Some people despise the arts. They really do. If it’s remotely challenging, they’ll declare it to be a fraud or a prank and heap on it unlearned contempt. I used to think it was the content of art that caused this. I was around in 1994 and recall when Ron Athey performed “Four Scenes in a Harsh Life,” sponsored, in part, by the Walker Art Center, which was, in turn, sponsored to the tune of $150 or less by the NEA. During the performance, Athey cut the skin of another performer, Divinity Fudge, and blotted the wounds. These blots he hoisted above the performer with a pulley, and, oh my god, what a response he got. Jesse Helms declared, wrongly, that Athey had exposed audience members to HIV-infected blood. Politicians scrambled to defund the NEA, or at least make sure its money never again went to artists of his ilk. And I sat at home and despised myself for having missed the performance. I hate to miss the really good stuff.
So, sure, the content probably offends people. But I think, as well, there is an intuitive knowledge that the arts are beholden to other gods. Take theater, as an example. The Western tradition of it claims Dionysus as its patron, recalling raving groups of drunken women engaging in orgiastic rituals in the Italian hills. Dionysus also gets to be the god of wine, and to this day, theater artists pay homage to him, often unknowingly, by hitting the bars immediately after a performance. And the first performances we identify in the Western tradition of theater is the dithyramb, which was very literally a religious ritual, done in honor of Dionysus. Groups would meet in Delos and compete in singing epic poems, and the winner would get a goat, or everybody would dance around a goat, or something. Even the ancient Greeks weren’t entirely sure what occurred. Plato, who mentions it, wasn’t even sure what it was called.
We still do the ancient Greek plays, and other works from antiquity, but we don’t really pay homage to the old gods anymore. Not usually. But that brings us to a local performance troupe called Live Action Set, and a play they are opening tonight called “The 7-Shot Symphony.” The play is ostensibly a western, and nobody receives — or dances around — a goat. But the old gods are very much alive in this play, often as the principal characters.
The group has made the unusual decision to revisit a worldwide selection of old myths as though they were stories from one Wild West town. And so Hades, Greek god of the underworld, stalks the stage in a black top hat, overseeing the action as an especially vicious railroad baron. Odin, the ruler of Asgard, land of the Norse gods, is recast as a one-eyed sheriff with a Clint Eastwood scowl. Orpheus is a simple farmer who plays guitar and yodels in an unexpectedly lovely way, and pays money to have a wife sent from the Old Country, a bashful woman named Persephone. And Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian hero, is revisited as a retired prospector who single-handedly decides to tame a hardscrabble town and then must defend it against railroad interests.
I won’t detail the plot any more than this, except to say that the play’s conceit is ingenious, and it works. And of course it does — the American West is precisely where we have long put our own mythology and has proved to be a malleable enough limnal space to contain just about any idea we put there, as long as we dress that idea in a 10-gallon hat and give it sidearms. These ancient tales were often stories of the building of empires, or of lone men taking their revenge for past ills, or of weary soldiers trying to find a place for themselves in a shifting world, and these are the very stories we tell of the West. Three people are credited with this particular adaptation: Ryan Underbakke, who also directed, Matt Spring and Brant Miller. And they’ve done it. They’ve turned our oldest stories into a Sergio Leone movie.
And they’ve done it very simply. There are no sets in this play. There are no props. The cast has minimal costumes — mostly just duster jackets and battered cowboy hats. The most elaborate thing the show has is a live band onstage, playing Ennio Morricone-style music behind the action. Everything else is created on the spot by the cast. Let’s say there is a shootout between lawmen and desperadoes. For a moment, the desperadoes will pose as trees or wooden posts, while the lawmen hide behind them for shelter. And then, when it is the desperadoes’ time to return fire, they will switch, in an instance: the former lawmen now trees, the former trees now killers. This play has everything you might expect from a western, all done like this. Posses on horseback ride into the hills, created by the cast bunching up and bending down so their bodies form an expressionistic landscape. Other cast members will then use their hands to represent the posse, galloping through this landscape. One especially ingenious moment has a card game, with the gamblers all holding what should be cards. Instead, other cast members stand behind them, pressing outstretched fingers for the gamblers to hold — each gambler is literally holding a hand.
Best still, they re-create Sergio Leone’s use of extreme close-up, on guns or eyes. During a gunfight, a performer will dart his eyes back and forth, and the other cast members will create squares with their hands around this, directing us to where we are supposed to look. There is both great ingenuity and great playfulness in this production, and, briefly, the stories of the gods live again, as the engrossing and occasionally heartbreaking epics they were intended as. Somebody should buy this company a goat.
I have just a few words left, but I want to point you to the Walker Art Center for a film tonight. The organization is offering a retrospective of the films of Julian Schnabel, culminating in a dialogue with the filmmaker. This is an exceptionally good choice for the Walker, as Schnabel is also an accomplished artist, and his first film, “Basquiat,” was about the artist. Tonight, the Walker offers “Before Night Falls,” based on the autobiography of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. The film is, in part, the coming-of-age story of a young, openly gay poet in Havana, and is, in part, the story of the revolution, which made Cuba increasingly dangerous for Arenas.
The films stars Javier Bardem, who also worked with Schnabel on “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and Johnny Depp, playing both an indomitable drag queen named Bon Bon and a sadistic prison guard.