KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 25, 1999
Once upon a time, there was a king who had three daughters. The youngest was so beautiful that she was like a goddess. Her name was Psyche. The fame of her magnificence spread over the earth, and men journeyed from far and near, to gaze upon her with wonder, to pay homage as if she were in truth one of the immortals. They went so far as to say that Venus herself could not equal this splendor. The goddess of Love was not amused. To put an end to this ego-depleting sacrilege, Venus called upon her son Cupid. “Use your power,” she said, referring to those arrows against which there was no defense, “and make Psyche fall madly in love with the vilest and most despicable creature there is in the whole world.”
Cupid, a faithful son, was willing to do his mother’s bidding, but the moment he saw Psyche, he was smitten. Instead of sacrificing her, he took her as his own – on the one condition that she never gaze upon him. All was bliss, until one of Psyche’s jealous sisters convinced her to sneak a peak at her mysterious mate. Cupid and Psyche were instantly separated. But after much moaning and wailing and ultimately, many trials and terrible hardships imposed by Venus, the amorous pair was reunited for eternity. The union of Cupid and Psyche (Love and Soul) could never be broken.
This is the myth that, in 1956, inspired famed English author, scholar and Christian intellectual C.S. Lewis to write “Till We Have Faces.” And that book inspired Lamb’s Players producing artistic director Robert Smyth to create an adaptation of the novel that Lewis considered his best.
Smyth’s production of “Till We Have Faces,” commissioned by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, was well received last summer in a workshop production at the C.S. Lewis Centennial Celebration in England. But Lamb’s is calling its current, full-scale production the play’s world premiere. It’s a morality tale, a mythic fantasy in the manner of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which Smyth also adapted, to less successful effect.
Here, the tale of Cupid and Psyche is hauntingly told from the perspective of the beauty’s older sister Orual, a hideously loving sib who turns monstrous, jealous, possessive, unyielding and hateful; she becomes a warrior queen cloaked in mystery, anger and revenge. The play considers the beauty and ugliness in all women, the timeless battle between reason and faith and the unfathomable questions of the universe.
Set in the barbarous, pagan kingdom of Glome, the piece is dark and brooding. Though the source is all about love, the focus here is on forgiveness and faith. Once again, adapter/director Smyth falls into the trap of treating the material with such unabashed reverence that the result is frequently portentous and overweening. All the actors start out declaiming, fairly shouting the narration, which runs through the piece and only serves to distance the audience. When direct action and conflict occur, when we get emotion instead of description, the production takes off and grabs you by the throat.
Jeanne Reith has outdone herself with wildly imaginative costumes, a mélange of burlap, feathers and masks, echoed in the muted palette of Nate Peirson’s lighting and Mike Buckley’s superb scenic design, where concealing drapes are pulled away and mirrors are hastily assembled to reveal the truth.
The ensemble work is excellent, fluid and dancerly, with outstanding performances by Ollie Nash as the delusional king, Doren Elias as the rational, ruminating Greek slave and Ayla Yarkut, gentle, lovely and luminous as Psyche. At the center of the maelstrom, Deborah Gilmour Smyth is wondrous, riveting as Orual, a woman of extreme passion and purpose. In her final moments of revelation, she is positively transcendent. The talented performer also composed the moody, tribal – at time overly ethereal — music, which is beautifully sung.
Beyond its surface story of love and betrayal, “Till We Have Faces” goes much deeper, to the Big Questions With No Answers. It is truly a legend of gods and monsters. ‘Are the gods just?’ Orual asks at the end. ‘Oh, no,’ is the firm reply. ‘What would become of us if they were?’
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.