Smile Politely

A modern-day telling of a Greek myth

For centuries the myth of the Minotaur has been passed down through songs, plays, and texts. Artists like Pablo Picasso used the image of the half-man, half-bull to discuss bullfighting in his native Spain. Dante placed the creature in the City of Dis as an exemplum of wild and uncontrollable violence. The mythical creature, born from a curse by Poseidon upon its mother Pasiphae and condemned by her husband Minos, has caught human curiosity for centuries.

Playwright Anna Ziegler, however, takes this familiar story rife with heroism, passion, and betrayal and places it in the present day. She also adjusts the perspective of the myth to focus on Ariadne, the half-sibling of the Minotaur and daughter of King Minos of Crete. According to the myth, Ariadne is the one who betrays her father in order to help her love, Theseus, an Athenian hero sent to stop the annual sacrifice of Athenians to the Minotaur. She turns to Daedalus, the imprisoned creator of the labyrinth (who lost his son Icarus in another famous myth) for the key to surviving the maze beneath the palace. Her decisions have consequences for both her and everyone around her. An examination of Ariadne’s actions on those around her is the focus of the Illinois Theatre’s latest play.

The Minotaur, directed by Tom Mitchell, a professor of acting and theater studies as well as the associate head of the University of Illiniois’ Department of Theatre, opens on Thursday October 27th. In order to learn more about Ziegler’s play and KCPA’s performance of it, I asked Mitchell and actor Janjay Knowlden a few questions each about the play and their participation in the production.

Smile Politely: In five words, how would you describe the play The Minotaur?

Tom Mitchell: Young people discovering their freedom.

SP: The Minotaur is described as a present-day version of the Greek myth about Ariadne, Theseus, and the Monster of Crete. Can you elaborate on what makes the play more modern?

Mitchell: The “chorus” for the play is made up of a Priest, a Rabbi, and a Lawyer. Ariadne is a young woman who plays “Connect Four” with her half-brother, the Minotaur. She has carried on an email correspondence with Theseus and stalks him on facebook. She lusts after a dress that might make her look “slutty.”

SP: For example, is the labyrinth an implied space rather than a literal maze? Is the Minotaur depicted as a half-human / half-bull creature or is the character’s monstrous behavior implied by his or her’s actions?

Mitchell: The labyrinth is a disorienting space that keeps the Minotaur trapped inside. Onstage it is suggested in theatrical ways. The Minotaur is half-bull, half-human, but essentially is a being who struggles with a nature driven by appetite. The important thing is that he is depicted as an individual who realizes his nature and explores the freedom to choose what he does with his life. Overall, the play explores the ways in which individuals chose to either play out the scripts determined for them, or make their own way in the world.

SP: What do you find the most rewarding about directing?

Mitchell: I like working with the many creative people (actors, designers, managers, and technicians) to join forces in telling a story and expressing ideas.

SP: Do you have any interesting anecdotes about the cast of The Minotaur that you’d like to share with our readers?

Mitchell: I had to be gone for four days to a conference, and the actors, stage managers, and fight director were able to explore and create some excellent moments in the staging of the play without me. Theseus’ entrance into the labyrinth, following a ball of magical yarn, was staged by the group. Hmm, maybe they didn’t need me at all?

From the sound of Mitchell’s responses, the cast are more than prepared to handle this Greek myth. Luckily, I was able to ask Janjay Knowlden, one of the actors in the KCPA’s The Minotaur, about his role in the play.

SP: What is your role in The Minotaur at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts?

Janjay Knowlden: I am playing the Minotaur. This is my second show with Tom directing, after playing Jim in Not About Nightingales.

SP: What do you like the most about your role in the production?

Knowlden: I really enjoy how personal I can be with this text and with the Minotaur himself. You’d expect a play involving a Greek myth to be told in a heightened fashion, but since the play is filled with contemporary language, it’s more accessible. I also enjoy the way this play deals with many issues that are both timely and timeless: predestination vs. free will, empathy, love, and legacies. Who gets to tell our stories for us? How do they tell it? How does that shape the general perception of us as people? I think that these are questions that have made me really think about my life as a black man in college in [this] age of Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. I hope this production can cause audience members to take a step back and really think about how they empathize with their fellow man and woman and the ‘other side’, as it were.

SP: What do you find the most challenging about your role?

Knowlden: It’s been challenging at times to really physically tell the story. Since I’m confined to one area for most of the show, it’s been a challenge (and a pleasure) to find other means of communicating with my fellow actors other than moving about the space as much. Also, it’s been a bit of a challenge to differentiate between my human side and my animal side as the Minotaur, physically, vocally, emotionally, etc. I have a particular costume piece that helps a ton, though, and working with such a talented team of actors and designers has been extremely rewarding and helpful in that regard.

The Minotaur opens at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday October 27th at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. are: Fri. Oct. 28th, Sat. Oct. 29th, and Wed. Nov. 2nd through Sat. Nov. 5th. There is a final 3:00 p.m. performance on Sun. Nov. 6th. On Thurs. Nov. 3rd, there will be a talkback session for the play where a discussion is held between audience members and the cast and crew.

Presented in conjunction with The Minotaur, there is a free concert event entitled Into the Labyrinth: Ariadne and Theseus on Sun. Oct. 30th at the Studio Theatre of the KCPA. Works featuring harp, percussion, and strings from Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s Patria V: The Crown of Ariadne will be performed.

Tickets for all of the performances are available at the KCPA’s website.


Sarah Keim is a contributing writer for Smile Politely’s Arts section. She’s a bit of recluse on social media, but you might bump into her out in the wilds of C-U. Frequent sightings occur at coffee shops, movie theaters, and libraries.

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