Cornerstone Theater Company presented Demeter in the City, which closed last weekend at REDCAT. Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s play, with songs (by Ruhl, David Markowitz and director Shishir Kurup), riffs on the Greek Demeter myth by modernizing it and setting it in Los Angeles. Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture, suffered such grief when Hades snatched her daughter, Persephone, to be queen of the underworld, that she drowned Thebes in her tears and shut down the food supply until Uncle Zeus interceded, resulting in a time-sharing plan for Persephone. And this explains the seasons — why, when Persephone is with Hades in winter, trees lose their leaves and fields lie fallow; in summer, with mother and daughter together, life on Earth pulses again with abundant food and flowing wine.
Ruhl turns Demeter (Bahni Turpin) into a single mom from Compton whose infant gets snatched away by Child Services after needles are found in the apartment. Turpin’s doe eyes, understated rage and ongoing perplexity revealed a penetrating and moving study in grief. Accompanied by 10 pop songs, set to Jennifer Li’s winking choreography, the show bounced from Demeter’s despondency to kangaroo courts headed by the wonderful Peter Howard as Judge, a comedic romp through child-custody protocol, and then, in Act 2, Persephone’s (Sadé Moore) agitprop debunking of a Young Republican’s (Sonny Valicenti) devil logic. Ruhl and director Shishir Kurup are smart enough to give each side its due, and are humble enough to avoid easy answers, but that doesn’t necessarily add up to wisdom. The problem starts with a myth about seasons set in a city that, by the play’s own admission, doesn’t have any. After the show gets torn between a righteous view of the world and a paradoxical one, the original myth is left in shards. Kurup’s production, however, was so goodhearted, it’s difficult to rail against it.?
Priosners of passion, Agamemnon and Cassandra (Dunn and Turner) (Photo by Paul Rubenstein)
Persephone and the Devil: Moore and Valicenti (Photo by Michael Lamont)