Mere practicalities are no match for the love of an artistic genre. Ellen Stewart’s devotion to Greek mythology leads her to attempt an epic staging of the entire story of one of its heroes, in spite of the limited resources she can bring to this tale of superhuman acts and supernatural transformations.
In using the the glorious, expansive space of the La MaMa Annex to tell the tale of Perseus’s adventures—a star-studded romp through the Greek pantheon, with multifarious gods, goddesses, nymphs, Nereides, and Gorgons—Stewart actually departs significantly from the practice of the Greek playwrights. They never staged an entire life, however heroic. They left that to the poets, epic and otherwise, who had all the resources of language at their command: imagery, cadence, verbal nuance, epithets, metaphors, and conceits. The playwrights, for their part, sought moments of heightened action, when plot revealed character, when crises of narrative displayed the depths and complexities of human ethics and emotions.
Complexities of any kind are utterly alien to Stewart’s literalistic enactment of this myth, and the pleasures of poetry are unlikely as well, since the few snatches of text are in Greek. The aesthetic of this Perseus is less Greek than it is panto, or perhaps medieval mystery play. Certainly all the unconcealed theatricality of the pageant wagon performance is fully embraced here: the oceans of undulating cloth, the monsters with elaborate headgear, the set pieces carried in and out, the many laboriously harnessed flights across the sky. Much of it is great fun: the scene when Athena turns a trio of nymphs into gorgons with the help of some grass skirts and weird wicker basket helmets, for instance.
Unfortunately, such inspired theatricality is dampened by the play’s unrelenting solemnity. A marvelous musical score, composed by Elizabeth Swados and others, played by an accomplished orchestra, and sumptuously sung by members of the cast, deeply contradicts the naive, handmade aesthetic used to conjure the story’s many scenes of magic and metamorphosis, including Perseus’s all-inclusive policy of turning his enemies to stone by means of that famous snake-covered head he carries around in his bag. The legacy of interculturalism proves to be a liability as well: The cast looked as perplexed as the audience when Athena appeared rigged out in Chinese opera garb, complete with whiteface make-up, embroidered red pajamas, and pom-pom-festooned slippers.
Stewart’s youthful and wonderfully international, multicultural company (which, at the performance I saw, outnumbered the audience by at least a dozen) brings a great deal more energy and invention to its impossible task than did the fabled cast of Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar at Columbia University last month. The comparison is irresistible. Both plays represent the return of an icon of an earlier period of experimentation, deploying themes and techniques that once resonated so powerfully but today only prompt a melancholic realization: The ’60s may be forgotten, but they’re not gone.