Beginning this weekend pastel-clad Greco-Roman gods and goddesses will descend on — where else? — Athens Square Park, in Astoria, with “The Minervae.”
The play, though comical at times, focuses on the heavy topic of religion. In the dying days of the Roman Empire, Minerva is trying to keep her followers, who are no longer as willing to believe in the gods, while Zebulon questions whether he should believe in the new religion — Christianity — or stick to the gods of the past.
“These are questions I’ve asked myself,” artistic director Jackie LaVanway said, adding that the topic of faith though set in olden times, resonates with a current audience whose members might be examining their own beliefs.
Rachel McPhee, who plays Minerva, and Michael Swartz, who plays Zebulon, have, independently of On the Square Productions, performed “The Minervae” a few times since 2007. Over the years the play has changed dramatically, morphing into what audiences will see this month.
The original acts, written by Pennsylvania-based comedian Steven Bost, gives classical mythology a little sass.
The gods will speak in an elevated old- timey English when they let their emotions get the best of them (after all people no longer want to believe in them, which obviously makes them a tad upset), but will diverge into colloquial talk when they chat or bicker amongst themselves.
For example, Miriam, played by Katie Lear, says her Christian God always listens to her and Minerva retorts, “Does he, honey?”
“Our company is all about the playwright,” LaVanway said.
On the Square Productions gave Bost, who comes to rehearsals once a week, liberties and a chance to hone his craft with this unique play. When the actors or the director feel something is not quite right, they collaboratively tweak the text with him to fit the scene.
This is the company’s first experiment with open, free outdoor theater. Last year they produced “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in a secluded garden in Astoria. McPhee, an Astoria native, said she saw kids peeping over the walls and at that moment knew the company needed to create a show that was accessible to the whole community.
“People can come and stay for as long as they like,” LaVanway said.
“You really get a sense for the community and how they respond to art,” said director Stephen Kaliski, who compares the play to the Hollywood blockbuster “The Avengers” — after all Mars, Apollo and Vulcan could probably rival Spiderman, Superman and the Hulk.
There were some boys who were upset that these mystical characters were disrupting their soccer game during a rehearsal in the park on July 9. However, they were in the minority. A dozen children circled around the actors and actresses in complete awe as they performed a few scenes next to the park’s Grecian columns that loom in the middle of the cement center.
On the Square Productions will utilize these fixtures as well as add a few more 8-feet-tall pillars to set the scene. Also, music will attempt to block out the playground noises for the expected 60-person crowds.
“Creating theater space in a non-theater space is really interesting,” McPhee said.
Also during the rehearsal, men on the periphery of the park played chess and commented on red-haired McPhee’s ethnicity. She admits she is Irish, and they said “That’s OK.” She definitely exudes the strength of a Greco-Roman goddess. They also occasionally weighed in on Bost’s interpretation of mythology.
When: July 13-16, 20-23, and 26-29 at 7:30pm
Where: Athens Square Park, Astoria, 30th Street and 30th Ave.