A Rachel Chavkin show is always an experience. She is a master at introducing viewer to performer – just interactive enough that you feel totally engaged but never so much that you feel exposed. If you’re lucky enough to catch her current show at New York Theatre Workshop, “Hadestown”, you will enter another realm once the lights dim. A cast member may link eyes with you while in character or meander past your row, inviting you to experience the best kind of immersive theater – palpable, multi-sensory, nonthreatening.
Based on the concept album by music artist Anaïs Mitchell, “Hadestown” uses folk songs to narrate the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, young lovers who find that the cold realities of hunger and poverty have hardened their relationship.
Tempted by Hades, the God of the underworld, Eurydice (Nabiyah Be) followed by Orpheus (Damon Daunno) voyages to Hadestown, a soulless city that promises, falsely, to offer physical sustenance and pleasure. Hades' wife Persephone (Amber Gray), who also finds herself inured to the hazards of love, offers a means of escape, provided that Orpheus and Eurydice place complete trust in one another. It's a proposition weighted with tragic implications.
Accompanying their journey is a gravel-voiced narrator (Chris Sullivan), leading us underground and back with rollicking, boot-stomping music. The musical style works surprisingly well for the story, and Mitchell’s talent is so immense that while your body sways to the rhythm, your mind stays alerts, contemplating the metaphors and symbolism in her lyrics.
The forest-like scenery on multi-leveled platforms brings to life the scale of Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey, and the stark brick wall behind it complements the Act I closer when the ensemble sings eerily that walls keep out poverty. The onstage band – horns, violins, and piano among them – fills the space with soulful music, amplified by three actresses who play the fates like backup singers.
The whole ensemble is excellent, and in many ways the layered presence of this large musical cast feels very reminiscent of Chavkin’s last big musical production, “Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, which will make its transfer to Broadway next season. Both are exciting, sensory shows that focus on a girl trying to find herself in and out of love. Both create picturesque environments (in “Hadestown” it’s the underworld as depicted by a Southern city; in “Natasha Pierre”, it’s upper class Russian society).
In fact, the settings are so vibrant that the characters start to pale in comparison. Where the music is complex and stirring, the characters are uncomplicated, and showmanship – namely remarkable performances, songs, and scenery – regularly upstages dramatic conflict. In one musical, Natasha is naïve about love and swept up by a new man while her husband is at war. In the other, Eurydice is in love but finds that romance doesn’t put food on the table. Both are interesting starting points but, for all the journeying that happens in both musicals, the characters’ emotional arcs don’t keep pace.
What do these characters want and what fundamentally gets in their way? I asked myself that throughout both shows. Orpheus loves Eurydice but lives in a poet's daze; Eurydice wants a relationship that is dependable, not simply romantic. And here they are in Hell. I was never convinced that they're made for each other, so while the actors' performances, especially Nabiyah Be's, are exceptional, there isn't enough at stake in the relationship besides how lovely they look together. Chavkin can create a show, no doubt, and “Hadestown” is an undeniable feast for the senses. But throughout the performance, I had a persistent thought: what a gorgeous world she’s created, but what do I really know about the people who live in it?
photo credit: Joan Marcus