By Jessica Neu
What is Hell? Is it a place, a mindset, a metaphor? Can you return from it if you happen to find yourself there? Anais Mitchell’s musical, Hadestown, grapples with these ideological questions and challenges audiences to ponder such themes as freedom, poverty, and the afterlife.
Directed by Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown plays at the Benedum Center through November 20, 2022. This polished production begins with a simple yet effective set accented with special lighting effects, turntables, different levels, and doors to create the “road to hell.” Then it transforms into Hadestown or the underworld. Several musicians perform on stage throughout the musical, creating a feeling of community and exuberance. Many numbers have a ragtime vibe that can make this classic Greek tragedy feel celebratory. The juxtaposition of jubilant melodies and stunning choreography by David Neumann highlights the push/pull nature we naturally feel in our daily lives. It is, of course, possible to be hopeful amidst times of peril. That dichotomy is masterfully represented in Hadestown with imagery, details, and symbolism painted throughout the show.
From the use of the color red to Persephone’s (Lana Gordon) costume change, or the tattoo on Hades’ (Matthew Patrick Quinn) arm, Hadestown challenges the audience to commit a level of attention uncommon in more lighthearted musicals. The payoff to this astute focus is being treated to a musical that allows you to come to your own conclusions about the metaphorical representation of Hell.
Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham) leads audiences through this journey, whose top-notch character acting adds humor, drama, and despair to the journey. Whether sitting upstage while company members perform or single-handedly quieting the entire audience at the end of the curtain call, Graham’s presence is palpable throughout the show, which makes his treatment of the concluding catharsis, all that more powerful.
Theater aficionados will undoubtedly note the nods to the 1990s hit musical Rent. Instead of navigating NYC’s East Village, Eurydice (Hannah Whitley) and Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma) pave the road to Hell with beauty, love, desperation, and the hope that Orpheus’ song will allow “spring to come again.” Their love story is a classic tale, but Orpheus’ naivety and dedication to writing one unfinished song to restore melody to the world is both beautiful and tragic. Is a melody enough to unite the world and bring the beauty of spring and the newness that it represents?
While some of the lines about spring can certainly be read as a commentary on climate change, Hadestown also uses spring to remind us that there are two worlds: the one we live in and the one we dream about. With these dreams come questions of freedom vs. free will. Hades, the leader of Hadestown, explains, “if we are free, tell me when we can stand with our fellow man.” He preaches that poverty is the biggest enemy and that the war against poverty will never be won. However, the wall he builds around Hadestown keeps his people free and safe.
Supported by a remarkably talented company, Hades and Orpheus (good vs. evil) are ultimately left to reconcile how the tragedy ends. Hades declares their opposition as a “test before Gods and men, but you need to deal with the test inside your head.” It is with this test that the audience departs the theater. Left to consider why we continue to engage in tragedy despite knowing the outcome, perhaps because we want to see if the world can, in fact, be the way we dream of it.