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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hadestown

It's a sad song
It's a sad tale, it's a tragedy
It's a sad song
But we sing it anyway

'Cause here's the thing: 
To know how it ends 
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
I learned that from a friend of mine

See, Orpheus was a poor boy
But he had a gift to give: 
He could make you see how the world could be
In spite of the way that it is

Helen Maybanks
One of the many miracles of Hadestown, Ana├»s Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin's strange, stunning folk opera at the Kerr, is the richly bittersweet way it manages to simultaneously lament and celebrate the endless repetitions that make up human lives. In so many ways, most all of them beautiful in execution, this haunting show teases out the endless redundancies and rituals that lead us from birth to death, pointing out along that way that cycles can be a drag, but also the source of joy and celebration. Life might seem futile in its repetitions, Hadestown implies, but so long as there's the potential for beauty, love and ritual, it isn't a waste.

It makes good sense that the main characters in a musical about repetition are Greek gods, because those deities sure do know from redundant futility. Sisyphus and Prometheus, those poor schmucks, aren't featured here, but other gods stuck in other kinds of eternal ruts feature prominently: the musical combines the myths of Hades and Persephone, and of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hermes (Andre De Shields) serves, appropriately enough, as the spokesman for the rest of the gods; there's a traditional chorus in the production, as well, but Hermes is the most frequent mediator between the audience and the players. True to Greek drama, he's immediately candid with spectators about what they're about to see, as well about the fact that Hadestown isn't going to end happily. It doesn't matter, he assures us: humankind has been telling the same stories, both happy and sad ones, for centuries; surely, we're going to keep right on doing so, not only because repetition dominates our lives, but also because it's an enormous part of how folklore and ritual work.

Hadestown exists in some ahistorical Depression-era dreamworld, where Hades (Patrick Page), a chilly business tycoon in a dazzling suit, lures workers to the underworld in a plummy bass voice. Once there, however, residents toil endlessly on a wall that will never be completed; no one is permitted to leave unless Hades frees them. One exception--kind of--is his wife, Persephone (Amber Gray), who cavorts on earth all through spring and summer, only to be beckoned underground once the cold sets in. The couple's unhappiness is eternal: Persephone, miserable in the underworld, self-medicates and pines for the return of springtime; Hades longs for her in while she's gone, only to grieve her aggressive unhappiness when she returns.

What disrupts their contentiously redundant relationship is the presence of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). Eurydice--an actual, reasonably well-developed character in this rendition, and not just an appendage of the Orpheus myth--is initially wary of Orpheus. Hardened by loss and turmoil, she's well-versed in the redundancies of a world in which "dreams are sweet until they're not/men are kind until they aren't/flowers bloom until they rot and fall apart." While she eventually lets down her defenses long enough for the two to fall in love, the single-minded Orpheus proves unable to provide food and warmth--or, it seems, much in the way of companionship--when the winter sets in. Cold, hungry, and well-used to abandonment, Eurydice allows herself to be seduced by Hermes, whom she joins in the underworld. Spoiler alert, just in case you've never come across any version of either story: Hades and Persephone kind of sort of rekindle their spark, but it doesn't work out as well for the young lovers.

And yet the musical is so beautifully seductive that I fully lost myself to it, even having seen it in its earlier, not-yet-fully-cooked iteration at the New York Theatre Workshop three years ago. Maybe--I found myself thinking as Eudydice disappeared into the mist behind Orpheus during their journey from Hades--just maybe, after all the workshopping and all the productions between then and now, maybe the ending has changed. Maybe, this time, they make it. Maybe, just this once, it'll work out.

It doesn't, of course, but then, the pleasure of surrendering oneself to something so very lovely, even as you know it will end sadly, helps mitigate the sorrow, and that's one of the points that Hadestown drives home all along. That it pauses along the way to muse about topical issues like the gender gap and the colossal failures of late capitalism makes it doubly impressive. The world might indeed be a place of almost numbing repetition, but then, it's also a place to embrace these very cycles: the changing of seasons, the passage of days into years into decades that, if we're lucky, results in a comfortable, long, well-lived life. So long as there's art and love and beauty and springtime, there's also a reason to embrace the passage of time.

And hell, maybe one of these days, Orpheus won't doubt Eurydice's devotion. I'll just have to go back to the Kerr every so often during what I suspect will be a very long run so that I can check in and see.

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