Like many teenagers in the late 1980s and early 90s, Heidi Schreck was obsessed with Patrick Swayze. Unlike many teenagers, Schreck earned money for college by winning speech contests in American Legion halls across the United States. What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck’s reimagining of those speeches, is less about America’s founding document than the country’s history of violence against women. The play’s humdrum title is misdirection. What the Constitution Means to Me is feminist agitprop autobiography masquerading as civics lesson, not blurring the line between the personal and the political but denying that such a line ever existed.
Star wattage backed up by first-rate acting gives Sam Gold’s production of Othello a must-see status. Indeed, one suspects that without the celebrity power, Shakespeare’s rarely staged tragedy might have taken even longer to reappear on the boards. (John Douglas Thompson gave a superb interpretation in a traditional production back in 2009, although there is currently a rap version, Othello: The Remix, playing in midtown.)
Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, a concept album turned folk opera, adapts the myth of Orpheus by infusing it with American folk and New Orleans jazz music. Now playing at New York Theatre Workshop, Hadestown follows Orpheus (Damon Daunno) to hell and back again in pursuit of his young lover, Eurydice (Nabiyah Be), who has been lured there by the lord of the underworld, Hades (Patrick Page). Being a “folk opera,” the production is almost entirely sung-through, and Rachel Chavkin’s direction carries one song fluidly into the next. Like its classical source, Hadestown is alternatively gorgeous and dark, and the heartfelt commitment of the cast and musical ensemble brings the myth’s paradoxically sad beauty into full bloom.
As an energetic balance of hope and sadness, Hadestown finds light in the darkness and vice versa. The production’s casting reflects this balance: the naiveté of Be’s Eurydice and Daunno’s Orpheus contrasts starkly with the underworldly knowingness of Amber Gray’s Persephone and Chris Sullivan’s Hermes. Sullivan’s portrayal of his character is particularly complicated, as an enlisted messenger for the underworld with a soft heart for the young lovers. The Fates (played by Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub, and Lulu Fall) are similarly uncommitted in their alliances, singing at times of great love and at others of shattering despair. As the brooding, unrelenting Hades, Page’s reverberating bass vocals figuratively open the doors of hell itself. In voice and movement, this hugely talented ensemble strikes near-perfect harmony in Act I. Act II contains major strengths, including some of the show’s most tear-jerking moments, but overall it lacks the simpatico energy of Act I.
Based on Mitchell’s celebrated folk album, music is the absolute center of Hadestown. Indeed, at times this music-forward production feels more like a highly-produced concert than a play—which works well with such a polished songbook. Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose’s co-arrangements and Liam Robinson’s musical direction sonically transform the space into a concert-in-the-round, immersing audiences with powerful voices and instrumentals.
Chavkin puts the space, reconfigured to stadium seating, to great use with entrances and exits from all angles and levels. Visually, Bradley King’s lighting synergizes with the music, especially in Act I’s penultimate “Wait for Me.” In this number, the Fates swing hanging wire lamps to and fro, visually embodying the show’s undulating emotional landscape between hope and uncertainty.
Adapting ancient Greek myths is nothing new for off-Broadway directors, but Mitchell and Chavkin’s Hadestown feels particularly fresh right now. In the “Wedding Song” Eurydice asks her new lover Orpheus how their young, penniless relationship will ever survive with “times being what they are—dark and getting darker all the time.” Eurydice’s ambiguity resonates in a time when the American middle class is dwindling and senseless acts of violence continue to erupt here and abroad. Later in Act I, Hades delivers a timely diatribe in the song “Why We Build the Wall,” echoing the latent xenophobia drummed up by the current election campaign’s fear-based politicking.
At the same time, amid this darkness, the pure love between Eurydice and Orpheus shines through—even Hades and Persephone's fraught relationship contains a hidden softness. Indeed, the sweet vulnerabilities embedded in the music and performances of Hadestown convey the very joys and hardships that make being human so painfully beautiful.
Hadestown runs through July 31 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue.) No late seating. Tickets are available here or by calling 212-460-5475.