Julia Stiles and Mimi Goese Take On Godly Sexual Politics at BAM

I'm left wishing for the days when minimalism, the musical school that best suits Neill's instincts, still dictated the theatrical standards of contemporary opera and performance art.
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Persephone is a multi-media-musical play within a play featuring Julia Stiles (of the Jason Bourne films and Oleanna on Broadway) in the title role, which last week finished it's premiere run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The collaborative effort of composer Ben Neill, singer/actor Mimi Goese, Tony Award-winning playwright Warren Leight (Side Man), and the Ridge Theater group (Lightning at our feet), Persephone is a story of abduction and rape based on the classical Greek myth. Despite its antiquity, it has considerable relevance to the sexual politics of our times, one reason why it's been playing to capacity audiences.

Persephone is only a girl when she is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld and death. But as the daughter of gods, her disappearance has consequences. Persephone's mother is Demeter, the goddess who presides over nature in an age of perpetual bloom. Distraught with Persephone's disappearance, Demeter freezes over the world in a relentless winter of death, thereby asserting her mother right to reclaim her child even if it means the entire world must suffer in compensation for her anguish.

With Demeter's deep freeze, there is no life left on Earth -- no dying souls for Hades to collect -- and he's compelled to negotiate with the goddess to restore them. In a compromise that restores the balance of life and death -- and brings parity back to the sexes -- Persephone is allowed to return to her mother six months of every year. Out of this reunion the seasons are born, with summer waxing as Persephone reunites with Demeter, and winter's approach beginning when she returns to Hades.

Despite the production's extensive visual appeal and musical virtuosity, rather than portray the myth with all its savage yet powerful implications, we're presented a sanitized and lyrical caricature. That's not to say that the talents assembled in this production aren't up to the challenge of the myth's profundity, even if playwright and TV scribe Warren Leight has chosen to parody the Persephone, Demeter, and Hades myths in the manner in which he is accustomed to writing for Broadway and TV. Problem is, BAM audiences are famous for their dislike of conventions.

Rather than portray the ancient Greek myth directly, Leight presents it in a play-within-a play performed by a troupe of late-Victorian thespians who incorporate the fin de siècle craze for silent movies into their stage play (also called Persephone) as a way to keep audiences coming. This middle party of actors is significant for focusing our attention on any generation having lived between us and the ancient Greeks. For through them we become aware that we are links in a chain of generations extending back some 2,500 years -- to the ancients with whom we share the same primitive enthrall for story telling and theater.

As for the logic of the play within the play, anyone who's seen Christopher Nolan's film Inception this summer will recognize the same structural regress at work in the film's unfolding of dreams within dreams. The difference is we can never participate in the dream within the dream while awake, or a film within a film for our placement outside the screen. Only the theatrical production includes us, in that the play within the play shores right up to our seats, structurally incorporating us into the play within the play regression. This fluidity of boundaries presented only by live theater keeps the art of performance vital and relevant in forming a continuum with those ancestors who nearly three millennia ago watched and listened to the same dramatic myths unfold.

But the Ridge Theater production doesn't follow up -- doesn't let us fully see and hear the drama that the ancients Greeks saw and heard because we don't enter the extreme psychology of Persephone or Demeter the way they did. Most confounding is the under-dramatization of Hades. Instead of acting out his pathological demand for total submission to him -- which will make his later humiliation by Demeter that much more starkly symbolic and pitiable -- Hades is assigned such slight action and so few lines, he hardly resembles the ultimate personification of entropy he is supposed to be. The staging of Persephone's rape is so unconvincing and sanitized, Hades doesn't seem capable of wielding the negative force to which all living things -- even gods -- must ultimately submit. As a result, the production loses both its power and its moral message, leaving the actors adrift in a sea of unfocused and ineffectual, if beautifully envisioned and scored reveries.

Add to this the disorientation caused by the mundane matter of who dominates the stage versus who should. Considering the play is entitled Persephone, and that Julia Stiles is billed as its lead, we come to the theater expecting Persephone's story, with Stiles center stage -- and at the beginning Stiles doesn't disappoint us. But once Persephone is abducted, Stiles and her considerable talent suffer neglect as emphasis shifts to the story of Demeter and her search for her daughter while highlighting Mimi Goese's ambitions as a singer.

The original myth does justify Demeter's prominence, given that she is the most powerful goddess of the Olympian Pantheon. With the proper actress/singer, making Demeter the lead could be a fortunate move from both a theatrical and a feminist perspective. But Mimi Goese's Demeter not only lacks majesty and passion, the actress draws a caricature of a goddess rather than projecting a real living entity, and it is a caricature more comic and pathetic than compelling. Cosequently, the goddess' winter of death appears not as leverage devised to secure the return of her daughter, but as overwrought narcissism.*

The production's biggest miscalculation is having Goese hoard eight similarly-themed songs when three would amply supply rounded characterization. It's overkill that drags, especially as no one else sings so much as a chorus, not even Stiles! To her credit as the songs' lyricist, Goese's lyrics provide delicate and moving impressions of time's passage in the minute details we take for granted -- leaves fluttering, tree limbs swaying, light reflecting off stream beds. Unfortunately, though Goese's small voice may suit clubs and galleries, in the theater she has to resort to amplification that distorts her peculiar stylizations. Often she is overwhelmed by Ben Neill's exhilarating mix of electronica, at which the delicacy and meaning of her lyrics are lost.

Throughout the play we look to Stiles to salvage the action on the stage, and when she's allowed to, she achieves great effect. Even without choreography, Stiles' balletic training shines through her pedestrian movements. All of which leaves us asking why the producers didn't ensure that Stile's role be accorded the attention her stature and her talent requires.

If Persephone at any time resoundly succeeds, it's in the long passages when Ben Neill's "mutant trumpet" meshes with the haunting time-lapse cinematography and organic montage of Bill Morrison, the enthralling scrim projections of Laurie Olinder, and Jim Ambrosone's precision lighting to effect the ellipses of dream, aquatic submergence, and soaring bird's eye views accessible only with the omniscience of gods.

Throughout it all, Neill is the metallic core of the production. His mutant trumpet sounds out invisible plateaus and rounds out hidden caverns of sound; elevates and lowers us on mood platforms; carves out shrines to the gods. At other times Neill's bronze tones encircle dark cusps of malevolence, or follow the roots of mysteries reminiscent of that century-old trumpet asking Charles Ives' Unanswered Question. But during the dissonant passages when other features of the production busily compete for attention with his downtempos, I'm left wishing for the days when minimalism, the musical school that best suits Neill's instincts, still dictated the theatrical standards of contemporary opera and performance art. In fact, it's Neill's languorous playing that suggests this production would benefit most by supplying greater intervals of silence and empty space and far less cluttered spectacle and musical soliloquy.

*For those interested in seeing a highly popular and modern re-enactment of the Demeter myth in all her majestic and amazonian grandeur, see Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Ripley in James Cameron's much lauded Aliens. It's a film in which critics like feminist Donna Haraway saw in Ripley's descent to rescue the girl Newt (from the aliens in the sub-basement of an enflamed, intergalactic factory about to be nuked) the heroic re-enactment of Persephone's descent to the underworld in search and rescue of Persephone.

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