Impious Grief

In Hamlet, the prince is overcome by grief for his dead father.  Everyone in the court, especially his mother, the Queen, and his uncle, the new King, tells him to get a grip.  His grief is called “impious” and “unmanly.”  In Basement Hades: Songs of the Underworld, now playing at the Yale Cabaret, Hades (Dustin Wills) shares this point of view.  Appalled by humanity’s tendency to have issues with death, Hades lectures us in wildly flamboyant fashion about the pointlessness of our grief.  He’s all about people getting on with life—the province of the living—and leaving the dead to him.  We want to hold onto the dead because we’re selfish and unreasonable.  Let them be dead.  We’ll be with them soon enough anyway.  “What’s dead is dead is dead,” he intones.

It would be hard to argue with Hades even if he weren’t so imperious, boasting most of the lines in the play, even those given to his wife Persephone (a hand puppet) who still bemoans an attachment to life.  Though Hades rehearses for us the five stages of grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—ticking them off as leading inevitably to the latter, Persephone isn’t buying it.  And so, here comes legendary “grief junkie” Orpheus to attempt to rescue his dead wife Eurydice and lead her back to life.  Everyone who has lost someone can easily relate.

But Orpheus, in an interesting twist, is not a character in this show—written by Justin A. Taylor, developed by the Ensemble, and directed by Ethan Heard—but rather a gathering of musicians assigned the task of playing the music that speaks for Orpheus, and that enables him to bypass threats like the boatman Charon and the three-headed dog Cerberus.  The latter encounter, in which the dog is represented by three cast members behind drum-masks that Orpheus soon manages to play to his tune, is striking.  Percussionist Michael Compitello is a stand-out of the evening, able to give aural expression to the Anger phase of things.

And that’s the way the evening goes—Hades belittling Orpheus’ efforts, until the latter begins to overwhelm the voiced objections through music, mime, movement, sing-along, and, now and then, plainspoken narratives of loss addressed to the audience by the collective Orpheus.  Eurydice is visualized quite effectively as a silhouetted projection of a woman (Katie McGerr) dancing, swinging and so forth on double screens (Hannah Wasileski, Projection Designer; Nick Hussong, Paul Lieber, William Gardiner, Assistant Designers; kudos as well to the Lighting Designers—Masha Tsmiring and Yi Zhao—and to Set Designer Edward T. Morris’ fascinating set).

The part at which Orpheus looks back and loses his wife a second time was a little murky to me, though perhaps I missed something (it became increasingly easy to overlook action in favor of concentrating on the music, which features pieces by Gluck, Shostakovich, and Philip Glass).  In any case, the after-effect was stunningly moving: as Hannah Collins played a cello live, in concert with herself playing a viola de gamba in a beautifully filmed projection, the collective Orpheus (Compitello; Anne Lanzilotti, viola; Daniel Schlosberg, keyboard and composer for the piece; and Annie Rosen, voice) poured libations in a large metal bucket to the somber tones of Marin Marais’ “Les Voix Humaines,” which includes the sound of what feels like disembodied voices—led by Rosen’s lovely vocals—mourning.

The simple activity accompanied by Marais’ aching and stately piece said all that needed to be said about the sixth stage of grief, the one that Hades can’t understand: commemoration, the ritual of remembering.  An enactment of those in life recalling those in death, the scene felt to me more profound “than the profoundest pit of hell.”

Basement Hades: Songs of the Underworld Created by the Ensemble Text by Justin A. Taylor Original Music by Daniel Schlosberg Directed by Ethan Heard

Photos by Ethan Heard

The Yale Cabaret March 23-25, 2010