Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
Religious fundamentalism is threatening to wipe out the wisdom of classical antiquity. Debate and discussion are cast aside in favor of brute force and deaf ears. An indisputably smart and acclaimed woman fights for justice amid a sea of dissenting men and society. The setting? No, not America in 2019, but the Library of Alexandria, Egypt. 415 C.E.
“Hypatia and the Heathens,” presented in concert at The Caveat downtown, draws from the missing pages of history to explore the events before the library was infamously burned. Leading us through history is the renowned philosopher and scholar Hypatia (played by a fiery Lia Barcellona Tamborra, who also wrote the show). Hypatia demurs sweetly to cajole the necessary government and bureaucratic heads at the time that her place as philosopher in a changing society is still relevant; her small stature only exacerbates her strength and command of the stage as she transforms to a Grecian-equivalent of a worshiped TED Talker celebrity status with each increasingly fervent song. Hypatia’s battle for her own right to knowledge and self-thought is spurred by the recent government changes persecuting anyone who is not Christian and not following the newly ordained laws adhering to the views of the growing-in-power Bishop. Played with rockstar vocals and personality, Keith Weiss’s Bishop serves as a foil to Hypatia’s intellectual prowess. With both persons holding lofty positions of power with countless people listening to them, only one outlook on life and thought can be right? Right?
While it is easy to draw comparison to today’s political climate, it must be pointed out that the show itself is by no means a political bloodbath against Christianity or religion, but rather it is expertly grounded in strong characters and writing to explore a not-oft discussed time in history that can inform our present on multiple hot button issues from religion in politics to women’s rights. This is examined through the staging and direction by Sidney Erik Wright which utilized levels to tell the story and grander picture. Whether through the heeled shoes adorned by the ensemble or the cast jumping down to the ground level vs the stage, Wright’s staging kept Hypatia at varying power levels— literally— vacillating between being listened to and praised (“it has always been the philosopher’s job to educate the masses”) to being condemned and silenced (“what does the Bible say? Women should be silent”). This staging engaged the audience at parts being hilariously fun immersive and interactive as Hypatia hops around the space close enough to touch, but it also thematically relegates her down from enlightened leader to just one of us on our level, a heathen in need of “equalizing” the playing field through the growing mob mentality of the show’s other townsfolk.
Described by fans as “Great Comet” meets “Jesus Christ Superstar” (with a dash of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), “Hypatia and the Heathens” I propose instead should be viewed much more along the lines of an eclectic, boundlessly energetic Netta performance, the recent Eurovision winner known for blending styles and looping music to create new pieces. While sure the first song of “Hypatia” gives us commentary on the setting much like “Great Comet” does, beyond that the comparison should be severed. Irreverent or unbeholden to source material, the vibrant score is essentially different styled pieces sown with care together as if each one was pulled from different sections of the library. Hypatia is repeatedly classical versus the Bishop in a youthful angry rock, culminating in a groovy, toe-tapping score with one common ingredient: lyrical poetry of storytelling comedy that yes, rivals Sondheim’s “Forum” for a new age. Gone also are the harems and mistaken identity tropes, and in is the gender fluidity and strong diverse cast promoting that also visual identity is a moldable, ever-growing asset to the intellectual, just as much a weapon as the Bishop’s flames engulfing the doomed library.
By the end of the show, the ensemble descends on Hypatia and the audience with “Pick-a-little” energy, a swarm of infectious gossiping bees we know will follow us out to the real world, as the questions presented in the piece about religion, politics, and education continue to be relevant. The immersive, audience involvement sections of the musical beg to be expanded, as the audience walks away asking just like the cast, “How did we get here? It wasn’t so long ago...”
HYPATIA AND THE HEATHENS: A MUSICAL BACCHANALIA
This concert presentation of “Hypatia and the Heathens: A Musical Bacchanalia” by Lia Barcellona Tamborra and Harry Einhorn, with additional music and orchestration by Bálint Varga is directed by Sidney Erik Wright. “Hypatia” stars Lia Barcellona Tamborra, Harry Einhorn, Keith Weiss, Erin Ulman, Philipp Barrod, Lily Randall, Jordan Underwood, James Addison, Bryce Payne, Light and Sound Design by Paula Pickreign. Run time was one hour and fifteen minutes, no intermission.
“Hypatia” ran at The Caveat (21A Clinton Street, Manhattan) July 15th, 18th, and 22nd. For more information, please visit https://www.caveat.nyc/hypatia/about.