Theater archives

La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Retells Asclepius


Recently, the Senate committees on health and finance met to draft legislation providing universal health care. They seek a plan that extends coverage to the 50 million currently uninsured, assists those with chronic illnesses, and subsidizes costs—all without substantially raising the deficit. It’s an unenviable task, perhaps an impracticable one. If only those committees could call on divine intervention—after all, that’s how health care got started, according to Ellen Stewart’s music-theater work Asclepius.

Stewart, the 89-year-old doyenne of La MaMa, retells the legend of Asclepius, the world’s first doctor. Conceived when the god Apollo despoiled a mortal woman, the semi-divine Asclepius learns healing arts from the centaur Chiron. He grows so skilled that he can rescue men and women from death, thus angering the god of the underworld. Zeus has Asclepius slain, then elevates him to the immortal pantheon—the first doctor to think he’s a god.

Conceived, written, and directed by Stewart—with additional music by five other collaborators—Asclepius owes its style to an earlier iteration of the avant-garde. There’s a pleasant whiff of the ’60s clinging to its costumes, its masks, its puppetry, and its sincerity. Staged in the hangar-like La MaMa Annex and boasting a cast of 23, it possesses a scale not often seen Off-Off-Broadway. Indeed, Stewart could give a master class (if she hasn’t already) in low-budget pomp and grandeur.

The script is straightforward, though it glosses over some of the troubling aspects of the Asclepius legend—like the smidgen of father-daughter incest that produces the goddess Hygeia. The quality of the music is variable, as is that of the singing; the vocal arrangements might have been better tailored to the cast’s ability. Nevertheless, it’s an ambitious and admirable show, and the actors seemed desperate to perform with the utmost commitment. Perhaps they meant to pay tribute to Stewart, who watched the opening-night performance from a hospital bed in the corner of the theater. In the final song, the production’s chorus intoned, “Zeus brings Asclepius to the heavens/And builds on earth a temple in his name/For all, for all, for all mankind.” But they likely had just one woman in mind.