Thursday, February 9, 2012

“Myths & Hymns” – A Fable Worth Retelling

Review by Nic Dris
Photos by Richard Termine

One word can describe this majestic production: collaboration. In Elizabeth Lucas’ director’s note, she informs us right off the bat: “Our rehearsals for this piece have been among the most freeform and collaborative I’ve experienced.” The input and efforts from the production team, creative team, and cast can only be thought of as a dedication and love for the work in Prospect Theater Company’s production of Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns.

The piece now has a core narrative. An elderly Woman (Linda Balgord) locks herself away in the attic on her final night in her home. Woman finds herself surrounded and haunted by possessions that trigger flashbacks to the beautiful yet tragic life she has had. Through Guettel’s song cycle, constructed of both myths and hymns, we witness Woman’s blissful wedding day to Husband (Bob Stillman) and onto the tragedies that befall her beloved children, Son (Lucas Steele) and Daughter (Anika Larsen).

In Woman’s first meeting with Husband, Bob Stillman’s poignant “Hero & Leander” left not a dry eye in the audience as we watched him glide upon the stage in a boat calling for his love. To watch and behold Linda Balgord (no spoken dialogue, mind you, for almost the whole show) transform from an elderly confused woman to a bemused, charmed, youthful spirit was acting gold. Anika Larsen is known for her comedic chops from Avenue Q, Xanadu, and Zanna, Don’t!, but Larsen really stepped it up in her heartbreaking portrayal as Woman’s lovesick Daughter – specifically in the tragic “Come to Jesus.” Larsen’s transforms before you between a middle aged version of Daughter to the younger version in Woman’s flashbacks, with only costumes to suggest passage of time; this was equally as mesmerizing to watch from Balgord’s performance. As Son, Lucas Steele brought a joyful energy to the family dynamic that was further propelled by his opulent “Pegasus” and “Icarus” stories.  It’s truly remarkable how much characterization came out of this family of characters with minimal dialogue.

The ensemble played as catalysts throughout Woman’s memory/narrative, reminding her of what she had forgotten. Ally Bonino’s “Migratory V” was another point in the evening when Kleenex was passed around. Matthew Farcher’s role as Daughter’s Lover was endearing to watch, though I wish his relationship with Daughter got more time. Donell James Foreman brought the house down with his gospel/soulful, “There’s a Shout!” As strong as the core family was in their own story between the myths and hymns, the ensemble acted equally as strong in helping bring the story to life.

Knowing that there was minimal dialogue, you might seem skeptical on how the family’s story can be told well with only Guettel’s songs to work off of. It works though. Extremely well, in fact. Elizabeth Lucas’ direction, illustrative imagery, and Adam Guettel’s sweeping music and poetic lyrics did the work for us. Parts of the evening became a bit of a stretch for the Woman’s memories, particularly when younger Son reenacts the story of “Pegasus” for Woman. For the most part, the myths and hymns did the work of telling their stories though.

Both Director Elizabeth Lucas and Choreographer Wendy Seyb excel at painting what they call, “surrealist imagery” on stage between characters. Seyb works best when her movement speaks in metaphors and suggestions rather than in traditional musical theater ballet. Seyb is part of a collaborative, versatile production team that truly creates a "mythical world" for the audience. For example,  Set Designer Ann Bartek's old and dusty attic of the family's home transforms into a body of water with the opening of a single, illuminated box. From the mountains that Icarus soars above to the moorings of a ship coming to rescue Hero -- Bartek takes you there. The set was illuminated by Herrick Goldman's magical lighting, which can only be described as a spell being cast on the story. Quite possibly the most poignant part of the piece was the final lyric sung "... how wonderful if that's what God could see.” The cast members point to the top of the Church dome that we sat under. We witnessed glowing lights shining in the mythical heavens high bove our own heads. Emily Morgan DeAngelis' costume designs echoed the lighting’s prolific quality, creating a present reality while showing hints of worlds before and worlds we cannot conceive.

"What might be the point of this show?" you might think. A song cycle about myths and hymns. How does that relate to us? The show starts with Woman running in and knocking to the side a book of Mythology that is never referenced in the piece. Perhaps Director Elizabeth Lucas’ point was that these myths and hymns create a tapestry of the human condition. Their themes are our past, present, and future. They aren’t these archaic points of reference in our history to be tossed aside in an attic. These themes of love gained, love lost, and love in limbo live on within our lives as you witness it living on in the family narrative.

Go to church. That’s an order. The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, but then walk up a flight of stairs to the West End Theatre and experience the collaborative successions of Prospect Theater Company’s Myths & Hymns.

Myths & Hymns
Prospect Theater Company
West End Theatre in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew
263 West 86th Street
New York, NY

Featuring: Linda Balgord, Ally Bonino, Matthew Farcher, Donell James Foreman, Anika Larsen, Lucas Steele, Bob Stillman

Music & Lyrics: Adam Guettel
New Narrative & Direction: Elizabeth Lucas
Choreographer: Wendy Seyb 
Musical Supervisor: Robert Meffe
Music Director: Katya Stanislavskaya
Stage Manager: Kristine Ayers
Scenic Design: Ann Bartek
Costume Design: Emily Morgan DeAngelis
Lighting Design: Herrick Goldman
Sound Design: Janie Bullard
Casting Director: Jason Najjoum

Tickets: 212-352-3101

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