Ixion debuts with the original production "The Four Disgracers." Photo: Ixion

Ixion Launches With Four Original Works

By Bridgette M. Redman

It's hard to go through eternity with the rap of "disgracer." And it takes, perhaps, more than a little courage and foolhardiness to name one's incipient theater company after a mythological villain convicted and punished for hubris.

Ixion Ensemble takes that brave step and then doubles down by making its debut with four original one-acts about mythological bad guys in an evening called "The Four Disgracers." Accompanied by original music sung live, these quick sketches retell the stories of Phaeton, Tantalus, Ixion and Icarus. The founder of Ixion, Jeff Croff, was also the artistic director of the former theater company, Icarus Falling.

The evening started out strong with "Distance to the Son" by O.G. Ueberroth. Ueberroth's script retells the story of a young man who is in his father's shadow, wanting to prove he is his son rather than recreating himself as his own person. Of all the vignettes of the evening, this is the one that most stands alone from the myth it is based on. The themes of making a choice, seeking one's own fortune and taking responsibility for one's choice - even when unaware of the consequences that might befall that choice - are timeless and resonate well.

Helios (Rico Bruce Wade) is Pate's (Joseph Mull) father and is late for his birthday. The relationship between the two is tense - it isn't easy having a busy god who is always absent as a father. Mull and Wade capture this tension: Mull is sullen and resentful, while Wade is successful, busy and contemptuous of his son's complaints. They do the script justice throwing out modern references casually juxtaposed against fine moments like Wade doing an ancient chant.

The second piece, "A Tantalizing Menu" by Sarah Hauck, is the story that most sticks to the original tale. It is a recreation rather than a retelling, with Tantlus (Kris Vitols) feeding his son to the unsuspecting, bickering family of gods: Angharad McGaughey plays Athena, Michael Stornant plays Zeus, Cassie Little is Demeter, and Rikki Perez is Hera. It is best enjoyed if you know your Greek mythology and your classical literature.

All four gods are played in classical Greek style, with the goddesses gossiping about Antigone's brothers when the sketch opens. Tantalus seems almost a side dish, as his complaints are made as asides, ignored and quickly covered by the arguments of Zeus and Hera over his infidelities or Demeter bemoaning the death of her child (though in the actual telling of the myth, she was gone for only six months out of the year). Perez is sassy, McGaughey tries to make peace and Little is self-absorbed.

The telling of the story is awkward, with no clear theme arising other than that gods can behave as poorly as humans, though their spats pale compared to the creepiness of Tantalus and his cannibalistic menu. Too much of the play is chosen for the best line of the moment, rather than choosing a clear through-line for the story.

Brad Rutledge's "Empty" is next, and this is the one that tells the story of the ensemble's namesake, Ixion. Lesser known than the other disgracers, Ixion killed his would-be father-in-law because he didn't want to pay the bride price. He was exiled to the desert, but Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus. Ixion showed his gratitude by hitting on Hera and trying to seduce her.

Rutledge transforms this tale to modern-day gangsters in a cynical approach that blends modern-day politics, crime, loan collection, adultery and ambition. He gives a modern twist to each of the crimes of Ixion. It hides most of its cynicism behind humor, though still delivers its ironic punch.

Jimmy "Two Suits" Montagna is played by Croff, and Anthony "X-man" Fiama is played by Stornant. Perhaps because he was eager to establish a difference between X-man and the Zeus of the previous sketch, Stornant didn't show as much charisma as he was described as having in the script. Otherwise, the two actors capture the gangster accent and the exaggerated moves and language that speak "mob."

The closing piece by A.S. Freeman, "Icarus Flying" features Paige Dunckel as Icarus' mother. Set amid an oppressive regime, she talks about her fears associated with his dreams. Her delivery is beautiful and touching, and she mines the monologue for all that it has. The problem is that the monologue fails to establish the mother as having any maternal connections to the son. Rather, she seems just a provider of wax, a neighbor, someone more concerned with her safety than the freedom of her son. The monologue also must be taken outside the context of the original myth, for in this telling, he is not a disgracer, but a rebel folk hero and a martyr. There is no mention of the traditional hero of the story, the one who makes the wings and succeeds in escaping Crete.

The staging was intentionally minimal, set in an art gallery where little was available for lighting options. There were no sound effects, but there was original music written by Ueberroth, the playwright of the first sketch. It was performed live on keyboard as intros to each piece sung by Marian Wilson. The songs tended to be haunting and made for perfect transitions between each act.

Coming in at just over an hour with no intermission, "The Four Disgracers" varies in its pacing, with "Distance to the Son" being most effective in keeping the audience curious about what is happening.

The four plays work as an introduction to the new company as a play on its name and a tribute to its desire to "pursue interesting stories with unique perspectives and innovative styles." Outside of Ixion, the script does not stand on its own or have enough of a unifying theme to give it legs to be performed elsewhere.

REVIEW:

'The Four Disgracers'

Ixion at REO Town's Art Alley, 1133 S. Washington, Lansing. 8 p.m. May 17, 22, 24 and 4 p.m. May 24. $15-25. http://www.ixiontheatre.com

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