Lamia, a new dance theater piece currently on at the New York International Fringe Festival, is an intensely theatrical piece, bringing together live music, dance, and grand storytelling to weave its mythical tale. Though Lamia revels in theatrical poetry, though, it’s in fact the quieter moments that give this overburdened production its strength.
Directed by Suzanne Karpinski, Lamia tells the myth of its titular character (Auria Tomeski), a snake who yearns to be human. That is, until she gets her wish and learns that being a person—and falling in love—isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. The myth is framed by a parallel tale of a nervous bride (Janice Gerlach), who asks a storyteller (Amy Fulgham) to recount Lamia’s tale on the night before her wedding. As Lamia’s myth unfolds, it reveals the bride’s own anxieties about her impending marriage.
Weaving these two stories together makes sense, but in practice hinders the individual tales. The major moments of Lamia’s myth feature emotional interjections from the bride that detract from the action, muddling the tentpole moments in Lamia’s dramatic arc and making the entire parable feel vague (with the bride’s background and story coming across equally unclear). The show constantly reaches for big themes and emotions without fleshing out the dramatic beats and characters behind them—despite the efforts of the talented cast, who attack their roles with specificity and strong intention.
The two interwoven stories are further obscured by the production’s grand combination of dance, live music, and poetic language. These result in frequent movement and poetry-filled musical interludes, including an opening sequence on humanity’s water-based origins. Though these moments of theatrical artistry sometimes achieve the artistic beauty that the artists are striving for, more often the layering of these heightened elements only overwhelm the dramatic action.
This is partially a technical issue—though the talented onstage band gives the piece a much-needed sense of atmosphere, they were much louder than the actors' mics, often drowning out their words. But the production’s earnest poeticism and interpretive movements often feel superfluous to the storytelling, or it's unclear what their narrative purpose is—and these moments aren't quite compelling enough to justify being included for their aesthetics alone. There’s a lot of potential here, though, and with some re-balancing of the elements with an eye toward moving the story forward, Lamia’s grand aspirations could easily be within reach.
Indeed, it’s the moments where the production shows the most restraint that are the most successful. Before being changed into a human, Lamia tells the Stranger (Kelsey Foltz) who transforms her that she desires to be human so that she can dance. This is ironic, considering that, in contrast to the often stilted and overlabored group choreography, the choreography that Tomeski performs in Lamia’s snake form is the best dance moment of the entire show. Though Tomeski’s arms are bound and her range of motion is constrained, the limitation becomes an asset here, with Tomeski’s taut, slithering undulations instantly drawing in the audience and defining her character. The choreography (by Shannon Stowe) is generally at its best when directly and clearly supporting the storytelling; another strong moment is a movement sequence of Lamia’s courtship with her lover Lycius (Brent Shultz).
In the best scene of the show, Lamia, unaccompanied by music or movement, delivers a simple, frank, and beautiful monologue on her nostalgia for being a snake, yearning for the strength and freedom that came from the simplicity of her creature form. Like its titular character, the key to Lamia’s strength, too, may ultimately be in the simplicity from which this complex production is trying so hard to escape.
Alison Durkee is a theatre writer and researcher currently based in New York City. She is a graduate of the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study and holds an MA in Theatre Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.