Monster’s Cabal: New youth theater group premieres at the Zhou B. Art Center

Lamia was the lovechild of Poseidon, God of the Seas, and Lybia, who attracted the love of Zeus. In one of her typical jealous hissy fits, Hera murdered all of Lamia’s children and turned the victims’ mother into a monster incapable of ever closing her eyes, thereby forcing her to obsess over the image of her dead kin. Gallantly, Zeus granted Lamia the ability to remove her eyes in order to rest them, though the logic of this gesture is somewhat suspect. After developing an all-consuming hatred of mothers, she took to sneaking into the rooms of sleeping boys in order or castrate and/or eat them, likely through a single procedure. (I, for one, feel that antiquity had much sexier bogeymen.)

Jonathan Elliot, writer of University of Chicago-grown feature film Crime Fiction, has penned a play that re-appropriates the myth of Lamia and Pygmalion, who fell in love with his own sculpture (how’s that for artistic masturbation?). “It is a very obscure source which relates Pygmalion of Cyprus to Lamia. Either way, Pygmalion jumps on it one day: something is going wrong, so it must be the fault of some monstrous woman, such as his monster-sister,” explains Elliot. Pygmalion, played by Elliot, arrives on the coast of Libya to confront his sister over the death of his steeds back in Cyprus. He finds no-one but two porters, played by UofC students Griffin Sharps and Ryland Barton, who have created the myth of Lamia to cover up the lack of feminine presence. “Lamia is simply otherness, she terrifies man with her lack, even though it was man who invented that lack,” says Elliot on her thematic significance. It is men who created the myth of the evil woman, and the play investigates what function it has and has had for them.

Lamia is interspersed by eleven scenes, or rather scenelets, from Ursularia, an opera composed by Nick XXX that Elliot helped write. Ursularia is inspired by two key failures in history: the story of Ursula, a saint who was said to be martyred along with 11,000 virgins, which itself was simply a misreading of “XI. M. V.” on her tombstone (“M.” standing for “martyred”, not “thousand”), and the mine-fires of Centralia, Pennsylvania which still burn to this day. Ursula is called by God–played again by Griffin Sharps, since the cast alternates–to be his wife, telling her to gather up 11,000 virgins who will eventually be massacred by the Huns. He enlists the help of the Pope, who eventually falls in love with Ursula and tries to alter the plot. “Ursularia is inspired by a Brechtian theatre of alienation: we use placards to describe the action in the scene, and the actors constantly speak to the audience about the difficulty of the play they are in, trying to rewrite the role which only makes it more problematic.” These “narrator clowns,” having no patience for the actress who plays Ursula, refuse to allow her to speak, and start to reframe the plot in an effort to one-up each other. This ongoing, destabilizing, and ultimately binding improvisational game reflects Elliot’s views on theater: “The stage presupposes an absolute commitment to what is said and what is established. No matter how absurdly history began, no matter how absurd a story is in its inception, it must be carried through to its conclusion. The theatre for me helps stage that paradox.”

The two shows are part of Collusions, a 3-day festival of experimental works by Opera Cabal, a young opera/theatre company. Directly before or after the shows, depending on the night, there will be a multimedia play by performance artist Joseph Ravens as well as an exhibition of visual arts and musical performances. This is Cabal’s first big event, and they were fortunate enough to secure the also-fledgling Zhou B center in Bridgeport. A full orchestra is coming in for the last performance; the other nights are to be dramatic readings. So, if the prospect of completely original works isn’t suitably compelling, the promise of ordered chaos and manic extravagance should be.

Zhou B. Art Center, 1029 W. 35th St. April 5-7. Thursday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 7:30pm.