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BWW Review: PERSOU Pursues Eternal Spring at The Cell Theatre

A garden of immersive, sensual delights extended through June 12th

The year 2020 felt like an extended winter full of coldness, isolation, and lifelessness. Spring represents renewal, rebirth, and new life. It's been a long, harsh winter, and everyone has desperately wished for spring.

Evident from the weather and crowds of people who pepper the street, parks, restaurants, shops, and newly opened performance venues, spring finally arrived. But so has the madness of spring fever to get out and forget the bitterness and cruelty of winter.

BWW Review: PERSOU Pursues Eternal Spring at The Cell Theatre
Katherine Hreib as Persephone. Photo by Catherine Krebs.

In Persou created by One Whale's Tale, the fertility and harvest goddess Demeter (aka Dimitra, played by Ionna Katsarou) has plenty of reason to despise winter. For three months, her beloved daughter Persephone (aka Persefoni, played by Katherine Hreib) must live with Hades in the Underworld until spring arrives. So Demeter hatches a plot to convince hapless humans and the goddess Circe (aka Kirki, played by Anthoula Katsimatides) to eradicate winter forever.

One Whale's Tale is a theatre company formed by writer Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and director Ellpetha Tsivicos that focuses on creating original work with an appreciation for magic and preservation of culture. Persou marks the company's return to indoor performances, following their show Quince at People's Garden Bushwick (the first official live theatre performance in NYC during the pandemic) and a Dia de Los Muertos event at Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club last year. And just like writer Quiroz-Vazquez drew inspiration from his Chicano heritage for Quince, director Tsivicos draws inspiration from her Greek and Cypriot origins in Persou.

BWW Review: PERSOU Pursues Eternal Spring at The Cell Theatre
One Whale's Tale's Ellpetha Tsivicos & Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez.
Photo by Catherine Krebs.

The setting of the immersive theatrical play is Aphrodite's temple in Paphos, Cyprus. Upon entering, audience members' hands are washed with fragrant water from a bowl and encouraged to roam as freely as the performers' guidance allows. The tiny space of the Cell Theatre in Chelsea is decorated with wandering vines, draped fabrics, and Greek and Cypriot objects from Tsivicos' family collection.

Interactive elements and sensuality form the focal point of the experience. All five senses are engaged throughout the hour-long performance. Attendees scoop a shell full of soil to bury Persephone for her long winter's nap, the scent of incense fills the air, and guests are given authentic culinary offerings of halloumi and olives, Cypriot Loukoumia, Kolyva, and Greek wine to wash it down.

BWW Review: PERSOU Pursues Eternal Spring at The Cell Theatre
Orange blossom water begins the sensual experience at Persou. Photo by Catherine Krebs.

The ears are tickled by enchanting music performed by Tommy Kavounidis (music director, laouto and tzouras), David Chorowski (percussion), Ran Livneh (bass), and Alia Scheirman (violin). Out of all the sensual delights, the sounds were the most transporting. Their strumming and drumming stir the heartstrings and evoke the feeling of a lovely Mediterranean island. True to a modern production's connectivity, there's even a Spotify playlist!

But don't expect to see a revival of serious Greek drama. The approach is more loose and light. Cultural references are hinted at through winks at well-known myths, characters, and symbols devised from ancient gods and goddesses with modern-day makeovers and dialogue.

The feel of Persou is playful and akin to street, fringe, and youth theatre. The show also contains a strong dose of cabaret through the offering of wine and the shimmery or sequin-bedazzled costuming designed by Scarlet Moreno for the goddesses and their human minion.

BWW Review: PERSOU Pursues Eternal Spring at The Cell Theatre
The cast and musician of Persou. Photo by Catherine Krebs.

The acting style is over-the-top and melodramatic, and the text can be a bit meandering or fall into trappings of rambling soliloquies. It feels like a fable or fairy tale more than an epic myth or drama, a moral story with a digestible punchline. And yet, there are elements of Persou that are reminiscent of the Living Theater, masters of Dialogical Art that remove the barrier of an audience as mere spectators, along with the fancy-free style of the downtown theatre of yesteryear.

One of the most striking aspects of Persou and all of One Whale Tale's theatrical endeavors is the sincerity of the performers and the playfulness of their approach. The other is interactiveness that isn't invasive or uncomfortable. But perhaps the company's strongest asset is incorporating touch and the five senses into their performances, giving audiences a heartfelt flavor of cultural exploration.

BWW Review: PERSOU Pursues Eternal Spring at The Cell Theatre
Ellpetha Tsivicos in a mask by Gamma Lister. Photo by Catherine Krebs.

Persou ends in a bacchanal. The audience participates in a circular dance, and small gifts of living sprouts are distributed. A frenzy of celebration ensues, and we exit the theater hand in hand.

Sharing a drink, a bite, songs, and a dance with strangers and friends felt like the warmth of spring had indeed melted the hardened heart of the long, arduous winter of 2020.

While there's still tending and cultivating to be done, just like the fava bean sprout offered to me at the end of the show, it's a delight to watch One Whale's Tale continue to grow as a company.

One Whale Tale's Persou is playing at The Cell Theatre (338 west 23rd street. New York, NY 10011) through June 12th. It runs for approximately 60 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and more information visit: http://www.thecelltheatre.org/box-office


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