“Finding Eleusis” in Chicago: Terra Mysterium
“Finding Eleusis in Chicago– A New Staging of the Myth of Demeter and Persephone”
by Paul B. Rucker © 2010
The story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, with its timeless themes of loss and restoration between mother and daughter, may well be the best known Greek myth in western civilization. Their myth allegorizes the harvest cycle, the death of plants in the winter and their renewal in the spring; esoterically the tale formed the basis for the Rites of Eleusis, the Mysteries which for many hundreds of years offered redemption and hope of rebirth to their initiates. Both exoteric and esoteric perspectives on this story have influenced this production of Finding Eleusis, created and produced by Terra Mysterium, “a Chicago-based collective of musicians, actors, dancers, poets, magicians, and fire performers; creating, producing, and performing experiential works of music, theatre, and performance art that are rooted in the Earth mysteries.” Finding Eleusis premiered Sept. 1-5 at the 2010 Chicago Fringe Festival.
In brief, the story involves the abduction of Persephone (or Kore, “the Maiden”) by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and God of the Dead. In her grief at losing her daughter and in finding that Zeus, the King of the Gods has abetted his brother Hades in this scheme, Demeter, Goddess of grain and agriculture, suspends all growth of all plants and wanders the earth distraught and in disguise. None of the Gods, not even Zeus, can prevail upon her, until her daughter is restored to her. However, Persephone has eaten of the pomegranate, the fruit of the Underworld, and must spend a portion of each year in Hades’ realm. For that time the world lies fallow in winter, and greens again in the spring, when Persephone returns to Demeter.
Older versions of the myth suggest that Persephone was already Queen of the Underworld, and/or that she was not abducted but came to Hades willingly. The contrast between these points of view– abduction and rape versus willing consent– are explored in this production.
Strong female voices predominate, as one would expect, in this revisioning of the story within a contemporary setting: Ruby Sara, who plays Demeter, also wrote the lyrics to the three songs featured, possesses a strong and beautiful alto and an imposing stage presence, which altogether suit the role of this Goddess. Amy Christensen portrays Persephone, transitioning between innocence and intensity with an internal consistency that more than once became the gravitational center of this drama, for me. I saw this production twice, and after one of the shows, she mentioned to me that Finding Eleusis was being presented at roughly the same time of year as the Mysteries themselves had been performed, a detail that showed me how seriously she took her role.
Matthew Ellenwood, founder and director of Terra Mysterium, composed and arranged the music for these as well as most other music featured in TM’s past productions. All of their compositions are striking, fluent and original, so it was good news indeed to hear that they are going to be releasing an original CD of their works later this year. (Some tracks are currently posted here; I understand some music is to be re-recorded.)
To describe what it felt like to be there: Sonny G. Sampson, the dashiki-clad actor who played Zeus (thunder God) drummed at the door as people gathered outside. Along with our tickets we had been given silver coins as tokens. We and the actors milled about on the street as black-clad Goth girls (“midworld representations of underworld denizens” in director Ellenwood’s words) heckle protesters carrying “anti-death” signs (“the Olympians”).
Demeter, dressed in earth-toned flowing skirts, and Persephone, in a lacy white summer dress with a crown of flowers on her bright red hair, walked up the street and engaged with the protesters, as on the far end of the entrance, a mysterious black-clad man with a red carnation in his lapel (Hades) observed them. The actor whom we later find to be Helios, the Sun God, is constantly filming the action with his cell phone camera (a postmodern symbol of “the Sun’s all-seeing Eye”*). This paratheatrical opening, inspired to some extent by Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in ’69 (Ellenwood), in its turn a staging of Euripedes’ Bacchae in a postmodern context, makes the audience a part of the drama. (*Some of the footage from Helios’ camera can be seen here.)
The protest between “Lifers” and “Deathers” flowed into the building; we the audience followed and offered our coins (as if to Charon, for passage to the Underworld), descending into the gallery where the main action takes place. This play was staged in an emptied art gallery with typical art-gallery acoustics, a challenge for the actors, as I felt the interior space somewhat too cramped for the majority of the action. It brings to mind interesting questions about appropriate distancing for theater as performance versus theater as ritual, as the one presumes a separation between actors and audience, and the other an involvement between celebrants and congregation, that are inherent in their respective structures. This opposition in forms reflected a dichotomy explored in this play; that of experiencing the mythical as timeless versus bringing this particular myth into a modern context.
Successfully amalgamating two such distinct forms of experiencing the material represents a substantial challenge, comparable to merging oil and water, to my mind. Other artists within and outside of Pagan culture as such, have explored ways to make this work successfully. Space does not permit elaboration here of some of the ways I have seen this managed. In general such merging appears to be dependent on a third element of some kind, introduced to unify the two disparities– as, for example, glycerine can be used in cosmetics to interblend oil and water. In this staging I believe the interpretation of Persephone in Christenson’s performance came closest to manifesting this unifying element.
To return to the show, we seated ourselves and watched as the Chthonic and the Olympian choristers buzzed about in the center of the space. Demeter and Persephone handed out baked goods to the audience: gluten-free pretzels, fig newtons (“My mother made these!”) The ambience is if we are all in a party. My first attendance, the Kore indicated Hades in the corner of the room and asked me, “Do you know who that man is?” “I don’t know who anyone is here,” I replied. “You know more than I do!”
Hades approached Persephone and quietly led her away, but virtually no one noticed because the choristers, carrying out the life/death dichotomy voiced outside, began a fierce vocal struggle whose lines were taken from the Homeric and the Orphic Hymns to Demeter. The Chthonics call out at one point, “We open our arms to his beloved Knife!” in speaking of Death. (Interestingly, Hades received an understated interpretation in this production, with few lines and mostly visual involvement; something of a reversal for the actor, Keith Green, who as one of TM’s leading men is generally more in the forefront.)
Demeter panics when she notices her daughter is missing. At this point the chorus becomes one body and responds to her. The choristers bent themselves into kinetic sculptures while reciting hymn lines in response to Demeter, as the Goddess began to sing “Demeter’s Dirge:” …”Have I not given everything?” /“The bread of your heart, sweetened with honey”/ “When you eat, who is it that feeds you?”/ “Your song, the fruit that feeds the people.”… “Silence is the only sound that is sweet to me.”/…”The well is quiet.”/”Let me die./O my daughter.” Demeter seems not only a Goddess but alive and real, a woman whose hurt could be that of any mother.
The scene changed to the Underworld and the choristers turned into snarling dogs being fed by Hecate. Hades introduces Persephone, now dressed in red and with dark dramatic makeup, to her new kingdom. Amy Christensen’s expressions at this point fascinated me: alternating between, and blending surprise, dismay, acceptance, joy, and some unnameable kind of understanding. In a light and entranced soprano, she sang “Persephone’s Waking,” which mirrored the call-and-response form of the Dirge, as its images reveal her growing autonomy and underearth awakening. “Silence is the song that moves here”/“Where my heart will live”/ “Silence is a new sound that is so sweet to me”/“The flower opens”/ “There is something sweeter than sunlight”/“The flower opens”/ “There is something deeper than joy….” At this, her new subjects formed themselves into an elaborate throne for her– one of the most arresting images of the play. She and Hades retired upstairs to an elevated loft from which, during most of the rest of the play, they sat as if in an opera box and observed everyone else, a clever use of a pre-existing feature of the performance space that allowed the audience to study this couple’s reactions to the antics and accusations of the other deities, below.
Under these stairs, sorrowing Demeter was teased by a male Baubo. (“I know what you need,” he jokes, while lifting his shirt. This, incidentally, was the “brief nudity” we were warned about in the Fringe program. Blink and you’ll miss it!).
In her grief Demeter causes all food to stop growing. The chorus fell to the floor, “dead,” and Hermes, dressed as a bike courier and wearing winged sneakers, emerged with Zeus to survey the situation. After Zeus orders Hermes to “make this not happen” we are transported to the least mythical and most contemporary feeling scene, the Reality Talk Show segment. Andrew Ritter made a charming and talkative Hermes, engaging Demeter to “tell everyone what happened…” “I lost my daughter and blighted the earth…” she replies, “… any parents with sweeping godlike powers would have done the same thing!” At one point a chorister/audience member yelled out, “Why is she mad at Zeus when she slept with him?” Demeter tells the story of trying to outrun Zeus through transformations into animal shapes, ending with “I changed into a mare, he changed into a stallion, nine months later– my little pony!”
A commercial break occurred in which pomegranate seeds were handed out and signs displayed for POM pomegranate juice.
Hecate, Helios, and Zeus (“I can neither confirm or deny that an actual abduction actually took place!”) were called into the Talk Show to bear witness: the idea in this scene seemed to be that the Gods are rendered ineffectual through conflict. The penultimate witness summoned was Hades himself, who pointed out that Persephone had come with him willingly. By implication, Demeter had assumed her daughter had been kidnapped and raped instead. Because she wanted her innocent child back, Demeter wound up arguing with him until Persephone herself descended– autonomous, and having discovered her own power as a Goddess.
She recited a Litany to the Gods: “Your fear has clouded you from your sacred stations/ Cast fear aside and remember your holy purpose. Be what you know you are, be greater than what you fear.” In her arms she held a sheaf of wheat stalks, which she handed out to the Gods. The appearance of Persephone herself as a reality rather than as a topic of discussion catalyzed the return of the mythic mood and the atmosphere of ritual. The aura of trivial and heated dissent dissipated in the Maiden’s restoration of balance; she was shown as an active agent, bringing all of the Gods into a new relationship to each other.
The play ended with the scarlet-clad Persephone reciting: “…Peace is the Answer, peace in the night/ The deepest darkness is the birthplace of light” as the Gods rise in unison with the stalks of wheat, in a circle around her. This evoked both the known mysterion of Eleusis– the display of the single ear of cut wheat at the climax of the drama mystikon— with another image reputed to derive from those mysteries, a segment in which the blindfolded aspirant has the blindfold removed, and to him is revealed a room full of Gods. Matthew Ellenwood and other cast members generated a series of actions from these formative images that ended the play on an appropriately mysterious note.
Terra Mysterium (“Land of Mystery”), has previously mounted two original full length-shows prior to Finding Eleusis. The first, Betwixt and Between: A Journey into Faerie was presented in 2008, and Professor Marius Mandragore’s Salon Symposium Regarding Spirits, Spells, and Eldritch Craft in 2009. Their shows explore mythopoetic themes, and experiment with many forms of performativity, thus showcasing the wide range of talents found in their ensemble. Finding Eleusis qualifies as an experiment in combining ritual elements with theater as entertainment, cast in modern idiom and referents. How well did this work? I think it depends on the person viewing it. As an experienced ritualist and mythic artist, and a seeker after ritual theater and exploration of the Mysteries, the element of the hieratic is what I responded to personally. The parts that were written as completely contemporary sketch comedy did not touch me to the same extent, yet these were the elements that rendered the experience accessible to a Chicago critic who wrote of the show without any reference to its esoteric elements.
Context has much to do with presentation– for its context within an experience-sampling venue within the Chicago Fringe Festival, this performance succeeded very well both as featured entertainment, and as an avenue for contemporary Chicagoans to reconnect with a timeless story. Yet if it were possible to remount this show in an environment supportive of the ritual and esoteric element– such a sacred grove, or an ampitheater– with an audience seeking something of the epoptaia, the condition of “having seen” the Mystery, which belonged to the initiates of Eleusis– how might it become transformed, in its turn?