When tackling a theatrical piece as broad as the heavens, sometimes the best way in is through the myths that have sustained humanity for centuries.
Next weekend, Aug. 25 through 28, the Neo-Political Cowgirls will take over Montauk County Park for “Andromeda,” an ambitious new production about finding one’s own place in the stars, held in one of the East End’s most magical dark-sky places.
“I was wanting to work on a piece that was giving audiences a different way of experiencing theater, that applies beautifully to an outdoor canopy, under the sky,” says Neo-Political Cowgirls founder Kate Mueth. “It becomes essentially a sky play.”
In Greek mythology, Andromeda is the daughter of the Ethiopian king Cepheus and his wife Cassiopeia.
In the traditional telling of the story, Cassiopeia boasts that Andromeda is more beautiful than the Nereid sea nymphs, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, sends a sea monster to ravage Ethiopia, while Andromeda is stripped and chained naked to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea god.
But the telling of Andromeda’s story has always been a bit of an aside to more well-known Greek myths, and that’s part of the reason Ms. Mueth has chosen this story to tell.
“When you dig into ancient stories, through time, sometimes women did have more to say or a bigger role than being killed or raped or married, but that version gets told less and less and less through generations and time,” she says.
Ms. Mueth envisioned the possibility that Cassiopeia had actually been giving her daughter a pep talk, one that had been unfortunately overhead by Poseidon.
“What if this isn’t about narcissus at all about?” she asks. “Cassiopeia and Andromeda are black, from Ethiopia, and it’s pretty clear from what I’ve derived that Europeans whitewashed them. What if this was a story of a black woman giving her daughter strength and pride? In modern times, we see a lot of issues with this, with women of color and pride and what happens when they speak up for their daughters and children. They get a rough go of it.”
This story, which is told by the Neo-Political Cowgirls primarily through dance, music and puppetry, is a fairy tale, a form of storytelling that Ms. Mueth found “uncomfortably traditional,” but one that helped bring in big themes in a way that wasn’t too heavy-handed.
The performers include LaWanda Hopkins, LaVonda Elam, Josh Gladstone, Trevor Vaughn, Isaac Klein, Margaret Pulkingham, Emily Selykova, Hollybeth Gourlay, Licia James Zegar, Lee Michel, Lua Li, Nezi Crandall and Lola Garneau.
In this version of the story, Cassiopeia and Andromeda are exiled and are wandering refugees when they come to a village of huge-headed puppet people, created by award-winning puppeteer Liz Joyce of Sag Harbor.
“They represent humans who are couched, and dangerously so, in ideology. Their heads are swollen, large and awkward,” said Ms. Mueth. “We’re able to seep into this ancient story a look at modern day issues of refugees and ‘the other.’ We’re all ‘the other’ if we’re put up against a different group of people.”
The Neo-Political Cowgirls have long been in search of performance venues, and Ms. Mueth was familiar with Montauk County Park’s history of supporting the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival. She was pleasantly surprised to find the county was supportive of her project.
“It’s a dark sky park, and it’s amazing,” said Ms. Mueth. “You’re on the hills, on the grass, but the ocean breeze is coming through and it’s a stunning mix of natural experiences. There are ghosts there, I think, from Third House and the Rough Riders and the Indians living there before. For me it’s very palpably alive with history.”
Ms. Mueth envisions “Andromeda” as a great piece to bring to festivals and outdoor spaces where sets aren’t required, unlike some of the Neo-Political Cowgirls’ other major productions, like “Eve,” which Ms. Mueth described as “13 rooms of insanity and specificity of space.”
“It pops up in front of you and goes away,” she said of Andromeda. “It’s a pageant play. It almost seems as if it’s conjured out of the wilderness.”
While much of the story is told through music and dance, with a great deal of room for improvisation, Ms. Mueth devoted more time than usual to the written script, which she prepared along with actor and playwright J. Stephen Brantley (who recently appeared as Doc in Guild Hall’s production of Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive”) and poet Jordi Alonzo.
“We’re not usually a text-driven company,” said Ms. Mueth. “But this helps us take the myth to these really beautiful language places. A lot becomes about the power of language, rational thought and communication to break through to perceived or real enemies.”
“It’s about diligent communication and seriously looking for a meeting place,” she added. “I’m really excited to see that theme and how it evolves. We all within us hold this power to solve what ails our planet with real, thorough dialogue.”
“My work in the past was always about movement and visuals, and now I’ve entered a new phase: Where does language lie?”
Performances of “Andromeda” will be held at the Montauk County Park (next to Deep Hollow Ranch) Aug. 25 through 28 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at http://www.npcowgirls.org. Bring a blanket, lawn chairs, and a picnic for an evening spent finding your own place under the stars.