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A Cult of Isis: Back Stage West

Because 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.

Set 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.

Combining 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.

This 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.

— Anne Kelly-Saxenmeyer

A Cult of Isis: LA Weekly

Writer-director 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.

A Cult of Isis: Los Angeles Times

Spare Yet Elegant Staging of Egyptian Tale 'Cult of Isis'

The 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.

To 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.)

As 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.

These 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.

This 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.

The 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.

Legawiec, artistic director of Ziggurat, has become justly renowned for his elaborately realized retellings of world myths.

Here, Legawiec has had to pare down his typically intricate staging to suit the limitations of his rustic space.

The result is spare, but elegant.

Legawiec's longtime collaborators Robert Velasquez (costumes) and Leif Gantvoort (lights) help create the strikingly visual production that is Ziggurat's stock in trade.

Susan Christiansen's haunting original music, well vocalized by Spencer and Tenazas, helps set the sacramental mood for this short but satisfying evening.




Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble
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