VALHALLA: A demanding sprawl of silliness.
From Shakespeare to Shaw, statues have come to life on stage. But until Noah Haidle’s Persephone (presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 6), none has conversed with a rat (unless you count Don Juan). Haidle, however, has less in common with the dead white masters than with his teacher, Christopher Durang, with whom he shares an arbitrary, absurdist sensibility. The 28-year-old writer has already penned half a dozen plays with wildly imaginative premises, including Mr. Marmalade, whose four-year-old heroine has an abusive businessman for an imaginary friend, and Vigils, in which a widow keeps her dead husband’s soul trapped in a box. Princess Marjorie, like Persephone, has roots in classical mythology. But Haidle is adamant that he isn’t out to say anything, and in the oft-entertaining Persephone, which fails to earn its redemptive ending, that shows.
The play was inspired, the playwright has said, by his speculation that a statue of Goethe in New York’s Bryant Park had rather a dull time of it watching kids go up and down on a nearby carousel all day long. This appears to have set him thinking about a number of big themes, including the misery of the world, the mercilessness of mortality, and the power of art. I would suggest that he hasn’t thought hard enough, or even tried to, preferring to launch piquant notions into the æther and watch them playfully and nastily collide. The reason that Persephone delighted more as a staged reading in last spring’s Breaking Ground Festival of new-play readings than it does in full production — even a visually tricked-out, well-acted one helmed by Durang specialist Nicholas Martin — is that it’s highly original but sketchy. Haidle has a knack for mixing whimsy and tragedy, but in Persephone, at least, he doesn’t know where to take the bubbling concoction once he’s whipped it up. In the play’s second act the blender just whirs and whirs, then explodes in a burst of gold confetti and spring flowers — a theatrical allusion to the myth of Persephone that’s no payoff.
Like David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Persephone boasts two differently structured acts that nonetheless cohere. Act one is set in 1507 Florence, where the central character, a statue of the goddess Demeter, is under construction. Giuseppe, her young creator, is struggling with the shoulder from which the harvest goddess extends her arm to Persephone, the daughter who gets abducted to the Underworld by Hades. Giuseppe is also struggling with a couple of relative philistines: the model Celia, who has made the rounds from Botticelli to Michelangelo, probably servicing more than their “vision,” and the patron Alfonso, who has commissioned the statue to guard the tomb of his recently deceased daughter. As for the maternal icon herself, this Demeter yearns less for Persephone than for Giuseppe, whose corruption by the carnal world represented by Celia and Alfonso breaks her heart. But it’s a tough planet, Demeter is informed by the only character who hears her thoughts: a mouse who turns up to scrounge a bit of cheese and tell the lofty artwork that beauty’s fine but it won’t feed your belly or keep folks from stepping on you.