Heavier than … Cyclops: A Rock Opera?

22 08 2011

I caught the last performance of Steve Yockey’s Heavier than … at Boston Court today. While production values were high, the script and lead performances were disappointing. Truth be told, I couldn’t stop drawing comparisons to the more innovative Psittacus Productions’ Cyclops: A Rock Opera throughout the show. Intertextual connections are one of the joys of theatergoing, so in a playful postmodern spirit, I offer a mashup of thoughts on sexuality in these reimagined Greek myths.

Steve Yockey’s world premiere play Heavier than … is “a strange account of Asterius in the labyrinth.” This “strangeness” derives not only from the fact that the minotaur is now the central character, but because Asterius is likely gay. If this buff minotaur is not gay, then he is certainly sexually ambiguous; the effiminate Icarus constantly flies into the labryinth and flirts with the lonely horned creature, who has a deep Freudian attachment to his mother.

What are the potential implications of portraying this mythological creature as gay? Most obviously, it registers homosexuality as unnatural and even monstrous. The minotaur Asterius is the bastard child of a white bull and King Minos’s queen, Pasiphae. Thus the minotaur is a strange, hybrid creature – part beast and part man. This “monstrosity” has several consequences. Perceived as a threat to men, the monster is isolated, estranged, exiled. King Minos confines Asterius in a labryinth after the creature lashes out in a violent rage at age 3, killing several men. Now every 7 years, Minos sends men to try to kill the minotaur – unless Asterius can kill the men first.

Of course by telling the tale from the minotaur’s point of view, Asterius becomes a sympathetic figure; it is clear to the audience that Asterius has been unfairly deemed a monster. It is nonetheless fated that Asterius will die: there is no possible happy ending for this creature. In a clever bit of staging by director Abigail Deser, the chorus of fates come to the end of Asterius’ (literal) rope at the play’s end. Although his fate is never depicted, the ellipsis of the play’s title points to the inevitable: we know that the minotaur will eventually be killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Heterosexuality will stamp out homosexuality: Ariadne helps her lover navigate the maze to kill her own brother.

Similarly, Psittacus Productions’ Cyclops: A Rock Opera is a reimagining 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 Euripides’ satyr play, this carnivalesque inversion of a familiar Greek myth centers on the Cyclops – a sexually ambiguous figure in this adaptation. Polyphemus is a gender-bending glam rock star, drawing on cultural referents ranging from wildly excessive bel canto opera to Rocky Horror‘s Frank ‘n’ Furter. Polyphemus may have burned with desire for the sea nymph Galatea, but he drives into “Sodomy” with equal panache.

What are the implications of portraying this mythological creature as sexually ambiguous – especially with the creature’s blinding following close on the feet of a song called “Sodomy”? Again, it registers homosexuality as unnatural and monstrous. The Cyclops is not only a strange, hybrid creature – part god and part man – but he literally consumes men, gobbling up Odysseus’ crew. He is another isolated, estranged figure with only his satyr slaves to keep him company. Over the course of the show, the Cyclops becomes a sympathetic character. But he must suffer for his monstrosity: by all means, he must be blinded. That is how the story goes. Right?

What would it mean to alter the outcome of a familiar story? Neither of Heavier than … nor Cyclops changes their sympathetic monster’s fate. But they each bend the stories to varying degrees: and it is in the degree of stylistic and performative bending that Cyclops comes out as a much more successful reiminagining.

Heavier than … is stylistically nonrealist, with a Greek chorus of three fates watching over Asterius (Ashanti Brown, Teya Patt, and Katie Locke O’Brien). Their voices mix and mingle in a rich polyphonic array, and their heightened physical vocabulary threads the rope of Asterius’ life to its fated end. The fates’ ensemble interplay is subtle and stunning. Unfortunately, there is no palpable connection among the remaining characters. Asterius (Nick Ballard) broods and occasionally bursts into an angry growl. Blonde and beautiful Icarus (Casey Kringlen) never mines deeper than his pretty boy surface. Pasiphae (the wonderfully grounded Jill Van Velzer) and moody teen Ariadne (Laura Howard) seem to inhabit entirely different theatrical worlds. Amidst such stylistic dissonance, the audience never reaches beyond the surface level of sympathy for Asterius — or for Icarus, who meets his own tragic death from flying too close to the sun. These (gay) figures are tragic, but ultimately impotent at the show’s conclusion.

Not the Cyclops. From his grand entrance in “Bloodier Than the Cherry,” Polyphemus (Jayson Landon Marcus) commands the stage; the satyrs, maenads, and even Odysseus are forced into his service as band members and backup singers. The Cyclops’ catchy music and fully embodied presence actively work to overturn preconceptions of his “monstrous” persona — and even call into question Odysseus’ own heroism in the process. As I wrote in my original review, Odysseus is arguably the most complicated role in the show. This epic hero, given a nuanced performance by Chas LiBretto, is forced to a consideration of his own masculinity. Odysseus may wield a sword … but Polyphemus wields a guitar. The Cyclops’ riveting musical presence arguably exceeds his blinding. The audience leaves the glam rock opera singing the sympathetic “I’m a Cyclops” anthem with a deep ambivalence about Odysseus’ act of violence.

I enjoyed Heavier than … today, if only because it was such an interesting counterpoint to my deep and ongoing consideration of Cyclops: A Rock Opera. Both pieces stem from Greek mythology into critical contemporary issues of sexuality and gender roles, of violence and estrangement. But both make me wonder: at what point is it time to not only bend the myths, but break them? Can we defy the fates?

(Psittacus Productions is currently rehearsing to rock the NY Musical Theatre Festival this fall. Support their road to NYMF at http://www.indiegogo.com/CYCLOPS-A-Rock-Opera.)

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15 11 2011
HEAVIER THAN…: 55% – BITTERSWEET : Bitter Lemons

[…] BITTERSWEET I caught the last performance of Steve Yockey’s Heavier than … at Boston Court today. While production values were high, the script and lead performances were disappointing. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

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