The story of Dido and Aeneas is one of the world’s most tragic love stories, first described in Virgil’s Aeneid, then Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Before Aeneas founded Rome, he was a Trojan soldier. When Troy fell, he left with his followers in seven ships. He was shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, the great African city ruled by Queen Dido. Dido and Aeneas fell deeply in love, but the gods called Aeneas away to fulfill his destiny in Italy, and Dido was left heartbroken and alone. In her despair, she built a funeral pyre and committed suicide atop it. Virgil gives the story as the explanation for Rome and Carthage’s ancient grievance that culminated in the Punic Wars. In reality, there was a Queen Dido of Carthage, and she did commit suicide, but it was to avoid marrying a rival king, Iarbus.
Nevertheless, it is a piteous story — two lovers torn apart by the gods. Prospect Theater Company’s musical adaptation of the story, Dido (& Aeneas), drawn primarily from the opera, does justice to both the story and its emotion. In this version, the story stays the same, but is intertwined with the myths of other abandoned women, pulled from Virgil and Ovid — Penelope, Medea, Sappho, Ariadne, and others — heroines who grieved over the loss and treachery of their men. The added stories make for a nice dramaturgical arc, but they do slow down the principal action somewhat.
It is a captivating play, made more enjoyable by the excellent acting and singing. Jacquelyn Baker was Dido, and Anthony Holds played Aeneas. Together they sparkled, possessed with a notable stage presence. They were ably backed by Jennifer Blood, Megan Cramer, Laura Giannone, Jeremiah Griffin, Kevin Haden, Joseph Klosek, Erin Logemann, Peter Maris, Courter Simmons, Esther Triggs, Sheila Vasan, and Simone Zamore, playing a variety of roles. It is an exceptionally strong ensemble.
The songs are simple but memorable, the music poignant, and the voices were strong. The best song may be "Remember Me," drawn from the famous aria. It is Dido’s farewell, the last words she speaks as she dies. The stage (production designer, Rachel Baron), though small, added an air of intimacy, and was beautifully arrayed in nets, seaweed, and rope, backlit with green lights to evoke the sea (lighting by Ji-Youn Francesca Chang). The cast did wonders with only a few props and a single wooden staircase. The costumes (Baron and Colleen Kesterson) are also vaguely sea-like, and were inventive in their austerity. The choreography was a bit derivative, but effective within the small space.
"Myths do not die, they change," say the cast, an apt metaphor for both the characters, who live on in stories and plays, and for this play, which weaves its way through many stories at once. Dido (& Aeneas) is an excellent play, one of the best so far this year.
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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman