Classic myths offer tempting opportunities for muckin’ about. “Beowulf,” for instance, was never the same once John Gardner’s “Grendel” retold it from the monster’s p.o.v. “Heavier Than…” is Steve Yockey’s dramatic prequel to Theseus’ victory in the labyrinth, focusing on minotaur Asterius (Nick Ballard) with doomed aviator Icarus (Casey Kringlen) tossed in as his flirtatious BFF. In the Boston Court world premiere, eloquent passages play uneasily against numbingly flat exchanges whose intent is tough to piece out. Just as its protagonist is neither man nor bull, Abigail Deser’s production proves neither fish nor fowl.
Robert Prior’s Bunraku shadow puppets charmingly brush us up on the ancient yarn. Three decades ago, the gods bewitched Queen Pasiphae (Jill Van Velzer) into carnal knowledge of a magnificent white bull, the issue of which union was plopped in infancy within the unconquerable maze.
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Every seven years a tourney is held and Asterius kills the warriors, but otherwise he just kills time, trapped in his lonely Beckettian universe. (Perhaps not coincidentally, choristers Ashanti Brown, Teya Patt and Katie Locke O’Brien look down haughtily in dark glasses borrowed from Hamm in Beckett’s “Endgame.”)
But while the lines and situation suggest a roaring beast at bay in an existential wasteland, Ballard gives us a petulant hunk with mommie issues (and a distracting back tattoo), padding lumpenly around his den feeling sorry for himself and wishing Pasiphae wouldn’t keep her distance.
Meanwhile, Kringlen’s Icarus is a blond twinkie who flits in periodically hoping to tempt Asterius into some kinky s&m, both lads caught up in that Southern California vocal tic. You know the one? Where every phrase? Goes up at the end? Whether it’s a question or not?
Then sister Ariadne (Laura Howard) wafts in mangling her diction too, and it all becomes uncomfortably incongruous, as if the thesps were cast for how cute and ripped they are but we’re supposed to ignore the dull line readings, and the straining at emotion no one feels.
Kurt Boetcher’s imposing walls of encaged stones offer tantalizing hints of the world outside, and Lap Chi Chu is a master at sculpting light into flashes of terror and recognition. But production elements can’t redeem an acting style alternating between campiness and bombast.
In the final moments, once the sun does its number on Icarus’s wax wings and our hero demands to know the truth about his past, a valiant Van Velzer at last taps into the fear and dread you hope for when someone wrestles with the Greek classics, and there’s a swell final tableau. No catharsis, mind, but at least a sense that the work’s elements have finally come together exactly as intended.