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The Fragility of Family

The Icarus tragedy from a parent’s point of view



Given Lookingglass Theatre Company's twin penchants for adapting myths and performing aerial acrobatics, I'm surprised the troupe took this long to get around to Icarus and his fatal flight. But I'm glad they waited: a younger, brasher Lookingglass might not have been able to encompass the sad, wise, deeply moving interpretation offered here by writer-director David Catlin. The title notwithstanding, Catlin's version actually centers on Icarus's father, the legendary architect and inventor Daedalus. Youthful, foolhardy Icarian exuberance takes a backseat to the more grownup theme of raising a child and losing him, of building a family and discovering its shocking, heartbreaking fragility.

Catlin begins with familial bliss on the island of Crete, represented by a bare stage and a backdrop that shows projections of bright, puffy clouds by day and an enormous moon by night. Each of three fathers—Daedalus, his boss King Minos, and Aegeus—has an adoring wife and an adored son, and for a while it's all harmoniously choreographed movement and joyful swinging from white drapes. At night, Daedalus, his wife Naucrate, and young Icarus curl up in a bunch to sleep—a simple but touching image both of the family's closeness and its vulnerability.

Daedalus designs a palace for Minos, with running water and—despite his qualms—a labyrinth in which to stow the unwanted, unloved Minotaur, monstrous offspring of Minos's wife, Pasiphae, by a white bull she'd been bewitched into finding irresistible. The Minotaur's imprisonment marks the first of many instances in the play of a kid getting a raw deal through no fault of his own; Minos's sudden, inextinguishable rage toward the Minotaur demonstrates how quickly and irrevocably a happy family can be destroyed.

The two other fathers grow distant. Intrepid Aegeus takes off to run Athens, reuniting with his son Theseus only when the boy goes in search of him. Daedalus buries himself in work, paying only distracted attention to guileless, curious Icarus. Meanwhile, the bodies of sons and daughters begin to pile up. When Minos's own heir dies in Athens as a result of Aegeus's intrigues, the king demands as recompense that Aegeus send 14 Athenian young people once every nine years, to be fed to the Minotaur. Catlin uses an arresting image to suggest the slaughter of these innocents: the cast constructs a labyrinth of rope around the stage and hangs 14 sets of gray baby pajamas on it while singing a dirge that ends in grief-stricken wails.

Theseus vows to kill the Minotaur, and Daedalus—finally spurred to action by Minos's cruelty—helps him do it. Minos imprisons Daedalus for this betrayal and, for good measure, locks up Icarus, too. "I guess we finally have some time to spend together," chirps the boy. But the ingenious Daedalus comes up with his famous, disastrous escape plan, fashioning two pairs of wings from wax and feathers so he and his son can fly away. Once more up in the white drapes, Icarus flies too close to the sun. The wax melts, his wings fall apart, and he goes hurtling into the sea. "I only looked away for a second," laments a bereft Daedalus.

The production has plenty of airborne stunts, carried out by an athletic cast of three men and three women, many of whom play multiple roles. The tricks are well-executed and they can generate a fair amount of wonder. But Catlin's telling, with its focus on fathers losing sons, imparts a pervasive sense of imminent heartbreak—an awareness that grief can suddenly descend on any parent, no matter that he's as powerful as Minos, as brave as Aegeus, or as inventive as Daedalus. None of them can create an indestructible child.

This self-evident but nevertheless devastating discovery—quietly but forcefully conveyed by a shell-shocked Larry Distasi, whose Daedalus until then is a bit aloof—gives the play its power and pathos and beautifully captures, in contemporary idioms, the poignancy of Ovid's telling of the tale in which a father turns and, in an instant, finds he's no longer a father.

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