Gods and Other Lovers: Hunger & Thirst Theatre’s “DISCUS” comes to NYC

DISCUS, written by Becca Schlossberg and directed by Jenn Susi, is a highly stylized, elaborately designed, and well-paced new adaptation of the enduring Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinth.  Hyacinth (AKA “Hyacinthus”) was a prince of Sparta who was both stunningly handsome and a neophyte athlete: To the ancient Greeks, who famously valued both beauty and athleticism, this was indeed an enviable combination.  According to classic lore, Hyacinth was so desirable that he earned the affections of many admirers.  The most famous and the most consequential of these admirers was Apollo, the god of (Get ready…) archery, music and dance, truth and prophecy, healing and diseases, the sun and light, poetry, and more. That’s enough to give any deity an ego, but more about that later… At the beginning of DISCUS, Hyacinth (played with appropriately palpable charm by Patrick T. Horn) is lost in the “Nether Place”, complete with eerie music playing in the background. We are not sure whether he’s even alive or dead, and he doesn’t know either.  What exactly happened?

Schlossberg’s faithful yet innovative new retelling of this ancient love story starts with the “sweet, sweet” Hyacinth becoming reciprocally attracted to Apollo (played with gusto by Philip Estrera).   His feelings for the vain, grandiose Olympian have Apollo going from Hyacinth’s “mentor”, to “personal trainer”, to “friend”, and eventually to… “lover”.   We watch the theatrical equivalent of an extended mating dance on the romantically lit black box stage: In the beginning, Apollo patiently teaches Hyacinth better techniques for throwing the titular “discus”. Before you can say “It’s all Greek to me!”, the two have progressed to a full-on passionate affair, with Hyacinth humbly but in no uncertain turns demanding no less than a proclamation of true love from the popular god. In return, Apollo, in turn, is indeed a state of “love readiness”, bemoaning “There is loneliness in godliness.”  As mentioned before, Apollo is powerful: His strong-willed twin sister Artemis (played by Patricia Lynn in an appropriately headstrong performance) seems to be the only one who can keep him in check.  But it’s more than ego: Apollo, apparently, has some darker traits. Can this “mixed ” relationship (human and deity) work?  Will Hyacinth’s beauty ultimately “kill the beast”?

In the universe of DISCUS, the gods and mortals enjoy a sort of co-dependent relationship, alternating between mutually beneficial and mutually exploitative.  The gods even throw well-hyped “benefits” for their human counterparts: In the words of Apollo– who, of course, serves as M.C.– the benefits are “a night to ensure that our human brethren have a permanent home in Gaia.” There’s even a “meet and greet” of sorts, with a lineup of presumably VIP “gods and beauties alike”.  (Yes, it’s as deliberately campy as it sounds.) Intentionally or not, director Schlossberg sees the ancient Greek human/divine dynamic in DISCUS as parallel with modern day pop culture celebrity worship. And, as in the case with celebrities, all is not perfect beneath the Instagram-filtered image they project. Why do the gods even tolerate the “mere mortals”?  Well, like our modern-day celebrities who need attention to stay relevant, these gods seemingly need human worship to feel good about themselves.  That said, whether it be gods, celebrities, or “mere mortals” in 480 BC or 2022 AD, love sometimes does break through barriers of “status”…

But, back to Hyacinth.  In DISCUS, Apollo is not the only character who fancies the young man.  Hyacinth also ignites the carnal desires of Zephyrus (a searingly passionate Alejandra Venancio), the deity of the west wind who is called “the jealous wind” by some. Like Artemis, Zephyrus can more than just hold her own; as the daughter of a Titan, she can present a challenge to Apollo just as well.  Jealousy and desire lead to the play’s central tragedy, which in turn forces Apollo to make some urgent decisions. Those who already know the myth of Hyacinth and Apollo may know about the story’s famous conclusion, where Hyacinth earns some level of… dare we say, “immortality”.  In DISCUS, Estrela’s intense portrayal of Appollo in the final scene remind us of why this tale earned its status as one of history’s most enduring love stories.  

In addition to creating strong characters, writer Schlossberg and director Susi also incorporate some smart levity into DISCUS, allowing the audience to steal some laughter even while the Titans and Olympians are on the verge of war.  The humor comes largely from the gossipy Notos (Rita McCann) and Boreas (Alexander Settineri), who throw out dishy lines like, “The Titans are, like… SO excited!”, as well as the sassy performance of Victoria Fragnito, who plays Hades for laughs while still being true to the character’s long and not-always-noble history.   Schlossberg also throws in some keen symbolism, such as when Hyacinth educates Apollo about the importance of flowers and when Zeus sends Apollo the Hyacinth lookalike Ganymede as his messenger.  The intimacy of the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre’s black box space works very well for DISCUS, as does the lighting, which I can only describe as, well… “divine”.  The costume design, as well as the music and sound effects, are also excellent.  

Hunger & Thirst Theatre presents DISCUS, which continues Thursday, March 24 @ 7pm; Friday, March 25 @ 8pm; Saturday, March 26 @ 3pm. Performances are at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street, between 10th Avenue and 11th Avenue). The regular ticket price is $15 through March 14. Starting March 15, tickets are $20. $10 tickets are available with a two-item non-perishable food donation. For ticket sales, vaccination requirements for patrons, and more information, visit www.hungerandthirsttheatre.com. The running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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