As “Diadem” begins, Ariadne, princess of Crete, is invoking the deities, pleading for freedom for her mother the queen, imprisoned for consorting with a bull. It’s a gloriously dramatic opening for local playwright Eugenie Chan’s play, a prequel to “Bone to Pick”; Cutting Ball Theater premiered the latter a few years ago.
Taken together, the two solo one-acts, commissioned for the company’s Paige Rogers, comprise a multilayered, post-modern look at the Greek myth.
Chan’s inspiration is the version of the myth in which Theseus the Greek arrives in Crete to kill Ariadne’s ravenous half-brother, the part bull, part man Minotaur (progeny of that adulterous mother), who’s incarcerated in a labyrinth.
Ariadne, immediately enamored of Theseus, gives him a golden thread to attach to a tree to find his way out of the maze, and Theseus promises to marry her. But ultimately he abandons her on the island of Naxos.
A Naxos of the mind is the setting for both plays. In the less innovative “Diadem,” a golden-tressed, youthful Ariadne awaits, with mounting anxiety, her lover’s return. Meanwhile, she tells us her story. In a particularly striking moment, she re-creates her mother’s coupling with the bull.
Rogers wrote a few songs, which she sings beautifully, and she limns some powerful moments, but on the whole she fails to connect the emotional dots between the script’s often humorous, contemporary sensibility and its outsized, Greek-tragedy-like dramatic sequences.
Rogers — and Chan — are more assured in “Bone to Pick.” Here Ariadne is re-invented as Ria, a diner waitress with a Texas drawl and a bloodstained apron, alone for centuries on a bleak landscape under siege.
She remembers, imagines and re-creates viscerally compelling relationships and events, playing various roles including a seductive soldier demanding, at gunpoint, the last available rib-eye steak in Ariadne’s world: her half-brother, hidden away in a labyrinth-like meat locker to which she’s almost forgotten the combination lock.
Astutely guided by director Rob Melrose, Rogers is wildly inventive, giving expansive vocal and physical expression to Chan’s beautifully incantatory writing.
And Michael Locher’s starkly handsome, museum-like set — sand-fringed black floor; backdrop of metallic, reflective squares — plus Heather Basarab’s moody lights and Cliff Caruthers’ unsettling underscore make for a polished production.
Complex and often perplexing — the allusions to contemporary American civilization are elusive — “Bone’s” lush language and images resonate.
The two plays together form an impressionistic portrait of love and betrayal in an off-kilter society.
Diadem/Bone to Pick
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 13
Tickets: $15 to $50
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.cuttingball.com