Theater preview: ‘Hadestown’ speaks in powerful poetry | Entertainment

Ron Malzer for the podium

“Why are we building a wall, my children? rumbles Hades, in a deep voice from the bowels of the earth. His “children”, workers condemned to eternal labor in hiding, sing in unison without brains: to do the order of Hades to build walls is “to keep us free”. Welcome to “Hadestown,” winner of the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical, which opens March 15 at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis.

Using modern language and musical forms, the piece draws its characters from the Greek mythology of the past two millennia. The question at its heart is as contemporary as it is ancient: when greed and contempt for the poor abound, can the force of love be strong enough to overcome?

“Hadestown” began when Anais Mitchell, then 21, witnessed the widespread poverty in Juarez, Mexico, and looked at the border wall of that time. Later, she writes in the play’s book, a waitress in Texas asked her to serve cocktails to “oil lobbyists who deny climate change.” The seeds of “Hadestown” have been sown.

The score based on Mitchell’s music and vocals began as a folk opera. It was continually refined through difficult editing by insightful playwrights and loving commentary from the audience. Perfecting “Hadestown” – its characters and its poetry – has been the playwright’s passion from 2006 to the present day.

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The sung drama takes place in a world where gods and goddesses walk visibly among us. The messenger god Hermes tells the story; his voice is high-pitched and authoritative.

In the underworld, King Hades reigns ruthlessly. It wields enormous power, including the bonded labor of millions. He possesses Persephone, but only for six months of the year. Persephone, in her time out of Hades’ grasp and realm, rises; its extraordinary brilliance transforms the dark and cold land into a land where flowers bloom and the heat of summer returns.

Jealous of Persephone’s passage up there, Hades embarks on a frantic project. Plotting to make Persephone feel his longing for her, he builds a monstrous foundry: “Here I fashioned things of steel/Oil barrels and automobiles/And then I fueled this furnace/With the fossils of the dead .”

The heat generated is more than enormous; the earth’s climate is thrown into chaos as a result. What could save the earth? Could it be the growing love between Orpheus and Eurydice?

Orpheus, the son of a Muse, is “touched”. He possesses heavenly musical talents; he also lives much of his life with his head in the clouds.

Eurydice, on the other hand, is down-to-earth, lives in poverty, and is cynical. When Orpheus’ come-on for her includes “I play the lyre too”, Eurydice throws this verse back at her: “Ooh, a liar and a gambler too / I’ve met too many men like you.”

Eurydice, a mortal, is at the mercy of the Fates, voices from the depths of the mind that, in the words of the story’s second song, can send us “whatever the wind blows.” Lured by Hades’ promise of food and shelter from the increasingly menacing storms, she accepts his offer of passage by rail to the underworld.

Orpheus is heartbroken and embarks on a heroic quest, to walk to the end of the earth and to hell, to free Eurydice. He works tirelessly to complete a celestial song, yearning not only to free his beloved from the clutches of Hades, but also to put the earth’s seasonal cycles back into rightful rhythm and order.

We can only feel compassion for Eurydice. It was her need to escape hunger and harsh weather that drove her to the dark and sheltered realm; his choice, however, remains a fateful bargain with the devil.

And oh, how we yearn for a triumphant outcome in Orpheus’ epic quest: we hold our breath waiting to see if he could possibly write the love song powerful enough to tear down the walls of hell.

The drama plays out on a cosmic scale, pointing to a conflict within our psyche. The clash, in Freud’s terminology based on Greek mythology, is between Eros – love and connection – and Thanatos – death and destruction.

Destruction is the driving force of the kingdom of Hades; greed, avarice and hatred are its forms. Give free rein to these forces, this piece warns us, and we put our entire planet in catastrophic peril.

Anais Mitchell stole the fire from the gods to compose the painfully beautiful score of “Hadestown”. The racially diverse cast brings a delightful variety of voices to the story and underscores the universality of the human predicament.

How loud is the siren call of “Hadestown”? Go online to see NPR’s “Tiny Desk Hadestown Concert” and dive into a set of five songs from the play, performed by the original Broadway cast. Then see if you can fight the urge to see Hadestown in full.

Drawing from the Greek pantheon of gods and eternal spirits, “Hadestown” speaks to us today in powerful poetry. It brilliantly captures our desire for a better world than the one we see now, better because love has risen, and greed and hateful contempt have been sent into a hasty retreat.

Hadestown plays March 15-20 at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis.

About Christopher Rodgers

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