Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Domestic Goddess: "Juno en Victoria" by Stuart Bousel

Juno en Victoria, currently playing at Stage Werx in a production by Wily West Productions, is doubly distinguished: the second Stuart Bousel play to premiere in June (the first was Edenites) and the second Olympians Festival play to receive a full production (after Hermes, in March). Fortunately, it lives up to its pedigree!

One of my favorite aspects of the Olympians Festival is how the writers re-contextualize ancient myths, setting them in other historical eras where they will resonate better. Thus, Juno en Victoria re-imagines the story of Hera, goddess of marriage, as a Victorian comedy of manners -- a perfect match of theme and time period. When Hera says at one point, "I am my marriage," it doesn't sound like hyperbole, but the simple truth. Stuart is also a literature nerd who gets a kick out of mashing up Greek mythology with Victorian fiction and history, and the play is rife with fanservice allusions.

(Geeky playwriting tangent: I am also impressed by the way Edenites and Juno display Stuart's command of two very different dramatic structures. Edenites is a series of short scenes modeled after a talky '90s indie movie, while Juno is an old-fashioned three-act, one-set, drawing-room comedy. Interestingly, though, both plays deviate from the norm by including several direct-address monologues. I felt that the monologues worked a little better in Edenites than in Juno, although the penultimate monologue in Juno is one of the play's best jokes, and Hera's concluding speech is a knockout.)

The play takes place during an English summer in the High Victorian era, at Zeus and Hera's country house. They seem like a happy couple, and their youngest daughter Hebe is about to make an excellent marriage to Heracles (amusingly portrayed as a Bertie Wooster-ish twit). The main action of the play, though, focuses on Hera and her spinster sister, Hestia. Hestia suspects that Zeus is philandering again, and is determined to find out the identity of Zeus's new paramour. Hera, meanwhile, appears unconcerned by her husband's dalliances; thus we (and Hestia) wonder whether Hera is just putting on a front. Adding some Cockney attitude to the cast of characters are the family's servants, Iris and Ganymede.

With Edenites, I felt like the male and female roles were equally well written and performed, but, for personal reasons, I connected to the women's stories more. Juno en Victoria, though, is unquestionably the women's play. The men are supporting characters, Zeus never appears onstage (though his presence looms large), and the women in the cast also seem to inhabit their roles more fully. Kalinda Wang, as Iris, is no glittering rainbow-goddess, but an embittered young woman who gives full voice to her working-class resentment. Kat Bushnell is a vivacious Hebe, making a memorable entrance where she trips, breaks a tea-set, and curses like a sailor.

The play's innovative characterizations -- Heracles as a likable idiot rather than a hero; Hebe as a Victorian girl who clearly won't just lie back and think of England on her wedding night -- show that Stuart's love for Greek mythology and the Victorian era never crosses the line into slavish reverence. Nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of Hera and Hestia, the central characters. In myth, Hestia is the modest and self-effacing virgin goddess who gives up her throne to Dionysus. In Juno en Victoria, Hestia is a meddling busybody with a sharp tongue. At the staged reading of Juno en Victoria (then called Hera) last summer, I was seated behind a pillar and couldn't see any of Celeste Russi's performance as Hestia. Nonetheless, her dry line readings and impeccable comic timing had me in stitches. Fortunately, Russi is reprising the role of Hestia in this production, and she's even better when you can see her as well as hear her.

Most importantly, of course, there is Hera. In myth, Hera is often portrayed as a nagging shrew, but the Hera of this play is complex and sympathetic. As Hera, the lovely Michelle Jasso perfectly embodies the Victorian ideal of "the angel in the house" (perhaps we should say "the goddess in the house"?). Her characterization reminded me of Elizabeth McGovern on Downton Abbey -- warm, understanding, irresistibly cozy, and surprisingly open-minded. She is dignified and gracious, the perfect hostess, but possesses a secret, steely strength.

In the Victorian era, A Doll's House shocked audiences by showing a charming wife and mother who left her marriage when she realized it was built on a lie. In our own time, Juno en Victoria is surprising because it investigates the psychology of a wife and mother who chooses not to leave her marriage, though she knows it is based on a lie. But could you really expect the goddess of marriage to behave differently?

Juno en Victoria plays at Stage Werx through July 2. Tickets here.

Disclosure: this play was written by my friend Stuart Bousel, directed by my friend Claire Rice, and is associated with the Olympians Festival, for which I am a co-producer...

Top image: Celeste Russi as Hestia, Michelle Jasso as Hera. Bottom image: Michelle Jasso as Hera, Kat Bushnell as Hebe.

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