The theater director Robert Wilson has been faithful to his artistic obsessions for more than four decades. Starkly arresting visual tableaus, dramatically beautiful lighting and deliberately stylized gesture are among the tools with which he has created a repertory of epic-scale theater, opera and dance works.
Keith McDermott, as the poet, recites Persephone’s story in English.
Those signature elements are all present in his little-seen “Persephone,” performed here on Saturday and Sunday nights in the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, where the piece was first shown in 1995.
Unlike the 10-course meal of Mr. Wilson’s Wagner “Ring” cycle or “I La Galigo” at last year’s Lincoln Center Festival, “Persephone” is a simply plated hors d’oeuvre. Just an hour long, it uses eight performers — rarely all onstage together — to present the Greek myth in a condensed and, for Mr. Wilson, relatively brisk fashion.
The piece begins with the lulling rhythms of Philip Glass’s music and a black-robed, white-faced immobile figure (“the poet”) on the stage. A mellifluous stream of Greek begins; it’s a recording of the Homeric ode recounting the abduction of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth, whose grief plunges the world into wintry sterility. The poet (an intense Keith McDermott) begins to recite the text in English, and the story’s deities — Persephone, Demeter, Hades, Zeus, Hermes — flit across the stage in a dreamlike manner.
The Homeric ode, the beginning of which is repeated a number of times, tells the whole tale immediately. (The piece includes additional text by Brad Gooch and Maita di Niscemi.) Persephone, picking flowers with her friends, is swept away by Hades, god of the underworld; her mother roams the earth, neglecting the harvest, until Zeus, king of the gods, offers a compromise: Persephone will spend six months of the year with Hades, the other six with her mother.
Over five scenes Mr. Wilson presents the story in a number of subtly different incarnations, sometimes juxtaposing a slightly bathetic modern take on the tale with a contrasting visual grandeur, evoked in part through the simple, sculptural lines of chairs, a long table and a cloaklike net cage. Hades, clad in black with a wire frame around his head, offers his version of the abduction as “a couple of whiskeys and she doesn’t know what’s happening.” A gigantic Zeus, in response to Demeter’s impassioned lament, feebly responds, “My brother Hades goes too far sometimes.”
These sections, and a busy underworld scene set to piano music by Rossini, are less successful than others in which Mr. Wilson’s rigorously choreographed, large-scale movement is amplified by Mr. Glass’s hypnotic music, the elegant costumes (by Christophe de Menil) and the rich lighting (by A. J. Weissbard and Mr. Wilson) that floods the stage with apricot-tone sunsets or backlights it in blue and chartreuse. Mr. Wilson is a master at evoking performances from his actors in which the essence of the character, rather than any notion of interpretation, is at the fore. Most notable were Haruno Yoshida, a gently smiling, almost impassive presence as a Persephone at the center of a vortex of emotions, and Sri Qadariatin’s powerful and moving invocation of loss as Demeter.
“Persephone” is a kind of chamber piece, a meditative and highly focused composition that occasionally exposes the more mannered side of Mr. Wilson’s work. But it also offers us an imaginative journey to the heart of the myth, and a vision of the way that humans tell stories to give life meaning.