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Portola Valley theater: Persephone's journey revisited

Theater company spotlights original play based on story of change and transformation

Performances: "Persephone" will be staged Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 7-23, in the Lane Family Theatre, 945 Portola Road in Portola Valley. Tickets start at $10. Go to pvtc-ca.org for tickets and more information, or call 851-8282, ext. 105.

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By Renee Batti, Almanac News Editor

The myth of Persephone is as old as storytelling itself, a rich narrative about a young girl's abduction into the underworld, and of how the wrenching anguish of her mother, Demeter, led to the Earth's changing seasons.

It seems fitting, then, that a new interpretation of the myth is coming to the local stage just as the drama of autumn unfolds, truncating our days and transforming leafy trees into somber skeletons -- an apt response to Demeter's grief.

"I've long been interested in the seasons' changing, and in the dark and light in our lives -- that we need both light and dark to be whole people," says Noelle G.M. Gibbs, who scripted "Persephone," a new play based on the ancient myth. She's also directing the work, which opens Nov. 7 in the Lane Family Theatre at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley.

The play, which runs through Nov. 23, is being staged by the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory, whose artistic director, Cheryl Goodman-Morris, founded the company in 1993. Although it's not a musical, "Persephone" features music written by Corte Madera music teacher and singer Juliet Green and piano wunderkind Shane Turner, an eighth-grader at Corte Madera.

The production brings together a wealth of theater talent from the community in addition to the composers, including Alanna McNaughton of Woodside in the title role, Ms. Goodman-Morris as Demeter, and Mark Goodman-Morris as Persephone's father, Zeus. The Goodman-Morrises, in addition to being co-pastors of Valley Presbyterian Church, are also Noelle Gibbs' parents.

Also in the cast: Andrew P. Quick as Hades, Ava Shenk of Portola Valley as a younger Persephone, Ashley Pogue as Aphrodite, and Claire Chiaravalle as Athena.

Steeped in theater from an early age, Ms. Gibbs, 28, spent a semester in Italy studying commedia dell'arte and mask-making. She says she and her husband, Kevin Gibbs, came up with the idea of revisiting the Persephone story, and last spring, they got together with several other theatrical spirits to work through ideas. The process they followed in creating the play is known as "devised theater," a collaborative method from which a script evolves through improvisational sessions with actors.

"The play has the voice of a lot of different people in it," Ms. Gibbs says, but in the end, she wrote the script. Kevin Gibbs, who also has a background in theater, focused mainly on the design aspects of the play.

In narrowing down the themes of the Persephone story the Gibbses would focus on, "we decided on the idea of the world in balance," Ms. Gibbs says. "It begins with an Earth (that is) perfect, lush and abundant. And of Persephone having this idealized vision of where she lives.

"There were no seasons before the story (begins), and we talked a lot about the struggle all people have to go through when they leave home, and leave their parents. In that discovery, there's fear, abandonment, but ultimately you can choose either to make yourself a stronger person, or to not grow."

When Persephone is first abducted, she initially fights her captor, who as time goes on seems more and more like a goofy suitor, misunderstood by those in the world of the living. As Persephone's journey away from home and into a much more complex world progresses, "she becomes stronger, and he becomes more compassionate," Ms. Gibbs says.

To emphasize the timelessness and universality of the story, Ms. Gibbs says, the production features costumes that suggest "any time, any place." The work is played out on both an elevated stage and a three-quarter thrust stage, which is where most of the underworld action takes place.

As one might expect on a trip to Hades, the cast includes the three-headed dog Cerberus, and a boat that navigates the River Styx.

Two decades of theater

"Persephone" caps two decades of Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory's performances and theater arts education. With strong theater backgrounds, Ms. Goodman-Morris and her husband, Mark, hoped that by creating PVTC they could "open the doors wide to the community" while also creating a place "where children could learn to become artists, develop skills and grow in self-esteem, and learn to become team, ensemble players."

And what of her own passion for theater? "I can't imagine doing anything else with my life," she says. "I have loved stories -- hearing them, telling them, and being part of them, my whole life.

"I believe stories can bring us hope, stories can show us the way, and stories can transform."

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