A quick review of Hadestown, which you should sell a kidney to see

Yesterday, Clara and I saw the Broadway production of Hadestown for her birthday. It was the best thing I have ever seen on stage.

Hadestown is written, words and music, by Anaïs Mitchell, who originally made a musical, then recorded it as a concept album with Ani DeFranco, then re-worked it as a new musical that premiered in 2012. If you still think of Mitchell as a somewhat pretentious, precious, indie folk cutie, you need to get caught up! This is a mature and stunning work that’s hard to classify. WordPress is having fits over me trying to insert audio right now, but you can hear the Broadway cast recording here

It’s based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades and Persephone, and it’s set in a Depression-like era perhaps near the end of the world, complete with squalid barroom and post-apocalyptic New Orleans folk jazz, I guess? Normally I could do without old stories cleverly transposed into unconventional settings — this Onion article springs to mind — but that’s not really what Hadestown is. Part of the conceit is that we’re all always telling these same stories over and over again, and that we must. And in spirit, it’s truer to to Greek tragedy than any Greek tragedy I’ve seen performed straight, complete with an omniscient narrator in the person of a dazzling urbanite Hermes (André De Shields):

Image from this Theater Mania video

a chorus of the three pitiless, inexorable fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad), who are on no one’s side;

screen shot from this Theater Mania clip

and so much catharsis, the ushers had to go around with a spatula, scraping the melted puddles of the audience out of their seats after the final curtain. 

I’ll do a more thorough review at some point, but in the meantime you can read Leah Libresco Sargent’s take here

The lyrics are real poetry, but also clear and clever, studded with allusions you can take or leave. Each song, lyrically and musically, was worthwhile in itself, and didn’t exist merely to move the plot along or to give equal time to every performer. Clara and I agreed that Orpheus’ song — the one that has so much power in the story– really did have that much power. You didn’t have to tell yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this feels very magical if you’re part of that word.” The hairs standing up on your arm spoke for themselves. 

The stage set was so well-conceived, they could build worlds with lighting and shadows and the three concentric circles of the stage floor, which rotated independently and could be raised or lowered. Without complicated special effects, they placed us indoors and outdoors, in Hell, and in uncanny in-between places.

(These photos are before the show began, obviously.)

All the musicians were part of the action or otherwise integrated into the set, and many of the actors played instruments as well. It was mind-boggling how much talent was on display. 

Orpheus (Reeve Carney)’s voice was powerful and disturbing and he sometimes lost control of his falsetto, which was affecting, rather than otherwise.

He had the air of a floppy theater kid ingénue.

Image from Theater Mania videoo

At first I thought his acting skill wasn’t quite on par with the rest of the cast, but I believe this radical immaturity was part of his tragic flaw. Hermes introduces him this way:

Now Orpheus was the son of a Muse
And you know how those Muses are
Sometimes they abandon you
And this poor boy, he wore his heart out on his sleeve
You might say he was naïve to the ways of the world
But he had a way with words
And the rhythm and the rhyme
And he sang just like a bird up on a line
And it ain’t because I’m kind
But his Mama was a friend of mine
And I liked to hear him sing
And his way of seeing things
So I took him underneath my wing
And that is where he stayed
Until one day…

Well, one day the gods get involved. Toward the end of the show, Persephone takes up the bird theme again, singing:

Hades, my husband, Hades, my light
Hades, my darkness
If you had heard how he sang tonight
You’d pity poor Orpheus!
All of his sorrow won’t fit in his chest
It just burns like a fire in the pit of his chest
And his heart is a bird on a spit in his chest
How long, how long, how long?

Hades (Patrick Page), from his gleaming hair to his gilded shoes, was downright terrifying, in voice and presence. You felt that presence every second he was on stage.

I thought at first his basso profundo was something of a party trick, but he knew how to deploy it, and he seemed more than a man. Which made it all the more gripping when, as a god, he is faced with a terrible choice of his own. 

Persephone (Amber Gray) in this work is not an abducted maiden in mourning, but an aged and aggrieved queen and wife who’s prowled back and forth between summer and the underworld countless times, and who knows full well that “a lot can happen behind closed doors.” She’s developed some coping strategies, and they are not ideal. With her gravelly powerhouse voice and desperate green velvet and shimmies, she is alarming, pathetic, malevolent, and ultimately completely winning, as well as miraculously light-footed in her spike-heeled boots. 

Image from Theater Mania video

The only quibble I had was the casting of Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). She did a good job, but I didn’t lose my heart to her, as I did to every other character. It wasn’t a stumbling block, though; and at one point, Hermes directly chides the audience for holding Eurydice to too high a standard. I was content to award the real heart of the story to Persephone and Hades. Eurydice and Orpheus are, after all, still very young in this iteration. It did hurt to see how she held him at arm’s length even as she was falling in love.

While Hadestown is raucous, funny, stylish, and vastly entertaining, it is also profoundly in earnest, and doesn’t try to dazzle or deceive the audience about what’s the show really means. It has elements of politics, of social commentary, of lessons about the environment and worker’s rights and industrialization; but what it’s really about is . . . well, art, love, and death.  

In elementary school, some student would always complain, “Why do we have to read Greek myths?” The anemic answer came: “They teach us about our own lives.” This makes no sense when you’re fourteen years old and reading a fleshless synopsis of a tale about people in togas making inexplicable choices and being randomly smitten by the gods. But in Hadestown, which keeps most of the myth’s major plot points intact, the very overt point is: What you’re seeing right now will happen to you. Rather than asking you to suspend your disbelief for the show, they insist you resist forgetting, and that you acknowledge how personal it is. As Hermes tells Orpheus: “It’s not a trick. It’s a test.” 

As the action moved inexorably toward the final shattering blow, I was in agony, not only suffering with the characters, but wondering whether the show would have the guts to end with naked tragedy.

And they did. They did not flinch, but let the terrible thing happen. But the way it was framed, what they showed us was tragedy, not nihilism. Real tragedy, which tells you something true about life. Real tragedy which gives you something, rather than taking everything away.

What a contrast there is between the circular reasoning in “Why We Build the Wall” and mystical cycle of hope that Hermes reveals at the end. The whole show is marked by a pattern of openly asking and answering questions, and leaving it up to the audience to decide whether the answers satisfy or not. My friends, I was satisfied. 

***

Clara drew a picture of the show the night before, and several of the cast members signed it.



One more note: The Walter Kerr Theater was wonderful. It’s a small theater, and although our balcony seats were unexpectedly high up, they were still good seats. The sound was great, the theater is gorgeous, and the courteous, placid staff managed the tight crowd exceedingly well, directing streams of antsy New Yorkers in a serpentine line for lady’s room with aplomb. Overall a near-flawless experience.  If there’s any way at all you can get to see this show, I beg you to try! 

The show says it’s recommended for people age 12 and up. That seems about right to me. There isn’t any sex or violence or cussing that I can recall, but it sure is sad. 

Dreamlike reviews: Hadesdown, The Ghost Keeper, and The Sopranos (again)

You know what the real thing is about being in your mid-40’s? You can do everything you used to do in your 30’s, but you cannot bounce back.

I was in Chicago at the FemCatholic Conference last weekend, and it was completely wonderful. Met Mikayla Dalton, Corita Ten Eyck, Theresa Scott, Leticia Adams, Donna Provencher, Jenne O’Neill, Aimee Murphy, and so many others in real life for the first time, and I spent lots of time with my wonderful friend Elisa Low.  And Nora Calhoun, and Hope Peregrina and Ben Zelmer, and Samantha Povlock! And Shannon Wendt and Meg Hunter-Kilmer and ARGH the woman at the Femm Health table whose name is escaping me at the moment. And so many other brilliant, interesting, driven women I admire so much. I felt so out of my league.

Anyway, now I’m lurching around like a reanimated but still desiccated mummy, dizzy and incoherent, picking ridiculous fights with people I care about, and complaining about how bad my head feels and always feels, and I just can’t seem to snap out of it. I blame feminism. And airplanes. And train madness! (I did not take a train.)

Oh, if you want to hear my talk and all the talks at the conference, you can stream and download the whole thing for $49. My speech was called “When Women Say Yes: Consent and Control In Sex and Love.” It was about . . . a lot of things.

Also, I’m sorry we haven’t put out a podcast since the middle of February. Soon, I promise! I’m sorry! You could listen to that one again if you wanted to. Sorry.

Anyway anyway, I don’t want the algorithms to forget me completely, so here are some quickie reviews of things I’m enjoying while busily burning through all my social capital:

Listening to Hadestown

My daughter Clara turned me onto this musical. Originally a New Orleans jazz-style folk opera concept album about Orpheus and Eurydice by Anaïs Mitchell (I know. Stay with me), it’s now a musical that’s premiering on Broadway this month. You guys, it’s so good. Entirely successful world building. I am a sucker for anything based on Greek mythology, but become irrationally enraged with anything that doesn’t do it justice. This one is just weird enough to work.

From The Theater Times:

[Mitchell’s] version isn’t totally pin-downable about where and when it’s set–it’s mythic, after all–but there’s a Depression-era vibe to above-ground scenes, where penniless poet Orpheus and his lover Eurydice struggle to survive. It is hunger that allows the wealthy Hades to tempt her down to the underworld–to an economically secure but soulless industrial town, where men may be guaranteed work, but forgo contact with the natural world. Naturally, it is Hades who gets rich from their labor.

You will not believe “Why We Build the Wall” was written in 2010.

But this isn’t about politics; it’s about mankind. “Wait For Me” just about killed me.

All in all, just a fascinating, captivating, completely original work. Perfect lyrics, songs that stay with you. Such good stuff.

What I’m reading:

The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill

It is not a chick book, despite what the cover might suggest if you are one of my jerk sons. I keep plucking people by the shirt sleeve and shakily asking if they’ve read this book yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard more about it. It did win the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, which is a good start. I’m working on a review for the Catholic literary mag Dappled Things, where Morrill is fiction editor.

This is seriously brilliant lyrical writing, on a level with the best of Michael Chabon or . . . I don’t know, I don’t want to be crazy, but I keep thinking, “Edith Wharton, no, E.M. Forster, no, Faulkner . . . ”

It follows a Jewish Austrian boy with a very particular vocation that keeps pulling him back. He grows up and starts a little family, and they are so happy, until the Anschluss.

The book follows them before, during, and after the war, and I’ve just gotten up to the chapter that describes another, related love story, but an infernally inverted one. And then they all need to figure out: What is love? What is loyalty? What is forgiveness? GOSH. I haven’t finished it yet, but even if it totally mucks up the ending (which I don’t anticipate!) I’ll forgive it, for all the moments of gorgeous tragedy and piercing joy. Do not read on airplanes unless you don’t care if you get stared at for gasping audibly while you read. Wear a sweater; you’ll get chills.

And we’re watching:

Well, we’re still watching The Sopranos. This is the second time around for me, and it’s even better than I remembered. It’s so much funnier than I remembered. It’s a little scary how much more sympathy I have for Tony this time.

I also think they should have won some particular prize for the depiction of dreams.

I guess the common thread in all these things is a sort of lyrical dreamlike quality, realer than real life.

That reminds me, what movie or TV show has the best, most accurate portrayal of dreams? It’s so easy to get it wrong and overplay your hand.