Ancient myths of female monsters reimagined in bluegrass concept musical ‘Monstress’ at NYC’s New Ohio Theatre

A talented ensemble of nine young musicians and singers retells a series of stories of female monsters from classical mythology in Monstress, a new experimental concept musical (and the company’s first musical) from Hunger & Thirst Theatre. Written by Emily Kitchens (book and lyrics), with original music by Ben Quinn and music director Titus Tompkins, the songs are the highlights in a show that is told from the perspective of a band of rural country friends in the Deep South, gathered for an evening of storytelling.

The cast. Photo by Al Foote III.

Together “the cump’ny” (Rheanna Atendido, Olivia Billings, Jianzi Colón-Soto, Philip Estrera, Natalie Hegg, Jordan Kaplan, Allison Kelly, Adam Boggs McDonald, and Tompkins) reenacts a sequence of tales, portrays the ancient figures in different eras, and sings and dances in their own anachronistic style and downhome accent for “y’all” (with Hegg serving as dialect consultant), to support the predominantly bluegrass music, to underscore the cycles in “his story,” and to empower fierce women, traditionally seen as monstrous. But without the aid of a printed program to explain the intended message and to help the audience follow along (there’s one online, but of course phones must be turned off during the show), the ostensible feminist intent isn’t always clear and the conceit, scenes, songs, and characters can be perplexing, especially to those not versed in some of the lesser-known Greek myths.

Directed by Hondo Weiss-Richmond, the segments reimagine the legends of Nyx (female personification of the night), Echidna (the cave-dwelling half-woman, half-snake mother of many famous monsters), the Sirens (three sea nymphs whose enchanting songs drew sailors to their deaths), the Graeae (three grey-haired old women who shared one eye and one tooth among them), the Sphinx (a merciless creature with the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird, who kills and eats everyone unable to answer her riddle), and Medusa (one of three winged Gorgons with living snakes for hair, who turned anyone who looked at her to stone). We not only see their most defining episodes, but also now hear their inner thoughts and feelings in the show’s invented female-centric dialogue and song.

Philip Estrera (front right) with Allison Kelly, Adam Boggs McDonald, and Rheanna Atendido. Photo by Al Foote III.

The artistic design is mostly makeshift and minimal, reflecting the format of a bunch of creative bandmates having fun and acting out their contemporary takes on the tales. Jiaying Zhang’s set contains movable steps and a backdrop of painted tablecloths, sheets, pants, and jackets hanging on a clothesline, which the actors pull back and forth, pin up and take down, for the different scenes. Costumes by Sera Bourgeau look equally modest and impromptu, with the characters donning fabrics, masks, and accessories on top of their everyday clothes (the snakeskin print on Echidna is especially clever and fits her long-legged serpentine moves). Yang Yu’s lighting is appropriately evocative (including a blackout for the opening scene with Nyx) and choreography by Olivia Palacios is well suited to the lively bluegrass score.

While the overall script could use more tightening and coherence, and a printed program would further serve the audience, the vocals, musicianship, and moves of the cast impress and entertain.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.

Monstress plays through Saturday, November 5, 2022, at Hunger & Thirst Theatre, performing at New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $20, or $10 with a canned food donation), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask inside.