CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera: Psittacus Productions, 2/4/11

6 02 2011

Last night, I listened to a satyr song. Today, I’m still under its spell. Part of Son of Semele’s Company Creation Festival, Psittacus Productions has reimagined the only remaining Greek satyr play – Euripides’ Cyclops – as a one-act rock opera that is making waves in the LA theater scene.

Musical theater is undeniably my passion, so one of my greatest pleasures is finding a new show that is a provocative counterpoint to what I am already researching. My dissertation just happens to be about musical theater as a genre laden with formal and social excesses – an intersection that Cyclops tackles with panache. I’d like to believe that performance writes theory, and theory writes performance. Moreover, I’d like to believe that all of this has some sort of “real world” relevance: that theory and performance not only reflect society, but have the power to shift and shape it. This dialectic is perhaps one of the reasons Psittacus Productions continually impresses, bringing contemporary questions to the “classics” with an astonishing blend of historical intellect and creative intuition.

Or perhaps creative intellect and historical intuition? After all, Psittacus has avoided any stale intellectual attempt at historical “accuracy” in Cyclops, instead playing up the wild Dionysian spirit of the piece for a new era. Historically, a satyr play would cap off the Greek Festival of Dionysus. After a day of tragedies, a chorus of drunken, horny Satyrs would ravish the audience with a wild display of subversive excess; the narrative and form constituted a carnivalesque upending of the day’s earlier tragedies. What better genre to capture this pleasurable excess than a contemporary rock opera?

The Satyrs, led by the captivating and conniving Silenus (Louis Butelli), kick off the evening’s festivities to a musically compelling, but narratively rocky start. Clad in goat-fur chaps with dark eyeliner to pump up the volume, this glam rock band (Paul Corning, Stephen Edelstein, and Benjamin Sherman) leaps directly into a raucous number – and the audience’s ears may take a few minutes to adjust. After all, the dated language is a challenge: Cyclops is adapted from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation, originally published in 1824. But once the scene is set and the story begins, The Satyrs cast a spell, as the narrative is creatively interspliced with gritty rock numbers.

A musical number is often a space of excess – but instead of exploring excessive feeling and interior depth as in a traditional musical, Cyclops‘ songs expand on excesses of the body: food (“Bloodier Than the Cherry”), drink (“Put Your Elbow Right”), and sex (“More for the Whore” and “Sodomy”). Instead of bridging from dialogue into heightened and poetic lyrics, Shelley’s classical verse gives way to dirty, contemporary lyrics: a deliciously perverse reversal. The onstage band rocks out to a harmonically and stylistically rich array of sounds from acoustic ballads to power rock, composed by Jayson Landon Marcus and Benjamin Sherman. Meanwhile a trio of scantily-clad Maenads (Nicole Flannigan, Madeleine Hamer, and Liz Saydah) flirt and fly about the stage. Their “Dreamgirls” backup routines thrive on difference: in direct contradiction to precision dance, the choreography is differently embodied by each woman, giving the movement a free-flowing feel. Dionysus himself (Casey Brown) joins in the festivities – when he’s not yanking off backstage.

The satyrs and maenads are undeniable social excess. They play with codes of gender and sexuality in their wildly performative makeup and costumes (designed by Caiti Hawkins) and mannerisms. But they’re nothing compared to the Cyclops.

The tale of Euripides’ Cyclops is likely most familiar to audience members from Homer’s Odyssey. On his journey home from the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclops, Polyphemus; Odysseus must conquer the creature to escape the island. Channeling Tim Curry’s sweet transvestite Frank ‘n’ Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jayson Landon Marcus’ Polyphemus subverts genders and sexualities to the extreme – to the point of being a threat to the established social order, i.e. the bastion of masculinity that Odysseus represents.

Drawing on the original source material, Odysseus conquers Polyphemus just after the Cyclops has acted on homosexual tendencies; immediately after the terribly catchy song “Sodomy,” Odysseus blinds the creature by stabbing his one eye. This juxtaposition of scenes is undeniably disturbing; even in a satyr play, the ultimate excess, monstrosity, and threat to the social order has to be contained. Yet Psittacus comes through this challenging sequence with fascinating directorial and production choices.

The show arguably hinges on Chas Libretto’s unexpected and apt portrayal of Odysseus as palpably uncomfortable in his own skin, struggling to maintain a semblance of masculinity in this sea of fluid and free identities. Odysseus is most confident and authoritative in the “normalcy” of dialogue, rather than in the excesses of song and dance; his every move seems precisely constructed and premeditated, even as he gradually joins in the Dionysian festivities. And when he joins the Satyr band, he plays the most remarkable instrument: a ukelele. Odysseus’ ukelele comes laden with a toy-like quality and “fake” sound; it’s not a “real” guitar, after all. The ukelele’s “little” or “fake” guitar quality could be likened to Odysseus’ inability to live up to the constructed masculine ideal. With the fiction of masculinity on the brink of being revealed, Odysseus is driven to another Dionysian excess: violence.

So who gets the “real” guitar in the Satyr band? Fascinatingly, it’s the Cyclops. While The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus’ journey, Euripides’ satyr play gives the Cyclops the last word – and Psittacus Productions gives him the last anthem, which echoes some of the great, participatory ballads of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. After Polyphemus is blinded, “I’m a Cyclops” directly juxtaposes Odysseus’ ukelele to the Cyclops’ acoustic guitar – an instrument that resonates with authenticity, intimacy, genuineness. The most authentic character in this play, then, is the most fluid and performative: “I’m a Cyclops. Aren’t I a bit like you?” belts Polyphemus with a powerful, empathetic wail.

But I overanalyze. At the end of the day, the excesses of Cyclops: A Rock Opera saturate the audience in infinite pleasures of sight and sound. This rock concert delights in playful ambiguity, excess, and performativity. Drink it in while you have the chance. I’ll be indulging another weekend soon.

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2 responses

16 04 2011
CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera x5, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] me. I thought I’d take a short break from studying for quals and write a follow-up post to my original review to consider some of my ever-shifting thoughts on my own experiences of Cyclops in dialogue with […]

22 08 2011
Heavier than … Cyclops: A Rock Opera? « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] of Odysseus’ encounter with the one-eyed Polyphemus. (I have previously written about it here … and here … and here … and here … with a little overture here.) Based on […]

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