Ye Gods!

10/25/2017 01:09 pm ET

Saturday Night Live's beloved yenta, Linda Richman (Mike Myers), was famous for concocting curious bits of mishegass for her guests to ponder following her command to "Tawk amongst yourselves." To honor the memory of a character who no longer appears on SNL, let me offer the following brain teaser. According to Wikipedia:

  • Judaism was the first religion to conceive the notion of a personal monotheistic God within a monist context. The concept of ethical monotheism (which holds that morality stems from God alone and that its laws are unchanging) first occurred in Judaism, but is now a core tenet of most modern monotheistic religions, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and the Bahá'í Faith.
  • The classical Greeks valued the power of the spoken word; it was their main method of communication and storytelling. Greek tragedy as we know it was created in Athens around the time of 532 BC, when Thespis was the earliest recorded actor. Until the Hellenistic period, all tragedies were unique pieces written in honor of Dionysus and played only once, so that today we primarily have the pieces that were still remembered well enough to have been repeated when the repetition of old tragedies became fashionable.

While many of us express our failure to understand something by muttering "It's all Greek to me" or "The gods must be crazy," Ancient Greeks frequently looked to their gods for help in understanding the world around them. In many cases, the explanations they developed became the stuff from which legends were made. So, if Jews are monotheistic but Ancient Greeks invented the plot device known as the deus ex machina, how did so many Jews become avid theatregoers?

As Linda Richman would say: "Tawk amongst yourselves!"

"At a moment when social and political themes are what should -- what must -- concern us directly, how can we escape the banality of the obvious, the glibness of the outrage, the naivety of protest? At a time when everyone has been numbed for so long by horrors, can one horrify? When every screen and so many street corners are drenched in blood, can tomato ketchup have any effect? More than 60 years ago, London audiences at Titus Andronicus fainted nightly and St John Ambulance was in attendance. A tiny torture scene by Jean-Paul Sartre made audiences scream. Once, even the word 'bloody' had its effect."
"If we recognize that we’ve become numbed by shock tactics, that no scandal is scandalous, then we must face the fact that theatre (especially for its writers and directors) is suddenly losing its most reliable weapon. When doing a play on conflict and violence, how often have I had to answer the same idiotic question: 'Do you think you can change the world?' Today, I would like to say, 'Yes, we can change the world,' but not in the old way that politicians, ideologists or militants try to make us believe. Their business is to tell lies. Theatre is, occasionally, capable of moments of truth."

* * * * * * * * *

In 2010, Stuart Bousel commissioned 11 new plays for the first San Francisco Olympians Festival. A huge fan of Greek mythology, Bousel aimed to develop a festival of new works focused on one of his major passions. The submission form for each year's festival asks playwrights to answer three questions about the god they have chosen to write about:

  1. Why you?
  2. Why this figure?
  3. What is your idea?
Playwright Stuart Bousel addressing the audience at the 2017 San Francisco Olympians Festival
(Photo by: Cody A. Rishell)
Playwright Stuart Bousel addressing the audience at the 2017 San Francisco Olympians Festival

This year's festival gave 30 local writers the opportunity to have 36 plays of varying lengths receive readings from a total of 86 actors. For those who have attended performances at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, one of the great joys is watching Bousel introduce a new play by sharing his love for mythology in what amounts to a scholarly version of stand-up comedy. The closing performance of the 2017 festival was devoted to a play Bousel had written 10 years ago and extensively rewritten for new audiences. What follows is the print version of his introduction for Adonis.

"Adonis was a Greek hunter who became the center of multiple mystery cults spanning many different cultures. He was a handsome hunter, a prince in some versions, who was the beloved of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. His mother was turned into the myrrh tree, from which he was born nine months later, and he was adopted by the childless queen of the underworld, Persephone. When Aphrodite fell in love with him, Persephone grew despondent, terrified he would leave her. Zeus ruled that Adonis would spend one third of every year with his adopted mother, one third of every year with his lover, and one third of his year as he pleased."
Poster art by Cody A. Rishell for <em><strong>Adonis</strong></em>
Poster art by Cody A. Rishell for Adonis

"One day, while hunting on his own, he was killed by a wild boar. Aphrodite rushed to his side but could not save him, and as he bled out on the grass his blood turned into flowers. Trapped forever between Heaven and Earth, he became a spirit of nature and the god of resurrection, specifically the Earth’s ability to renew itself again and again. His name would go on to become synonymous with handsome young men everywhere, but under other names he was worshiped by the Etruscans, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Babylonians. His cult eventually spread to Jerusalem where his name became fused with the Hebrew word 'Adonai' (for 'Lord" or 'God') and he is considered by many religion scholars to be the first pan-Mediterranean deity. The offering of myrrh at the birth of Christ is often said to be an allusion to Adonis, who was an early precursor to the King of Jews."

Directed by Juliana Lustenader, Bousel's play introduced the audience to six contemporary characters wrestling with a most curious set of circumstances.

  • Mathew (Ittai Geiger) is an enigmatic gay man in his thirties who is seemingly trapped between life and death. Just like Adonis (and maybe someone else whose name is on everyone's lips), he was quite healthy until he became ill and suddenly died. Miraculously, three days after his death, Mathew came back to life looking pretty much the same, although more than a little bit confused about what happened to him. Quiet and withdrawn, he was nevertheless willing to seek help from a nontraditional source.
  • Simon (Dylan O’Connor) is Mathew's lover. From the moment they met, these two men knew they wanted to spend their lives together. However, although their sex life as a couple continues to flourish, ever since Mathew's return from the dead, Simon hasn't been sure how to love him.
  • Brian (Karl Weiser) is Mathew's distant father, a Christian minister who has never shown much skill at communicating with his openly gay son.
The cast of actors who performed a reading of <strong><em>Adonis</em></strong> during the 2017 San Francisco Olympians Festiv
(Photo by: Cody A. Rishell)
The cast of actors who performed a reading of Adonis during the 2017 San Francisco Olympians Festival

  • Judith (Erika Bakse) is a writer who has been interviewing people who have undergone near-death experiences. She is the first woman Mathew opens up to as he seeks help in understanding his experience and the cryptic message an angel whispered to him while he was dead.
  • Claire (Lora Oliver) is a physician who has been assigned to monitor Mathew's health. A woman who has devoted her life to science, she is at a loss to explain how Mathew's abdominal wounds from an earlier appendectomy have disappeared since he rejoined the living. Willing to admit that (a) shit happens, and (b) science does not have all the answers, Claire finds herself seeking input from Mathew's hostile and hyper-religious aunt Ruth.
  • Ruth (Simone Alexander) is a rigid thinker who can be extremely condescending. A thoroughly disagreeable woman who wears her prejudices with pride, Ruth's conservative beliefs place her at odds with her brother as well as her nephew, Mathew, and his openly gay lifestyle. Quick to judge others, she does not take well to criticism of herself.  Ruth does not deal well with change or anything that can't be easily explained by her religious beliefs. A haughty control freak, she is the kind of self-righteous Christian who professes to hate the sin but love the sinner. 
Poster art for the 2017 San Francisco Olympians Festival by Cody A. Rishell
Poster art for the 2017 San Francisco Olympians Festival by Cody A. Rishell

The final scene takes place on Thanksgiving Day. Mathew and Simon have invited Brian, Ruth, Judith, and Claire to celebrate the holiday at their house. Each person arrives bearing a casserole with a traditional dish (deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, etc.) However, once they divulge the contents of their respective dishes, they don't know what to say or do. Although Mathew and Simon wave to them from the coziness of their home, it's going to take some time before this less than fearsome foursome can get up the courage to cross significant thresholds of faith and science.

Despite Bousel's extensive rewriting, Adonis remains a problematic play. The script's weaknesses, however, are surprisingly obvious. One reason it takes so long for Adonis to gain momentum is that its confused and often tongue-tied protagonist is nowhere as interesting as what happened to him. Like many men, Mathew's father and lover have obvious trouble expressing themselves and are easily upstaged by the play's female characters (who dominate the story).

Bousel has written a beautiful monologue for Judith, given Claire a deep personal conflict which she is unable to resolve, and created a terse and unyielding villain in Ruth. As always, his script includes many bon mots which have the audience in stitches, but these cannot fill the hole at the center of his play. The playwright informs me that:

"Adonis is the title for the festival. Mathew 33:6 is intended for performances outside the festival. The second title is a reference to a Biblical verse that does not exist... yet. The implication is that one day there could be or will be (depending on how you read the play) a new book and verse to the Bible -- The Book of Mathew."

* * * * * * * * *

A powerful force in American theatre, Mary Zimmerman was a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. In 2002, she won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for her adaptation of Ovid's classic poem, Metamorphoses. Her productions have been staged frequently at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as well as such prestigious arts organizations as the Goodman Theatre, the Lookingglass Theatre Company, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company. She has staged four radically different productions for the Metropolitan Opera (Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini's La Sonnambula, Dvorak's Rusalka, and Rossini's Armida). In between her artistic forays outside of Chicago, she is a revered faculty member at Northwestern University, where she occupies the Jaharis Family Foundation Chair in Performance Studies.

 Drunken Silenus (Ivan A. Oyarzabal) regales King Midas (Alexander Espinosa Pieb) with a tale of immortality in a scene from
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
Drunken Silenus (Ivan A. Oyarzabal) regales King Midas (Alexander Espinosa Pieb) with a tale of immortality in a scene from Metamorphoses
Ceyx (Tri Le) makes a sea voyage, leaving behind his queen Alcyone in a scene from <strong><em>Metamorphoses</em></strong>
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
Ceyx (Tri Le) makes a sea voyage, leaving behind his queen Alcyone in a scene from Metamorphoses

Although her stagings have been hailed far and wide, as she explains in the following interview about her artistic process, Zimmerman feels no need to direct every production of the works she has adapted from ancient texts.

Not surprisingly, Zimmerman's Metamorphoses has been extremely popular with university theatre departments. It offers some unique challenges for costume and scenic designers which, in turn, create opportunities for students majoring in theatre to learn their craft. The University of California-Berkeley's Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies recently staged Metamorphoses at the Zellerbach Playhouse with costumes designed by Wendy Sparks, lighting by Jack Carpenter, and sound design by Ian D. Thomas.

Orpheus (Zac Nachbar-Seckel) grieves the death of his new bride Eurydice in a scene from <strong><em>Metamorphoses</em></stro
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
Orpheus (Zac Nachbar-Seckel) grieves the death of his new bride Eurydice in a scene from Metamorphoses
Phaethon (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) ponders his relationship with his absent father, Apollo, in a scene from <strong><em>Metamorp
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
Phaethon (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) ponders his relationship with his absent father, Apollo, in a scene from Metamorphoses

While Zimmerman's adaptation includes several well-known characters from Greek mythology (Narcissus, Poseidon, Apollo, Eros, Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice), it also brings to life some of the lesser-known names as it depicts the relationship between King Midas and Bacchus, the story of King Ceyx and his wife Alcyone, the pursuit of Pomona by Vertumnus, as well as the stories about Baucis, and Philemon, Myrrha, Phaethon, and Erysichthon.

Alcyone (Peyton Victoria) searches for her lost love, Ceyx, in a scene from <strong><em>Metamorphoses</em></strong>
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
Alcyone (Peyton Victoria) searches for her lost love, Ceyx, in a scene from Metamorphoses
Poseidon’s attack on Ceyx’s (Tri Le) ship proves fatal in a scene from <strong><em>Metamorphoses</em></strong>
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
Poseidon’s attack on Ceyx’s (Tri Le) ship proves fatal in a scene from Metamorphoses

Working with director Chris Herold, Nina Ball (one of the Bay area's most imaginative and versatile scenic designers) got a rare chance to create a watery set. In the following clip, Ball, Herold, and other members of the creative team discuss the process of bringing such a complex and challenging work to the stage.

Under Herold's direction, UCB's ensemble of 15 actors included Yohana Ansari-Thomas, Joe Ayers, Theodore Foley, Samira Mariama Hamid, Stephanie Jeane, Narges Khaloghli, Farryl Christina Lawson, Tri Le, Zac Nachbar Seckel, Ivan A. Oyarzabal, Claire Pearson, Alexander Espinosa Pieb, Verity Pinter, Shauna Satnick, and Peyton Victoria. The easy adaptability of the Zellerbach Playhouse (which sometimes functions as a large-scale black box theatre) and the cast's relative youth brought a welcome vitality to the performance.

The cast of <strong><em>Metamorphoses</em></strong>
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
The cast of Metamorphoses
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