Friday, April 28, 2017

Ancient pillar of strength resists psychological erosion and finds love in "Mad Mad Hercules"

On the national stage (with one local iteration) we had "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Now we have a world premiere, from NoExit Performance in association with Zach Rosing Productions, called "Mad Mad Hercules." If titles with a repeated modifier applied to a deeply flawed hero become a thing, we may eventually have something like "Grabbing Grabbing Donald Trump."

Hercules has attributes of both those American presidents in Bennett Ayres' play, which I saw Thursday night at IndyFringe
Cerberus, the dog of Hades, is eager to spoil Hercules' final labor.
Theatre.  The strongman of ancient Greek mythology has the additional burdens of a drinking problem and a conflicted sexual identity on top of the traditional baggage of impulsiveness, anger-management issues, and moral indebtedness.

Played with headstrong verve and widely scattered disdain for social norms by Ryan Ruckman, the muscular hero is shown chiefly undertaking his famous Twelve Labors, imposed by the supercilious King Eurystheus as penance for having slaughtered his wife and children in a mad rage. The insane act was due to the sorcery of Hera, the wife of Zeus (Tony Armstrong, aptly thunderous) nursing a permanent grudge against her husband's infidelity, which resulted in Hercules. The Olympian queen, in Dena Toler's performance, coos at him with unctuous solicitude blended from modern self-help literature and Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.

Hercules listens glumly to the officious instructions of Eurystheus.
Ayres underplays Hercules' guilty conscience in order to lay emphasis on the hero's hatred of his stepmother. He is not favorably disposed toward Eurystheus, either, and their mutual insults are rank and raunchy. Josiah McCruiston, gliding about the stage in crown and robes as though they justify his every word and gesture, filled the royal role capably. Like most people conscious of their god-given good fortune, the king carries out his assigning task with lip-smacking cruelty.

So Hercules properly bears the two "mads" of the title — the insane kind and the angry kind. What saves him is the initially unpromising development of a partnership and romance with Iolaos, a farmhand assigned to accompany Hercules on his labors as a kind of minder. Nathan Thomas gave a full measure of fretfulness to the role, trying to restrain the hero's worst impulses. But Hercules brings off a number of the labors with the sort of luck he feels he can take full credit for, the way spoiled children often do far into adulthood.

The chorus looks on as Iolaos figures out the best way to protect himself and his charge.
A turning point is when Iolaos assists Hercules with the multi-headed Hydra, cauterizing one neck after another once Hercules has lopped off the head, thus preventing a new head's growth. And when Hercules captures the stag with golden horns in one of the show's loveliest scenes, his sensitive side emerges out of all the bluster. Then it only takes the pair's being grossed out by the sexual overtures of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (comically rapacious in Beverly Roche's performance) to help establish a full erotic bond between Hercules and Iolaos.

In fleshing out this relationship, Ayres has borrowed the cliche of many a romantic comedy, most of them heterosexual, in which an incompatible couple scraps from the first, only to find out that being joined in a common cause overcomes all obstacles to love. There's an undercurrent in popular culture of male bonding taking an erotic turn through shared adventure, as hackneyed Batman-Robin jokes make clear.

Athena, studious goddess of wisdom
In my prepubescent innocence, I always thought the Lone Ranger and Tonto made a cute couple, as played in those unforgettable low voices by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. But most such partnerships resist that kind of chemistry; "Brokeback Mountain" could wait.  I never saw a hint of it in, to stick to the Western genre, the relationship between the Cisco Kid and Pancho. On the other hand, the concluding guffawing tags of each episode — "Oh, Pancho!"  "Oh, Ceeesssco!" — can easily be imagined crowed leeringly by the sombreroed buddies after a night of exuberant love-making.

At any rate, the love-interest innovation works in this show. It creates some development in a myth treatment that might otherwise be merely episodic. Hercules' long-desired transfiguration at the end cuts off the love affair, but there would hardly be any other way out.

The imaginative and technically astute use of light and sound, the elaborate use of three-dimensional and  shadow puppets, and the wide, always suitable range of costuming were unfailing, brilliantly realized in this production, directed by Zack Neiditch and produced by Zach Rosing.  Indeed, I'm not sure what the purpose of the Chorus' lines casting doubt on the show's production values was. To disarm criticism? Well, consider me disarmed.

I'm also doubtful whether references to contemporary popular culture — "The Gilmore Girls" and Trisha Yearwood — add anything to the show except a gag line or two. But I liked the satirical thrust at self-absorbed graduate students in chorus member Devan Mathias' cameo appearance as Athena. Maybe when you're tweaking a story thousands of years old, it's advisable to insert some unrelated fun to indicate the timelessness of the story. Brute male strength and assertiveness always need to be leavened by intelligence and love so that whatever the gods have handed you in life doesn't determine everything you are.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]