Although Ellen Stewart says she was “scared to death” to have an audience on Friday’s opening of Asclepius—she’s been in the hospital since December—it’s an interesting time to have La MaMa herself (both a real person and the downtown theatre’s personification) tell the story of the demi-god of medicine and healing (who was also considered both real and personified). Assuring us from a wheelchair that she is going to be better, Stewart, whose recent Greek adaptations include Herakles via Phaedra and Antigone, among many others during a legendary career, is on strong footing (and, yes, she still opens the show ringing her bell). Her collaborators in the Great Jones Theatre Company (which she cofounded), understand her aesthetic, of course, and are experienced artists themselves: Elizabeth Swados, Michael Sirotta, George Drance, Cary Gant, Jun Maeda, Valois Mickens, Ozzie Rodrigues, Tim Schellenbaum, Jane Catherine Shaw, Theodora Skipitares, to only name ten.
That the world they create is presentational and ritualistic is something of a relief. For all the actors and playwrights we have watched reaching for the brass ring of emotional truth in what might be called competitive theatre, or American-Idol, Britain’s-Got-Talent, Best-Obie-Tony, Outer-Critics’, live-only-to-be-rated shows, it’s refreshing to walk into a space smelling of new paint and watch a unique vision and style that has lasted and added to the culture for almost fifty years (here theatre is seen as a common phenomenon and a non-bank-breaking event). Is Stewart’s play an accurate reenactment of ancient Greek drama (we have no surviving plays actually on Aesclepius, although he is mentioned in Homer and Apollodorus among other writers from antiquity)? No. Does it help make the moral universe of the Asclepius story seem less cracked? Of course not. The translator Philip Vellacott has written, “the readiness of the Greek male to set the blame for everything upon a woman was a fact . . . Euripides [for example] constantly, though nearly always ironically, reminded his contemporaries [of it]. Because he recognized that this attitude was not without excuse, he was called a misogynist. But it was Greek society that was guilty of misogyny, not Euripides.”
To reinforce this observation, in Asclepius, we get incest at the behest of a daughter (while her father—the lover who impregnates her—is supposedly asleep!) and Apollo targeting and raping a young girl in love with another man (and then leaving to let the mother raise the offspring herself). Again, recall Euripides: On the sun god, the title character of his play Ion (another child of Apollo, born of rape) protests, “He ravishes girls by force, then abandons them? He begets children by stealth, then leaves them to die? Apollo, no! Since you possess power, pursue goodness! . . . You put pleasure first and wisdom after—and it is sin! It is unjust to call men bad for copying what the gods find good: the sin lies with our examples.”
Against the heated story, Stewart places music to absorb it; in fact, the entire performance is made up of songs, although you wouldn’t call it a musical or opera. The show is made up of choruses, incantations, recitations for a summer evening; works you’d hear outdoors, played on drum, strings, and synthesizer. The action of the play is something you could even listen to when looking at the stars while sleeping outdoors—or might have heard on such a night in ancient Greece. The psychological nuances of what is happening to the characters are less important than the picaresque elements of the storytelling; an issue play about women, or men, or even sanctity of life, Asclepius is not, although the elements are there if someone wanted to pluck them out. Instead, with totems of experimental theatre, including puppets and masks, a winging pageant unfurls. It takes us from angry gods to Asclepius’ learning the healing arts from the centaur Chiron; from lifesaving herbs found among two snakes (which give us the medical symbol still seen today, the caduceus: two Asclepions wrapped around a staff, the wings of Hermes are often also included on it) to the healer taking his skills to the people—and kings (Asclepius is also given credit for starting proto-medical schools). Go to Asclepius to see swirling colorful patterns of dance, movement, and acrobatics. Then look up at the sky: In punishment for raising the dead, the god of medicine was killed, but finally taken into the heavens as a constellation. At 91 years of age—and for all she’s weathered and done for and in the downtown theatre scene–Ellen Stewart should be given a constellation herself.
–© 2009, Bob Shuman
The cast includes George Drance, Cary Gant,
Denise Greber, Allison Hiroto, Onni Johnson,
Michael Lynch, Benjamin Marcantoni, Matt Nasser,
Prisca Ouya, Eugene the Poogene, Frederico
Restrepo, Valois, Meredith Wright,
Perry Yung, and Kat Yew
Photos by Richard Greene
Press: Sam Rudy Media Relations