Matters of Life and Death

Review of Styx Songs, Yale Cabaret

Most likely, you’re probably not too fond of death. But then, what does death think of you?

As played by Jeremy O. Harris, Charon, the ferrymen at the River Styx in Hades, is mostly bored with having to rule over a world of fools who, loving life, find themselves dead. His is a world of, at times, poetic justice, and at times of expressive detachment. In any case, he’s a fascinating and theatrical host.

 Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) (photo: Elli Green)

Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) (photo: Elli Green)

Directed by Lucie Dawkins and written by Majkin Holmquist and Tori Sampson—with quotations and adaptations from a range of other writers, including Ovid, T.S. Eliot, and the Persian poet Ferdowsi—Styx Songs keeps our attention focused on the interplay of life and death. Charon, who speaks in a poetic language, wry and rhythmic, treats his visitors as exhibits in a display of how unpredictable and unforgiving death can be. Stories of ill-fated lives—from myth, folktales, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, and other sources—are mostly narrated in the first person by a host of actors in a variety of roles. It can all be a bit hard to keep track off, as newcomer after newcomer tries to interest us in tales that, to each, meant life and death but that, to us prosaic lifers, can begin to sound like lots of tough luck.

And that may be the point. The many voices of the dead here mostly try to get across to us the particulars of their deaths as though there should be some message or meaning for us. But what their various ends show is that death is as individual in its occurrence as it is unanimous in its reach. And yet the dead’s passion to communicate is palpable. And the cast is wonderful at impressing upon us both enforced muteness and, when Charon pulls the coin from now one mouth, now another, the breathless last chance each seizes to make their lives seem real.

Perhaps the best examples come at the beginning and the end. The story of Narcissus and Echo, well-enacted by Josh Goulding and Stella Baker, is, of course, poetic and mythic, but it also has interactive elements, and even, with Charon’s interventions, humor. And at the close, a troupe of women who were slaves are more confrontational with Charon and the powers-that-be. These women did not live free lives and find Charon’s command over their afterlife to be a further affront. Indeed, their strength in union manages even to silence Charon’s asides.

  Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

 Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

The show’s vision of the afterlife—or at least its anteroom—is made striking by an impressive set. Murky and funereal, with diaphanous drapes and mood lighting, Ao Li’s set features, as its main scenic device, a fountain or pool such as can be found in some cemeteries. The entry into Charon’s realm is through the pool and the game cast spends a good deal of its time semi-immersed. The water as reflecting surface, sometimes lit with cool light, and as a prop—with splashes and action—makes the set a compelling presence, adding reality to the unreality of death. Sarah Woodham’s costumes—the white linens that drape the dead and the wonderful riot of effects in Charon’s get-up—are individualized elements of the overall display as well. The musical settings of a segment of Eliot’s poetry and of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”—functioning as prologue and epilogue respectively—provide solemnity; elsewhere the music from composer Sam Suggs is augmented by Gaven Whitehead’s live percussion to create a variety of effects.

 Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

Charon (Jeremy O. Harris) and members of the cast of Styx Songs (photo: Elli Green)

Another segment that deserves special mention is the use of interactive animation; as two of the departed souls speak across a plane that acts as a table-top, drawings in light shift about on its surface, while early in the show a pattern of light on Ophelia’s dress adds to the eeriness of the Stygian world, which is rich indeed in artistic design.

If I have a criticism it would be that the show makes use of too much text—the instances of movement and the use of dumbshow create a language of their own that suggests a spirit prevailing beyond the particulars of earthly life. Which might just be a way of saying that if death doesn’t let us transcend the disappointments of life, what good is it?

 

Styx Songs
Written by Majkin Holmquist and Tori Sampson, including works from T.S. Eliot, Ferdowsi, Ted Hughes, Edgar Lee Masters, Louis MacNeice, Ovid, Rabindranath Tagore, Dylan Thomas
Directed and created by Lucie Dawkins

Composer: Sam Suggs; Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Dramaturg: Charlie O’Malley; Set Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Animation Designer: Erik Freer and Richard Green; Technical Director: Becca Terpenning; Associate Technical Director: Elena Tilli; Props Master: Michael Scherman; Wardrobe Supervisor: Rachel Gregory; Percussionist: Gavin Whitehead; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Producer: Trent Anderson

Cast: Stella Baker, Baize Buzan, Josh Goulding, Jeremy O. Harris, Kelly Hill, Olivia Klevorn, Alex Lubischer, Christopher Gabriel Nunez, Charlie O’Malley, Anita Norman, Alexis Payne, Jesse Rasmussen, Juliana Simms, Brittany Stollar, Lucas Van Lierop

Yale Cabaret
September 15-17, 2016