daughter’s newfound sensuality. Comfort makes artful use of a white scarf and a red one to show Persephone’s conflicting loyalties, and on her temporary return to earth, the daughter rocks the mother. The last image is of Demeter alone, falling slowly backward, resigned to sorrow.
Svigals, Haselwood, and Hayes join Stephen Nunley in Comfort’s beautiful, often witty, profoundly disturbing Underground River (1998). The four of them, plus the simple little Basil Twist puppet that they put together onstage, stand for the soaring spirit of a child being coaxed out of a coma and in the end sinking back into it—a kind of freedom. Comfort also updates the presidential-election satire from her 1996 Three Bagatelles for the Righteous. Tall, rubber-faced Joseph Ritsch plays a Kerry “puppet,” manipulated by three Bunraku-style handlers, and David Neumann, a hard-to-control bantam rooster in a flight suit, lip-synchs Bush to hilarious and deadly effect.
To contemporary ears, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s music is a rivulet coursing melodiously over intricate terrain. In 1749, the audience at the Paris Opera premiere of his only comic opera, Platée, might have crowed over the musical malapropisms and satirical jabs at music conventions. Even in 2004, though, an opera with a gullible heroine who sings like a celestial nymph, looks like a frog, and is played by a tenor isn’t everyday fare. Director and choreographer Mark Morris, abetted by Adrianne Lobel (sets), Isaac Mizrahi (costumes), and a superb cast, knows exactly what to do with Rameau’s work. He puts the chorus in the pit, and backs the principal singers with assorted dancing swamp creatures, birds, horny satyrs, and—in the Prologue that sets up the tale—barflies.
Platée herself is played by the same remarkable artist we saw at New York City Opera in the 2000 production: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. Yearning for a mate, the swamp nymph is tricked by Mercure and Jupiter, who want to cure Junon of her disruptive, jealous-wife fits. When Platée, advertised as Jupiter’s new bride-to-be, is unveiled at the wedding festivities, the ensuing good laugh reconciles Jupiter and Junon. Morris and Fouchécourt make Platée somehow adorable in her vanity. She adds pearls to her green-and-scum-beige gown to meet the god and is delighted by his manifestations: a dancing ass (Charlton Boyd and Marjorie Folkman) and a prim little owl (June Omura with some feather-fan-waving birds in a hilarious bit). Toddling about on frog feet, with sagging breasts and belly, waving long green fingers, Fouchécourt’s Platée is absurd. Singing marvelously, believing herself loved, she becomes oddly beautiful—and, in the end, tragic. Fouchécourt is never not “on” (he fretfully shields his eyes when Michelle Yard as Iris passes by—a living, strutting mirror ball).
The singers adapt wonderfully to the dance-based universes of bar and swamp: Timothy Nolen (Jupiter and Momus), Andrew Drost (also Momus), Lisa Saffer (Thalie, Muse of Comedy, and Clarine, Lizard in Waiting), Jennifer Roderer (Junon), Philip Salmon (Thespis and Mercure), Marcus DeLoach (a leather-thonged biker-satyr in the Prologue and the hapless young King Cithéron). As La Folie (she also plays L’Amour), the terrific Christine Brandes, dressed as Jean Harlow with butterfly wings, masterminds the bawdy, topsy-turvy wedding revels, singing gorgeously. Daniel Beckwith conducts.
The sense of human detail that Morris and all the performers bring to the opera means that there are almost always several interesting things to look at (including Folkman as a Baby, peering worriedly into her baggy diaper as she exits).