By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Roundhouse Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Sarah Ruhl is a free and truly original thinker, and I give her props for thinking out of the usual browbeaten proverbial Greek drama box in envisioning the story. The tale as told from the action-packed perspective of Orpheus usually extols his rousing journey to join his new bride trapped in the Underworld. In Ruhl’s hands, the tide is turned and we see the world of lost love and yearning from the perspective of Eurydice. She is in love with words and books, while music rocks his world. Still, their passion is true and strong enough to withstand prolonged separation, even death. According to the classic myth, on her wedding day, Eurydice makes an unfortunate move that plunges her into the depths of the Underworld where memories are forbidden. She reunites with her deceased father while Orpheus literally goes to Hell and back to find her.
Jenna Sokolowski and Adriano Gatto play the star-crossed lovers with a natural playfulness that feels real and genuine. Harry A. Winter is a solid anchor of an actor, able to portray a range of emotions with ease. These three could take me to the moon and back without a seatbelt, let alone the Underworld. The wonderful Mitchell Hébert plays the mysterious sinister stranger with a delightful demonic appeal. Even though you know the story, and you’re watching Eurydice agonize over what choice she should take when he entices her, you still want to scream out as if to the movie screen, “No!! Don’t go with him in the back room.” Ruhl sets up the premise with just enough dramatic tension to keep everything engaged.
And yes, her language is indeed pure poetry, as when Eurydice ponders the meaning of life as she disengages from the old and transitions to the Underworld. “How do I say goodbye to myself?” she asks while once vibrant memories fade away. Ruhl tackles concepts of life, love, death and memory with the ease of a master story teller. And the story is captivating while the characters are topside. In a way, Ruhl seems to want to turn the world upside down and expose the ticklish underbelly of even the heaviest concepts. But, why she, abetted by the artistic directors, insisted on whirling a loony tunes wand over such already rich material is beyond me.
Which brings us to the Stones.
The “Talking Stones” serve as a Greek chorus providing their opinions, offering uninvited suggestions, often loudly interrupting, even disrupting the other characters. All three actors take their jobs seriously, KenYatta Rodgers with his usual focused intensity, Linden Tailor with a hurl-about physicality, and Susan Lynskey who though stricken with strep and laryngitis, still performed opening week, signed her part expressively while the other characters spoke the words. It was sheer creative genius, wit and skill for the cast to pull off what could have been a devastating problem that instead resulted in something that might even be more effective. We’ll see what they do when she’s all healed up.
So, whirling about like brightly colored lollipop kids on crack, the talking stones have their say all over the place. When Hébert in school-boy leggings started riding around a tricycle as Lord of the Underworld, it’s enough to say – wait, time out. What does all the fanatical interpretation have to do with the story, again? There’s just wasn’t enough magnetism to hold this modern interpretation together for me.
Even the technological wizardry seemed unnecessarily heavy and contrived. Set designer Clint Ramos did an incredible job with the multi-leveled scaffolding that the actors catwalked with ease. An enormous elevator complete with rows of bright light bulbs during its ascent and descent opened at the bottom level, presumably of Hell, revealing an interior rain shower when the actors exited. Still, all the heavy steel gadgetry seemed like the equipment was working too hard, and even competing with the story, especially when the lumbering sound of the heavy elevator doors closing was off cue, even slightly. The pool of water on the stage intended to heal and erase memories faired only slightly better when characters dunked either completely or symbolically at the end. While it must have created its own version of hell on earth to create massive pools of water on stage, the visceral effect is naturally soothing, but the dunking comes from out of nowhere without much set-up, preparation or connection with anything that preceded it, so it feels false and even a bit manipulative.
Still, there’s more than enough magic in this creative production to balance and complement the quirks. For example, the interaction between reunited father and daughter is priceless and seems to be the actual heart of the piece. Ruhl’s love for words comes through as father and daughter read passages of Shakespeare’s King Lear together, and sink into a unspoken bond without a hint of a false note. This is Ruhl at her finest, or at least the part that works for me.
Running Time: 1:50 hours w/ no intermission
When: Thru March 1. Wednesday at 7:30 pm. Thurs- Saturday at 8, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 3pm.
Where: Round House Theater, 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda, , MD