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Interview: Persou Offers a Sensual Vernal Experience as the World Emerges From Hibernation

Ellpetha Tsivicos and Camilo Quiroz-Vázquez discuss their new work, now running at the Cell, in New York's Chelsea.

Vassilea Terzaki wears a mask by Zoe Batson in Persou at the Cell Theatre.
(© Catharine Krebs)

A new season must mean that a new show by the wonder duo of Ellpetha Tsivicos and Camilo Quiroz-Vázquez is about to open. They're announcing the long-awaited arrival of the spring with Persou, a participatory experience currently infusing Nancy Manocherian's Cell Theatre with the scent of orange blossom.

Good luck getting orange-blossom scent out of your head after this.

Last summer the creative pair, also known as One Whale's Tale, pulled off the unimaginable and put together the first live show with an audience to run in New York City since the beginning of the pandemic. In Quince they celebrated Mexican culture through an immersive quinceañera held in a community garden. They followed that with the autumnal Quince X Día de los muertos, where they commemorated those who became ancestors with a communal altar in Gowanus.

For the winter, they remained indoors, with the profoundly moving Night Descends on Svalbard, a short meditation on survival that ran at the Exponential Festival. A longing Quiroz-Vázquez, serenading the moon in a wolf pelt, brought me to tears.

In the short theatrical drama on film, a group of researchers became the unlikely guards of the last seeds on Earth. It was pure "saudade."

"I guess it's a seasonal perspective, but from a farmer," said Tsivicos when we spoke recently. "It wasn't planned this way, but when invitations from theaters came we fell back on what we know, which is the seasons." The cycle of a seed becoming a crop to be harvested.

Another more painful cycle came along in Tsivicos's life when she lost her grandfather in Cyprus. With the knowledge that her grandmother was fully vaccinated, she packed her bags and went on the Orphic mission of cheering her grandma back into life. Not only did she succeed, by basking in the light of her "Queen of Cyprus," she found inspiration for what became Persou.

During the six weeks she was in Cyprus, Tsivicos immersed herself in Greek mythology, Mediterranean vistas, and the making of local treats like bread and cheese. TCell had given One Whale's Tale a residency, so wanting to bring Cypriot spring to New York, the seeds of Persou were planted.

Circe (Anthoula Katsimatides) reigns over the backyard of the Cell Theatre in Persou.
(© Catharine Krebs)

Audience members who visit the theater through June 12 are invited to become one with the scents, tastes, visions, and sounds of an ancient time of wrathful gods and sensuous goddesses. The seductive music invites Chelsea passers-by into an "oasis in New York," as Tsivicos calls it. This time, a grateful Quiroz-Vázquez serenades the setting sun and thanks it for bringing warmth back.

The six weeks the pair spent apart have been the longest time they've remained separated during the pandemic. While Tsivicos harvested herbs and took her grandmother on day trips, an often pantless Quiroz-Vázquez wrote in Bushwick. The duo worked together online, "when everyone in Cyprus was sleeping, I became a New Yorker," says Tsivicos.

Persou meets the highest standards of Covid-19 safety. Performers are fully vaccinated or tested daily, the building has a new ventilation system, and facemasks are provided for those who need them. The gardens of the Cell become an escape into a distant time, where audience members can experience the myth of Persefoni (the same Persephone you may be familiar with from Hadestown) up close.

Colorful costumes abound and invigorating music welcomes the night, making the transition from being alone in your apartment to being around people, a little easier to adjust to. It's truly an experience crafted to please all the senses. If you're adventurous, there's dirt to touch too. It will be later washed off with orange-blossom water.

At its heart, Persou is about the essence of the city: the joy of immigrants. Part of the team are students from the theater department at Hunter College. For many of them it's their first paid theater gig. The spring of their careers.

"The show makes me think of the way older people, even someone like my father, talk about their home countries," said Quiroz-Vázquez, "a part of him is still in Mexico, immigrants carry that with them every day."

"This has been a strange exploration of what being home means," said Tsivicos. "When I'm in New York I want to go to Cyprus, when I'm in Cyprus I miss New York." Luckily for New Yorkers, this time she brought her spring and wants to share. Orange blossom awaits.

Katherine Hreib (center) plays Persephone in Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez's Persou, directed by Ellpetha Tsivicos, at the Cell Theatre.
(© Catharine Krebs)
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