You probably remember the story: Boy meets girl; girl gets kidnapped by the god of the underworld; boy sings his way into hell and tries to rescue her. Coming home, Orpheus violates Hades’ single rule — no looking back to make sure Eurydice’s really there — and loses her to the underworld forever.
But the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is about so much more than young love denied. And, luckily, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin celebrate such depths in the delightful new folk opera Hadestown, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop. Built around Mitchell’s 2010 concept album of the same name, the piece infuses the familiar Greek legend with sharp-edged commentary on capitalism, exuberant songs, and a complex meditation on love.
We’re used to the travails of Orpheus (Damon Daunno) and Eurydice (Nabiyah Be). But here, they’re not the only couple, nor even the most interesting one: That would be the goddess Persephone (endowed with power and grace by Amber Gray) and Hades himself (a gravel-voiced Patrick Page). Their romance is literally as old as the seasons: In the myth, Persephone’s allowed six months per year above ground, where she basks in the sunlight and makes crops grow. The rest of the time, she’s trapped underground as Hades’ queen, while the earth above suffers in darkness and cold. In Mitchell and Chavkin’s version, the love between Persephone and Hades is troubled but real, and the younger lovers operate as a kind of foil: a fresh story that still might turn out all right.
Alas, there’s no happy ending for the rest of us. Here the audience is cast as inhabitants of Hadestown, a subterranean mining operation presided over by Hades himself, with near-fascist levels of control and an obsession with keeping outsiders out. Eurydice has turned to the underworld out of economic desperation: Her lover’s songwriting doesn’t buy food, and Hades promises survival in exchange for her soul. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck seats audience members in curving rows of kitchen chairs descending to a central arena, and Hades repeatedly alludes to them as workers in his mines (“A lot of souls have gotta die/To keep the rust belt rolling,” he intones).
With its anti-capitalist strains, taunting humor, and vaguely late-1920s aesthetic, Hadestown offers delightful tinges of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera. Mitchell’s best songs are raucous group numbers, expanding the characters’ dilemmas into playful meditations on love and hardship: “What you gonna do when the chips are down?” the three Fates (Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub) chant as a hungry Eurydice contemplates hell. A seven-piece band fills Mitchell and Chavkin’s underworld with the plaintive strains of accordion, trombone, cello, and violin.
Elements of Hadestown will feel overly familiar: the Depression Era–meets-hipster costuming (full cotton skirts with Keds); the predictably angsty moment of doubt when Orpheus, unable to trust the shadows anymore, turns around and loses Eurydice for good. But Mitchell and Chavkin have created a Hadestown you’ll want to visit: a rich world of mythic personalities and memorable music. And in their emphasis on Persephone’s seasonal journeys and rocky romance, they remind us that even a life above ground requires some measure of darkness: If we try to ignore the underworld, it will come for us.
By Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street