Theater review: ‘Cyclops: A Rock Opera’ at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre
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Beyond the conspicuous wearing of phalluses by the chorus, no one really knows how Satyr plays — served in ancient Greece as dessert after the customary three-course banquet of tragedy — were originally done. The only intact example of the bawdy form is Euripides’ “The Cyclops,” the tale of how Odysseus escaped the clutches of the giant one-eyed savage by plying him with wine and then blinding him with an extra long red-hot poker.
Psittacus Productions’ “Cyclops: A Rock Opera,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre after a successful run at Son of Semele earlier this year, pieces together its own version of the tradition. The materials employed may be wildly anachronistic, but the insouciant attitude is just right for a work in which wine and libidinous anarchy overflow.
Don’t be surprised, however, if you come away thinking Euripides must have had a hand in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Although called a “rock opera,” this “Cyclops,” featuring a rousing score by Jayson Landon Marcus (who’s perversely mesmerizing as Polyphemus, the cyclops) and Benjamin Sherman (lead guitarist and one of the Satyrs) is more of a rock cabaret.
Louis Butelli, who plays Silenus, “father” of the Satyrs, serves as emcee. Dressed in furry chaps, this old goat (in every sense, though some scholarly sources indicate a horse pedigree) gambols on stage like a cross between Tim Curry and Joel Grey. Backed by his band, the Satyrs, he relates their capture on this island, where he and his bleating offspring are Polyphemus’ slaves, with no hope in sight until Odysseus (Chas LiBretto, looking oddly like a teen idol) washes ashore, hungry and bedraggled, with a precious supply of wine for barter. Created collectively, the piece has the strengths and weaknesses of a group effort. Butelli and LiBretto adapted the work from a translation by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their loosey-goosey approach, while highly sportive, is perhaps a touch too blurry for an adventure tale with a clearly delineated plot. Euripides doesn’t loudly broadcast his serious themes, grappling as usual (even in travesty mode) with the way savagery begets savagery. But here the fun drowns out a good deal of the meaning.
The production, directed by Butelli, LiBretto and Robert Richmond, is so successful at creating a theatrical immediacy that it can’t help losing track of the drama. Odysseus, transformed into a pretty boy cipher, gets overshadowed at times by the flamboyant Goth-like figures cut by Silenus and Polyphemus. LiBretto has a super voice and can pluck a frolicsome tune on the ukulele. But his characterization is less outlandishly conceived, and wiliness, the quality Euripides uses as a substitute for Odysseus’ Homeric heroism, is easily upstaged.
Fortunately, “Cyclops” is such a thrilling freak show that you just give into its luscious chaos. The band, pumping out delectably unique jams while Maenads cavort like flirtatious moths, communicates directly with our irrational side. This is a musical for people who are too cool for musicals yet still yearn for the old Dionysian revelry.
‘Cyclops: A Rock Opera,’ Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. 9p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, 11 p.m. Saturdays. Ends May 8. $25.
(626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes