MYTH AS MUSICAL:
Re-envisioned Persephone story embodies Fringe Festival’s adventurous spirit
—By Paul Horsley, Kansas City Independent
When stories linger in our collective imagination for thousands of years, told and retold in ever-evolving versions, it’s generally because they’ve touched a nerve. In theater, tales from myth and historical antiquity continue to crop up largely because writers find they contain ever-current truths about the human condition. From Jean Anouilh’s Antigone to Cole Porter’s Out of this World (or even the recent off-Broadway hit Hadestown), these modern retellings often stand the myths on their heads. In Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (2003), for example,we’re asked to ponder the Orpheus-Eurydice love story as seen from herpoint of view.
This July 20th through the 28th the Fringe Festival KC 2018 presents the world premiere of After Persephone: A Musical by locally based playwright Donna Woodard Ziegenhorn and composer Marcy Smalley. This whimsical and inventive piece, which forms part of the Fringe Festival’s 14th season, reconceives the story of Hades’ abduction of the lovely young Persephone, whom Zeus has fathered with Demeter, goddess of agriculture and harvests. The 60-minute version of a two-act play (which the producers hope to perform in full next spring) draws upon the Jungian personality types as a way of “casting light” on the Underworld and what it means to us today.
Persephone is, in many versions of the tale, part of an origin story: She is a woman who through compromise is made to spend half of each year in the Underworld (our Fall and Winter) and the other half in Olympus (which brings about Spring growth and the abundance of Summer harvest). Donna said her interest in putting this story on the stage, which dates back more than a decade, grew partly from her fascination with Carl Jung’s concept of personality archetypes (which many of us know through its modern expression, the Myers-Briggs Personality Test).
For not only does Persephone represent the changing seasons and natural cycles of human life, her dual existence as part-time Queen of the Underworld reflects the “light and dark” in each of us, Donna said. “One of Jung’s key thoughts was that the secret to becoming a whole person is that we need to learn to integrate the opposite. And so that had to do with bringing forward the shadow side of ourselves, the part of ourselves that we want to reject or disown or deny.”
In an era of #MeToo, she added, the importance of bringing things hidden into the light has become ever more urgent. “That’s where healing begins.” The shadows in each of us will always be there, she added, “and if they don’t come into the light they ‘act themselves out’ in other, sometimes vile forms.”
On the face of it, Persephone and Demeter (portrayed here by Diana Edwin and Celia Gannon) are victims of male domination, Donna said, “the mother left bereft … and single at that.” So how can these women flip this and actually become the agents of change? By integrating the opposite, Jung might have said: in this case by bringing Hades (partially, at least) into the light.
Along the way, Persephone finds that Hades (played by Calvin Arsenia) is not such a bad guy: He’s just lonely and a tad dull, especially when compared to his more stormy-natured brothers, Zeus and Poseidon. (In addition to those named above, Marilyn Lynch performs as Hecate, Persephone’s talkative aunt). And like the nerdy Alan in William Inge’s Picnic, Hades actually makes a better match: In the end he’s the more stable and caring of the brothers.
For Jung, as for the After Persephone collaborators, the darkness of the soul “is not necessarily a bad place to go, because it represents the subconscious,” said composer Marcy, whose songs and connective music lend both wit and weight to the story. “But everyone needs to have these experiences in order to be whole.” Marcy’s score, performed live by a five-piece band, employs musical “motifs” that represent each of the characters. As the action switches from the sunny bliss of Persephone’s earthly life to her abduction by Hades, the music changes character, Marcy said, “and becomes dark and discordant.”
Persephone’s story is an example of “archetypical patterns that get repeated throughout time,” Donna said. “That’s why the great myths still live within us, and I think that if we can unravel their thread we still have a lot to learn from them.”
For Fringe organizers, After Persephone is a prime example of the sort of production that the Festival thrives on. Though Fringe artists range widely through the 11-day Festival, Donna and Marcy are presenting a project that is just a half-step shy of a full-scale professional production.
“Donna is an experienced theater producer,” said Tiffany Chappell, director of operations for Fringe Festival, who also serves as program coordinator for its umbrella organization, KC Creates. “She understands that Fringe is not just a workshop, that she’s coming with a fully complete piece of theater. … We want to make sure that we’re fulfilling our promises to audiences that they are seeing a complete piece.”
Donna’s piece also represents the best of what local authors and performers can offer, which serves another important goal of the Festival. “That’s really the magic of what KC Fringe Festival is to the Kansas City arts community,” Tiffany said. “It’s a place to manifest the genius and the brilliance of the artists and the people who live in this city.” (This year’s Festival features 76 performing-arts productions in 14 venues around the metro, in addition to visual-arts installations at The Grand Hall at Union Station and at The Arts Asylum.)
At the same time Donna, whose runaway hit Bingo on the Boulevard was the highest-attended production of the 2016 Fringe Festival, understands that part of Fringe’s mission is to allow authors to elicit audience response, toward crafting or expanding a work.
“She’s also framing this as a learning experience from which to gauge what is working and maybe what is not working,” Tiffany said, “to get that extra voice of emotional response that she’s not going to get otherwise because perhaps she’s too close to the work. Our Fringe audience can act like a responsive mirror to what she’s putting up there.”
Donna concurred: “The great thing about Fringe is that it’s not a juried system. The only thing you have to do is be one of the first to get your application in.” This allows authors “to put on things that might not ordinarily be able to get a production on the stage, and give them an opportunity to ‘meet an audience.’ ”