June 29--A terrific idea dwells at the center of "The Death of Cupid," playwright/director Kyle Hatley's dramatic comedy about the competing realities of gods and mortals in the Greco-Roman world.
The idea, seemingly simple but complex, amounts to this: What if the gods are unaware that they aren't real? What if they don't realize they're simply ideas generated by the human mind? And what happens when humans reject them?
Hatley staged a shorter version of this play in 2009 at the KC Fringe Festival, but the new production at the Living Room is fuller, richer and more nuanced. It's still saturated with sex vibes and penetrating humor. His shift to a tragic tone in the final section, although less awkward, still feels forced.
He has assembled an enormous group of talented actors and musicians to pull off what he calls a "whiskey musical."Thanks to their skills and his own eccentric vision, he achieves a sort of epic grandeur. That has a lot to do with the music, most of which is derived from folk and gospel traditions. Musical director Eryn Bates has put together a terrific band, and her vocal arrangements are frequently stunning.
The piece is based in part of "Lysistrata," Aristophanes' comedy about the women of Athens organizing a sex strike to force their men to end the city's seemingly endless war with Sparta.
Hatley overlays that basic plot with another involving the gods and their reactions to the boldness of Lysistrata (Megan Herrera) and the Athenian women. Athena (Natalie Liccardello), who views the ongoing conflict as "her war," is angered that such an audacious challenge to the gods would originate in the city named for her.
Her sister Aphrodite (Vanessa Severo), the goddess of love and beauty, is outraged that anyone would withhold sex for any reason. They each seek counsel with their mother Hera (Casey Scoggins), a hedonist who sees the writing on the wall: "We are a dying breed," she tells Athena.
Cupid (Daria LeGrand), the god of sexual attraction, is an adolescent terror, prone to tantrums and primed to loose his arrows with little provocation. Aphrodite, his mother, sees nothing wrong with his antics until Cupid goes too far and starts slaying mortals. Ultimately, Hera decides Cupid must die. But with Cupid dies Fate -- leaving humans to live by free will.
Hatley is nothing if not ambitious, and at times his dramatic narrative is too complicated for its own good. Virtually every sequence is a major set piece. Hatley's directing skill (assisted in a big way from Severo, the show's choreographer) is unquestionable, but some viewers may wonder if he couldn't have streamlined the journey to his denouement.
The charismatic Herrera commands the stage with impressive performing instincts and a great singing voice. Her ensemble of Athenian women showcases individual performances that add texture and humor to the show.
Scoggins is an elegant presence who plays Hera as a philosophical pragmatist indulging an erotic relationship with Hercules (Jeff Smith in a cameo). Liccardello makes a vivid Athena, although Hatley might have thought to invest at least minimal humor in the character. Severo employs her formidable comedic skills to good effect and holds the stage like -- well, like a Greek goddess.
Acting as our guide and narrator is Khaos, played with blustery authority by Katie Gilchrist. As Cupid, LeGrand is riveting in the final minutes as the character is backed into a corner; earlier in the show she makes the most of the comic moments in a performances that sometimes seems too shrill.
Zachary Parker is impressive in his second-act appearance as Hades and Forrest Attaway amusingly turns on his sleaze-bag vibes as the Magistrate. Overall the cast functions well as an ensemble, with each performer making a contribution. Gary Campbell's quirky, vivid costumes and John "Moose" Kimball's dynamic lighting are major plusses.
One thing seems certain: You won't be able to this play out of your head. The work is often pungently comic, but it demands to be taken seriously.
To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email email@example.com.
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