“Whatever you do, do not look at your reflection. Beware the knowing. Knowledge is power, but naivete is action.”
It is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Whether that bigger picture is the corruption of the powers that be, or simply our place within a social system that encourages and enables complacency in the face of such corruption, most of us would pretty much rather just live our lives. Even among those who consider themselves “involved” or “active”, attempts to affect positive change are often subject to all of the same human folly that afflict the passive and oblivious. This damning conflict between the personal and the political is at the very heart of Narcissus and Echo, the new dark comedy musical which made its debut as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 10th.
Narcissus and Echo, like the antiquity plays and myths it takes inspiration from, is a 21st-century fable that strikes its balance between enlightenment and entertainment with pitch-perfect grace and precision. It invites its viewers to examine a host of complex issues through a lighthearted and wildly entertaining lens involving original music, movement, and Greek mythology. The story, as one might expect, is a loose retelling of the original myth from which the play takes its title, in which a water nymph, Echo, has her voice stolen by Hera, able only to repeat the last word spoken to her. When she comes upon the beautiful Narcissus hunting in the woods, she is unable to express her love and is spurned by the vain man, who is more fascinated by his own reflection. Echo, heartbroken, goes off to a cave to die, where she wastes away until all that remains of her is her voice, while Narcissus stares at his reflection so long he too dies at the edge of the water, giving birth to a flower that blooms where his body lay.
Writer/director Elizabeth Lanier’s original script borrows all of these basic story beats from Ovid and expands them, adding in a diverse array of issues, themes, and plot points that give the story an unexpected amount of political relevance. Lanier’s Narcissus and Echo is now set in a dystopian world not far removed from our own; a place of drought and pollution in which, as the chorus sings in the opening number, there is “nothing to drink but the tears we cry.” Safely positioned atop Mount Olympus, corporate power couple/deities Zeus and Hera are unmoved by the suffering of the mortals. So unmoved, in fact, that instead of simply making it rain (which they casually admit is fully within their power), they opt instead to seize the opportunity provided by the drought to create competing lines of “artificial water” to sell to the masses. On the PR team for Zeus’ company we meet our heroine, Echo: an idealistic water nymph “working from the inside” to promote corporate environmental ethics, and to protect the last remaining natural spring on Earth. On a similar quest for revolution is Narcissus, a conspiracy-minded young activist who—owing to the extreme pollution of the water and a recall of mirrors by the Gods—has never seen his own reflection.
I include all of this plot detail not for the sake of summary, but to simply give a small taste of how intricately and tightly layered of a premise the play operates from. Miraculously, despite the many, many disparate elements at play in Narcissus and Echo, at no point does the show fall into the trap of feeling like a collage or a patchwork. The play’s mythical examination of contemporary issues—ranging from capitalism and its effects on the environment to unrequited love and female agency—coalesce into a final product that ultimately resembles the water it takes for its subject: smooth, flowing, and cohesive.
The staging of the play is devoutly minimalist, with the performance area decorated only by a handful of instruments and rehearsal blocks. Much of the visual drive of the show then is relegated to the lighting design, which soaks the stage in an stunningly expressive array of colors and shadows throughout. Lighting changes occur with immaculate precision: the stage is soaked in a deep green at the exact snap of Hera’s fingers, the lights flash on and off in perfect rhythm with the casting of a spell. Matching the lighting in its precision are the blocking and choreography of Narcissus and Echo, which not only appear in the expected musical numbers in the form of backup dancing, but also stand in as replacements for the play’s lack of set and props. All performers in the ensemble remain on stage for the entirety of the run time, including a preshow in which we see the cast doing their warm-ups in full view of the audience. When an actor’s character is not in play, they might position themselves upstage as a tree, mountain, new age medicine store, or whatever the scenery the moment calls for. This not only gives the play constant energy, but also a very appropriate fluidity; neither the play nor the cast ever stops moving forward. Instead, they are continuously forming and reforming into whatever shape they fit into best at that moment.
Narcissus and Echo is nothing if not an ensemble piece. Among this massive 11-member cast, there is very possibly too much talent on display to name. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. Perhaps the best place to start then would be with accompanist/musical director Ian Michaels, whose elegantly subtle and breezy soundtrack—co-written with Jetta Juriansz—provides the backbone of the entire performance. Charlotte Williams, Shayna Jackson, and Jenapher Zhang (as the water nymphs) bring a comic energy to the stage that is by turns manic and graceful, but consistently delightful. David Dimitruk displays similar comedic range as Narcissus’ best friend Amenius, a role entirely dependent upon Dimitruk’s charm as a performer to keep from veering off into the realm of unlikability. James Ferrero also manages to expertly straddle this line as the blind prophet Tiresias, with his commanding presence and expert comedic timing forcing us to be just as charmed by him as the characters he woos throughout the play. Tessie Barresi plays one such victim of this charm as Liriope bringing to her performance not just a heartbreaking vulnerability, but jaw-dropping physicality and movement, displayed exceptionally well in a show-stealing scene that I will not dare spoil here. Rishi Arya and Alexa Giuffre serve as our “villains”, Zeus and Hera, playing off each other with expert chemistry that miraculously manages to highlight their strength as a duo by underlining just how distinct their performative energies are.
And of course, the list would not be complete without our titular characters: Narcissus and Echo themselves. Ben Horwitz is expertly cast as Narcissus, imbuing the character with so much earnest energy and charm that the audience can’t help but root for him, even in a world that has trained us to laugh at people like him. As for Jetta Juriansz’ Echo? I can only say that—perhaps appropriately, given her character—I am completely at a loss for words. You might not find a more stunning performance on a stage at Fringe this year.
Simply put, Narcissus and Echo is brilliant. Hilarious, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking, the play manages to not miss a single step from start to finish. Yet despite how fun or funny it may be, it is also, in many ways, a tough play. Lanier’s writing is clear-eyed, unflinching, and honest not just about the nature of the systems that oppress, but the roles that we all play in the propagation of said systems. The play carries with it a certain cynicism, in which people across all points of the “power” spectrum are corrupt in their own way, from the charlatan at the new age medicine store to the CEO damaging lives to protect a profit margin. At times, it even seems to advance the grim suggestion that all of this might be, in many ways, inescapable.
Yet buried deep within Narcissus and Echo is an undeniable sense of optimism, and a reverence for the inherent virtue of “the good fight”, even as ultimately useless as that fight may prove to be. Perhaps self-awareness is antithetical to progress. Perhaps a bit of delusion and fanciful, idealistic hope can be just the thing we need sometimes to get through all this and affect some kind of change. For at least 55 minutes, Narcissus and Echo provides that.
Narcissus and Echo is playing for only 3 more dates (6/17, 6/21, 6/24) at The OMR Theater (located inside The Complex) as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Get your tickets here.
For even more Fringe Festival recommendations, check out Haunting’s reviews of 2017 Fringe shows like Normal, The Rise and Fall of Dracula, and Fire & Light, as well as interviews with the artists behind Fringe shows like Lawrence Meyers from Dark Arts, and Narcissus and Echo’s very own Elizabeth Lanier