We’re on a theatre trip to Chicago and thought we’d share our thoughts on the plays we’re seeing, along with some ideas from the plays you can use in your own theatre program.
Here’s our look at Hephaestus, a circus adaptation of the Greek myth.
Craig: Hey, we’re here talking about our second day of our Chicago theatre tour, and the second play we saw was called Hephaestus, presented by Lookingglass Theatre at the Goodman. Lindsay, tell us about Hephaestus.
Lindsay: Okay. So Hephaestus is a Greek myth, and the story is pretty simple. Hephaestus is an illegitimate child. Hera, who was the big kahuna wife of the big kahuna god, throws him off the mountain. He tumbles, tumbles, tumbles. He learns how to make really cool stuff. Hera wants the stuff and invites him back up to Mount Olympus. Hephaestus, quite naturally, is not so keen to go, and Hera sends down a number of gods to convince him. Then, finally, she finds one who convinces him and he goes back up to Mount Olympus.
Craig: Yeah, well, that’s the story itself, but the story was told in the framework of a child reading a bedtime story to herself.
Lindsay: And it’s important to note that all of the elements of the story are being told through circus elements. So there is aerial silk being used. There was aerial hoop, trapeze, the big…
Craig: The German wheel thing.
Lindsay: The German wheel, which was lovely – an acrobatic duo, which was very stunning and ended with a seven-man trapeze…
Lindsay: Sorry, tightrope act, which was trademarked by The Flying Wallendas, and most of them were in this play. There were some generation circus performers in this play, which was what was thrilling about it. It was really thrilling to see circus up close like that. The theatre was very small and the audiences were on three sides, so you had circus up close and personal.
Craig: Yes. So we know that the circus acts were great and we were to see a play. So the question then remains, how does it work as a play? And I have to say, and I think I speak for both of us, it didn’t work as a play, and I’ll tell you why. I think they were afraid of just telling the story. They could have told the story purely through a circus and I think we would have all gotten it.
Lindsay: You know, I wish they had really had more confidence in telling the story with their bodies. You know, when a guy drops from the ceiling, he’s in straps, so it’s quite clear that he’s flying. He’s got a cape on, arrogant look on his face. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to go, “Well, this must be a god.” And then they use red lights, and I’m like, “Well, this must be the god of war.” They could have easily told the story just with their bodies, and to have a child narrator telling a very—oh, the script was very, very child-ish, not even childlike. It was very childish and really got in the way of enjoying the acts.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, if you wrote all the dialogue out from beginning to end, it couldn’t have been longer than a page, really.
Lindsay: I know.
Lindsay: And it was a narrator. You know, are you telling me that this is a top-flight company with top-flight technology, top-flight acts, and you’re telling me they couldn’t come up with a top-flight dramaturge to come up with a different way other than using a narrator? I loathe narrators.
Craig: Yeah, and then, so what happens was the girl would tell her one sentence of the story, and then the circus act would come out, but there would always be a massive disconnect between the story that they were “telling” and then the story that they were showing, because it was really two different things and the connection tended to be really tenuous between the verbal story and the physical story. And the verbal stuff only emphasized the disconnect, so it really could have helped not to have it.
Lindsay: And it’s probably important to note that this play has smashing reviews…
Craig: But I think it’s in its fifth remount.
Lindsay: It’s in its fifth remount. So here are a couple of things for you in the classroom. One, really emphasize with students that when you’re writing a play you have to use your characters, and storytelling with a narrator is not playwriting. It’s not a play. So really emphasize that it’s got to be characters interacting not using narrators.
Another thing is the use of people with extra skills is really kind of interesting to pull into the theatrical element, like do you have people in your school who have music skills or circus skills or art skills or…
Lindsay: …dance skills? How can you use these people in your use of theatre?
Craig: Yeah. See, I think the great idea of this play was integrating the circus and theatre. It was just the way they did it, I think, that wasn’t successful. And also, the circus itself was amazing. I mean, there were moments of real, real drama. Unfortunately, they weren’t connected to the story at all.
Lindsay: And my big problem with circus acts sometimes is that there’s a real emotional disconnect between the performer and the amazement of the act, and whoever coached the circus performers did a really good job of making sure they were in character. Now, of course, some of the characters were very appropriate to disconnect, like silver men golums, and the problem with that was that they went this way and they put this effort in, and then when they got to the seven-man tight-wire act, they completely dropped their characters and they were just circus people focused on safety, which of course they should be, but it made this climax moment, ugh, so not moving. So my nutshell review is thrilling, not moving.
Craig: Out of 10?
Lindsay: Hmm, five.
Craig: I’d say five, 10 for the circus and zero for the play.
Lindsay: You got it.
Lindsay: Okay, bye!