In the oft-told Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the musician Orpheus follows his bride, Eurydice to the underworld to lead her back to life, but he is forbidden to turn his head and look at her. Nevertheless, because he fears that she may not be following him, he glances back and loses his love for all eternity. Contemporary playwright Sarah Ruhl has creatively turned the myth upside down in Shotgun Players’ winning Eurydice.
Ruhl’s version is from the point of view of a present-day Eurydice (first-rate Megan Trout) and introduces a new character, Eurydice’s deceased father, wonderfully captured by Bay Area luminary James Carpenter.
Combining the mythic with reality, Eurydice begins with a wonderfully sensual pas de deux skillfully choreographed by director Erika Chong Shuch, with Orpheus (nicely acted by Kenny Toll) and Eurydice frolicking at the beach. Eurydice is the intellectual of the pair; Orpheus, an idealistic composer, thinks only of music.
At their wedding, Eurydice complains that she thought there would be more interesting people there. And, perhaps for this reason, she is easily led astray by the Nasty Interesting Man (Nils Frykdahl), who entices her with a letter from her father (from his address in the netherworld). But, once in the Man’s high-rise apartment, she falls to her death, and winds up in hell, making her entrance there through a water-slide/elevator.
Sean Riley’s inventive set is appropriately hellish, resembling the battleship-grey metal hold of a sunken ship or submarine, populated with pails turned upside down. The Greek chorus of three stones (Jeanine Anderson, Peter Griggs and Beth Wilmurt), dressed in Christine Cook’s somewhat macabre clown costumes, enforces the rules, e.g. “Being sad is not allowed.”
To arrive at her destination, Eurydice has to pass through Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Ruhl has created a compelling version of the underworld, in which the punishment is loss of memory, speech, and reading ability. No whips, chains and fires are as devastating as the loss of self. Eurydice doesn’t recognize her father or know what one does with a book.
The scenes in which Eurydice’s father cares for her and teaches her are the most poignant and evocative in the drama. Using rope, pails and water, he builds a room for her. He gives her a volume of Shakespeare, and she responds to “We two alone will sing like birds in a cage” from King Lear. We see how Eurydice and her father share similar intellectual interests — those Eurydice couldn’t share with Orpheus. Ruhl’s father had died soon before she began to write this play, and her sincerity and sorrow shines through.
I wish that Eurydice had emphasized these dramatic and touching scenes more. It seems as though the production minimized the melancholy power of memory that is at the heart of the drama. Further, adding loud atonal music just seems incongruous. I know that Shotgun Players likes to use music in its productions, but the discordant noisiness is a bit disruptive to me. I’m writing only of the atonality, not of the lovely rendition of “Motherless Child,” sung by Jeannine Anderson.
Ruhl’s Eurydice has played all over the country since its 2004 run at Berkeley Rep. Its popularity is for good reason. It’s a tale well told, full of memory and loss, signifying love and sorrow.
Eurydice is playing at the Ashby Stage through Oct. 4. For information, tickets and extended performance dates, visit Shotgun Players online.
Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s new-look Events Calendar. Submit your own events for free if they aren’t there already.