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A CurtainUp Review

I watched in wonder/The one snake gave the other snake life./I gathered up the herbs that were left/As the two snakes escaped my cell/With these herbs I can heal Glaucus.- .— Asclepius
Asclepius may not be a major player in Greek mythology, but Ellen Stewart of La MaMa E.T.C. fame is now giving him his theatrical due. Sitting in a wheelchair onstage and telling the audience that she was nervous about the world premiere of her work, Stewart caught everybody's heartstrings at La Mama's Annex last Friday. And, yes, she still rings the bell for the show to begin.

Stewart's lively 90 minute-opera is moving indeed. It consists of sung and danced pieces in verse and prose performed by a large international cast from The Great Jones Company which embraces a wide swathe of the world: The individual actors hail from Colombia, Italy, Japan, Germany, China, Korea, Kosovo, Puerto Rico, Republic of Congo, Philippines,Taiwan, and the United States. Aclepius continues La MaMa and The Great Jones Company's long-time collaboration with the classics.

Stewart has directed the opera with enormous energy on Mark Tambella's and Jun Maeda's split-level set, which we often must look up at from our ground-level seats. There is visual verve and ingenuity in her direction and one must really keep up with her imagination.

The story too demands close attention. Act 1 gives us Asclepius's intricate backstory, including the bizarre circumstances surrounding his conception, birth, and childhood with the wise centaur Chiron (Benjamin Marcantoni). We learn how his mother Coronis (Kat Yew), who was raped by the god Apollo (Perry Yung), hoped to raise Asclepius with her true-love, the mortal Ischys (Matt Nasser). We also discover that Apollo's twin sister Artemis (Allison Hiroto) decided that she must kill Coronis on her wedding day to Ischys. Grieving over her death, Apollo puts the body of Coronis on a funeral pyre and, reaching into the flames, delivers the infant Asclepius from her womb.

Act 2 injects more mystery. It begins the education of the young Asclepius whom we meet in the form of a life-sized puppet (designed by Theodora Skipitares). The wise centaur Chiron, teaches him the lure of potions and the power of incantations that will cure common ills. When Chiron realizes that he can impart nothing more to Asclepius, he tells him that he must find a new life apart from him. At this point, the shrewd god Athena (Meredith Wright) materializes, offering him the blood of the Gorgon: two vials representing life and death, respectively. Chiron lingers here to introduce Asclepius to the lovely Epione (Valois Mickens), and marries them. New plot turns will unsettle Asclepius's domestic life, however. An incestuous relationship with his bewitched daughter Panacea will bear him a daughter Hygeia. Worse, he's tossed in jail for not being able to heal King Minos's son Glaucus from an incurable disease.

Curiously, this Gordian-knot situation is reversed when 2 snakes surreally enter his cell and enact a kind of death and resurrection before his eyes. (We see one serpent die, and the other snake heal it with herbs, and bring it miraculously back to life.) Inspired, Asclepius decides to try compounding the enchanted snake and herbs for healing Glaucus. And his strategy works—-Glaucus is cured. This episode, incidentally, is the source story behind the caduceus, the serpent-entwined staff insignia used by hospitals and doctors today.

Not surprisingly, the titular character Asclepius (George Drance) is at the heart of the work, and it's fascinating to watch this legendary figure take on flesh and blood and treat his first patients with potions and chants under the most primitive conditions. This is theater to sip herbal tea with and ponder the protagonist's astonishing life and healing art.

Stewart and The Great Jones Company certainly deserve credit for coherently staging the ancient myth, which pits gods against mortals, and sometimes god against god. The physical production has a clear-cut feel and the complex narrative is strengthened and made accessible by the clean choreography, ritualistic songs (in English and composed by Stewart) and communal Greek music by Elizabeth Swados. Kanako Hiyama's costume design is appropriately ornate for the willful gods, and rightly simple for the mortals. Beyond the costuming, Tavia Ito's wing design for the White Crow (Federico Restrepo) and Black Crow (Eugene the Poogene) is commanding in its elegant structure and sweeping movements.

George Drance, as the demi-god Asclepius, projects a quiet authority. Kat Yew, as the nymph Coronis, is touchingly vulnerable. Benjamin Marcantoni, playing the dual role of Storyteller and Chiron, has a richly-textured voice. The rest of the cast are to be commended for their dexterity as actors, singers, and dancers. It's a true ensemble piece, with only four year-old Navel Amira Nelson, playing Hygeia (Panacea's daughter) unwittingly upstaging the others.

The clean-swept stage, with its few odd props, is a nice relief from the special effects of more commercial productions. Federico Restrepo's light design crisply punctuates some pivotal scenes by surrounding the characters in kaleidoscopic light patterns. The rape scene of Coronis in Act 1 is particularly impressive.

Asclepius adds a colorful, new brick to Stewart's incredible accomplishments at La MaMa. If one of the purposes of theater is to be a healing presence in our lives, this show certainly moves in that harmonious direction.

Conceived, written, and directed by Ellen Stewart

Cast: George Drance (Asclepius), Tracy Francis (Coronis'Maiden), Kaori Fujiyabu (Terpsichore), Cary Gant (King Elatus/Zeus), Denise Greber (Panacea), Allison Hiroto(Artemis), Onni Johnson (Queen Elona), Jonghwan Kim (Soldier), Sul Ki Apple Kwon (Coronis' Maiden), Jinwon Lee (Soldier), Michael Lynch (King Phleghyas/King Minos), Benjamin Marcantoni (Storyteller/Chiron), Valois Mickens (Epione), Matt Nasser (Ischys), Nayel Amira Nelson-Young (Child-Hygia), Prisca Ouya (Hygeia), Sasha Painter (Queen Ippeia), Eugene The Poogene (Black Crow/Hades), Federico Restrepo (White Crow/Child Asclepius).
Sets: Jun Maeda and Mark Tambella
Costumes: Kanako Hiyama
Wing design: Tavia Ito
Sound: Tim Schellenbaum
Sound: Tim Schellenbaum
Music: Ellen Stewart, with additional music by Michael Sirotta, Yukio Tsuji, Heather Paauwe, and Benjamin Marcantoni; and Greek music composed by Elizabeth Swados
Lighting: Federico Restrepo
Choreography: The Great Jones Company
Puppets: Theodora Skipitares and Jane Catherine Shaw
Greek text translation: J. Andrew Foster
Production Coordinator: Ozzie Rodriguez
Runnning Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with a 10 minute intermission
La Mama E.T.C. Annex at 66 East 4th Street, tel. 212/475-7710 or online at
From 5/28/09; opening 5/31/09/closing 6/14/09.
Tickets are $25
Thursday through Sunday @ 7:30pm.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on May 29th press performance
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