By E.R. Pulgar, Staff Writer
The legend of the half-woman, half-snake daemon Lamia goes back to Ancient Greece. Since then, it’s been told and retold so many times, it’s hard to know which version is the original. More than any of these, Theatre Uzume’s knockout production has more in common with John Keats’ narrative poem version of the myth and, surprisingly, “The Little Mermaid.”
The setup for “Lamia” is different from a straightforward myth: the story of the Lamia is told through flashback scenes in the present day by a storyteller (played by Amy Fulgham) attempting to calm a bride (Janice Gerlach) on her wedding day with the tragic story of Lamia’s wedding. In this particular version of Lamia, the snake-woman (played masterfully by Aurea Tomeski) falls for Lycius, a human (Brent Shultz). Seeking to marry him, she encounters a stranger (wonderfully witchy Kelsey Foltz) to transform her into a human. This ends badly when, at their wedding feast, Lamia’s true nature is revealed; the failed wedding myth is told alongside the story of bride’s pre-nuptial jitters. As the story progresses toward the ending, the bride begs the storyteller to stop, and the storyteller counters, saying the bride—and the audience— need to see it through to the end.
“Lamia” is billed as a “dance-theater exploration;” rather than relying on props, the actors make use of their bodies, lighting, and music to fill the sparse setting. When they are not active in a scene, the remainder of the ensemble is used similarly to the muses of Greek theater or as props themselves, with the Groom (PJ Johnnie) at one point being used as a chair. This stretching of the body’s positioning goes well with the atmosphere of the play and, far from comical, goes a long way in crafting a modern play with roots in ancient tradition. Despite the focus on dance’s expressiveness, the play’s more inventive touches of modernity come from the music.
Helmed by John Gerber of Brooklyn-based band Ellis Ashbrook, the musical interludes and original songs play up the drama with all the twang of an indie tragic romance. Were the play setup any other way, this might feel clunky; rather, the music adds an original and touching feel, especially when accompanying the more classically-rooted parts of the play. There are few things cooler than a Greek myth sound-tracked by heartbreaking indie rock.
Excellent music and techniques aside, the true victory of “Lamia” is in its emphasis on humanizing a half-human mythology, while empowering the storyteller and the individual. Despite the myth’s tragic ending, which the Bride bemoans as it is told, the play ends on a hopeful note, the tragedy of Lamia used as a foil for the hopeful Bride going forward with her own wedding.
The uplifting ending, especially bolstered forward by the powerful performances of Tomeski and Fulgham, leave a powerful impression: despite the tragedies of the past, we can move forward from strife. We can change our own endings, and by choosing to sparingly touch the myth of Lamia and instead use it alongside the Bride’s own story, the play proves itself original, compelling, and heartfelt.
“Lamia” is running at The Theater of the 14th Street Y as a part of The New York International Fringe Festival. Find information and tickets here.