Theatre Thursday :: our thoughts on Jasper in Deadland

28 May

So it’s been quite a long time since I saw a show “in previews,” but conveniently, Seattle is a decent place to do that, and I happened to find out about one that was showing up there all through this month.  It’s already had its closing weekend, but there’s no telling where it will end up, and I hope that’s somewhere in New York because, well, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than a lot of the stuff I’ve seen on the Tonys in recent years.

The show is Jasper in Deadland, which is a rock musical about a boy who travels to the underworld to get his best girl friend back from… being dead.  And wackiness ensues.  I admit my initial response upon reading that was “oh no, compulsive heteronormativity?” but I was pleasantly surprised by the plot and how it was presented.

I was a little wary too, for similar reasons, but when I saw that it was getting advertised as being similar to Rent and Spring Awakening I was intrigued enough to want to go along with it. I am a bad theater person and don’t really do research beforehand if I haven’t seen the show before, so I didn’t know until we got there that it’s meant to be a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. I love Greek mythology stuff so that pretty much sold me before it even started. This show, of course, takes a slightly different approach: the eponymous Jasper and his friend Agnes are not lovers, they are…something else. The “it’s complicated” Facebook status was made for them. But characters do make references to the pair of Greek lovers, so this story is less of a technical retelling and more inspired by the myth. It’s kind of weird and interesting and I haven’t seen a lot of things that straddle the line like this. To further complicate things, he’s joined by Gretchen, a Deadland tour guide who begins to remember pieces of her old life the more she’s around Jasper…but that might not be a good thing.

So Jasper goes to save Agnes, right, winding up in the underworld, which isn’t exclusively in the Greco-Roman tradition, although Pluto does oversee, the river Lethe (and its also eponymous proprietor, who comes off the sleaziest businessman you could ever imagine) is a key plot point, and Elysium is a facet.  But there’s also a factory of torture overseen by Little Lu (a hillbilly Lucifer) and Virgil is the ferryman and Ammit the lion-hippopotamus-crocodile demon of Egyptian mythology guards the gate to Elysium and… well.

One of my favorite parts of the show was their interpretation of Cerberus, who has been portrayed in so many ways in fiction (off the top of my head, having two “dumb heads” and one smart one in the Death’s Daughter series and being a literal dog with dog-level intelligence in Percy Jackson). I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a story give the heads multiple genders, though: this show’s Cerberus has two male heads and a female one. I don’t know that there was a “point” to it, but it was interesting. And the way that they staged it was really interesting too: the three actors held giant dog heads on sticks, and had wires to move their jaws when they “spoke,” and the eyes would glow yellow or red. This gives you an idea of what it looked like. I don’t know a lot about stage props, I just thought it looked really cool. And my other favorite part was whenever Loki and his daughter Hel showed up, because those two actors were just having the time of their lives belting “I AM LOKI!” “I AM HEL!” to announce their presence two out of three times. They were sent to retrieve Jasper for Lethe, but they’re the most incompetent pair and basically are just there to act as buffoons and chase Jasper and Gretchen around the stage. I am a woman of simple pleasures and they made me laugh every time.

As far as tone goes, I would say this has more in common with Spring Awakening than Rent, in actuality, though not that much in common with either.  (There are the typical teenager themes, which helps pull it that way, and also some of the choreography was in Spring’s style, the organized chaos sense of things.  Oh, and Matt Doyle was in it, doing a very good job carrying the thing.  I never saw him as anything more than a swing in Spring Awakening, but I’ve heard good things, and I understand them.)  Tonally, it felt more like Reefer Madness, except the subject matter is more serious than that show and also it’s more earnest and less parodying, and the ending is happier.  The finale number actually felt closer to the Next to Normal finale for me, which got a few shivers up my spine in a nice way.

Also, it’s one of those shows where everyone in the chorus also plays multiple featured roles, so everyone got to show off like mad.  And the book was cowritten by Hunter Foster.

Overall, damn good time and it actually pulled off a plot twist, which is not always something that happens in live theatre. It’s probably too weird to go mainstream, but I hope it does. It deserves to.

–your fangirl heroines.

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