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Paulanne Simmons

Hadestown Makes a Heaven of Hell

Andre De Shields as Hermes. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48 Street
Opened April 17, 2019
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 20, 2019

The afternoon I saw Anais Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin’s “Hadestown,” at the moment when Orpheus, despite Hades’ injunction, turns around to face Eurydice, a young lady seated several rows in front of me gasped, “Oh no!” It’s possible she was not familiar with the myth and thus was not prepared for its tragic ending. But I’d like to think the dramatic staging and absorbing retelling of this ancient tale so captivated her she forgot everything she had previously known. Great theater can do that.

“Hadestown” began life in 2010 at New York Theatre Workshop. Several years later, it was produced at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta and the Royal National Theatre, London. Now there’s a fresh production on Broadway, directed by Chavkin and featuring Reeve Carney as Orpheus and Eva Noblezada as Eurydice. Amber Gray is Persephone and Patrick Pages is Hades. The chorus is three Fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad). And the story is narrated by the inimitable André de Shields, who plays Hermes, an impresario with philosophical leanings.

Set designer Rachel Hauck has turned Orpheus and Eurydice’s earthly home into a funky New Orleans jazz club. Hades and Persephone’s hell looks like a very old mine or forge, with begrimed workers toiling endlessly and repetitively. Hauck also makes effective use of descending platforms and revolving turntables. And when the hanging light fixtures swing into the audience, the effect is hypnotic and electrifying.

Mitchell’s score is an exciting blend of rock and R & B. The sparse dialogue serves mostly as introduction to the songs ( there are 32, including four reprises). If the lyrics are not especially impressive (“Why We Build the Wall” is one notable exception), the often sassy, sometimes sentimental music takes up the slack.

In this version of the Greek myth, there are two couples. Persephone and Hades have a marriage that is highly irregular (Persephone spends half the year on Earth, so mortals can enjoy summer and spring) and somewhat worn. Euridice and Orpheus have a budding romance.

Although the play devotes equal time to both couples, it is the older couple that makes the dominant impression, thanks to the extraordinarily talented Gray and Page. While Carney’s Orpheus is a poet with no passion and Noblezada’s Eurydice one more impoverished, abandoned young girl who might be encountered in a Puccini opera or a novel by Hugo, the older couple fascinates.

Page turns Hades into a Mafia-style godfather, sporting shades and a 3-piece suit under a long, leather coat. Gray is brilliant as the flask swinging, booze swigging diva. One can’t help thinking of Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith

The Orpheus and Eurydice myth has been reimagined by playwrights (Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau, Sarah Ruhl), composers (Claudio Monteverdi, Jacques Offenbach) and choreographers (George Balanchine). But this production sheds its own unique light on the tale. Hades’ demand that Orpheus not look back is not only a trick; it’s a test of his trust. Our fate, Mitchell is telling us, lies not with the gods, but with ourselves. At the end, as the play reverts to the opening scene, we learn that it shall ever be thus. We are constantly being tested. And with each test there is renewed hope.

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