Cult of Isis: Back Stage West
Ziggurat's newest creation enacts the initiation ritual of a young
woman into an unlawful cult, and we, the audience, are cast as
a congregation of subversives, writer/director Stephen Legawiec's
choice of an outdoor amphitheater in Coldwater Canyon--in late
October and accessible by a narrow dirt road and a brief uphill
hike--makes infinite sense. Such conditions (if we experience
them as fugitive worshippers) start to embody the play's concerns:
the strained interplay of religious and civil communities and
the discomfort of negotiating between their laws.
in Egypt in the 11th century B.C., the play takes the form of
a ceremony repeated three times, each repetition revealing a new
layer of meaning. The first is presented in "ancient Egyptian";
the second with commentary by two observing spirits, Isis (Jennifer
Chu) and Queen Hatchepsut (Naila Azad), and the third in the (English)
words of the participants, who include priestess (Valerie Spencer),
priest (Luis Zambrano), acolyte (Michelle Tenazas), and new inductee
(Lyena Strelkoff). As the context of the ceremony gradually unfolds,
the emphasis of the rite shifts between its holy and its legal
aspects, and participants vacillate between the letter and the
spirit of the contract. A coup by the novice, who has planned
to exploit her newfound ties to dispose of a corrupt judge, throws
the entanglement of cult law and secular law into relief.
dance, music, and myth, Legawiec's is a painstakingly choreographed,
detailed piece, with visual and aural layers--Beckie Kravetz's
masks, Robert Velasquez's streamlined costumes, Susan Christiansen's
haunting music--as artfully calculated as its character revelations.
The actors are bold and recognizable, even when speaking in a
foreign tongue. Particularly memorable are Azad, as a once mortal
queen who argues the earthly irrelevance of goddesses, Spencer
as the devout priestess, and Strelkoff as the initiate who seeks
spiritual allies to enact her earthly justice.
one does require patience and a larger-than-usual bit of work
on the audience's part. But most who bundle up and drive into
the Beverly Hills wilderness will be game because, simply put,
the play inspires trust. If its questions had not been present
since history began, one could also call it timely.
Cult of Isis: LA Weekly
Stephen Legawiec’s morality tale includes three versions
of the same ancient-Egyptian-goddess cult-initiation ceremony,
and though the scenes are identical, Legawiec’s interpretations
of a number of intriguing themes vary. The first version is delivered
in “ancient Egyptian” as a Priestess (Valerie Spencer)
and a Priest (Luis Zambrano), aided by an Acolyte (Michelle Tenazas),
intone ritual prayers to initiate a Woman (Lyena Strelkoff) into
the cult of Isis, all under the watchful eyes of Isis (Jennifer
Chu) and Queen Hatchesput (Naila Azad), who silently observe from
upstage thrones. Though the language is indecipherable, the actors’
fervent performances are testament that theater can tap emotions
in any tongue. The ceremony is then repeated with Isis and Hatchesput
switching to English and the others to mime, as the two haughty
spirits debate the merits of a human’s devotion to the divine
versus the mortal world. The spirits are silent in the last telling
as the true and harrowing motive for the Woman’s joining
the cult is revealed, a decision posing a compelling moral dilemma
for the audience. Though just over an hour, the play lags in spots,
which has more to do with Legawiec’s theatrical conceit
than his direction of the fine cast.
Cult of Isis: Los Angeles Times
Yet Elegant Staging of Egyptian Tale 'Cult of Isis'
Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble more than lives up to its billing as
"L.A.'s Mythic Theater" in Stephen Legawiec's "A
Cult of Isis" at the Goldman Amphitheater.
reach the amphitheater, perched on a Franklin Canyon hilltop,
audience members are led up an unpaved path lit only by an usher
with a flashlight. (High heels are not advisable; blankets are.)
we enter the space, we see two Egyptian figures seated on high
stone platforms. One is the goddess Isis (Jennifer Chu), one of
the most powerful deities in the Egyptian pantheon. The other
is Queen Hatchepsut (Naila Azad), a deceased Egyptian queen.
otherworldly spectators are the unseen observers of a forbidden
ritual, a ceremony that, in these modern days of the 11th century,
is a capital offense.
thrice-told tale is rendered first in "ancient Egyptian"
(or at least Legawiec's conception of the language); then again
in pantomime, with commentary from the kibitzing spirits; and
finally in English.
story concerns a sad serving woman (Lyena Strelkoff) who turns
to the goddess for the justice that has been denied her. A priest
(Luis Zambrano), a priestess (Valerie Spencer) and an acolyte
(Michelle Tenazas) prepare the woman for her initiation, not realizing
the surprising turn the ceremony will soon take.
artistic director of Ziggurat, has become justly renowned for
his elaborately realized retellings of world myths.
Legawiec has had to pare down his typically intricate staging
to suit the limitations of his rustic space.
result is spare, but elegant.
longtime collaborators Robert Velasquez (costumes) and Leif Gantvoort
(lights) help create the strikingly visual production that is
Ziggurat's stock in trade.
Christiansen's haunting original music, well vocalized by Spencer
and Tenazas, helps set the sacramental mood for this short but
F. KATHLEEN FOLEY