Backstage In The Underworld

Written by Nick Curley on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


A joyride down the river
Styx has arrived at the BAM Harvey Theater. Persephone, a gorgeously surreal staging of the titular Greek
goddess’ abduction by Hades, opens Oct. 26 as a crown jewel of the Brooklyn
Academy of Music’s annual Next Wave Festival.

This voyage is the fourth
BAM concoction from the Ridge Theater company, synonymous with vanguard media
mélange since its 1990 inception. Like most Ridge ventures, Persephone is a fusion of founder Bob McGrath’s direction,
films by collagist Bill Morrison, projections from Morrison’s collaborator and
wife Laurie Olinder and set design from Jim Findlay. Starlet and longtime Ridge
actress Julia Stiles smolders in the lead role, making an action as simple as
holding a pomegranate look like alchemy.

Persephone emerged five years ago, after a night of cabaret
music by composers Ben Neill and Mimi Goese (who also plays grieving mom Demeter)
prompted BAM Executive Producer Joseph Melillo to unite the duo with McGrath’s
team. The pathos onstage carries a second realm of theatrics: a playhouse
within a playhouse, the myth produced before us by a technologically savvy 19th-century theater troupe. “Until now, Ridge has never really
turned the lens onto itself,” notes Morrison. “We see what’s backstage: a
melodrama of this turn-of-the-century company’s inner machinations and
politics.”

Art
Nouveau, William Morris’ intricate textiles, German Expressionists and
proto-Modernism all proved inspiring landmarks for Persephone. “It’s not far from the beginning of film,” says
Morrison, “a period I’ve been interested in for a long time.” Morrison, one of
today’s most acclaimed experimental filmmakers, meshes reels of decaying film
footage into indelible montages. His found materials are “copyright free, each
with weird permutations, each film pockmarked in some way,” often coming from
vault managers’ shabbiest reels. “For example, we shot Julia Stiles reciting a
poem,” says Morrison, “then spliced it with a silent film actress whose face is
corroded and composited together with Julia’s.”

Persephone’s media-infused set design further embraces
saturated color, uniting decadence with decrepit theater spaces. Findlay and
McGrath saw the players onstage as primeval multimedia iconoclasts that no one
knows about, but who everyone will steal from for decades to come. “How would
they solve their problems?” asks Findlay. “I liked that they’d be bringing
things into the theater that weren’t supposed to be there, like some
[avant-garde theater director] Robert Wilson of 1895.”

Findlay’s mash-up of epochs
doesn’t go unnoticed by the boss. “We were at a plateau back in 2001 before he
started working with us,” says McGrath. “His sets are gorgeous and challenging,
and he was brought in to kick our asses.” Challenging, but highly functional:
“We wanted to create a backstage and a view of the show at the same time,”
explains Olinder, “one that could change as quickly as a dissolving slide.”
From this criteria Findlay forged a slanted onstage proscenium not unlike a
scaled down version of the Harvey’s. “We couldn’t do better than to be in the
Harvey,” says Olinder. “I like thinking of the room itself being a part of the
set and the audience being a part of the show as well.”

Olinder,
too, relished tools and mechanisms of the day, particularly Magic Lanterns:
pre-movie projectors improved by the late 1800s invention of electric lamps. “I
looked at how they changed from one image to the next, and the primitive ways
they had an image move,” explains Olinder. “I kept my transitions very simple.”

Amidst these shifts, a
raucous orchestra of romantic 19th-century-born instruments swells and
deflates. “We hear large symphonic sounds,” adds McGrath. “It’s heavy on bass
and drums, with definite trip-hop and rock elements as well.” Yet even this
prodigious music proved malleable. “In other opera or song-based projects,”
says Findlay, “there’s an existing score and script near the beginning of the
process. Here we had a conceptual framework: this fantasia that’s on stage
now.”

It’s this ambition to evoke
colossal resonance that drives the Ridge Theater headfirst into Persephone. “We’re not winking. We really do find the story
sad, and want it to be sad,” warns McGrath. “The paradox of this show is
finding honest expression, which seems to work musically,” adds Findlay. “In
pop songs, people sing about huge emotions. We accept big expression when it’s
musical.”

Ben Neill has dubbed Persephone “an antidote to irony,” and perhaps some modern
attention deficits can be squashed by the rawness of myth. “We all seem to be
getting back to basics,” says Findlay, “finding what feels true, living with
our economy in a period of extreme frugalness. Yet it’s still not cool to
really believe in something.” McGrath is more succinct: “We’re tired of
everybody putting air quotes around their existence,” he says. If not an
antidote, great theater remains strong medicine: a mob together in the dark,
pursuing catharsis. Works like Persephone have pungency in this way, traveling southbound until we reach the
lower depths.

Persephone, Oct. 26-30, BAM Harvey
Theater, 651 Fulton St. (at Rockwell Pl.), Brooklyn, 718-636-4100; 7:30, $25
and up.

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