by Suzanne Karpinski · December 11, 2015
“Yesterday is today. Today is Here.” The past and the present do indeed collide in Alas, The Nymphs, a new play by writer/director John Jahnke and his company Hotel Savant. The piece explores a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Hylas – a young Argonaut on Hercules’ ship assumed to have been abducted by water nymphs. In this retelling it is now present day, and the immortal yet tired nymphs have returned to their spring to find a hotel storage room built over it.
Having read the Iliad and Odyssey in school, I remembered who Hercules was, and I remembered how the nymphs were highly sexualized creatures to be avoided at all costs. I wanted to know how they ended up in this hotel room. The characters devote themselves to long poetic diatribes about their past, their grievances about past lovers, and their continuous debate about whether to drink water or wine. Yet, I continued to wait for clues.
Underneath the repeated droning of composer Fennesz’s minimal musical score, the Nymphs eventually discover that a man wandering the hotel would make a perfect target for them to reenact their abduction of Hylas. Reminding the audience of their sexuality, the nymphs periodically disrobe, and we see projections of a naked, erect man on the various surfaces of Gordon Landenberger’s all white set. This became so frequent, the nudity and sexual imagery onstage, the heightened language, and the glossy production values, I was finding myself distracted by these gestures rather than drawn in. Adding to that, the “past” was projected in front of the viewer as a video of the same scene but with different costumes and in Ancient Greek, while the present scene continued on stage simultaneously. While it revealed that this scene had happened before, this layer upon layer of information further alienated me from the story. Who was this new man pretending to be Hylas and why was he there? Luckily, a moment of clarity came periodically from the evening’s strongest actor, Tanisha Thompson, as Dryope, the unofficial leader of the nymphs. Her decisive gravitas leant momentum to this otherwise sticky narrative.
Finally, the “climax” of the story arrived – the moment they choose to sacrifice this new "Hylas" through what I shall only describe here as sexual torture. Jahnke has been described as imagistic in his direction, and here he does not disappoint – Laura Mroczkowski’s lighting design washes the white set in blood reds and purples, mist billows and the man turned Hylas is ritualistically placed on a tall white dais center stage while strung by a rope from the rafters above. I was inundated by the violent, erotic display. The deed completed, the nymphs retreat lest they call attention to themselves by the hotel staff.
Jahnke explains in the show’s program that he wishes to explore the psychosexual “antique guilt” that Western Civilization’s past has bestowed upon us. Yet, I never felt invited into this exploration as this production’s cold and cerebral presentation combined with violent sexual imagery kept me at arm's length. Of what are we guilty? Are we meant to indulge in the role reversal of the female upon male violence? Condemn it? His faithfulness to the style of Ancient Greek drama – where a series of characters bombast to their audience in highly stylized language is effective when the audience knows the play and the players. Here I felt I needed some crib notes to clue me in. Jahnke’s vision is ambitious, perhaps audience goers with a thirst for the academic will find it more engaging.