Hadestown combines and retells two classical myths — that of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of Persephone — through a sizzling New Orleans jazz score by Anaïs Mitchell. The band sits onstage, and the barrier between band and cast is somewhat permeable, as the three Fates step behind vintage-style microphones to sing backup, and then move onstage again with accompanying instruments. Hermes, our narrator, sings the story while walking around the stage, by turns interacting with the actors, moving set elements, and joining the band. Hermes is so often depicted as slight and fleet-footed, but as played by Chris Sullivan, he is a refreshingly gruff messenger of the gods.
One dichotomy the show explores is that of agrarian vs. industrial values. Hermes sings of a gentle life in the country, in which nature serves to support the flourishing of human life, but never to excess—“If no one takes too much,” he intones, “there will always be enough.” On the other hand, Hades (played with menace by Patrick Page) represents industrialization; he uses the souls of the dead as slave labor to build an underground city that includes a massive wall “to keep out poverty.” It’s not hard to see which side the show comes down on; the Depression-era hobo aesthetic of its costumes, props, and music evokes disillusionment with the false promises of industrialism and urban life.
This dichotomy may sound heavy-handed, but the show never loses sight of the fact that it is essentially a love story. The key moments between Orpheus (played by Damon Daunno, who sings in a stunningly controlled falsetto) and Eurydice (played with great tenderness by Nabiyah Be) are truly moving. When Orpheus turned to look at Eurydice, sending her back to Hades (spoiler alert: it’s not a happy ending), a woman sitting near us wept bitterly.
The production itself is somewhat minimal regarding props, lighting, and set design, but it uses these elements expertly to achieve a beggar’s bliss. One of the most striking features is the use of vintage-style mics made by Ear Trumpet Labs. Hermes carries his own, which he uses to alter his voice in a few scenes, and these effects enhance the story without seeming gimmicky. Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz worked closely with prop designer Noah Mease to find the perfect mics; together, they achieve a beautiful integration of visual and audio elements. Rachel Chavkin expertly directs the production by focusing on the core story while showing us enough spectacle to keep the audience wowed. The show manages to be both conceptually thought-provoking and emotionally engaging, and is a powerful example of a myth retold.
One of the show’s great insights is the value of retelling these old stories, which speak to us no matter how many times we’ve heard them. Hermes points out that we retell a story like this one as if the ending will somehow be different this time. Of course, it won’t, and that’s partly why we’re so touched by hearing the old, sad songs anyway.
Hadestown continues at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through July 31.