Storming Olympus

Art Street's Io sings with a flat Midwestern voice, yet she's outrageously sexy -- and funny, too

You remember Io, don't you? Dumped by Zeus, turned into a cow, cursed with a gadfly in her brain by jealous Hera, and sent galloping, stark mad, across the desert? Well, she's in town for five weeks only at Exit Stage Left, singing original cabaret numbers with a little jazz combo and bemoaning her fate to anyone who'll listen. Until now her biggest role has been a walk-on in Prometheus Bound, but Art Street's given her a show of her own (really a Prometheus spinoff), with the full title Io, Princess of Argos! Live at Exit Stage Left!

It is, for some reason, a musical.

Io comes on in a red feather boa and sparkling cocktail dress to sing a mournful opener called "I Could Tell You Things," then pulls up a stool and delivers a little Vegas-style patter. She complains about her name. "Io sounds like a sound you make when you're surprised." [Rim shot] "I-O-hey! What was that noise?" Then there's a nervous buzzing, and Io whacks her head with a flyswatter.

The centerpiece of Io, Beth Wilmurt.
The centerpiece of Io, Beth Wilmurt.

Details

Music and lyrics by Marci Karr. Book, lyrics, and direction by Mark Jackson. Produced by Art Street Theater. Through April 14 at Tickets are $10-20; call 751-5922.
Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F.

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The next dense, hilarious hour deals with Io's story. First she's a bored princess at Argos, pampered by her powerful father until the oracle at Delphi tells him that a series of plagues on the city is her fault (sent by Hera, who hates Io on principle). The princess is exiled and promptly ravished by Zeus, who, for her own protection, turns her into a cow. Hera sees through this disguise, and curses Io with a gadfly in the brain -- a permanent condition, apparently -- which sends her raving across the land. Soon she meets Prometheus, chained to a rock. He comforts her by prophesying the birth of Hercules, 13 generations on. Cheer up, he tells her. You're carrying Zeus' kid. You'll be the ancestor of a great hero who will avenge us for the gods' injustice. Hercules will come up and free me from this rock. He'll kick Zeus' ass. Don't worry.

But Io doesn't buy it: "I didn't go through this song and dance to be some baby's mother!" Prometheus, however, says she hasn't understood. "To wander," he says. "To ask questions. That is your purpose. ... Life is the question, the answer is to ask again." Io kicks into a finale called "Ask Why," and the show ends with a joyful noise.

The centerpiece of Io is Beth Wilmurt, who plays the princess with an unexpected sultry abandon. She's lanky and long-boned, with a tangle of blond hair and a flat Midwestern voice evoking cornfed pluck rather than doomed passion -- which is not just outrageously sexy but also part of the point. Io attracts Zeus in spite of herself. Her rape by the god of gods is expressed in a torchy ballad called "Take It Slow," which has Wilmurt leaning against a microphone stand, staring vulnerably up into a hot white spotlight. "Take it slow/ And breathe in kisses," she sings. "Take me so/ I know that this is/ love." She never mentions Zeus. But a single spoken line at the end dissolves the spell: "And then -- Zeus," she tells the audience, "turned me into a cow."

The chorus consists of Kevin Clarke, Loren Nordlund, and Janet Roitz, who step out individually (Clarke as Prometheus, Nordlund as Io's father, Roitz as Hera) and as a group, where they represent either the people of Argos or the sinister oracle at Delphi. In the oracle role they're especially good. They make up a strange, toadlike, all-for-one gang that reminds me of hoodlums in a Brecht play. "Tell us why/ You've come to Delphi," they sing over a vamping piano and moody clarinet. "For a drachma in my pocket/ I could tell you a LOT." Their arms swing, their heads bob up and down, they wear tuxedos with no coats, and the song's melody buzzes in your head for the rest of the weekend.

Marci Karr wrote the music and plays piano onstage; David Babich plays clarinet, guitar, and drums. The music is traditional American show tune stuff in a haunting minor key. Besides "Take It Slow" and "Song of the Oracles," outstanding numbers include "Slow Burn," "Get This Show on the Road," and "When I Was Small," an almost mandatory love duet between Io and her father, which feels both cheesy and sweet. Karr's music and Mark Jackson's book manage to make fun of musicals and exploit their tricks in a single bound, and I assume this ironic double edge is the only way, now, to write a good original musical. Because that's what Io is: not a brilliant adaptation of Greek legend so much as a tight, brainy, and satisfying work of musical theater.

The reason it fails to cut as deeply as it could in the Greek-interpretation department is that Io, like Prometheus, is cast as a proto-activist/protest hero, someone who questions authority, gets punished -- and, well, that's about it. All the deeper implications of rebellion are lost. Remember that Aeschylus gives Prometheus a long speech about his contributions to the human race that lists (instead of fire): language, mathematics, engineering, augury, animal husbandry, mining, and medicine. Civilization itself is a work of the restless human mind, and Prometheus' gift is a burning itch for self-knowledge. Aeschylus' titan has strains of Lucifer as well as a pre-Christian Jesus Christ, and his Io is a madwoman cut from the same conflicted cloth. But these dimensions appear in Io only in the shallowest way -- in lines like "Life is the question!" uttered by an adenoidal Prometheus -- which is exactly how serious themes tend to appear in musicals.

Still, Art Street doesn't have to give us Aeschylus in his full color to make Io an original show. It's full of melody, imagination, and satire. It's clever and sometimes stirring. It storms Olympus, and comes away with something warm.

 
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