Full-Frontal Hilarity

Etcetera's 'Persephone' deliciously combines nudity, wicked comedy and philosophical heft

The promotional materials for Etcetera's Persephone or Slow Time warn: This production contains full-frontal nudity, violence and strong sexual content. No one under 18 admitted.

We sure don't have to wait long for that full-frontal nudity.

The play begins in 1507 in the workshop of Giuseppe (Eric Anson), an Italian artist. Giuseppe is sculpting a statue of the Greek goddess Demeter. Emilee Foster depicts the work of art.

Demeter is not in the nude—a sheet is cleverly draped across her body and economically indicates the parts that have yet to be fully sculpted—but the model who comes in to pose keeps wondering aloud whether the artist would like to see her in the buff. Despite Giuseppe's insistence that he needs only to see her shoulder, the model (played hysterically by Kristi Loera) drops her robe and poses au naturel.

Nudity on the stage is often justified by program notes claiming that it's "essential" or "truly necessary" to the scene. However, the full-frontal nudity in Persephone is entirely gratuitous—unwanted even by the characters onstage—which is, of course, what makes it so great.

Demeter, however, is not amused. She hurls a steady, vicious stream of insults toward the model. ("Whore!" is the least of them.) The statue is jealous of Giuseppe's time and attentions, you see.

Playwright Noah Haidle's story draws loosely on the Greek myth of the grief-stricken Demeter, the harvest goddess whose daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken into the underworld. Persephone was permitted to return only in the spring, bringing new plants, and life, back to the earth.

Haidle has a growing national reputation, and his plays have been produced all over the country. A cursory search online turns up clips of a production of Persephone at Boston's famed Huntington Theatre. For what it's worth (and this is unfair, given that the video only shows rehearsals), the choices made in Etcetera's production strike me as bolder and funnier than those of the Huntington's.

And bold choices are a must for this play, where our main character is a statue.

Pale and lovely, Foster does an excellent job of suggesting the limitations of a living figure carved of stone—she stays rooted to a chair throughout and rarely turns her head. She is onstage the entire play, while the rest of the actors come and go, playing multiple characters.

In the second scene, the play moves forward in time 500 years, from Giuseppe's workshop in 1507 to a New York City park in 2007. Demeter is stuck watching the atrocities that are a daily part of life in such a place. The other members of the cast—Anson, Loera, Danielle Dryer, Michael Woodson and Casi Omick—depict a full range of horrors. There's a corrupt cop demanding blow jobs from prostitutes, a mother murdering her baby, a rapist on the attack, a mother traumatized by the murder of her daughter, and others.

The cast performs these graphic moments of violence, sex and violent sex at an energetic, quick pace. One horror happens quickly after another—making these scenes awfully, terribly, hysterically funny. The effect helps us see Demeter's perspective.

Despite her compassion for the pain all around her, the indignity that Demeter takes the most personally is the poop that pigeons continually drop on her head. ("Do I look like a toilet to you?" she shouts futilely.) Over 500 years, she's seen so much sex and death that they've become just other indignities to be dealt with, like acid rain or pigeon poop.

In fact, in this production, Demeter serves largely as a straight woman (pun intended—she literally sits up straight for the entire play). Demeter takes herself and her role as a Great Work of Art very seriously, which provides a comic contrast for the minor characters to play against.

Dryer is the standout supporting actor in the talented cast. She plays, among many other roles, those pooping pigeons and a pair of rats. The first rat mocks Demeter's faith in art, while the second (a regular if unwelcome visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art) gives a moving speech about the ways art makes existence worthwhile. This rat then realizes its own mortality, has an intense existential crisis and promptly drops dead.

Dryer gives each rat a distinctive voice and set of movements—she's an extremely talented physical comedian—but also manages to intelligently convey each rat's philosophical musings. The rats' thoughts on art and life give substance and heft to the over-the-top black comedy.

Persephone ends abruptly and somewhat unsatisfactorily—but then again, how are you supposed to end a play about a statue that lives forever? Still, it's a credit to director Christopher Johnson and the cast that the play never flags in its energy and momentum, right up until that sudden end.