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Greek drama gone wild: Houston arts groups get ancient, reimagine classical themes

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Misha Penton as Klytemnestra in Divergence Vocal Theater's "Klytemnestra - The Original Subversive Female" Photo by Kerry Beyer
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Misha Penton, left, as Klydemnestra surrounded by choros members Isiah Gentry, Chelsea Cooper, Jonathan Sanford, Blythe Nguyen and KC Shuette in Agamemnon, a UH Honors College Center for Creative Work production Photo by Dave Nickerson
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San Francisco 2002 production of "Ariadne auf Naxos;" Houston Grand Opera's production opens April Photo by Ken Friedman
Giovanni Maria Benzoni, "Young Dionysus with a Nymph," 1866, marble, The Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Rienzi Collection
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Rienzi Folly Garden Photo by Paul Hester/Courtesy of Rienzi
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Titian, "Diana and Actaeon," 1556-1559 Bought jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London, with contributions from The Scottish Government, The National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Monument Trust, The Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and through public appeal, 2009
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Anton von Maron, "The Return of Orestes," 1786, Gift of Nina and Michael Zilkha, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Angelica Kauffmann, "Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus," 1774 Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Joseph-Marie Vien, "Greek Lady at the Bath," 1767 Courtesy of Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico
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Artist Meg Brooker at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum in Austin Photo by Sheila Fox
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News_Nancy_Ancient Greece_MFAH_Vien - Greek Lady at the Bath
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The House of Atreus gets a make-over as Houston hands the keys to the city over to Dionysus this spring, with some delicious reimagining of classical themes.

The mythmastering begins tonight at 6:45 pm, when University of Houston students re-enact an ancient Greek ritual, as the Honors College Center for Creative Work puts on their own Dionysia. The festivities begin with an Agora (food and drink) and an Ekphrastic Art Exhibit at the Honors College, which culminates in a procession to the theater for a performance of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, with a new translation by Center for Creative Work director John Harvey. Performances continue on April Saturday and Sunday at UH's Wortham Theater and Monday at Khons.

The students are joined by professional actors, Brandy Holmes as Cassandra, and Divergence Vocal Theater founder Misha Penton as Klydemnestra. Holmes took Cassandra's central dilemma into her own solo show.

"If you knew exactly when you would die, would you want to?" asks Holmes, in her piece Yes, Cassandra, recently performed at the Houston and New Orleans Fringe Festivals. "Cassandra wrestles with this knowledge, which eventually drives her mad."

Can't a girl get a break now and then for killing her husband? Penton has her own views on the other great Greek icon, and the following weekend, the Dionysia continues with Klytemnestra: The Original Subversive Female, at her new Spring Street Studio, Divergence Music & Arts, on April 15 and 16.

"She is vulnerable, brilliant and cunning, yet there is something 'other' about her, perhaps supremely female, that stands in absolute rejection of male domination," says Penton. "She's the embodiment of chaos."

Music is by Dominick DiOrio, who also composed the incidental music for Agamemnon. Dancer/choreographer Meg Booker and actor Miranda Herbert complete the Divergence team. Both are well studied in the classics, and used to artists having their way with Greek literature. "In grad school, we called it Greek schmearing," jokes Herbert.

If Booker looks like she just stepped off an ancient Grecian urn, as well she should, she's a fourth generation Isadora Duncan dancer.

"Duncan studied how the Greeks depicted the body in ancient art, for the line and shape in her dances. She envisioned beauty as harmony in form, not just the human body, but also the relationship between the body and both natural and architectural forms," says Booker, Texas' leading Duncan scholar. "Duncan wanted to recreate theater in the tradition of the ancient Greeks—to create performance that integrated text, music and dance."

Don't expect Booker to be all airy, either. "Duncan’s technique allows for a wide range of expression, and Klytemnestra is no light maiden," adds Booker. 

As for Penton's classical penchant, the soprano can't help herself.

"I'm interested in the reinvention of classic women. These characters were originally created by men, but they have immense influence to disrupt the status quo," says Penton. "How can they be re-imagined to reveal their innate, powerful, female qualities, lifting them out of just being stories old dead guys wrote about women." 

Being abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus is no picnic for Ariadne. Enter Zerbinetta in Strauss' beloved opera within an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, and the plot thickens. With Christine Goerke (Ariadne/ Prima Donna), Laura Claycomb (Zerbinetta), Susan Graham (Composer) and Alexey Dolgov as Bacchus and the Tenor, expect a powerhouse performance by Houston Grand Opera on April 29-May 10.

Ixion got in a tiff with Zeus, and let's just say things didn't turn out well. Earlier this Spring Bootown, hilariously folded the myth of Ixion into a story about the unknown fate of Amazonian explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett in Cut Down. Bootown's co-founder and Cut Down's devised theater scribe, Philip Hays, describes the process.

"It's not that glamorous. I was clicking around Wikipedia, and ended up in the pages on Greek Mythology. I clicked on the first name I didn't know (Ixion)," admits Hays. "The story heightens the 'whoopses' of everyday and turns them into 'oh shits' of monstrous proportions."

No discussion of Greek drama gone wild  in Houston would be complete without a big shout out to the brave but nutty folk of the now-defunct Nova Arts Project, who produced the most absurd version of  Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy ever with Oedipus 3 in 2006. Who could resist a play titled The Gods are Just Big Poop Heads, which made sweet fun of Greek freak Martha Graham?  Even the Graham company made fun of themselves with The Clytemnestra Remash Challenge.

My only regret is that no one chose the crumbling ruins tucked into the graceful gardens of Rienzi,  known as a "folly," as their stage. While you are at Rienzi, snoop around the collection to count the number of  Bacchus images.

Visual art goes classical bonkers every other century or so and the evidence is everywhere in Houston right now. The painters in Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century at the MFAH, running through May 30, were drawn to classical themes for obvious reasons; these are killer stories wrought with visual tension.

The thread provided by Ariadne, which helped Theseus find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth, inspired Tamalyn Miller's curious doilies, crafted from clothesline, string and electrical wire in her Spirit House installation at Project Row Houses. "Its intricate pattern and traditional material-thread-suggest the Minotaur's labyrinth of Greek mythology," writes Miller, in her artist statement.

Anyone can get mythic. Lawndale studio artists Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magasmen, of Hillerbrand + Magsamen, honor the heroic in the ordinary in their witty and poignant series, House/Hold, opening on April 22. A bold portrait of Magsamen cradling her dog is appropriately named Diana, after the goddess of hunting. The 12 tasks of Hercules depicts Hillerbrand posing as a superhero holding a ton of toys, of all things.

The 16th Century Italian master Titian couldn't resist Diana and her gang either. Titian and the Golden Age Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Scotland, opens at the MFAH on May 22.

To bone up on your mythology and classical lit, keep a copy Edith Hamilton's Mythology or Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces handy at all times. According to Campbell, myths remain active in our psyche because they are still relevant to our paths on this earth. That, and they are just damn good soul-crushing tales.

See you at the other end of the Labyrinth. 

Martha Graham couldn't leave Clytemnestra alone either. Watch the Martha Graham Dance Company perform Graham's 1958 classic

HGO offers a taste of  Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos

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