Myths disseminate from culture to culture like phrases relayed in a game of telephone: the Greeks borrowed from African and Egyptian myths, Romans borrowed from Greek sources, and the Renaissance, in turn, embroidered upon Roman tales. With each retelling, a subtle change of emphasis, a detail added or evaded, could alter the myth's meaning entirely. Yet some universal essence of these myths survives, helping form, as well as adapting to, each culture's values. The earliest recorded version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is by the Latin prose writer Apuleius in his book The Golden Ass. It is the template for modern fairy tales, at least the happy kind with a Prince Charming and wicked stepsisters. Joseph Fisher's new work, Cupid & Psyche, plays jazz-like improvisations upon this standard story, enriching it while elucidating its relevance to us today.
Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and desire, has developed a few unseemly wrinkles lately. Her acolytes have abandoned her in favor of Psyche, a mortal princess of astonishing purity. Jealous, she hatches a plot to get Cupid, her son, to make Psyche fall in love with an ugly monster. But when Cupid sees her, it's love at first sight.
The problem is, Cupid doesn't want Psyche to see him because his own supernatural beauty makes any mortal who sees him fall instantly in love. He wants Psyche to love him for himself and not his looks. He whisks her away to a labyrinthine cloud castle, where he talks to her every night in the dark. Lonely, though beginning to love him, she asks for her sniveling sisters to visit her. They convince her that her husband must be a hideous demon and that she should spy on him while he's asleep, despite his grave warnings to the contrary.
In the instant she beholds his beauty, she is banished from it. Aphrodite's wrath is still unquenched, however, and she reluctantly enlists the help of her hated rival, Apollo, to get rid of Psyche for good. To win back Cupid's love, Psyche must travel to Hades and risk eternal sleep. Suffice it to say, a kiss from the charming Cupid can awaken this sleeping Cinderella so that the tale concludes happily ever after.
Revealingly, the star of the story in this production is Fisher's original character Runt, a mortal servant to Aphrodite and Cupid. Runt, played with bravado by Nick Cearley, possesses an endearing frailty as the "wise fool" that makes him a more empathetic character than the all-too-human gods. His puckish insinuations steal the show wonderfully from the allegorized "beautiful people" of the gods.
The gods have spunk of their own, though, as most evident in Johnny Sparks's portrayal of Apollo. He convincingly demonstrates a wide emotional range, from haughty intellectual snob to heartbroken unrequited lover.
Director Alex Lippard has done an admirable job blocking the play, aided by Lucas Benjaminh Krech's imaginative lighting design and Michael Moore's set. Scenes on Earth take place at the back of the stage within a gigantic gilt frame surrounded by sheer white veils. Other scenes occur on the stage proper, where large, tear-shaped lightbulbs drip down like icicles and two smaller gold frames on both sides of the stage contain sources of misty, aqua-green illumination.
Costume designer Erin Elizabeth Murphy adds an allegorical dimension by giving the mortals' outfits cool turquoise accents while adorning the gods in shades of hot pink. Thus, it's perhaps telling that Runt, unlike the other mortals, wears a sleeveless pastel-pink sweater, while Apollo, unlike the other gods, has faint blue accents in his golden tie.
While Fisher's script has many funny and profound lines, the writing style seems too prosaic at times. The overweening passions of the gods, one feels, should be allowed to burst forth in poetry and song—or, at least, pop lyrics. Dare I suggest this fairy tale would work better as a musical?
Also, the end of the first act, in which Cupid finally kisses Psyche, made me wonder if the play had ended: there was no cliffhanger to entice the audience to come back after intermission.
On the other hand, the play's real ending seemed slightly rushed, with too many unexplained events—why, for example, can Cupid's kiss awake Psyche from death, and wouldn't Aphrodite know this as Cupid's mother? Moreover, not enough plot strings (or heartstrings) are tied up: we never quite learn, for example, what becomes of Aphrodite and Apollo.
Nonetheless, Cupid and Psyche presents a creative and entertaining new interpretation of a myth that has previously captivated such artists as Antonio Canova, Agnolo Bronzino, and Walter Pater. The production conveys the tension between the physical gaze of mortal love and the inner eye's gaze on the immortal soul, in a parable that is at once timely and timeless.