While Mac Wellman's Hypatia is a triumph of small stage design and multimedia innovation, its script is frustratingly vague, underdeveloped, and at times, pretentious. And director Bob McGrath's overblown staging only makes matters worse. Things could be worse; the production is nice to look at and the original music (by J. Hagenbuckle), which serves as scene transition, is effective. However, this production is much like an early draft of a Robert Wilson opera--minus the Phillip Glass.
The basic premise concerns the tortured life and public assassination of Hypatia, the female philosopher and mathematician of Ancient Greece whose devastating beauty, dulcet tones, and pagan lifestyle forced her to lecture behind a screen and disguise her voice with the help of singing eunuchs. Eventually, this inventor of algebra and discoverer of the concept of zero drove the citizens of Alexandria quite over the edge with her free-loving lifestyle and astrological pursuits: she was torn apart, limb from limb, by Christian monks in 415 A.D. That's about all anyone knows about Hypatia, even though without her (as this drama asserts), we wouldn't have bicycles and modern mechanics.
The premise here is engrossing, and this story could be told in a more thorough and straightforward manner, but McGrath tries to overcome the play's shortcomings with one too many red herrings. These diversions take the form of a bizarre five-member chorus comprised of a contemporary TV news anchor, a lawyer and his assistant, a 1930s radio announcer, and a Wiccan priestess who beats a bongo drum and sings off-key folk songs. The chorus reveals bits and pieces about Hypatia's life and hints at the growing conspiracy leading to her demise. It does so, however, in a manner that only impedes understanding of the heroine's life; all of the chorus' members are depicted as robots from Disneyland, speaking in monotone and shifting their bodies in awkward, automated movements.
McGrath's use of anachronistic choral elements is intriguing, and grounding the play in the formal roots of Ancient Greek drama is appropriate, but none of the elaborate staging illuminates because of the paucity of actual biographical material on the heroine. Basics are needed: Who exactly was Hypatia? Who were her parents (apparently her father was a mathematician of some sort, but it's not made clear)? What exactly did she discover, and why exactly has no one heard of her? Additionally, the audience never learns of specific attempts by the Greeks to purge her discourse from their history. It is possible that Wellman is intentionally vague in his disclosure of these details to evoke history's burying of this woman's contributions to modern science, but it makes for a confusing production that only trivializes the woman's accomplishments further.
On the good side, however, McGrath's staging makes provocative use of original music, a four-tiered stage, and sharp visuals projected on scrims throughout the show. The costume design (by Laurie Olinder) is dead-on. The cast does their best with the non-sensical dialogue, and their performances are smooth and powerful. One particular actress, Kelly Mizell, stands out as a boozy film star serving as the narrator of Hypatia's final days.
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