Twenty years ago, Bob McGrath, the artistic director of Ridge Theater, received a letter written half in crayon and half in pencil. Its author: a nine-year-old girl who had attended the company’s production of The Manson Family, a very adult opera by John Moran. “I saw your show at Lincoln Center,” the note read, “I thought it was great. If you have any—I mean any—parts for kids, let me know. I would do anything to be in your show.”
McGrath invited that girl and her mother to “our sleazy Lower East Side rent-controlled apartment.” Recalls McGrath: “I said, ‘Well, we’re doing this show about 1930s Hollywood jungle movies and Freudian sexual psychology.’ And this very serious-looking little blond girl goes, ‘I can do that.’ ” So in 1992 that serious little blond girl—Julia Stiles—made her theatrical debut in Ridge Theater’s Jungle Movie.
“I had three lines,” Stiles says. “Jokes about cannibalism.” She continued to work with the company throughout high school, until college and Hollywood beckoned. But now, on a break from the Showtime series Dexter, she has reunited with Ridge for the starring role in Persephone, a multimedia performance that bows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 26.
The show concerns a 19th-century theater company’s attempt to stage the ancient myth—a young goddess’s abduction by Hades, lord of the underworld, and her eventual return. Not merely a backstage drama, Persephone features music by Ben Neill and Mimi Goese, films by Bill Morrison, projections by Laurie Olinder, and a script that intercuts Warren Leight’s tart dialogue with the rather ponderous poetry of Mary Shelley and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Stiles has long nursed dreams of working with Ridge again. “I’ve always been impressed with how beautiful their productions are, how unique,” she says. Having read the earliest version of the Persephone myth, The Hymn to Demeter, as a first-year student at Columbia, she “jumped at the opportunity” to star in Ridge’s version.
That version has gestated for at least five years. It began when Neill and Goese presented a cycle of electronica songs inspired by 19th-century composers at BAM Café. BAM’s executive producer, Joe Melillo, heard it and suggested that Goese contact McGrath and theatricalize the music together. A lengthy process ensued—involving two dramaturgs, half a dozen designers, writers living and dead, and lashings of Ridge’s painterly multimedia aesthetic. Goese describes Persephone‘s creation as “the most difficult birth I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve never had something go from this place of mess to this place of beauty.”
Playwright Leight—who, like Stiles, is on hiatus from a TV series (the new FX boxing drama Lights Out)—actually thought the process would be more complicated and fraught. A fan of Ridge since he reviewed the company for the Voice in 1989, he had anticipated more fracture and discontinuity. “In a funny way, this is slightly more linear than I expected it would end up,” he says. He joined the project because of the lure of the company and the attraction to the myth, which he describes as “a great triangle: mother/daughter/bad boy.”
Yet he also cites working with Stiles as a further inducement: “She’s riveting. She can do wide-eyed innocence and spring-like beauty,” he says. “She lights up the place.” Stiles—in many ways still that serious little blond girl—has a far more modest notion of what she brings to the show. Citing Ridge’s complicated, collage-like style, she says, “I’m just a piece of the puzzle.”