In the self-described “dark trailer-park disco” underworld of experimental theater company The Nerve Tank’s The Maiden you will find smoke and mirrors, stark white suitcases, a blindfolded woman chained to the wall and a flamboyant Hades watching over all, perched upon his steampunk quad-cycle.
Touted as an immersive twist on the Greek mythic rape of Persephone, director Melanie S. Armer and writer Chance D. Meuhleck’s The Maiden is an exercise in musical anti-theater. The tale of Persephone is told via a series of seemingly random allusions and dissonant sounds.
In this techno-centric, nightmarish void Persephone, played by the very talented Robin Kurtz, finds herself once again in the underworld, her mangled memories emerging in disjointed soliloquies. As the story goes, Persephone is abducted by her uncle Hades as a child. Zeus forces Hades to return his daughter after her mother Demeter, harvest-goddess, causes nothing to grow. Hades agrees but tricks Persephone by giving her a pomegranate to eat, forcing her to spend a third of each year with him in the underworld.
The Maiden tells of what happens when Persephone, as a grown woman, returns to Hades and the underworld, having been there many times before. She is seduced by Hades, a drag-goth fascist played by the brilliant Mark William Lindberg, who forces her to drink a red liquid (blood or pomegranate juice?) that causes her to remember and join his crazy chorus of hypnotized players, lead by composer and lead chorus member Admiral Grey. Their relationship is encased in sexual tension, hatred, yearning, memory, and empowerment.
This complexity is reflected in the dissonant sounds that characterize the play’s cacophonous music. Advertised as the “anti-Karen O,” Admiral Grey’s heavily atmospheric compositions draw from pop culture, bass-heavy trance, and almost sci-fi like digital noise. The result is alternatively goosebump inducing and booty-shaking, which the chorus comically does over and over again with zombie-like choreography.
The chopped up, and sometimes seemingly random, arrangement of the dialogue may leave some in the disco darkness, but the mythic foundation of the play shines through in alternatively confounding and compelling places. Muehleck draws from countless references in history, literature, and movies, inserting text from Gunther Grass’s My Century in seemingly random parts of the script—saying little or everything about the melodramatic and tricky character of Hades.
The primary success of the work as a whole is Kurtz’s strong performance as Persephone. She is extremely convincing as the lost soul who finds herself, her mother’s memory, and her power by cutting through the nonsensical and confusing noise that she encounters in the underworld. The funniest and most poignant moment is when the lights turn red, and Persephone is seen standing alone with a mic, taunting the audience with a mock stand-up routine consisting of rape anti-jokes. Broken glass shatters and crashes as she spouts each punch-line.
Experimental in structure and meaningful in parts, The Maiden is at times genius and at times gibberish. While Kurtz’s spectacular performance as Persephone is strong, it isn’t quite enough to push past the realm of “what exactly am I watching here?” Nonetheless, The Nerve Tank’s extremely entertaining creation is one that commands attention with its out-of-the-box restructuring of a classic Greek text as a visual and auditory brain freeze.