“I just want the work to speak for itself,” says Giuseppe, a 16th century sculptor in Florence. In the Huntington’s world premiere of “Persephone,” Noah Haidle’s imaginatively funny and deeply serious allegorical play about eternal yearning — not to mention the nature of art and human existence — it does just that in the form of a statue of Greek goddess Demeter.
Demeter (Melinda Lopez) can’t help but gush with girlish devotion about the artist (Seth Fisher), become jealous of his chatty model and libidinous muse (Mimi Lieber), endure the pontifications of his patron (Jeremiah Kissel) and ponder the purpose of art and her permanent place on a pedestal. The work begins with a playful idea that turns into something else entirely as Haidle explores the role of art as a refuge — and witness — in a chaotic, cruel and mortal world.
Demeter is goddess of the harvest but she is not so much known for her bounty as for her despair after her daughter, Persephone, is abducted and taken to the underworld. Sick with sadness, Demeter refuses to allow spring to bloom until her daughter is returned.
Up-and-coming Florentine artist Giuseppe struggles to capture just the right touch of permanent heartbreak in his stonework. Demeter is all too happy in her role as the marbleized embodiment of Giuseppe’s inspired expression — and Haidle has great fun depicting the relationship between the artist and his creation.
But then time jumps forward 500 years, landing the statue — now armless, defiled and deteriorating — in an urban park filled with the homeless, the insane and the brutal. Few are inspired now by the statue’s grace, and Demeter’s role has become simply “to be eternal witness to the world without the power to hide or look away.”
As shown in Haidle’s previous plays, “Mr. Marmalade,” “Rag and Bone” and “Vigils,” the 27-year-old playwright doesn’t take a conventional or realistic path. But too often his loopy humor, extravagant notions and colorful characters reveal more conceit and promise than fulfillment. In this more mature work, the playwright matches his theatrical nerve and verve with deeper understanding and focus.
Still, there are excesses and rough patches in this short two-act four-hander, which is sure to see further productions (though its sexual boldness, language and violence in the second half might give some theaters pause). Demeter’s woeful chant of seeing the wickedness of life in front of her (“How much can one endure? If only I could look away, that would be heaven”) is repeated to diminishing effect, as is a running gag about pigeon poop.
The second act also includes one too many acts of savagery, and the lead into the play’s final moments is awkward, shortchanging an elegant ending of hope, spring and reunion.
Helmer Nicholas Martin navigates Haidle’s swooping styles with delicacy and boldness, striking a balance of humanity and horror, playfulness and melancholy. He also has cast the show wonderfully, especially with the statuesque beauty of Lopez’s Demeter. (The thesp also is a playwright; her “Sonia Flew” preemed at the Huntington.) But this perf is a work of art unto itself. With sublime, serene charm, wit and steadfastness, Demeter is the mother-in-waiting for us all.
Fisher brings a sweet desperation as the strugglingsculptor coping with his raw talent and the hype of being the next big artist. Kissel is solid in multiple parts, most effectively as a pair of rodents in Florence and New York with contradictory thoughts about the importance of art in one’s life. Lieber shows her versatility in an array of roles, notably as the frisky model in the first act and a modern-day mother in the second.
Special praise goes to scenic designer David Korins and costumer Jenny Mannis who devised Demeter’s classic cold-stone look. Ditto Ben Stanton for his time-changing lighting, which bathes the Florentine studio with warmth and turns the air to a heartless chill in the New York park.