photo by Theo Cote
The pre-show set of The Hess Collective’s production of Elizabeth Hess’ play Love Trade, at La MaMa, is stunning: when we enter the theater we see something shrouded under white gauze, in a white spotlight, with dozens of white balloons on the floor, all on an otherwise unadorned stage with a black floor and backdrop. When the show begins that something begins to move and gradually reveals itself to be actress, but she removes the gauze so subtly (by the lower layers, I think) that the revelation is gradual. We see her arms moving and we’re astonished when a third arm appears, and then a fourth. Ultimately two actresses reveal themselves. Great! The two laughing women show themselves to be Persephone and Demeter.
To review that wonderful Greek myth: Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, is kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld, who brings her to the nether-world with him. While Demeter searches for her, the crops don’t grow, as she is too preoccupied to grow them. Finally she brings Persephone back to earth. However, Persephone has eaten a few pomegranate seeds in the underworld, as so she’s obliged to spend a few months of every year down there with Hades. In some versions of the myth, these are the winter months, when Demeter grieves so for her daughter that the world is cold and barren.
Ms. Hess, who also directs, gives us a version of the myth focused on the relationship between mother and daughter. Indeed, the third character, Hades, never speaks. Instead, he plays the cello, to wonderful effect.
In this retelling, Persephone is a rebellious child who calls her cold mother “an icon instead of living flesh” (both characters think aloud). When she falls for Hades, she throws herself at him. “She just couldn’t keep her hands off him” she says of herself. “Persephone wanted to make a mockery of her mythic self,” Demeter says with the insight only a mother could have as she watches her daughter make a spectacle of herself on the (disco) dance floor. She says that Persephone escaped “a world where there wasn’t room for more than one goddess,” while Persephone calls that world “no life, no color, white, bloodless.”
But this is no feminist tale of victimization. After Persephone has been taken to the underworld, Demeter herself says of Hades “Now he was the victim of kidnapping… obliged to stay indoors.” He thought she was a bad girl, but he was disappointed.
One of the plays’ best moments occurs when Persephone, who until now has been the epitome of girlish charm, realizes that she’s in the nether-world. She spews obscenities, as if she were possessed in more senses then one. Demeter refers to “this black night of broken hymens.” And through her maturation, Persephone develops her sense of self. She refers to herself in the third person for most of the play, but finally uses the word “I”.
Actually, her words are “Kali, Persephone, I”. Ms. Hess is mixing the story with other cultures. The character I’ve been calling Hades is in the play more often referred to of Shiva. The goddess Kali is Shiva’s counterpart/foil. When Persephone spies the man-god at the play’s climax, she cries “My God! There he was! Shiva, the god of the orient! … Nothing like her occidental self, so fair and fun-loving.” “Shiva assumed the shape of Hades, at home with death and devastation,” Demeter explains.
The execution of Ms. Hess’ concept is flawless. She pays Demeter herself with humor and authority, and Katie Palmer is irresistible as the eternal gamine. They’re striking in their white costumes. Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed, in black as Hades/Shiva, plays the cello mysteriously, and takes his curtain call with it, as well. It’s all kept down to one hour, no longer than is necessary for the play to make its statement.
Ms. Hess’ retelling of the myth is inspired and poetic. But where is the end of the myth? She doesn't mention the delicious pomegranate seeds or Persephone’s annual return to the underworld. And so we miss the larger point, that we never entirely overcome the past. Of course, the playwright has no obligation to use any material she doesn’t want to use, but that coda to the myth would have given the piece a dramatic shape, as a sort of third act. It would have enhanced her theme as well.
And it’s great fun to mix cultural references, but I’m not convinced that it enhances the Persephone myth. Is the relationship between Persephone (Life) and Hades (Death) really the relationship between Kali (Time) and Shiva (Eternity)?
Love Trade is that rare sort of play that we actually want more of - a relief when the overwhelming bulk of plays are overwritten. Another example of marvelous work from La MaMa.