You know that the pandemic is really turning a corner when immersive theater comes back. First out of the gate in New York City is Persou, a collaboration between playwright Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and director Ellpetha Tsivicos (under the auspices of their company, One Whale's Tale) that invites just 20 audience members into the Cell Theatre, which has been transformed into the Temple of Aphrodite in Paphos, Cyprus. The ceremony within promises to herald the rebirth of spring, but it actually begins with a live burial, as we are all invited to add a clump of dirt on top of the woman reclined in a burlap sack in the center of the room.
That would be Persephone (Katherine Hreib), who each year winters in the underworld with her husband, Hades (not included in the proceedings…this ain't Hadestown). Like any good Greek mother, Demeter (Ionna Katsarou) cannot stand to be away from her daughter for such an extended period of time, so she beseeches the enchantress Circe (Anthoula Katsimatides) to eradicate the pain of winter forever — which, as you might imagine, comes with a catch. The audience is brought along on this little odyssey, which takes us across the Eastern Mediterranean in under 60 minutes.
The sorcery undergirding any good immersive play is the power of suggestion. You don't need to specifically tell your audience where to go and what to do if they think they are making that choice on their own. Unfortunately, Persou rarely approaches that level of magic, and the audience spends much of the show standing against the wall with hands folded, like well-behaved children in a parlor full of delicate porcelain figurines. We never quite feel as though we are part of the action, but we do our best to stay out of its way.
This is despite Kendra Eaves's detailed and atmospheric set design, which utilizes the entirety of the Cell in ways I haven't seen before. I was instantly drawn to the incense-filled backyard, at least until Circe snarled at me and I retreated back inside. Scarlet Moreno costumes the cast in shiny reams of fabric that, if not entirely authentic, at least evoke the Hellenic world. Zoë Batson and Gamma Lister's extraordinary animal masks are the design element that most feel as though they could have actually been used in a pre-Christian religious ceremony. Megan Lang lights it all beautifully, making an empty storefront of a theater feel like a genuine Greek temple. But we are still very much outsiders in this sacred space.
Without a clear sense of rules emanating from the script or design, Tsivicos directs the audience in the role of the Queen of Cyprus. With a powerfully insistent voice and a no-nonsense gaze, she conveys the authority not so much of a queen, but a Soul Cycle instructor, deftly reconciling her audience's hunger for a mystical experience with the realities of early post-pandemic New York City. She tells us where to go, what to touch, and when to speak (in the case of male viewers, never). It's not the power of suggestion, but it gets the job done.
Katsarou gives the standout performance as Demeter, her husky voice and motherly melodrama feeling simultaneously divine and familiar. Most of the supporting players are not as able to thread the needle between the mythic formality of Quiroz-Vazquez's text and its feints toward contemporary sensibilities, but Katsimatides gets the closest as Circe, taking full ownership of her realm in the backyard. Lest you think she is an ungracious host, she (with the help of chef Dimitrios Manousakis) plies her guests with wine, halloumi cheese, and kalamata olives — all followed by delectably sweet loukoumia, which is not to be confused with something called "Turkish Delight" (an oxymoron on the island of Cyprus).
The whole event is made more festive by a live band. Under the direction of Tommy Kavounidis (who plays laouto and tzouras), these skilled musicians underscore every moment with lovely Cypriot music. They even play us out onto 23rd Street at the show's conclusion.
Persou is not as cathartic as it wants to be, but it offers visitors a pleasant little fable dressed up as a rite of spring. Like all good religious functions, it is really just an excuse to party. And although I felt a bit awkward when Circe conscripted me into a group dance, by the end I realized just how much I missed dancing with strangers. One Whale's Tale deserves credit for having the ambition to produce theater you can smell, taste, and touch in a time when direct human contact has become practically taboo. I hope to see more from them when they are less restrained by the CDC.