Persephone at BAM

Tuesday night found Culturebot at BAM for the Ridge Theater’s production of Persephone, a multimedia musical extrav-o-rama featuring Julia Stiles as Persephone and Mimi Goese as Demeter. This lushly designed song cycle tells two stories intertwined. The first story is that of Persephone, abducted by Hades and forced to live in Hell for part of the years. The second story is that of the 19th century Excelsior Theater Company, helmed by tyrannical artistic director Jules (Sean Haberle), who is trying to stage a multimedia extrav-o-rama about the myth of Persephone. On the night of the performance Thomas Edison himself is in the house as Jules deals with the malfunctioning film and projector setup that is the cutting-edge technology of the day. Not only that but Jules has a coke habit and has to deal with rebellious actresses – Clara/Persephone and Grace/Demeter – who chafe under his direction. The equipment keeps breaking down, powerplays by the women abound and Jules’ chief technician Nicholas (Michael Anthony Williams) eventually switches sides, seduced by Clara, leaving Jules no choice but to accede to the women’s demands. This plot line mirrors the plot of Demeter/Hades/Persephone and unfolds episodically throughout the evening. The plot is a bit thin – mostly it is a vehicle to frame the music – the entire piece feels a little like Moulin Rouge with a soundtrack by Cocteau Twins or Dead Can Dance.

Ultimately that’s what I came away with – it was a lovely piece but altogether bland. The production elements are beautiful – Jim Findlay’s set is imaginative and playful, Bill Morrison’s films and Laurie Olinder’s projections combine to create a visually stunning, surreal landscape. The piece is staged with significant chunks performed by Mimi Goese in the balconies – reaching out to and above the audience. But despite all the theatrical tricks and self-referential jokes, the technological hocus-pocus and impressive stagecraft, the whole enterprise feels a bit empty. I guess I had been expecting something more abstract and less logical/linear. As it was the basic plot elements were very conventional and predictable, there was no suspense or surprise. And since everyone already knows the legend of Persephone, that wasn’t a big surprise either. I came away wanting more. I enjoyed relaxing and watching it unfold, like a music video, but it didn’t compel me to sit on the edge of my seat and pay attention.

There’s something exciting about seeing music-theater at this level of production; it was definitely an enjoyable and pleasant evening. But it made me wonder about the limitations of “90 Minutes, no intermission” as a structure. Did they feel like they couldn’t go deeper into characterization because of time limits? Did they feel like they had to cover certain things and let others slide? Ultimately I’d love to talk to the artists about the decisions they made, what they set out to make, and how they ended up where they did. It seems like it could have gone in any number of more substantial directions and they ended up with a compromise that fit the length and content requirements but somehow fell short of a totally electrifying experience.

What did you think?

Oct 26—30, 2010, 7:30pm

BAM Harvey Theater
90min, no intermission
Tickets: $25, 45, 60, 70

Music by Ben Neill & Mimi Goese
Lyrics by Mimi Goese
Book by Warren Leight
Films by Bill Morrison
Projections by Laurie Olinder
Sets by Jim Findlay
Dramaturgy by Daniel Zippi & Karl Precoda
Choreography by Dan Safer
Lights by John Ambrosone
Costumes by Jane Alois Stein
Sound design by Jamie McElhinney
Directed by Bob McGrath

Co-commissioned by Virginia Tech for the Department of Theatre and Cinema at Virginia Tech and by BAM for the 2010 Next Wave Festival.

4 thoughts on Persephone at BAM”

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