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Kim Ima, JT Netterville, and Chris Wild in Perseus
(Photo © David Gochfeld)
A god descends through a hole cut in the ceiling to visit a maiden in a locked tower. A man with winged sandals flies through the air. A chest containing a mother and child is borne upon the waves and traverses the sea. These are but a few of the magical scenes in director/adapter Ellen Stewart's world premiere production of Perseus. The legendary founder of La MaMa E.T.C., Stewart has done extensive research into the myths surrounding the ancient Greek hero, drawing from extant texts by such authors as Ovid, Hesiod, Apollodorus, and Pindar. The ambitious production boasts a cast of more than 25 performers playing more than 50 different roles. All but the epilogue is in Greek, and the texts have been set to music by composer Elizabeth Swados with the assistance of musicians/composers Michael Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Yukio Tsuji, and Carlos Valdez.

A synopsis included in the program is useful in identifying who the various characters are. The story begins in Argos, as King Acrisius (Renaurd Gee) imprisons his daughter Danae (Kim Ima) after learning from an oracle that her son would cause the king's death. Zeus (Arthur Adair) comes to Danae and impregnates her. After discovering Danae with her newborn son, King Acrisius casts the two unfortunates off to sea, and they eventually land in Seriphas. The boy, Perseus, grows into a young man (Chris Wild). The show chronicles not only Perseus's adventures but also the circumstances leading up to them. We see how Medusa (Meredith Wright) and her two sisters (Denise Greber and Onni Johnson) are transformed into gorgons, why Andromeda (Prisca Ouya) is chained to a rock, and more.

The action is almost always clear, despite the fact that the show is narrated in a language that the majority of the audience presumably does not speak. Stewart stages the piece as an epic dance drama, with bold stage pictures and a strong sense of narrative flow. Character relationships are discernible by the way the actors relate to one another.

Music drives the production. The primary instrumentation consists of drums, cymbals, violin, and keyboard. Added in are the voices of the actors, chanting and singing. Benjamin Marcantoni, who plays the storyteller, is especially noteworthy; his soaring countertenor gives the show a distinctive sound. Cary Gant, as Andromeda's father Cepheus, is also worth mentioning as his rich baritone and commanding stage presence make his solo one of the more riveting moments in the production. Certain characters are identified by musical themes. Athena (Juliana Lau), for instance, is dressed as a Chinese Opera performer, and her entrances are cued by a shift in the music to imitate the sound of that art form.

Not everything in the show works. While some of the staging is wondrously inventive, some is rather lackluster. For example, after Perseus cuts off the head of Medusa, Stewart stages the birth of Chrysaor the Giant (Kazuma G. Motomura) and the winged horse Pegasus, who springs fully formed from the stump of her neck; unfortunately, the stuffed white horse used for Pegasus is rather laughable and is hoisted aloft by a wire in a most ungraceful fashion. The revealing costumes, designed by Camille Assaf, are quite sexy but somewhat distracting. The uncredited wigs sported by a few cast members are a most egregious error, particularly those worn by the gods Zeus and Poseidon (Peter Case).

The choreography, too, is uneven. Different sequences of the production are choreographed by different people, often by the performers themselves. Maureen Fleming gracefully engineers the dances of the Nereids (Marjorie Jean and Yasmine Soiffer), and Lau -- who is trained as a Cantonese Opera performer -- leads Athena's priestesses in their movements, but other sections are not as persuasive. No choreographer is listed for certain sequences, which presumably means that they were staged by Stewart. The dance performed by Medusa and her sisters as they frolic in front of Athena's temple before being turned into gorgons, for example, is unimaginative and does not set the right tone for the scene. Sometimes, the choreography is appropriate but the execution is sloppy; the wedding dance for Perseus and Andromeda, based on traditional African dance forms, is incredibly evocative, but one of the women performing it is obviously uncomfortable with this style of movement and throws the rhythm off.

Wild cuts a fine figure as Perseus; he possesses a well-honed body and delivers a vibrant, athletic performance. His aerial routines (Perseus is given winged sandals by Hermes) are graceful, and his initial flight beautifully demonstrates the character's sense of joy and wonder. Ima is also quite good as Danae; her facial expressions convey volumes of information without ever seeming forced or exaggerated. Other performances are merely sketched in. Since the show shifts focus from one event to another in quick succession, it's difficult for anyone but the main characters to make a lasting impression.

Overall, Stewart utilizes the vast space of the La MaMa Annex Theatre extremely well; different segments of the show are performed in a variety of spaces in front of, above, and surrounding the audience. While Perseus is not perfect, it's well worth seeing in that it captures the epic quality of this mythological figure's story.

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