Theater Review: “Icarus” in the Dust Bowl

Icarus proffers plenty of spectacle and talent, but the show only recycles a story we’ve seen countless times on stage and screen.

Photo: Steve Rosen

Austin Auh, Veronica Barron, and Jonathan Horvath in July 2013 staging of “Icarus.” Photo: Steve Rosen.

By Ian Thal

Icarus. Book by Jason Slavick, music and lyrics by Nathan Leigh. Directed by Slavick. Presented by Liars and Believers at the American Repertory Theatre’s Club Oberon, Cambridge, MA, through May 11.

Icarus is one of the better known myths of ancient Greece, usually offered as a cautionary tale about blind hubris and the downside of disregarding prudent advice from one’s elders. The archetypal image is of its protagonist falling from the sky into the Aegean: his artificial wings, made of feathers and wax by his father, the master craftsman Daedalus, melt when taken too close to the blazing sun.

In their musical Icarus, of which this production is a revival (it was originally staged at the Cambridge YMCA in 2013), writer and director Jason Slavick and composer and lyricist Nathan Leigh don’t imaginatively retell the story — let alone deconstruct it — but mine the material for evocative images, names and plot points. Like the 2003-2005 cult television series Carnivàle, Icarus is a magical realist story of a carnival touring the small towns of the midwest and southwest during the Great Depression (the presence of Works Progress Administration posters on either side of the stage indicates that the play takes place sometime after FDR has been elected president). The borrowing is apt: just as Greek myth is filled with tales of monsters, challenges, and the sexual hijinks of deities and demigods, traveling carnivals are legendary for their freaks and oddities, as well as for their games of chance and exploitation of titillation.

As Minos ruled over Crete, Minnie Minoseczeck (Aimee Rose Ranger) presides over her Menagerie of Marvels, many of them automatons created by the brilliant inventor Daedalus (Jonathan Horvath). His son, Icarus, occasionally assists him, but mostly the kid works as a roustabout, playing guitar for some of the acts while he pines for Minnie’s daughter, Penny (Liz Tancredi). Penny, who does not seem to have a direct connection to any figure in the Minoan myths, performs in the “Passion Pavillion [sic]” where, scantily clad, she flutters about in a flying machine of Daedalus’ design. The contraption keeps her well out of reach of her lustful admirers — hand puppets who recall the ribald wolves from Tex Avery cartoons (manipulated and voiced by Veronica Barron, who plays a wide assortment of roles, including that of lead puppeteer). Given that she’s at a safe distance, Penny is happy to collect the many pretty gifts her fans toss at her.

Another feature of the traveling menagerie parallels King Minos’ Crete — the Monster’s Maze. The latter is a complicated contraption of shifting walls and mirrors created by Daedalus. Any brave soul who can navigate to the center and back wins a sack of money planted somewhere within. The catch, of course, is that Minnie’s other child, a monster named Tom, is said to live within, feasting upon all who cross his path.

This being musical theater, Penny finally notices Icarus, requites his love, and they both ponder running off somewhere where they would be free from the influence of their parents. This plan, quite predictably, does not go over with the folks.

The Menagerie provides an opportunity for a number of set pieces that feature Leigh’s songs along with puppetry designed and directed by Faye Dupras. She is the real life Daedalus behind the scenes. Between her puppets and choreography (which smoothly segues into and out of Slavick’s blocking), Dupras is responsible for most of the production’s stage magic. The more sublime moments include a small Daedalus homunculus (manipulated in a style redolent of bunraku) climbing a staircase of floating platforms, and a piece of ensemble puppetry in which a hat, a pair of shoes, and two hands become an unfortunate maze explorer. The puppetry also generates considerable humor, particularly by way of the antics of No Bones Magee, a life-sized puppet whose neck and limbs are elastic and easily knotted (also voiced by Barron.)

Leigh’s songs, with his clever lyrics, are influenced by American folk tunes, cowboy poetry, and country music. The score is played rather spiritedly by the house band, Store Bought Absinthe, which is led by guitarist and musical director Jay Mobley, with Jenn Bliss on accordion and flute and Eric Lee on fiddle.

Kendra Bell’s costume designs are evocative of the era, and strike just the right balance between show business and the harsh realities of the Dust Bowl — the leather-aproned Daedalus and Minnie’s outfit of jodhpurs and autumn-themed blouse are particularly iconic. Scenic designer Aaron Sherkow’s fanciful painted flats detailing Minnie Minoseczeck’s many marvels are enticing.

Actor Aimee Rose Ranger, best known to me for her work with the now defunct Whistler in the Dark, has long shown a stylistic versatility that ranges from out-sized buffoonery to understated naturalism, which makes her perfect for the role of the larger-than-life carnival boss. Horvath brings a welcome gravitas and a resonant voice to Daedalus. Veronica Barron’s talent as a clown and puppeteer is indispensable given the many roles she plays, both as as a variety of small town locals and as examples of the Menagerie’s oddities and automatons. Lukas Papenfusscline and Liz Tancredi have the necessary charisma and voices for playing the innamorati.

Slavick, as director, seamlessly integrates the contributions of his collaborators. His dialogue, filled with cleverness and energy, matches the wit of Leigh’s lyrics. His major problem is weak storytelling chops — Icarus is less a coherent drama than a sequence of incidents and sketches.

While the opening song promises a Brechtian tale of class struggle, with small town audiences flocking to the carnival in the quest for “more freaks, more sex, more booze, to forget how poor [we are],” the storyline turns out to be nothing but of a vapid tale of young love. The romance between Penny and Icarus lacks erotic pizzaz — it is just a formulaic plot device. Our heroine only notices Icarus after he introduces her to a dancing parasol invented by his father. Indeed, there is a lack of dramatic heft to the proceedings until well past the halfway mark. Suddenly Penny, showing compassion for the poor people in her audience who spend what little money they have on the booze and entertainment she and her fellow carnies are serving, asks Minnie, “what kind of monster[s] are we?”

Aimee Rose Ranger and Veronica Barron in "Icarus." Photo: Chris McIntosh.

Aimee Rose Ranger and Veronica Barron in “Icarus.” Photo: Chris McIntosh.

Given that Penny demonstrates no compassion for her unseen monstrous brother locked in the labyrinth, let alone for any of the degraded humans in her mother’s menagerie, her concern comes off as less of a moral epiphany than an outburst of bratty adolescent rebellion. Her hissy fit is one part narcissism/two parts rage, driven by her realization that in the worst of times even the best parents make ethical compromises in order to provide for their children. Penny’s sudden awareness of class struggle isn’t triggered by anything that happens in the carnival, but by a tangential set piece, a Woody Guthrie-inspired ballad about a couple named Emily and Elmer whose lives are destroyed by both the Depression and the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl.

When Minnie responds with the song “Eat or Be Eaten” a refrain that describes the Hobbesian state of nature in which “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” the examples she gives are always that of a mother unconditionally loving, protecting, nurturing, and fighting for her daughter. This rings hollow, given that Minnie Minoseczeck may be a huckster, but she’s a con artist whose livelihood is tied up in providing a livelihood for people like Boneless Magee and the Frog Boy (Barron, again), who, because of their strange anatomies, social prejudice, and lack of opportunity, have no other lines of work open to them. In addition, Penny’s moral outrage at he mother’s business of selling cheap hooch and thrills during the Great Depression could strike audience members as a touch ironic. Our Great Recession continues yet tickets to Icarus cost between $25 and $35, the cheapest drink at the bar (a 12 ounce bottle of Bud Light) costs $4, and the pre-show entertainment includes a performer from the Boston Circus Guild in fetish gear doing the naga-asana (the snake pose in yoga) on a bed of nails. Minnie flies into a rage when she hears that Penny and Icarus are planning to elope, but at no other point is she seen abandoning or abusing her cast and crew, or accommodating the racist and xenophobic spirit of the America at the time. Just who is the monster here?

Of course, Daedalus is also revealed to have a less than savory past, though that will surprise no one familiar with the original myth — still, the suggestion that he is doing penance because his automatons somehow triggered the 1929 stock market crash has some amusing contemporary resonance (perhaps it is a reference to 2010 Flash Crash on Wall Street, caused by high-frequency algorithmic trading?).

Enough. Those looking for Brechtian (or any other kind of) depth in the proceedings will be frustrated. Penny and Icarus are shallow, petulant teenagers, rebels without much of a cause. Minnie is a minor villainess, while Daedalus’ guilt is revealed so late in the play that it hasn’t much thematic or dramatic impact. This lively entertainment proffers plenty of spectacle and talent, but Icarus is content to recycle a story of young love we’ve seen countless times on stage and screen.

* * *

Note: During the run of Icarus, local bands will be part of the pre-show entertainment. On the May 4th press night, music was provided by Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. The group’s members were dressed in costumes that recalled both the clothing of early 20th century working class immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (vests, suspenders and caps) and punk rockers of the latter part of that same century (silk-screened canvas patches stitched into the clothes as counter cultural signifiers). As the musicians wandered between the tables they played harmonically dense arrangements of klezmer freylekhs, occasionally incorporating Afro-Cuban rhythms or reggae baselines into the mix. It was an exhilarating treat.

Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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