It occurred to me recently just how much audiences love to see their expectations “subverted”. Not only in theatre, but in film, television, games, literature, and any other storytelling medium you care to name it seems that a product gains extra credit for subverting its genre, role, or otherwise (or, in layman’s terms, to turn the preconceived notions of how someone or something should act on its head). As an appreciator of well-crafted characters and stories I’ve rather enjoyed this recent trend; it allows me to go into something of which I have a preconceived notion of how it should end only to find my expectations shattered. Of course, like all trends, over-saturation can sink this ship and all its glory. This is not to say that I believe at a certain point artists should stop subverting audience expectations. We will always have an idea of how someone or something will act (or, more dangerous to think, “should” act) that an artist will challenge. I simply wonder at what point destroying expectations become the new expectations, but perhaps I’m looking at this too cyclically. Through this craft it seems most appropriate that the characters of ancient mythology, as the arguable archetypes of modern fictional personae, should be prime targets for subverting.
Persephone is a new musical comedy by Mick D’arcy and Tyler Mabry that retells the famous Persephone myth of Greek mythology in which the title character’s abduction to the Underworld causes her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, to prevent any food to grow in a bout of woe. D’arcy and Mabry’s script roughly follows this plot, but takes the opportunity to freshen some of the known plot elements.
Persephone begins much like one would expect a musical comedy rendition of its source material would, leaving me to initially question what tone they were trying to capture. Yet the production takes little time to establish its intentions to abandon the expectations of those familiar with the myth when the characters all but literally state they’re ditching the known plot for something new (“The New Blooming”). This myth portrays Persephone (Chelsea Manasseri) and Hades (Gregory Driscoll) as having an instant, mutual fascination with one another prior to a marriage arranged for Persephone by her mother, Demeter (Amber Lackey), is announced. It’s a plot which walks dangerously close to a reworking of Romeo and Juliet using Greek mythology as the backdrop but thankfully never crosses that line, and maintains the air of originality.
Manasseri and Lackey are clearly the center of the production both performance-wise and story-wise. Manasseri is a perfect fit for Persephone in personality, physicality, and voice; she’s cheerful, sprightly, and a pleasant presence onstage. Meanwhile, Lackey exudes the stateliness of authority with an Earth mother persona that’s quite befitting of the goddess of nature. Lackey’s performance is well suited for D’arcy and Mabry’s script which, in a twist of expectations, places Demeter in the role of the sympathetic villain as opposed to the usual culprit, Hades. Driscoll, as Hades, pairs well with Manasseri, relating their mutual trapped natures with one another, as they innocently court one another. It feels only appropriate to also note the performances of Mackenzy Cade, (Iacchus) who doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the fun-loving/manic archetype but whose overabundance of charisma makes him a pleasure to have onstage, and Justin LaVergne as Zeus who, to those of you who know of Zeus’ infamous and lecherous behavior in mythology, does not disappoint in the slightest (with his and the ensemble’s performance of “A Toast to the Storm” being the most fun segment of the production).
However, Persephone is not without its faults. For every moment of intriguing character development we are treated to some humor that often borders on being campy. This is not to say I never laughed; there are plenty of lines that earned an honest laugh from me. But the quality of the humor sways greatly. Lana Dieterich as the cynical yet supportive Hecate was always a delight to have onstage to offer her exasperated wisdom to the rest of the cast, yet I struggled with Gina Houston’s Baubo whose old crone caricature voice was used specifically to elicit laughs, made all the more jarring when she switched to a completely natural and lovely singing voice during “Until the Dawn”. As a whole the cast could harmonize beautifully but their individual vocal talents, much like the quality of the humor, ranged wildly. No one was outright “bad” at singing but the juxtaposition of the weaker voices to the more talented cast members highlighted the disparity.
On a technical level the show ran smoothly. The four-person band, led by Mabry on the keyboard, was incredibly versatile. I particularly enjoyed Charlie Tovar on the violin though I’ll fully confess I’m a sucker for a strong solo violin performance. As I’ve come to expect of them, Ann Marie Gordan’s minimal set paired with Patrick Anthony’s lighting were well constructed to simulate a score of sets with almost no unique set pieces to signify the location. However, there were some curious costume choices made by Talena Martinez. On one hand some outfits were fitting for characters (i.e. a warm medley of colors for Persephone and the Kore, a gaunt ensemble entirely in grey and black for Hades, the aforementioned Earth mother outfit for Demeter, and a suitably garish uniform for Zeus), but male mortal characters were clad in nothing more than t-shirts. Stylistically speaking it clashed with the rest of the costume choices and looked kind of silly. Yet there seems to be a silliness that permeates the production throughout, sometimes intentional while other times I’m not so sure if it was meant to come off as such. It added to the general clash of tone that comes with Persephone, and oftentimes interrupted the moments I found more interesting. I was quickly invested at some sudden character developments at the beginning of Act II that explored motivations of these known characters that are not typically seen (particularly with Iacchus), but most of that was quietly abandoned by the joyful finale.
I asked myself while heading home after the show if I thought more negatively of the more light-hearted and “showtuney” elements of Persephone based on its venue, given the last two productions I saw at the Vortex Rep (Terminus and The Mikado: Reclaimed) were much heavier and darker in tone, and whether or not I would judge it as harshly if I had seen the same production elsewhere. The answer? Probably, and that’s not a fair way to represent my opinion on the matter. I can’t say that I loved the production but it still stands up on its merits. For every gripe I had there was a merit to be found. There’s plenty to enjoy and plenty to question. While it tends to wallow in the musical comedy medium it also successfully subverted its Ancient Greek roots, which is what originally sparked my interest in the show. What else can I say? It’s a wild card of a production, but I’m glad I saw it.
Persephone continues playing at the Vortex Repertory Company Thursday through Sunday at 8pm until April 16th. For Tickets and more information check out the Vortex website. http://www.vortexrep.org/