One of the terrible things about the way the story of Medusa is usually told is that her iconic snake hair and petrifying visage are a punishment—for being the victim of rape.
“I really felt there’s a lot more to that tale,” says Brian King, who sings and plays guitar and piano in the “baroque pop meets neo-soul” band (as they describe themselves on Bandcamp) What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? “Medusa’s so ubiquitous in Greek and Roman, even Minoan history. But really her story is teeny in most of the myths. Then Perseus comes along and cuts her head off and is the big hero.”
“Medusa: Reclaiming the Myth”—a “multimedia musical experience” and “animated audio play with live band” that King scripted and the band perform—is coming to Boston Museum of Science’s Charles Hayden Planetarium on Thursday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 (sold out) and 9:30 p.m.
King says, “Almost every part of the story is turned on its head.”
“Medusa: Reclaiming the Myth” is about buried stories of sexual assault, about the repercussions on women’s careers and believability, about women’s rights to express themselves. The show says “people heal from trauma, eventually, when they’re supported.” It’s about “dismantling gender” and “queering the story,” King says. “It speaks of empathy as the ultimate cure to patriarchy.”
In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Medusa was attacked by Poseidon. “She is a priestess of Athena and she is very beautiful and is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple,” King says. “Priestesses of Athena are supposed to be virgins. So that’s offensive to Athena. She punishes Medusa by turning her into a monster. So that’s obviously problematic.”
Perseus arrives and, with help from a mirrored shield from Athena, cuts Medusa down—and beheads her. Then he uses Medusa’s head as a weapon to turn enemies to stone. He rescues Andromeda from a sea monster and weds her. He uses the head to petrify a king seeking to marry his mother. Finally he gives the head to Athena, who makes it part of her shield.
“Athena punishes Medusa,” King notes, “but then she ends up being her protection, her symbol of power.”
“Does this make sense that Athena would be punishing Medusa?” King says he asked his friend, the poet and priestess Timotha Doane, around 2010. “Timotha said she’s giving her a new role. … I think she wanted to give her power because her power is taken away. Her body was violated by Poseidon and this is someone who was dutiful priestess to her. In the play, it’s how can she help this woman. … After the rape of Medusa, she’s like, ‘Okay, something needs to change.’”
Some historians suspect Medusa tales might represent Greeks supplanting Minoan worship of a snake goddess on Crete—or, alternately, of women who worshipped with snakes there. “She represented a different way of thinking, a different civilization,” King says. “Turning her into a monster was the beginning of European patriarchy.”
From these strands, the Gloucester musician originally conceived a stage play. It sprouted during the 2016 presidential election as he watched how Hillary Clinton was treated, “the way they were vilifying her because she was a woman.”
Then in 2018, James Wetzel, co-producer of adult programs at the Museum of Science, invited What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? to conjure something for the planetarium. The play grew into an immersive multimedia spectacle accompanied by the live band (King joined by Renee Dupuis, Nathan Cohen, Joe Cardoza and Dennis Monagle). Plus a cast of nearly 30 actors recorded like an audio play. Plus animation by Norah Solorzano and Ruth Lingford (“It’s almost like moving paintings”). Plus planetarium graphics by Jason Fletcher. Plus help from lots of friends.
“I think some people come in thinking this is about Medusa,” King says. “It really is the story of all these women—of Medusa, of Athena, of Artemis, of this woman of Crete. It’s about collaborating with women, working together instead of this theme that gets repeated in literature of women against each other, women trying to take each other down, women fighting over men.”
King says, “In the story, ultimately it shows that often there’s a different story. And in my perspective the opposite of patriarchy is super multiplicity and collaboration despite differences. … They all work together towards one vision of equality for women.”
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