Huntington Presents a Flawed 'Persephone'

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Written by Noah Haidle, Directed by Nicholas Martin, Scenic Design by David Korins, Costume Design by Jenny Mannis, Lighting Design by Ben Stanton, Original Music and Sound Design by Mark Bennett

Cast, in order of appearance
Demeter, Melinda Lopez
Giuseppe, and others, Seth Fisher
Celia, and others, Mimi Lieber
Alfonso, and others, Jeremiah Kissel 

Performances: Now until May 6 at the Wimberly Theatre, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts
Tickets: By phone at 617-266-0800, online at www.huntingtontheatre.org, or in person at 264 Huntington Ave. or 527 Tremont St.

There are many ways to describe my feelings after the close of the Huntington Theatre Company's Persephone, but one word sums it up best—empty.

This word is also quite effective in summing up the play itself. Not literally, of course, but I realized as I left the theatre, Persephone has no real substance or emotion for almost the entirety of the two-hour ordeal. The human connection, the depth, the spectacular quality that makes you realize beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have just walked out of a brilliant work of theatre were all missing. Like the play's title role (a marble statue of Demeter), Persephone simply exists—nothing more, nothing less.

That might be a bit harsh; it's quite obvious that Haidle tries for more as he follows the Demeter over five centuries from her creation in 1507 to her current day experience in a New York City Park. Except that he doesn't actually follow the statue for the centuries, but rather attempts to link the first act, set in 1507, and the second act, set in the present day, with all too convenient dialogue from Demeter, who serves as the play's narrator. Sound implausible? It doesn't work too well on stage, either.

The problem isn't Haidle's writing, which at times had me so moved I almost thought I was watching a different play, but rather the fact that he's doing entirely too much to do anything to an exemplary standard. There is an observation on the consistency of human nature. There is a commentary on present day society. There are parallels between physical and artistic violence and passion. There is a conscious emphasis on cycles, perception, and, of course, the relationship between mother and daughter. And this is only what I came up with off the top of my head during the performance, as it was spinning while I tried to sort out everything that was happening before me.

In short, it is all just too much. For every poignant or powerful moment weaved into the play—Demeter's discourse with a mother whose daughter is brutally violated and murdered at her base, for example—there are at least three other moments where Haidle disappoints. Too often he goes for the obvious jokes, whose punch lines you see coming a few lines ahead. Too often he takes the easy way out and falls back on Demeter's role as the narrator to fill in gaps (while it is effective sometimes, it is superfluous for the rest). Too often he fails to evoke true emotion when the audience is begging for it. And as my own personal aside, I could have really done without Haidle's weaving pop culture lyrics—The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses, among others—into the play's dialogue. Cheap laughs just don't do it for me, and unfortunately, this dark comedy—which was neither dark nor comedic enough to fit into the category—is chock full of them.

This flawed script aside, the Huntington presents a marvelous staging of the production. The ensemble cast shines, and while Melinda Lopez is still somewhat stiff as Demeter, this can almost be excused, as she stepped into the role days before the show's opening. Mimi Lieber steals the spotlight as the overly sensual Celia, among others, and Seth Fisher shines as Giuseppe as well as a plethora of characters. The triangle depicted between the three characters in the first act is utterly brilliant, and the chemistry between the actors vivid and electric. Jeremiah Kissel also stands out in a number of roles, but my personal favorites are as Demeter's only real companions in both centuries, two mice, or a mouse and a rat, if you prefer. Kissel does surprising justice to what could be mundane roles, and is a pleasure to watch onstage.

Nicholas Martin's staging is interesting and unique, but the real stand out aspect of this production is Ben Stanton's lighting design. Few realize that lighting design can make or break almost any show, and in this case, Stanton's talents leant themselves to the former category. Stanton's designs are vibrant and fresh; they seem to not only present and mirror the on stage actions, but also delve into the emotional world Haidle fails to adequately depict through his characters. You don't have to be a techie to appreciate the role Stanton's designs play in telling Demeter's story, or the vast realm of his talents.

In the end, the Huntington's staging of Persephone is almost enough to compensate for the deficiencies in Haidle's script, but the play is still not one worth going well out of your way to see. The die-hard theatre fans may enjoy this one for the technical aspects alone, but for everyone else, it might be best to save Persephone for a rainy day.    



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From This Author Olena Ripnick

Olena Ripnick is a Boston University journalism student and freelance writer whose introduction to the performing arts took place when she was cast as Gretel (read more...)