During intermission, as Demeter reports, 500 years pass; the present finds her presiding from her pedestal in a New York City park, unwilling witness to a parade of human misery, crime, and corruption as well as helpless victim of defacement, acid rain, and a rain of pigeon droppings. “If only I could look away,” she continually moans, “that would be heaven.” Here the actors appear and reappear as a cornucopia of craven or unhappy caricatures, including prostitutes, drug dealers, vandals, crazies, a bad cop looking for any blow job he can get, and a sad mortal version of Demeter herself: a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered at the statue’s feet. This aching soul visits daily to chat up and wash off the monument she considers the only thing of beauty in her ruined life. The view of art in the animal kingdom, however, has looked up: Demeter’s present communicant is a rat who spends his free time skittering about the Metropolitan Museum amid as many as 20,000 dangerous feet. Before abruptly and hilariously surrendering to mortality, he marvels that “out of all this horror man has made so many beautiful things.”
If only Haidle had explored more deeply — and less repetitively — his central metaphor. Act one is funny, but too much of the humor derives from anachronistic language and sexual situations. And act two is a grotesque cartoon of an urban landscape gone horribly wrong. No wonder Demeter wants to close her marble eyes; she cannot, after all, expect the mythological rescue with which the play ends. This is not to say that Persephone is not enjoyable in its smutty, whimsical way, just that it’s unsatisfying. The play is beautifully lit by Ben Stanton, with an eye toward the endless recycling of the days, but the sets by David Korins are too literal for Haidle’s non-naturalistic vision. Melinda Lopez, a last-minute replacement, makes a marvelously earthy statue, the folds in her personality less studied than those in her robe. Mimi Lieber is adorable as the vampy Celia and wrings unexpected poignance from the grieving mom of the second act, wielding her vigilante attack on Demeter’s tormentors. Seth Fisher combines moony comedy with toughness, and the always reliable Jeremiah Kissel crosses both centuries and species with aplomb.
Valhalla is also the stuff of myth, but it’s not so splendid as Wagner’s palace of the gods. Paul Rudnick’s over-the-top comedy, which is in its area premiere by Zeitgeist Stage Company (at the BCA Black Box through May 5), is as big a mess as the plot of the Ring Cycle — which at least has only one plot. Rudnick weaves together a couple of tales in an attempt to say something about humanity’s pursuit of beauty — something on which you might think gay humanity had a lock. At one end of the narrow playing space lurks the classical splendor in which the adolescent Ludwig II of Bavaria — later the “mad” builder of storybook castles, including the opera-inspired Neuschwanstein — comes of uncomfortable age, his beauty-loving head in a cloud of Wagnerian opera. At the other end is the porch of a drab Texas dwelling where, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, bisexual charmer James Avery wages his own fight against ugliness, whether exemplified by brown wallpaper or the restrictions of the Bible Belt. For most of its two-hours-plus length, the comedy plays ping-pong among the two stories, finally melding them in a mad frenzy when, during World War II, James and his childhood friend/lover Henry Lee Stafford parachute into Bavaria and discover Ludwig’s wedding cake of a castle for themselves. Eventually Henry Lee finds his way to the Valhalla of Norse mythology as James finds his way home, guardian of more than one heart.