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Know Theatre Presents an Unbearable Heaviness of Being

Review by Ken Stern of Heavier Than…: Know Theatre

Thank the gods for Greek mythology and for today’s playwrights that reweave these tales. Jami Brandli brought Apollo and Cassandra to 1960 New Jersey in BLISS (or Emily Post is Dead), produced at Miami University in February. Now, at the Know Theatre, is Steve Yockey’s play Heavier than … (“a strange account of Asterius in the labyrinth”), through April 1st. BLISS was brilliant and Yockey’s play is a match. Go to the Know and enjoy the challenge Greek mythology presents to us, as well as its characters, in the 21st century.

Note: my review below has some spoilers if you aren’t familiar with the mythology already.

A quick summary of the classical story of the Minotaur, who has a bull’s head and a man’s body: Asterius is Pasiphae’s son, born from her mating with a beautiful white bull, stolen by her husband, King Minos, from Poseidon. Poseidon gained vengeance on the king by having the queen fall in love with the bull. Love, being what it is in every age, was consummated. The king, of course, was not pleased. Asterius, the Minotaur, is exiled to Knossos and its Labyrinth, designed by the great inventor Daedalous. He is not in the play, but his son Icarus is inserted into the story by Yockey.

The three woman Chorus (Nicole Hershey, Miranda McGee, and Maggie Lou Rader) is central to this play. Dressed in long gray gowns, they move and speak as one, acrobatically, gracefully, and ominously. The Chorus has been passing time for 27 years as Asterius’s constant, and only companions. Throughout, the Chorus massages a long chain of seemingly worry beads (“beads manipulated with one or two hands and used to pass time in Greek culture”). This chain, coiled at their feet, does not bind them; yet they willingly hold on to it (part of a wonderful set, designed by Andrew Hungerford, who also did the lighting).

The play opens as Asterius is about to turn 30. He loves and longs for his mother, whom he has not seen since being abandoned at age three. Asterius (played as an earnest naif by Landon Horton), is dark, bare chested, extensively tattooed, dressed only in long cut-off shorts, and sports horns at least four feet long (they, and Icarus’s three sets of wings, are a result of costume designer Noelle Johnston’s creativity). Horton is center stage and on stage for the entire play. Asterius has woken from a dream of his mother. He asks the Chorus to show her to him.

The Chorus is positioned above and to his right, on a concrete platform held up by chains, another remarkable set feature. Blindfolded by black scarves, not as justice, but as muses, they provide visions of the happenings and exchanges of Pasiphae (Piper Davis, queen-like in attire, but modern and casual in her diction, as is her daughter) and Ariadne (a very princess-y Jordan Trovillion) at Asterius’s request. In a brilliant directorial move (credit Bridget Leak for the crisp production) the Chorus takes off their blindfolds, when presenting these visions, staring while frozen in place as they unfold.

This play is all about relationships. Discern the dynamics between Asterius and the rest of the cast: the Chorus, Icarus, the mother and sister, and between the Chorus and Icarus and between mother and daughter. As in any great play, as in great art, consider the weave and tangle of truth, trust, love, and betrayal between friends, family, and rivals.

Icarus (Nathan Tubbs, also earnest and naive), drops in, almost literally. He flies on wings his father made (a different myth, woven by Yockey into this play). He is Asterius’s best friend and only visitor until sister Ariadne comes by. Tubbs, also in shorts and bare chested, blond and slight, is energetic in his advocacy for Asterius. Having made flights over the palace, he has a different take on the events the Chorus presented, telling them “What you show him isn’t real.” Icarus returns to this again in additional visits, advocating that Asterius run away and leave the Labyrinth. The Chorus purrs a different siren song, but only one side can be right.

Adoring sister Ariadne makes a visit, but backstory later presented proves this to be a reconnaissance mission, that flighty and superficial she may be, but in her teen crush for an Athenian warrior who will be part of the cohort sent to kill the Minotaur (or be killed, as no Athenian has succeeded yet), she is cunning and deceitful, planning to betray her brother.

Worse of all, pushed by Icarus, the Chorus finally shows a scene of Pasiphae telling Ariadne to embrace and follow her feelings of love. Pasiphae’s love was the bull, and thus her life is a lie. Asterius is the last reminder of her long ago crush. Mother and daughter take center stage playing out these visions. In one Pasiphae tells her daughter “learn quickly to control love. You will.” Asterius, Icarus, and the Chorus watch, their portion of the set dimmed. Later, Asterius forces the Chorus to re-show an earlier vision. Rashomon-like, this time, the mother urges her daughter “if you don’t want your love to die, you must help him”—assist him to kill her brother.

Asterius is undone. Or is he? “So, what you have been showing me all these years?” he asks. “A better image,” the Chorus tells him, taking off their blindfolds for the first time while engaging in conversation. The play was written in 2011, but the line the Chorus has been feeding Asterius is fake news, altered to feed Asterius a story of a caring family.

But wait: in Greek mythology mortals’ fates are decided by the gods. Humans have no agency, cannot escape whatever outcome the gods determined. On stage, the Chorus parrots that line: “You have to kill him. That is who you are.” The Chorus, as muses, are true to the original story, the old party line: the gods decide. But attending theatre in the twenty-first century, the audience looks for a story true to our modern world, modernity, fee will, individual agency. And Asterius, who from his opening lines, only wanted to be a good son, decides for himself what he must do to be that good son.

The production values are superb: set, costuming, lighting, including prop design and scenic art by Sarah Beth Hall, sound design by Doug Borntrager, and music by Trey Tatum.

Heavier Than . . . runs Wednesdays through Sundays through April 1st, with Sunday afternoon performances (and a brunch catered by Water Tower Fine Wines on the 19th). Walk-up tickets are free on Wednesdays, or $5.00 with advance reservations to these Welcome Experiment performances. For tickets, go to knowtheatre.com or call 513.300.5669.