"Come to La MaMa this June and see Ellen Stewart's Asclepius to recapture the awe and wonder that made you love theatre in the first place."
- Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
"Asclepius adds a colorful, new brick to Stewart's incredible accomplishments at La MaMa."
- Deirdre Donovan, CurtainUp.com
In Ms. Stewart's adaptation of this classic Greek tale, Asclepius is the son of the mortal Coronis, who was raped by the god Apollo. Angered by Coronis' agreement to raise the child with her true love, mortal Ischys, Apollo's twin sister, Artemis, kills Coronis. Although Apollo tries to stop his sister he, can not save Coronis. Apollo puts Coronis on a funeral pyre and, as she is burning, he reaches into the flames and takes the baby from Coronis' womb. Asclepius is sent to be raised in nature by the centaur Chiron, who teaches the boy about herbal medicines and the lore of the woods. The adult Asclepius uses herbs given to him by snakes to bring a king's son back from the dead, angering his brother, the god of the underworld Hades, who is jealous of Asclepius' ability to use medicine to ward off death, and thus orders Asclepius' death. In fact, this rarely told story of the father of medicine is rife with incest, murder, betrayal, passion and unrequited love.
Asclepius' story inspired the familiar serpent-entwined-staff insignia used today by hospitals and doctors worldwide as a symbol of excellence in medicine.
ASCLEPIUS features music composed by Ellen Stewart, with additional music by Michael Sirotta, Yukio Tsuji, and Heather Paauwe, performed by live musicians.
The production features choreography by Federico Restrepo, puppets by Theodora Skipitares, light design by Federico Restrepo, scenic consultants Mark Tambella and Jun Maeda, and sound design by Tim Schellenbaum.
This presentation of ASCLEPIUS represents a continuation of La MaMa E.T.C. and The Great Jones Company's tradition of contemporary interpretations and adaptations of the classics. The production will retain the inimitable international flavor that is a trademark of Ellen Stewart's body of work at La MaMa, with a multi-ethnic cast consisting of over a dozen artists from Colombia, Italy, Japan, Germany, China, Korea, Kosovo, Puerto Rico, Republic of Congo, Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States.
The cast includes George Drance, Cary Gant, Denise Greber, Allison Hiroto, Onni Johnson, Michael Lynch, Benjamin Marcantoni, Matt Nasser, Prisca Ouya, Eugene the Poogene, Frederico Restrepo, Valois, Meredith Wright, Perry Yung, and Kat Yew.
In 1972, The Great Jones Repertory Company was created by Andrei Serban, Elizabeth Swados and Ellen Stewart, who have collaborated on numerous adaptations of classics at La MaMa. In recent years, Ellen Stewart and The Great Jones Repertory Company have presented a reinterpretation of Carlo Gozzi's THE RAVEN; an original adaptation based on William Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET; and a world-premiere adaptation of the rarely staged Greek saga HERAKLES VIA PHAEDRA, which The New York Times called "theater restored to its ritual communal origins." In 2004, La MaMa E.T.C. presented SEVEN -- a month-long festival including the world-premiere of Ms. Stewart's ANTIGONE, performed in repertory with revivals of six productions previously staged by Great Jones Repertory Company. In her New York Times review of ANTIGONE, Margo Jefferson proclaimed: "Ms. Stewart is one of Off-Broadway's great pioneers. And La MaMa is one of the few institutions that unfailingly welcomes theater that is experimental and international."
Under Ellen Stewart's guidance, La MaMa E.T.C. enjoys international recognition as the home for theatrical experimentation. La MaMa was the first Off-Off Broadway theatres to support full-time resident companies, and was the first Off-Off companies to tour Europe. La MaMa has been honored with numerous OBIE Awards, dozens of Drama Desk Awards, Bessie Awards and Villager Awards. In January 1993, Ellen Stewart was inducted into the "Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame" becoming the first Off-Off-Broadway producer to ever receive this honor. In 2006, Ellen Stewart received a special Tony Award for supporting theatre artists of all nations and cultures in the development, production and presentation of new work. In 2007, she won the Prestigious Praemium Imperiale Arts Award, which is the Noble Prize for the Arts, named by Japan Art Association.
Well-known names of the theatre for whom La MaMa was their first artistic home in the United States include Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados (FRAGMENTS OF A GREEK TRILOGY); Jerzy Grotowski; Tadeusz Kantor (Cricot Theatre of Poland); Tom O'Horgan (HAIR); Lee Breuer (Mabou Mines); Elizabeth Swados (RUNAWAYS); Tom Eyen (DREAMGIRLS); Mike Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas"); Joel Zwick ("My Big; Fat Greek Wedding"); Harold Pinter (THE ROOM -- La MaMa was the first presenter of Mr. Pinter's work in the United States); Kazuo Ohno (The Father of Butoh), Tan Dun ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Julia Stiles ("O"), and Diane Lane ("Unfaithful"), as well as artists from Japan, Nigeria, Korea, Zaire, Ivory Coast, and countless other countries.
La MaMa’s heritage continues to grow with programs at Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa Umbria, an artist residence in Italy, where international understanding is promoted through cultural exchange. La MaMa Umbria has, in the past 20 years, presented over 30 theatre productions as well as workshops, art exhibitions, and conferences.
by Martine Denton.
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Come to La MaMa this June and see Ellen Stewart's Asclepius to recapture the awe and wonder that made you love theatre in the first place. Stewart has spent nearly half a century overseeing the legendary East Village "experimental theatre club" that has probably done more to revitalize and redefine American theatre, over and over again, during that period. She has harnessed her energy, her warmth, her love and gift for storytelling, her humility, and her astonishing network of talented colleagues to create this brand new play about a Greek myth that, as far as she knows, has somehow heretofore not been dramatized. Like the healing power of medicine that is the play's subject, Asclepius itself feels like a magical gift from the gods.
The story is less well-known than many from classical mythology, but follows familiar patterns. It begins when Apollo sees the beautiful maiden Coronis, who is in love with an Arcadian prince named Ischys, and falls in love with her. Though she rejects him, he rapes her and she bears his son, the title character Asclepius. Apollo's sister Artemis kills the maiden, but Apollo rescues the baby and leaves it in the care of the centaur Chiron, who teaches Asclepius about potions, herbs, and incantations. Asclepius becomes a renowned healer, eventually attracting the attention of Hades, who, fearing that the Underworld will no longer receive any new souls, demands that Zeus kill him. Zeus does so, but makes him a demigod and places him in the heavens (as a constellation of stars); Asclepius's daughters Panacea and Hygieia lend their names to notions of healing and health that we honor every day.
It is, in fact, even more complicated that this—but have no fear, because in addition to a scene-by-scene synopsis, the programs for Asclepius also include a lovely "Poem of Asclepius" by Stewart that narrates the tale succinctly. Not that any of the off-stage narration is really necessary, because the production—which is based in classical Greek theatre but includes any number of theatrical techniques, from mask to puppetry to song and dance—is clear and accessible and riveting from start to finish.
There are dozens of collaborators involved, most of them on stage, but many behind-the-scenes, notably puppet-makers Theodora Skipitares and Jane Catherine Shaw, composers Michael Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Yukio Tsuji, Benjamin Marcantoni, and Elizabeth Swados (along with Stewart herself), sound designer Tim Schellenbaum, and lighting designer Federico Restrepo. One of the things I love about Stewart's annual productions is that the program tells you pretty much who did everything, so we know for example that the gorgeous crow wings worn by Restrepo and Eugene the Poogene were created by Tavia Ito and that the translation of some of Stewart's lyrics into ancient Greek was made by J. Andrew Foster. Kudos to everyone who contributed.
On stage, a couple of dozen La MaMa stalwarts and newcomers bring the piece to life. Standouts include George Drance in the title role, bringing real compassion and humanity to this character; Eugene the Poogene as the Black Crow and Hades; Benjamin Marcantoni as Chiron; Perry Yung as Apollo; and Michael Lynch as both the King of Arcadia and King Minos. Marcantoni sings narration in his inimitable countertenor along with a chorus. Most of the action happens in movement, again borrowing from a variety of styles and choreographed by the company: expect everything from ballet and acrobatic modern dance to march formations and, unforgettably, a mourning ritual in which a chorus of women sing lamentation while crashing stones to the floor.
From all of this diversity comes the unity of boundless imagination—the audience and the ensemble share this particular gift throughout the piece, as we appreciate the ingenuity of the low-tech craft and artistry that conjure complicated stage pictures while we are called upon to fill in what's missing with our mind's eye. Stewart knows how to engage an audience better than just about anyone; we are involved in this ancient story almost as much as if we were acting it out ourselves.
Asclepius may not be a major player in Greek mythology, but Ellen Stewart of La MaMa E.T.C. fame is now giving him his theatrical due. Sitting in a wheelchair onstage and telling the audience that she was nervous about the world premiere of her work, Stewart caught everybody's heartstrings at La Mama's Annex last Friday. And, yes, she still rings the bell for the show to begin.
by Deirdre Donovan
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Stewart's lively 90 minute-opera is moving indeed. It consists of sung and danced pieces in verse and prose performed by a large international cast from The Great Jones Company which embraces a wide swathe of the world: The individual actors hail from Colombia, Italy, Japan, Germany, China, Korea, Kosovo, Puerto Rico, Republic of Congo, Philippines,Taiwan, and the United States. Aclepius continues La MaMa and The Great Jones Company's long-time collaboration with the classics.
Stewart has directed the opera with enormous energy on Mark Tambella's and Jun Maeda's split-level set, which we often must look up at from our ground-level seats. There is visual verve and ingenuity in her direction and one must really keep up with her imagination.
The story too demands close attention. Act 1 gives us Asclepius's intricate backstory, including the bizarre circumstances surrounding his conception, birth, and childhood with the wise centaur Chiron (Benjamin Marcantoni). We learn how his mother Coronis (Kat Yew), who was raped by the god Apollo (Perry Yung), hoped to raise Asclepius with her true-love, the mortal Ischys (Matt Nasser). We also discover that Apollo's twin sister Artemis (Allison Hiroto) decided that she must kill Coronis on her wedding day to Ischys. Grieving over her death, Apollo puts the body of Coronis on a funeral pyre and, reaching into the flames, delivers the infant Asclepius from her womb.
Act 2 injects more mystery. It begins the education of the young Asclepius whom we meet in the form of a life-sized puppet (designed by Theodora Skipitares). The wise centaur Chiron, teaches him the lure of potions and the power of incantations that will cure common ills. When Chiron realizes that he can impart nothing more to Asclepius, he tells him that he must find a new life apart from him. At this point, the shrewd god Athena (Meredith Wright) materializes, offering him the blood of the Gorgon: two vials representing life and death, respectively. Chiron lingers here to introduce Asclepius to the lovely Epione (Valois Mickens), and marries them. New plot turns will unsettle Asclepius's domestic life, however. An incestuous relationship with his bewitched daughter Panacea will bear him a daughter Hygeia. Worse, he's tossed in jail for not being able to heal King Minos's son Glaucus from an incurable disease.
Curiously, this Gordian-knot situation is reversed when 2 snakes surreally enter his cell and enact a kind of death and resurrection before his eyes. (We see one serpent die, and the other snake heal it with herbs, and bring it miraculously back to life.) Inspired, Asclepius decides to try compounding the enchanted snake and herbs for healing Glaucus. And his strategy works—-Glaucus is cured. This episode, incidentally, is the source story behind the caduceus, the serpent-entwined staff insignia used by hospitals and doctors today.
Not surprisingly, the titular character Asclepius (George Drance) is at the heart of the work, and it's fascinating to watch this legendary figure take on flesh and blood and treat his first patients with potions and chants under the most primitive conditions. This is theater to sip herbal tea with and ponder the protagonist's astonishing life and healing art.
Stewart and The Great Jones Company certainly deserve credit for coherently staging the ancient myth, which pits gods against mortals, and sometimes god against god. The physical production has a clear-cut feel and the complex narrative is strengthened and made accessible by the clean choreography, ritualistic songs (in English and composed by Stewart) and communal Greek music by Elizabeth Swados. Kanako Hiyama's costume design is appropriately ornate for the willful gods, and rightly simple for the mortals. Beyond the costuming, Tavia Ito's wing design for the White Crow (Federico Restrepo) and Black Crow (Eugene the Poogene) is commanding in its elegant structure and sweeping movements.
George Drance, as the demi-god Asclepius, projects a quiet authority. Kat Yew, as the nymph Coronis, is touchingly vulnerable. Benjamin Marcantoni, playing the dual role of Storyteller and Chiron, has a richly-textured voice. The rest of the cast are to be commended for their dexterity as actors, singers, and dancers. It's a true ensemble piece, with only four year-old Navel Amira Nelson, playing Hygeia (Panacea's daughter) unwittingly upstaging the others.
The clean-swept stage, with its few odd props, is a nice relief from the special effects of more commercial productions. Federico Restrepo's light design crisply punctuates some pivotal scenes by surrounding the characters in kaleidoscopic light patterns. The rape scene of Coronis in Act 1 is particularly impressive.
Asclepius adds a colorful, new brick to Stewart's incredible accomplishments at La MaMa. If one of the purposes of theater is to be a healing presence in our lives, this show certainly moves in that harmonious direction.
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.
by Alexis Soloski
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.