In Anna Schneiderman's vision of the underworld, the spirits of the dead have no faces. A founding member of El Cerrito-based Ragged Wing Ensemble, Schneiderman has created what she calls "an All Hallows' Eve ritual performance" based on the ancient Greek myth in which the year's seasons shift from fruitful to bleak because the Earth-goddess' daughter Persephone descends into the land of the dead, where she eats a handful of pomegranate seeds — an act that compels her to spend winters in Hades for eternity.
"Halloween was always my favorite holiday," said Schneiderman, who trained with Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. "For a long time, I'd been looking for a way to commemorate Halloween in a way that was theatrical and respectful, that was artistic and sacred and celebratory and fun. There's a deeper aspect to this holiday than trick-or-treating. It's about turning toward the dark part of the year."
Taking place in Codornices Park (1201 Euclid Ave., Berkeley) Wednesday through Sunday, October 27-31, the remarkable free production Persephone's Roots invites audience members to follow the ensemble as they move from open field to creekside to picnic area, as the myth's scenes are presented by costumed actors, accompanied by flute, percussion, harmonium, ukulele, harmonica, and flugelhorn.
"I've always loved this story," said Schneiderman, who has been working on the project since May. "I'm kind of a myth geek." While searching for a location in which to set the performance, she happened to visit Codornices Park, which is linked to Berkeley's Rose Garden by an underground tunnel. "That tunnel was just asking for it," she laughed.
Schneiderman was months into developing the program before she learned that re-enactments of the Persephone story have long been a staple of the neo-pagan community. Diverging from the standard version of the myth, in which the tender maiden Persephone is abducted by the death-god Hades, who then tricks her into eating the seeds so that she'll stay with him in the underworld, Ragged Wing's rendition has Persephone choosing of her own accord to enter the underworld and to eat, "knowing that this will bind her there," Schneiderman explained. "She's attracted to the underworld. For her, it's a kind of adventure, and she invites the audience to join her."
Inspired by a Surrealist painting she once saw, Schneiderman elected to costume the actors portraying spirits of the dead in black hoods that hide their faces. Light on text, the production entails mostly movement and music, including a shape-note song and a version of the Hungarian classic "Gloomy Sunday." Actors and audience will proceed together across the park from scene to installation to scene. A clearing above the playground will feature a temple to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and the moon.
It's a poignant saga of separation and reunion, life and death, light and dark. "Theater is my church," Schneiderman said. "Theater is my religion. I don't pray to these gods directly, but I feel that in creating something like this, we're doing something sacred." 5:30 p.m., free. RaggedWing.org
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