A Trip to the Underworld Reads More Political than Mystical

Levi Kreis as Hermes stands centerstage holding an umbrella with the cast of Hadestown.

After a season of disappointments, the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown, feels revelatory.

Inspired by ancient Greek mythology, Anais Mitchell’s Tony Award-winning musical spins a tale as old as a time. Orpheus is a poor, young artist who falls in love with Eurydice, a streetwise drifter. Orpheus follows Eurydice to the underworld to save her, but is their love able to withstand Hades’ test? 

In the literal sense, Orpheus and Eurydice’s love story might seem trite, but upon closer examination its symbolism is layered and surprising. In fact, what makes Hadestown so revelatory is not the story itself, but the way in which Mitchell and Director Rachel Chavkin connect it to current global crises.

To be clear, a production like this could easily get lost in translation from the intimacy of a Broadway house that seats under 1000 people to a venue like the Durham Performing Arts Center which seats over 2700. But Mitchell and Chavkin have been down this road before and know how to work the development process and turn obstacles into opportunities.

Here, Tony Award-winner Levi Kreis artfully dons Hermes’ silver suit. The God of Hermes is both messenger and guardian, yet Kreis leans into his role more as protector of the sheep than conductor of the dead. His humanistic approach to this character sets the tone and shifts the focus away from esotericism to zero in on the show’s politics.  

And as if there were any question as to what Mitchell and Chavkin’s political agenda might be, the way in which Rachel Hauck’s Tony Award-winning set has been modified, leaves little room for ambiguity. On Broadway, actors are transported to the underworld via a lift that drops eight feet below the stage floor. Here, out of necessity, Hauck takes a more utilitarian approach, which strangely affirms the direct correlation between industrial capitalism and climate change.

The visuals, instrumentation, and music are glorious. But having seen the show before, the way in which Chavkin explores the dangers of mechanistic dehumanization, with such a sense of urgency, felt particularly disquieting now in the looming shadow of world war. And arguably, this is what good theater does. It holds space for its audience to process, understand, hope, heal, and dream. Aristotle called this catharsis. Mitchell named it Hadestown.

The national tour of Hadestown runs through March 2023. For dates, cities, and tickets visit https://www.hadestown.com/tour.

Listen to what Dramaturg Ken Cerniglia had to say to Beltline to Broadway about the show.

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