"Herakles via Phaedra"
reviewed by Miriam Horn
Few people have seen or made more avant-garde theater
than Ellen Stewart, the founding director of La MaMa E.T.C. In the last
45 years she has staged productions on five continents and been host to
troupes from 70 countries. Yet this worldly artist, now in her 80's and
using a wheelchair, retains the innocent exuberance Matisse displayed
in his final years, bedridden but inventing his bright, joyful cut-outs.
Ms. Stewart makes spectacular, acrobatic theater, full of wild puppets,
bawds and clowns; each spring she returns to Greek drama, myth and history.
The effect can be ragtag. Herakles and Theseus, the heroes
of "Herakles via Phaedra," express big feelings by leaping heavily
through hokey bits of ballet; in several costumes, the labels can be seen.
But that roughness deepens the experience, now rare, of theater restored
to its ritual communal origins.
The show starts with audience members walking to their
seats along two sides of the long space while musicians play percussive,
exotic music. As the chorus begins, singing of Theseus and the Minotaur,
seven bare-breasted maids and seven youths, in gold and silver masks,
dance a jittery martial procession toward their own sacrifice. Together,
the music and dance induce a kind of metaphysical rush, soon heightened
by the arrival of otherworldly creatures.
As King Eurystheus (the mesmerizing countertenor Benjamin
Marcantoni) commands Herakles to his 12 labors, fantastical beasts take
the stage. Eugene the Poogene is the Nemean Lion; in a terrifying mask
designed by Gretchen Green (who also devised a gorgeous boar and three-headed
dog), he leaps and flips and wrestles Herakles (Peter Case). Glorious,
kitelike Stymphalian Birds (by Federico Restrepo), menace the audience
with huge red wings and fleshy claws. Brian Glover is a hilariously beer-bellied
Cretan bull, foppishly waggling his horns.
Mr. Marcantoni returns as Nessus the Centaur, in stunning
platform hooves. And Renouard Gee as Aesclepius ends the show with a hypnotic,
life-restoring dance, entwined with a live snake.
Ms. Stewart writes, directs, choreographs and composes
in collaboration with dozens of artists, including, for this work, four
movement coaches (experts in flamenco and classical South Indian dance)
and the multitalented members of her Great Jones Repertory Company. Together
they offer a rejuvenating rite of spring.
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