I walked out of the Yale Cabaret amazed by the interplay of lights, sound and water I had just experienced. “Styx Songs” is imbued with a beauty that, paired with the grittiness of the acting and the scrambling of the dead characters it portrays, creates a haunting tableau.
The production plays with light and shadows, often featuring dead souls, clothed in gossamer white, who stand behind veils and hold small LEDs that sparkle through the backdrop. The first soul who drags himself out of Charon’s river walks into a spotlight, diffusing light throughout the theater and silhouetting his body. The show even includes light designs projected onto Ophelia’s body; it seems as if the light is emerging from her as she drowns in the river, creating a terrifyingly fascinating image.
The sound also contributes to the holistic experience of the performance. There’s a live drummer seated offstage whose rhythms subtly add to the background of each scene and intensify certain moments. His attempts to toy with the heartbeats and emotions of the audience are incredibly effective, especially in the final scene, in which the sound becomes so loud that it overwhelms us before it begins to fade away. The choir that begins backstage, and later comes into the foreground to tell individual stories, adds to the hauntingly beautiful ambiance with its clear and somber voices.
And then there’s the water. As a theater rat myself, I know that bringing a body of water onstage is incredibly ambitious. When I walked into the Cabaret and saw the production team filling the pool with bucket after bucket, I was amazed — and maybe a little glad I wasn’t sitting in the splash zone alongside either side of the stage. The water is a central part of both the story and the imagery. Each character interacts with the river, some kneeling, some immersing themselves entirely. Many of the white shifts the characters wear are dripping, lit from behind, translucent and ghost-like. The use of water is not overdone, but constant and coherent.
I marvel at the aesthetically perfect tableaus. Each moment onstage looks as if it is a painting, juxtaposed to clarify the narrative and to convey the intense emotions behind each scene. For example, in a scene in which Charon is listening to the dead’s stories, he stands in front with each individual, one at a time. Positioned in the foreground, he holds the dead on an invisible string while other souls behind him huddle and fold their bodies over. All are centered with the river’s opening directly behind them. If the characters were to pause and take a photo, much of the emotional content of the scene could be conveyed by the their facial expressions, body positions and arrangement relative to one another.
The beautiful imagery did not, however, take away from the power of the actors’ monologues. Though much of the script, especially at the beginning, was taken from or based on older texts and written in verse, the actors delivered their lines as everyday, understandable speech. They were also unafraid to connect with the audience, often breaking the fourth wall and making eye contact to bring the audience into the scene. Though much of the script is a series of monologues compiled together, all of the actors seemed aware of how their words worked in dialogue with others’ pieces and conveyed a unified mood.
The physicality of death and purgatory was inhuman and contributed to the overall uneasiness and fascination of the piece. The first soul to emerge into the river does so on his stomach and lies struggling in the water. In the next few minutes, he drags himself along the pool floor, tensing his muscles so that he seems to physically shake. I believe that he could not yet move his legs, that he was learning how to operate his body as he continued to claim that he was “not yet born.” His precise and consistent movement, as he pulls himself out of the pool and staggers into walking, was both haunting and convincing.
Each character mirrors this physical intensity as they are held by Charon’s imaginary string; some bounce as if hanging, others struggle, still more freeze in jagged positions. No one breaks character, not even with their body language.
And I can’t leave out the performance of Charon himself, who is onstage for the entire piece, controlling the dead and their stories and speaking directly to the audience. His sexual physicality and emotional range — from disparagement, ridicule and true loneliness — carried the story along and wove the disparate characters and narratives into one cohesive piece.
I left the theater impressed by the intensity of the acting performances, the elegance and beauty of the aural and visual aspects of the piece and the total incorporation of water and its implications for life and death.