Monstress is the first musical by New York City-based Hunger & Thirst Theatre. It may seem like a crazy idea: A musical about Greek mythology with original bluegrass/country music to match its rural Southeast American setting. The piece promises to be “a retelling of female-identifying monsters in canonical myths”. So, The Graeae (three “gray” sisters who shared one eye and one tooth among them…) are reinvented as a trio of gossipy, elderly sisters (Louise, Missus, and Allie, played by Olivia Billings, Rheanna Atendido, and Jianzi Colon-Soto) enjoying a
coffee ambrosia klatch of sorts on a front porch somewhere on The Gulf of Mexico. The eternal tale of The Sphinx becomes a story about a mysterious, much-maligned woman in an impoverished small town named “Miss Finx” (played by Natalie Hegg) who, as we learn, has got a uniquely American story of her own. To restate the obvious, undertaking this creative vision would be a Herculean (ahem…) task. Does it work?
Well, for stars, it is evident that this young, diverse ensemble cast of nine works very well together, and are clearly having fun in the process. Intentionally or not, the mood throughout the show– even with some heavy subjects explored along the way– is very much in the spirit of a bona fide, old-fashioned open air gathering, with equal parts storytelling and music. The show’s opening number, Carousel, has the cast singing a capella in perfect harmony. All throughout, the singing is adorned by some instruments that are only rarely seen today in live theater (the fiddle, the clarinet, the dulcimer… And of course, given the setting, there IS a banjo later on.) Fireflies, performed later on in the show, is another delightful example of the combined vocal talents of the cast. The show also gets to spotlight several of the performers in solo numbers. Now, Then, and Come-To Tree, sung by Rheanna Atendido, is a showstopper. The cast are all fine singers, all with unique vocal variations. Jianzi Colon-Soto, playing Echidna, clearly has a “rock and roll” style, while Adam Boggs McDonald adopts a hauntingly soulful vibe for his solo number Love Me When I Don’t.
But. about the Monstresses (“I’d kill all, Y’all’s worst enemies too; I’m just payin’, Heed to what is due! I’m a Monstrous Monstress, Check your spellin’ at the door!”): The first of the mythical mistresses to be showcased is Mother Nyx, the Greek goddess and the personification of the night. Perhaps the most interesting bit of trivia about Nyx is that she was the only goddess which Zeus feared– which is pointed out in the play. Was this deity as malevolent as she was fertile? Or was she just a powerful, intimidating presence? That question, which arises early in the musical, can also be asked of the other “monstresses” of the play: Were these female-identified legends really “bad”? (Or, to use some post-ancient Greek terminology, “nasty women”?) Or, where they misunderstood, misrepresented, and even exploited through generations of storytelling? Speaking of misunderstood… The second monstress to be explored is Echidna: half-woman and half-snake, who lived alone in a cave. Echidna was the mate of the fearsome monster Typhon and was the mother of many of the most famous monsters of Greek mythology. In this retelling, Echidna and “T” (Titus Tompkins) are engaged in a in a clash of titanic personalities: two strong and oh-so-stubborn spirits whose relationship is symbolized with an intense chorography of emotional and sexual dominance. Was Echidna a monstress, or did she need to do what she had to do to hold her own against her brutish lover?
While the spotlight on Echidna clearly “dances” with some heavy themes (implied rape and incest, nonconsensual BDSM; Later on, the play also gives some allusions to gun culture and mob mentality.), the segment “Catch and the Sirens” has a generous serving of humor and camp, largely thanks to the comedic skills of the Sirens themselves. In Greek mythology, The Sirens were birdlike creatures who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of their song. In this retelling, an ambitious yet weary soldier named Catch (Philip Estrera) comes across the trio of warblers while crossing the river into California. The Sirens in this version (Allison Kelly, Adam Boggs McDonald, and Rheanna Atendido) are less manipulative and (SPOILER ALERT…!) are more physical embodiments of pre-determined destiny. Of course, there’s also musical number! The audience, like Catch, will be seduced.
By now you may be asking about the most famous ancient Greek monstress of them all: Medusa. While the Gorgon herself has been eternally represented and reimagined for millennia, the Medusa “persona” has probably been one of the most analyzed phenomena as well. Many historians– pop culture and otherwise– have seen the snake-haired goddess as the ultimate (and quite literal) femme fatale, in addition to being a transgenerational symbol of dangerous “female rage”. Some feminist theories look upon Medusa as one of the earliest examples of “victim blaming” The Medusa in Monstress (Rheanna Atendido) eschews the serpentine locks but keeps her petrifying gaze. In this version, a modern-day Perseus (AKA “Percy”, played by Jordan Kaplan) keeps Medusa’s head for strictly opportunistic reasons.
So, to ask again.: Does this highly original, highly ambitious musical work? As a rural American fantasia on ancient Greek mythology, it’s both smart on a meta level and also highly entertaining. Audiences will appreciate such foot-tappers as Ego, sung by Titus Tompkins, or by the parallel universes of the American Southeast and ancient Greece: It gives modern characters the chance to say things like “All the Zeus-damn time...!” and “To hell and hades with it!” The ages old “Let’s put on a show!” theme really works for Hunger & Thirst Theatre’s vision: The homegrown element allows the piece to use organic, practical (albeit meticulously detailed) effects and modest, seemingly handmade costumes to its advantage. An example is using REAL darkness to create the appropriate mood for the first segment about Mother Nyx. Anyone who has been in rural areas knows the difference between “country darkness” and “city darkness.”, so this is pretty spot-on as to what these characters would do if they were really putting on an outdoor show.
This is one hootenanny you won’t want to miss.
Hunger & Thirst Theatre’s Monstress features book and lyrics by Emily Kitchens with original music by Ben Quinn and Titus Tompkins. The play is directed by Hondo Weiss-Richmond. Monstress continues through Saturday, November 5: Thursday at 7pm, Friday – Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm, with an additional performance on Wednesday, November 2 at 7pm. Performances are at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher Street between Greenwich Street and Washington Street). Tickets are $20. To purchase and for more information, visit HungerAndThirstTheatre.com. The cast is Rheanna Atendido, Jianzi Colón-Soto, Philip Estrera, Natalie Hegg, Jordan Kaplan, Allison Kelly, Adam Boggs McDonald , Olivia Billings, and Titus Tompkins. The design team includes Erica Zhang (set design); Yang Yu (lighting design); and Sera Bourgeau (costume design). The choreographer is Olivia Palacios. Heather Olmstead is the Production Stage Manager.