Forget Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the road to the Underworld. Forget Charon, the lugubrious ferryman on the River Styx. Forget the supernatural realm's assorted Sirens and Cyclopes, not to mention the dreadful figure of Hades himself. The real threats facing the young goddess Persephone, according to playwright Kevin Kling, are her own model-child impulses.
In "Perfectly Persephone," Kling's good-humored but somewhat lackadaisical spin on Greek mythology, the girlish deity (Suzanne Richard) wanders curiously into the land of the dead, where she learns that by jettisoning her goody-goody identity she can win personal fulfillment and increased job satisfaction (immortality amounting, after all, to a profession). Unflagging obedience and decorum? Such conduct may charm Persephone's mother, Demeter (Stephanie Burden), goddess of the harvest, but it annoys the other kids on the block -- Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, etc. -- and it's detrimental to a youthful divinity's psychic development. "I need to spend time where I can be my own person," Persephone explains to Zeus and the pantheon as she prepares to bite the magic pomegranate that bestows residency status in the Netherworld.
If this updating of ancient legend sounds a little tepid dramatically, it can seem that way onstage as well. What happened, one wonders wistfully, to the traditional version of the fable, in which Hades kidnaps Persephone, the sinister pomegranate harbors a nasty surprise, and there's lots of Olympian Sturm und Drang? Sweetness, light and an I'm-Okay/You're-Okay philosophy govern Kling's classical cosmos, which doubtless contains valuable life lessons for elementary school audiences but which may leave adults pining for Ovid.
On the other hand, Kling -- who's a regular storytelling contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered" -- has infused his revisionist myth with considerable humor. Cerberus's three heads bicker with each other and long for a mailman to bark at. There's a 30-second version of the Trojan War ("Oh look! A wooden horse. Let's bring it inside. Ahhhh, a trap!"). And the entrance to the infernal regions turns out to contain an intimidating phone tree that's as ecumenical as it is deadpan: "Welcome to the Underworld. For Christian, press one. For Hinduism, press two. . . . For reincarnation, press 'menu' and start again."
Shrewdly, director Janet Stanford and her designers have played up the show's contemporary comic sensibility in the world premiere production, now running at Imagination Stage. When Zeus, Persephone's absentee father (Rob McQuay), deigns to put in an appearance, it's on a reclining tricycle, flanked by a Secret Service contingent wearing dark glasses. Apollo (Linden Tailor), wearing one blue and one orange tennis shoe, races a scooter around Milagros Ponce de Leon's spartan, wheel-friendly set, decorated in pale pink and blue with wavy patterns that suggest the sea.
Other modes of transportation are integrated even more seamlessly into the aesthetic: Portraying Poseidon and Hades, McQuay uses a wheelchair, and Richard saunters about on metal crutches. Featuring actors with disabilities was evidently integral to "Perfectly Persephone," which Imagination Stage commissioned, but the fact is treated in an admirably low-key fashion.
Led by Richard as a bratty but thoughtful Persephone, the performers execute their roles with enthusiasm and clarity. In particular, Kimberly Parker Green is delightfully bubbly as the none-too-bright Aphrodite, and Mildred Langford brings a toyboyish zest to Artemis. Peter Wylie switches deftly back and forth between the part of the wistful god Hephaestus (who accidentally fell in love with a head of lettuce while brewing a love potion) and that of Cerberus.
And if that three-headed canine, as written by Kling, seems awfully reminiscent of those wisecracking animals in animated Disney movies, we shouldn't complain too much. As "Perfectly Persephone" reminds us, life is about more than flawlessness.
Perfectly Persephone: Little Greek Myth by Kevin Kling. Directed by Janet Stanford; composer/musical director, Fahir Atakoglu; set design, Milagros Ponce de Leon; costume design, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting design, Colin K. Bills; choreography, Patty Krauss. With John Peter Illarramendi. Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. At Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.ImaginationStage.org.