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Herakles Via Phaedra
I have to admit that it's hard to resist a show description this bizarre: "Mythic Greek hero Herakles and seductress Phaedra meet in the Roaring 20s…music, movement, masks and more! Cast of 25!" Besides the circus-like tone of the commentary, the combination of elements described-the extended press release adds the promise of South Indian and Flamenco dance, as well as bird and centaur puppets-seems on paper to be so discombobulated that I was fascinated to see how the producers could possibly tie them all together.
If anyone could do it, certainly the redoubtable Ellen Stewart (serving here as writer, director, choreographer, and co-composer), who remains at the helm of La MaMa ETC nearly forty-five years after founding one of New York's most famous experimental venues, would seem a good candidate to pull it all off. But even after seeing the attempt, it's difficult to decide if it works-because its strengths are so offset by its maddening weaknesses and peculiar directorial decisions that Herakles Via Phaedra is ultimately either a spectacular failure or a very flawed success.
The foundation of the production is ostensibly the interplay of two classic Greek myths. The first, Herakles, is the story of a half-mortal, half-god of enormous strength whose twelve superhuman labors ultimately allows him the rare gift of ascension to Mount Olympus, where he will sit with the rest of the gods. The second, Phaedra, is the tragic tale of one of Aphrodite's (the goddess of love) handmaidens, who successfully woos the hero and king Theseus but commits suicide after being bewitched by the vengeful Aphrodite to fall in love with the young man Hippolytus-actually the son of Theseus himself, from a dalliance with Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, years before while the king was assisting Herakles with his twelve labors. In theory the dramatic lines of these two stories seem perfectly balanced, Herakles ascending to glory while Phaedra descends to her tragic fate, with Theseus as the pivot point between them-and the production seems to want to emphasize the link, ending the first "act" with Phaedra's marriage to Theseus and beginning the second with Herakles's death and ascension (although whether he actually ascends in this interpretation is curiously unclear).
At times the show works well, with flashes of talent, energy and power. The set design (by Jun Maeda and Mark Tambella) and staging is well-considered and effective, and the different levels available within the Annex Theater space are used innovatively and interestingly. There are even a few multimedia segments of the show which are unusual and thought-provoking without being off-putting. Herakles's twelve labors are fascinatingly (if much too briefly) presented, with exceptional costume design by Gretchen Green and Raul Aktanov (the Stymphalian Birds, designed by Federico Restrepo, are particularly good). And the score, composed by Genji Ito, Ellen Stewart, David Sawyer and Michael Sirotta, is generally quite good and engaging.
The problem is that in practice this show has very little to do with Phaedra at all, who is onstage for perhaps ten minutes of the entire hour and thirty-five minute running time and whose story ultimately seems to lend no scope or understanding at all to that of Herakles-especially in the odd way in which the show is broken up, with the majority of the performance covering Herakles's labors and subsequent cleansing while the second much shorter act kills both he and Phaedra off in the first five minutes, spending the remainder of the time focusing on the fate of Theseus's son Hippolytus. Herakles Via Hippolytus would have seemed a more logical name-except that here again, Hippolytus doesn't have much to do with Herakles either.
And this points to a larger problem with the production generally: In a number of areas, bewildering directorial and authorial choices mar what could otherwise be a truly compelling tale. Despite the interesting potential of Herakles's labors, most of them are rushed through as quickly as possible so as to spend inordinate amounts of time on ones like retrieving Hippolyta's golden girdle (her song and dance number with the other Amazons, in which the woman warriors suddenly elect to break into a Can-Can without apparent provocation, is a good example of something which seems a trifle unnecessary). Other interesting moments, like Herakles's encounter with the centaur Nessos, are dispensed with as soon as possible in favor of ones like an odd soft-shoe-meets-Chicago-mobster number where Poseidon sings of his willingness to help Theseus get revenge on his hapless son Hippolytus (though since Poseidon is not really the one who ultimately does so, there doesn't seem to be much point to staging this encounter either). Other artistic and technical questions abound: what is the point of the 1920s theme to begin with? What new light does it shed upon the Herakles myth, more than dressing in 60s hippie gear or late 1800s British foppery would? Why are some of the characters given their Greek names, and others Roman ones? Why is it necessary to mic every actor with any vocal activity at all, even screaming, in a modestly sized room?
These quirks and problems could be overlooked if the performing was more consistent, but here too issues remain. JT Netterville is excellent as Theseus, as is Peter Case as Herakles and Renouard Gee in the roles of King Aegeus and Aesclepius (God of Medicine). The rest of the cast is erratic, however, and at times downright sloppy--clearly none of the performers are professional dancers, which would be fine if their movements were more clearly choreographed. But throughout the performance there are obvious mistakes being made, missteps and out of rhythm spins which give a kind of looseness to the feel of the performance. The singing ranges from somewhat out of tune to excellent, but the singers are periodically go out of sync with the music. Taken a whole, these inconsistencies cause the pace of the overall performance to fluctuate from frenetic to dragging, with few transitions from one state to the next.
At its best, Herakles Via Phaedra demonstrates some of the elemental vitality of classic mythology melded with a modern technological sensibility. But at its worst, it doesn't get much above typically self-indulgent performance art. It is a shame that I can't really recommend a show which at any given time is in danger from falling out of the first condition into the second.
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