Last weekend, I went to see the off-Broadway production of "Hadestown", a 1920s-esque folk opera retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. That's a lot of elements for one show, but yes, really. And it works. It's based on a 2010 album by Anaïs Mitchell, which you can listen to here
, but which is fairly different from the show as it exists now.
It is the best thing I have seen/heard/read in ages
, and I want everyone I know to see it immediately so that I can talk about it with more people. Which I realize is a problem, because a) most of you don't live in NYC, and b) it's only running until the end of the month. So! Let me tell you about it.
The Orpheus/Eurydice plot plays out fairly close to how it does in the myth: we see them meet, fall in love through Orpheus's music, Eurydice descends to the Underworld, Orpheus chases after her, they convince Hades and Persephone to let them leave – with, of course, the caveat that they only escape if Orpheus doesn't look back – and then the tragic ending. The biggest change is in how important the Hades/Persephone relationship and myth is to this play; they become at least co-leads, if not the central figures.
The setting does a lot of work, though it's more in feel and symbolism than plot points. Orpheus is the great musician, still – but he's also a penniless romantic that is not particularly concerned with figuring out how to support himself and his new wife, which is a problem in the Depression-esque "Hard Times" of this story. His eventual look back that loses Eurydice – I don't want to spoil too much, but whew, the show has no sympathy
for him. It's absolutely savage. In the first act, he's strongly paralleled to Persephone. She seems to be the same sort of feckless dreamer as Orpheus, and Amber Gray, her actress, plays Persephone as a drunken flapper girl who treats summer like an unending party with her as the star. Here's a photo
Hades, on the other hand, is the god of work and railroads and industry and factories; "Who makes work for idle hands?" he sings at one point, and yes, he is also much more of a Devil figure here than in the original Greek myth. His underworld is a place where dead souls endlessly build a wall – there's no particular need for a wall, you see, it's work simply for the sake of work.
We build the wall to keep out of the enemy, Hades tells his followers, in a catechism-like song, and then asks, "What do we have that they should want?"
The response is:
"We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free."
(YES I KNOW. But this song was written in 2010 and is not actually about the Trump campaign, despite any and all horrifying similarities.) Here's a link to the show's version of this song
, which everyone should absolutely listen to.
In this version of the story, Eurydice does not so much die as sell her soul to escape hunger and cold – that's her belting out the final verse of Why We Build the Wall
, zealous in her temporary seduction by the underworld's affluence. She and Persephone are both quite explicitly creatures kept in gilded cages, trading freedom for luxury. And they are both, in different ways, furious about the world that took away their choices. They both feel lied to by the men they're in a relationship with (this show really has no sympathy for men in general, it's amazing). The difference between them is that Eurydice still has hope for Orpheus, while Persephone hates Hades in the way that only comes from love that's died.
However, Persephone is after all a goddess and vastly more powerful, and when Eurydice and Orpheus's story has ended, hers still goes on, repeating its summer/winter cycle forever. It's ambiguous as to how complicit she is in the humans' fates; there's more than a tinge of A Midsummer Night's Dream
here, the supernatural creatures playing out their own cold war through the proxy of hapless mortals. Persephone loudly announces her hatred for the underworld and Hades throughout the show, but her constant use and pushing of alcohol called to my mind the tempting forgetfulness of Styx. In one song she sings to a nameless soul, half-promising and half-mocking:
"Come here, brother, let me guess
It's the little things you miss
Spring flowers, autumn leaves
Ask me, brother, and you shall receive.
Or maybe these just ain't enough
Maybe you're looking for some stronger stuff
I got a sight for the sorest eye
When's the last time you saw the sky?"
After all, what stops you from escaping more than a little false relief?
The casting is diverse – both Eurydice and Persephone are mixed race black women, in another parallel – and all of the acting was amazing. Nabiyah Be (Eurydice) does so much with tiny facial expressions that felt like they shouldn't carry out to the whole theater, but she was absolutely magnetizing. And I haven't even had a chance to mention Hermes (Chris Sullivan)! He, along with the three Fates, works as narrator and storyteller and Greek (ha)
chorus, and is also fantastic. The show is done as theater in the round, and all of the actors frequently wander up and through the audience, but Hermes in particular is a literally felt
presence. He stomps on the boards, shaking all of the seats, to underline both the beat of the music and the thump-thump of a railroad.
Everyone was great! I desperately want more people to see this, mainly for selfish reasons including but not limited to: they will write interesting meta for me to read, they will produce a cast album, they will make this the next big theater fandom. I know it's a bit pointless for me to recommend this, since again most of you probably won't be able to see it, but I can't help but do so. It's just so good! If you have an chance, absolutely check it out.