'Eurydice' Is Like Following Orpheus In Wackyland

Toto, we're not in Hades anymore
Henry DiRocco/SCR

Gophers apparently attacked the early drafts of Sarah Ruhl's 2003 play, Eurydice, for there are enough holes in the script to keep Carl Spackler busy for weeks.

Yet, even though we know very little about her characters, the two worlds that inhabit her play, or why the lord of the underworld rides a tricycle and walks on 20-foot stilts, it still works. In her bizarre mélange of Alice In Wonderland and Greek myth, the surreal and imaginative win out. You may be hard-pressed to explain what happens in Eurydice after watching it, but you will realize this quirky, creative play, even with its intentional silliness and opaque happenings, reverberates on powerful emotional levels.

Call it a modern-day fairy tale (with all the fanciful imagination and dark hues of any decent tale) with roots in one of the oldest stories known to western civilization: the ancient myth of Eurydice. If there is a template for star-crossed lovers, it's this tale of Orpheus, the brilliant musician, and his paramour, Eurydice. On their wedding day, Eurydice, pursued by a lust-crazed suitor, wanders into a pit of vipers. She dies, but Orpheus is determined to find her in the underworld and bring her home. He ventures to Hades, and not even that realm's ruler can resist his musical allure. He springs his love, but, warned to not look at her before she exits the underworld, he turns too soon, condemning her to a second death.

Most of that happens in Ruhl's play. But this time, the lusty stalker is A Nasty Interesting Man (that's what he's called in the program) who has intercepted a letter from Hades written to Eurydice (a sweetly captivating and confused Carmela Corbett) from her long-dead father. Nasty dude (a deliciously creepy Tim Cummings) lures Eurydice to his high-rise apartment, professes his love to her, then chases her out of the room, where she trips down a flight of stairs, dying.

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We now switch to Hades, a place where stones talk, rain falls in moving elevators and most inhabitants have forgotten their previous lives. The notable exception is Eurydice's father (a compelling Timothy Landfield), who battles valiantly to remind his daughter of her life among the living. Orpheus (an underutilized Alex Knox), meanwhile, figures out a way to get to Hades (through finding one perfect note, and then channeling himself there through a straw. Really). For whatever reason, the Lord of the Underworld, also played by Cummings, allows Eurydice to leave, but the same tragic consequences ensue.

This is, of course, a highly abridged summary of a play that includes the ruler of Hades wearing a propeller cap and peddling on a tricycle; a chorus of three stones; a dead father dressed in a business suit constantly checking his watch; letters delivered via worms; tutorials on the meaning of words such as ostracize, peripatetic and defunct; and water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

It's a lot to wrap one's head around, and the best course of action is to check your reason at the door and just experience Ruhl's frenetic imagination at work. That imagination is given a masterful production courtesy of director Marc Masterston and his designers. The video projections and old-school, dripping-oil-lamp effect on half of the back wall adds to the ethereal sense of Ruhl's already-otherworldly play. And the presence of the three talking stones (all we see are their heads bathed in emerald light) further reinforces the sense we have plunged through one hell of a weird looking glass.

But it's also incredibly sad. Hell, we're talking about dead people in the underworld, and though its inhabitants are not bathed in a lake of eternal fire or being anal-raped by demons, it's no picnic. With the exception of Eurydice's father, who apparently has some type of work detail, everyone just kind of sits around in this version of existence after life, doing nothing.

If the play were any longer than its 75 minutes, it could get frustrating, especially since even though it's called Eurydice, the most important character seems to be her father. And it's his story—from the grief he feels at not attending his daughter's wedding to his elation at their reunion in the underworld and subsequent devastation when he sees her apparently depart—that is the most compelling part of Ruhl's play. That lends an aching emotional dimension to a play that, for the most part, seems content to traffic on a demented carnival's boardwalk.

If Eurydice is about anything other than an imagination given free rein to let loose, it's about loss—dealing with it, letting it go, making the choice to either mire in grief or realize that life is about living. That's not exactly unfamiliar territory for writers to tread; just look at the source tale for this 21st-century play. But rarely is it traversed in such eerie, fantastic fashion.

But, really, what's up with the talking stones?


This review appeared in print as "Orpheus In Wackyland: South Coast Rep stages a take on the Greek myth of Eurydice, filled with pathos and talking stones."

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