Brush off that Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, get skimming through Madeleine Miller’s novels, and get your butt down to Pantheon at Happenstance Theater Company. They have combined their classic silent film stylings of physical comedy with classic Greek mythology and the results are a fantastical spectacle for the eyes and ears.
The Pantheon of the title is cited in the program as a reference to “the panoply of characters, myths, and their many versions, but also the Roman temple whose oculus at its top seemed an inspirational image: a portal to a world of stories that still permeate Western art and culture.” I have seen the remaining building on my travels, and its history is unclear. It is one of the oldest structures surviving, and is thought to have been a temple. They also cite that their setting “in a 1940s world of earthbound human workers and Silver Screen divine celebrities is a kind of cultural/historical bridge between their ancient origins and our current challenges.” But I assure you, as deep and philosophical as this sounds, the show itself is whimsical and fun. Trust me.
The first several moments are perfectly orchestrated. Five jumpsuit, factory worker clad actors take the stage in a series of movements to mimic working an assembly line. Then one of the actors, Craig Jaster, breaks off and takes up residence downstage left as the one-man band. He played at least seven or more instruments that I could keep track of! He is so mesmerizing working various foot pedals, playing drums, strumming a cello (I think), sometimes I found myself watching him instead of the actors.
Gwen Grastorf plays a multitude of roles, as do all of the actors in this ensemble piece, but her highlight is of course as the crooning and heartbroken Orpheus. As she pursues her long lost love Eurydice into the underworld, her journey allows for several songs and moments of classic repose with a crisp white suit and hat clutched to the chest. One of her comedy infused lovely snippets was when she calms the Cerberus (a three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades) with “How much is that doggie in the window?” Lols for days.
Mark Jaster is not only the co-director of Happenstance but a key worker, or actor, or ensemble member for this piece. He shines in his comedic ladder routines reminiscent of Buster Keaton, or as Proteus- a minor sea god who can prophecy, but shapeshifts quickly to avoid the task. The directions given to Aristaeus is to ask her question and then “hold on tight” leading to one of the funniest tag team wrestling matches ever staged. My friend referred to him as Bruce Willis- and I agree there is an uncanny resemblance, or it was just the lights, camera, action playing tricks on us. Either way, utterly adorable and well played.
Sabrina Mandell is a company member, Artistic Co-Director, and the beekeeper. Her standout was Aristaeus (see above), the ancient beekeeper and bit of a slave driver who unfortunately gets Eurydice as a volunteer. While in her employment she meets her demise and sets off the series of events that unfold as the center of this production. She is also comically charged as one of the Three Graces who all sing “Pick me” to Paris when posed the question of who is the fairest? She keeps stealing the mic to shout “pick me.” Comic gold.
And there’s Alex and Olmstead who never seem to rest! I ran into them at Mass Rabble, saw them open this show, and then found out they have another show coming April 26th. I don’t know when you sleep guys! Alex Vernon plays several key characters here but is funniest to watch as Paris, a young man tasked with picking the fairest from three goddesses. He seems overwhelmed, excited, and scared, and nervous, and exasperated all at once. Divine to watch. Or as Phaethon, supposedly the sun of Helios, the sun god who asks to drive the sun chariot and kind of wrecks things (in case you didn’t read up, I won’t spoil it too much).
And finally Sarah Olmstead. What to say about this utterly beautiful and divine nymph? She shines as Eurydice, the mortal love of Orpheus. She delights as a gossipy factory worker; she makes us all laugh as the Sphinx telling bad jokes; she illuminates as Aphrodite in her sweeping Grecian dress. She is an amazing talent, a genuinely lovely soul, and all-around amazing individual. If you have not seen her perform, what are you waiting for?
And then let’s talk about the puppetry and shadows! Once the characters enter the underworld, things change. Many of the things too astounding for stage are presented aptly via shadows and puppets on a large white sheet that is backlit. From monsters to eternal punishments, it was a clever storytelling device that punctuated the performance without distracting from the live action in the least.
And the props! Let me tell you- I feel kind of like they gave a group of people some ladders and a sheet and said- how many things can you make? For the record, you can make a boat, a temple, an assembly line, and many many more. Utterly astounding. And proving that a big budget is not always a guarantee of a big show. This show is utterly unstoppable with simple household items repurposed.
And the costumes! Swoon! Sabrina Mandell had her work cut out for her- they all seem to slip in and out of those factory jumpsuits and into so many other renditions! From a WWI fighter pilot to a Grecian goddess, it seemed sometimes like there were duplicates of some of the actors. With grace and speed they transformed, re-entered, and just as quickly changed again.
The recurring question of sacrifice kept popping up like a refrain. I think the bottom line asked of these mortals and deities alike is- what are you willing to sacrifice? Some rise to the challenge better than others. But all in all it is a staged reminder that without risk, life is not worth the living. In this case the risk paid off, and this adventure of a show is worth every penny of admission.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? This amazing performance, it not one to miss! Between the one-man band, the shadow puppetry, and divine ensemble acting- there is hardly a stone unturned. Go for the comedy, stay for the story and genuinely amazing performance.
Running time about an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission. Running at Theater Project through April 14th.