Asclepius: The Gods' Musical Medicine 

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Ellen Stewart is something of a mythic figure. Founder and artistic director for 47 years of the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, she has not only written, directed and produced countless shows, she has also encouraged the talents and unorthodoxies of a great many well-known and highly respected theater and performance artists both in the mainstream and far beyond it. Just a couple of days ago I went to see a new work-in-progress by Tom Murrin, a downtown performance artist who has stood atop many a stage and street corner these past few decades. Woven into his story were a number of brief portraits of Stewart, the most poignant of her sitting in front of the theater on East 4th Street in the early 70s stitching together costumes for the next week’s productions, guarding the door from police and those who would interrupt the show, taking the $2 fee that ticket buyers paid to see a week’s worth of entertainments, while simultaneously being handed scripts by young, green writers like Tom who wanted to try their hand at something new.

The night that I went to see her latest play, Asclepius, a nurse wheeled Stewart out center stage, where she delivered a quiet curtain speech, punctuated with low, slow breaths. She told us that she had checked herself out of the hospital to come and see the show, the nurse behind her quietly scanning the audience as her charge told of the latest challenge the theater faces, having lost NEA funding for her next show. As she explained it, she lost the funding because she couldn’t give a specific reason why she wanted to tell this new story, she just thought we might want to hear it.

Soon after that the nurse pushed her wheelchair off the stage, as a number of those in the audience applauded. And then the play began—a tale, of all things, of the Greek character who made the gods jealous because of his ability to cheat death with medicine. The tale of Asclepius is the reason why the medical trade uses a staff with a snake wrapped around it as its symbol.

Stewart’s retelling of the story is clear and very approachable, retold entirely in operatic song. True to form, there is a tremendous amount of fresh and diverse talent in the show – many of the 24 players in the piece appear to be in their early twenties – a testament not only to Stewart’s spirit, but also the unchanging realities of non-commercial theater with large casts and non-traditional techniques. There’s an element of the ridiculous, even hokiness, in many aspects of the production that is so much a piece of La MaMa. This kind of show is not for everyone, there’s no getting around that. There were a handful of people who decided not to come back after intermission the night I was there. But Ellen Stewart is a woman I would challenge anyone not to admire, and for that reason, I hope she keeps helping new stories find ways to be told.

Asclepius continues at La MaMa E.T.C. through June 14.

(photo credit: Richard Greene)

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