Tag Archives: Rachel Hauck

“Hadestown” Serves Up a Jazzy, Godly Nectar

Review: Hadestown at Blumenthal PAC

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2296_Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

In Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Encore playbill, the distance between Anaïs Mitchell, who created the music, lyrics, and script of HADESTOWN, and Rachel Chavkin, who developed and directed Mitchell’s creation, is a scant three-and-a-quarter inches. Inside that space are the neatly typeset names of 42 actors, designers, and organizations who have helped bring their vision, the 2019 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, so vividly, raucously, and meaningfully to life.

You get the idea that, in crafting and concepting this marvelous retelling of the Orpheus-and-Eurydice myth, Mitchell and Chavkin became even closer than those 82+ millimeters. Together they have created a work that is slick and glitzy, yet we find primal and profound truths amid the razzle-dazzle.

Those truths can sting, particularly when we descend into the dark underworld ruled by Hades and his abducted queen, Persephone. While Mitchell and Chavkin discard the #MeToo aspect of the royals’ union, reimagining them as formerly true lovers, they point up King Hades’ inclinations toward greed, exploitation, oppression, and mindless acquisition, layering on prejudice and xenophobia for good measure.

So when Matthew Patrick Quinn as Hades brought down the curtain on the first act with “Why We Build the Wall,” written years before The Donald took up politics, the satire bit hard enough for the MAGA morons seated in front of us to get up in a mighty huff at intermission, never to return. Yet this concept of Hades, casually linking his excesses to global warming and climate change, isn’t really an absurd overreach. Why shouldn’t Mitchell and Chavkin portray him as the vilest of plutocrats, when Pluto is actually Hades’ most familiar alias?

And plutocracy is where we’re at.

Mitchell enriches her devilish brew with a score steeped in the decadence of New Orleans jazz, repeatedly underlined by a doo-wop trio of Fates whose only moral failing is going along with the flow. These stylish female backups are ultimately more successful in getting into the impoverished Eurydice’s head than Orpheus, who is preoccupied with finishing the song he believes will restore springtime to the world. Quinn’s basso sleaziness is given a robber baron vibe with an infectiously chugging railroad line running directly to his realm, and the combination of Rachel Hauck’s scenery and Michael Krauss’s costumes makes our dystopian world seem nearly as nocturnal as the netherworld.2022_(from top left clockwise) Matthew Patrick Quinn, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Chibueze Ihuoma, Nathan Lee Graham, Hannah Whitley and company in the Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

Presiding over the action and gleefully shattering the fourth wall again and again, Nathan Lee Graham as Hermes keeps us from forgetting – graceful and gliding charmer that he is – the artifice and theatricality of all we see. At the same time, he is frequently seconding the ethereal voice of Chibueze Ihuoma as Orpheus, asserting the power of music in changing our world by envisioning a better one, reminding us how music and language intertwine in the ancient ritual of storytelling.

Singing has always been key in preserving our world and our heritage. Musical narrative, after all, isn’t a recent discovery championed by Verdi, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It dates back to King David’s psalter, anonymous campfire bards, Orpheus’ legendary lyre, and the Homeric Hymns, where the story of Hades and Persephone was originally told. By design, three of the pivotal songs Orpheus sings are grouped as a series of epics.

Potentially, as we find here, songs have magic. Consequence. “The Wedding Song,” a beguiling duet early in Act 1 where Orpheus responds to a sequence of challenges from Eurydice, is as memorable as Hades’ sardonic affirmation of walls. “Epic I” from Orpheus, the embryonic song he is working on, is enough to establish his magical power and win Eurydice’s belief in him. Doesn’t last when Hades comes personally calling with his saucy come-hither, “Hey, Little Songbird.”2260_Chibueze Ihuoma in the Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

But Orpheus is able to march into hell for a heavenly cause (a recurring theme in world literature and religion, it would seem) when he melts Hades’ heart with his completed “Epic III” after intermission, transporting the steely King back to his tender courting days and reconciling him with Persephone. It’s here that the Fates get into Hades’ head as effectively as they had gotten into Eurydice’s earlier, so that the King of the Underworld attaches one pesky condition that prevents Eurydice’s release into Orpheus’ care from being unconditional.

Ihuoma’s naivete and spontaneity turn the moment when he succumbs to sudden heartbreaking tragedy, beautifully staged as everything freezes into silence. The essence of that heartbreak registers so poignantly in Hannah Whitley’s eyes as Eurydice, so achingly close to restoration, almost clearing the threshold of the railroad car that must now take her irrevocably down. All of Belk Theater and all of creation seem disappointed in that moment, even the lively and cynical Fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson).

Paradoxically, when all stops for a precious few heartbeats, we may realize most keenly that the working relationship between Chavkin and choreographer David Neumann has been as close and precisely calibrated as the relationship between the director and Mitchell. Indeed, our director, composer, and choreographer are involved in perhaps the most delicious conspiracy of all in HADESTOWN, those precisely chosen beats when an unseen centerstage circle suddenly begins to revolve or abruptly halt.

Most of the players, particularly the drones who make up the Workers Chorus, are swept round and round by the wheel. Others like Hades and Orpheus walk at the precise pace that makes them seem like they’re stationary as they move, floating on air. Then the wheel stops, and on they go, like clockwork. Or since the subplot of Persephone’s arrangement with Hades is a mythic explanation of the cycle of the seasons, the circular motion we see is clockwork.2282_Matthew Patrick Quinn, Chibueze Ihuoma, and Maria-Christina Oliveras in the Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

As fine as the Fates are in moving about the stage, sometimes while wielding musical instruments, our eyes are most intently riveted to the lithe movements – and eye-popping costumes – of Graham as Hermes and Lana Gordon as Persephone, bringer of springtime and wicked beverage. Graham and Gordon are both electrifying performers, so it’s rather amazing when Quinn, after brooding quietly in the background for most of the first act, instantly proves himself their equal.

Together, they are the spice, the heady godly nectar that helps us savor the purity and fragility of the mere humans, Eurydice and Orpheus, all the more.

Amend or Discard? We, the People, Decide

Review: What the Constitution Means to Me

By Perry Tannenbaum

Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus (10)

Charm and wit can help you con your way onto a debating team when you’re a teen, but when you’re competing in front of a panel of sober academic judges, you’ll find that diligent study, ready knowledge, and sharp argumentation will be far more decisive in achieving victory. I learned this lesson the hard way, anchoring a senior class team of wiseguys that was ignominiously defeated by a squad of lowly sophomore nerds in front of a full high school assembly.

Lessons learned leaning over a chessboard or declaiming from a lectern can be every bit as brutal as those learned on a baseball diamond, a hockey rink, or the gridiron. While the excitement of sports makes for better action movies or TV, shows like Chess and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee demonstrate that cerebral competitions are better suited for live theatre.Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus (7)

But such shows are few and far between. That’s one small reason why What the Constitution Means to Me is so fresh and welcome right now. Written by Heidi Schreck as a chronicle of her experiences as a US Constitution debater when she was a teen – with a sharp re-evaluation of her relationship with that seminal document today – What the Constitution’s finishing touches dovetailed with the rise of the #MeToo movement, its first two productions straddling the Harvey Weinstein uproar in 2017.

By the time the show opened Off-Broadway in 2018, Judge Brett Kavanaugh was dominating the headlines, adding another layer of timeliness.

We need to look back to the Democratic National Convention of 2016 as a more probable inspiration for Schreck’s reassessment. That’s when Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of a U.S. Army Captain who was killed serving in Iraq, waved a pocket edition of America’s foundational document and pointedly asked the newly anointed Republican candidate for president, “Have you even read the United States Constitution?”

Overnight, that little pocket book became a bestseller.

Schreck’s play, now at Knight Theater, is largely a one-woman performance until its exciting and invigorating ending. It isn’t simply a reprise of 15-year-old Heidi’s breathless panegyric to the genius of our Founding Fathers, for even then, when she was earning college scholarship money at American Legion contests around the country, Schreck needed to be original and analytical in her presentations.

Older and wiser, Schreck could look back on her teenage debating years – and on our Constitution – with a more critical eye. Schreck, starring in both the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, could play both Heidis onstage, the teen and the playwright. As the teen, she could be credulous, enthusiastic, awkward, naïve, and precocious. As the playwright, Schreck can playfully mock her younger self, or interrupt her and point out her quirks. Sharper still, she can not only take a more feminist view of the Constitution, she can flout the authority of the American Legionnaire who emcees young Heidi’s performance, strictly timekeeping her every utterance, and quizzing her on the 14th Amendment.

After all, unless the playwright gives him lines, the poor Legionnaire cannot respond to Heidi’s barbs.

The playfulness of Schreck’s concept nicely counterbalances its seriousness, for her feminist critique centers on her female ancestors – beginning with the immigration of her German great-grandmother to Washington State, purchased from a mail order catalog – and the abuse their husbands could inflict upon them with total impunity. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s paneled interior for the Legion Post, where Heidi will relive her debating exploits, unmistakably preps us for the assault to come.Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus (5)

From wall to wall, hardly a gap between them, those panels are lined with the headshots of uniformed Armed Services veterans. You could say those photos – and the one thing they have in common – personify what the Constitution means to Schreck. In this legion, four long rows of photos, there is not one woman or one person of color. Our Constitution was written by white males, many of them slaveholders, to codify the rights, privileges, and citizenship of white males – including slave ownership – with the tacit or explicit exclusion of everyone else.

The exclusivity of the US Constitution doubly impacted the immigration of Schreck’s great-grandmother in 1879, who was committed to an asylum for “melancholia” and died at age 36. You see, the “shortage” of women that partially justified her great-grandfather in shopping for a bride was the result of Native American women no longer qualifying as American.

Looping in and out of her various guises, Cassie Beck as the Heidis of the touring production applies a thin gloss to her portrayal of teen Heidi, slightly exaggerated and visibly “acting” for brief moments and slyly self-aware at others. Our encounters with teen Heidi, often punctuated by adult Heidi interjections, are presented in two parts. First, there’s the formal essay comparing the Constitution to a crucible, reconstructed from memory because her proud mother inexplicably lost the original.Cassie Beck and Mike Iveson in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus

In the next stage, young Heidi picks a random Amendment out of a coffee can, written on a slip of paper, and is quizzed on it. Ushers hand out copies of the Constitution at this point, enhancing our involvement and excitement. She always draws the 14th Amendment and its multiple articles, so here the interaction between Heidi and the Legionnaire, a stodgy and pallid vet in Gabriel Marin’s meticulous portrayal, becomes more intense and entertaining. For here amid the question-and-answer volleys, young Heidi is often supplanted by adult Heidi, flouting the Legionnaire’s authority and steamrolling his prissy time limits – giving this one white male a taste of being bossed and oppressed.

Afterwards, we were done with young Heidi, and both Beck and Marin got the chance to step out of character and be themselves. Marin’s transformation, taking off his Legion hat, offered more contrast, but Beck’s relaxed confidence, talking about herself and how she became acquainted with Schreck – and how she empathized – augured well for the final segment of the show, where she’s called upon to be even more spontaneous and to interact with us.Cassie Beck and Jocelyn Shek in the North American Tour of WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME - Photo by Joan Marcus

Depending on the performance you attend, Jocelyn Shek or Emilyn Toffler will stride forward to debate the following proposition: The United States Constitution Should Be Abolished. Each night, a coin toss will determine which side of the issue the participants will argue. Shek, who argued for keeping the Constitution, was a different breed of high-schooler than the Heidi we had seen, a little less high-energy, more focus, and abundant self-assurance.

By this time, adult Heidi has sufficiently faulted our Constitution to nearly make the debate over the future of this venerated document a fair fight. But every night, the audience decides which of the two debaters is the winner. How this happens I will not divulge, but I will say that I’m convinced this segment should more fully demonstrate how an imperfect participatory democracy really works.

Obviously, the primacy of our Constitution has been enhanced by last year’s bloody January 6 insurrection, compounding the relevance of Schreck’s script after it was already a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist. With its testimonies from the two actors, with its nightly debate, including a rapidfire Q&A when the debaters shot questions at each other contributed by a previous audience, Schreck has provided room for her show to breathe and flow along with the tide of changing events. Like the US Constitution.

As a framer of her own show, Schreck has clearly had more fun than the more famous framers did at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. So will you.