In the ancient tale immortalized by Ovid, the great poet and singer Orpheus married a woman named Eurydice. Shortly after the wedding, a poisonous snake bit Eurydice, and she died. Orpheus was inconsolable — so inconsolable that he entered the Underworld and begged its Lord, Hades, that he allow Eurydice to live out her normal span. Hades agreed, conditionally: Eurydice would follow Orpheus up into the land of sunlight, but during this passage Orpheus could not look back at her, or she would be drawn back to the Underworld, forever. Orpheus agrees, but, being human and hence skeptical, he at one point looks back to make sure she is following him — and glimpses her being dragged back down, her final farewell echoing in the tunnel.
This, thus, is a legend about obedience, and is echoed in substance in many cultures — including in the story about Adam and Eve and the apple, who through disobedience lost Paradise, and the one about Lot’s wife, who through disobedience became a pillar of salt. Sarah Ruhl, in one of her best plays ever, turns the legend inside out, and in so doing makes it a story about love.
Ruhl’s Eurydice, now being given an absolutely pellucid production from NextStop Theatre in Herndon, VA shows us two kinds of love: the naïve passion of Eurydice (Emily Kester) and Orpheus (Kiernan McGowan) for each other and the deeper, more profound connection between Eurydice and her father (Michael Kramer, as good as I’ve ever seen him.)
Ruhl is unambiguous in establishing the superficiality of the love shared between Eurydice and Orpheus: he is obsessed with music and she is essentially tone-deaf. He praises her in grandiose, generic terms, but has no interest in any of her ideas. They are shallow people: Eurydice prizes things which are “interesting”, which means things about which she has drawn no conclusions, but might one day.
In Ruhl’s version, Eurydice meets her end when a “Nasty, Interesting Man” (Alex Zavistovich), having failed to get her to come to a party full of “interesting” people, draws her into his aerie with a promise of a letter from her long-dead father. (Her dad has composed this letter while in the Underworld, he means to mark her marriage to Orpheus; later, heartbreakingly, he ghost-walks her to the altar so that he can give her away.) Eurydice, resisting the lame seductions of the Nasty, Interesting Man, stumbles and falls to her death.
To complete her trip to the Underworld, Eurydice must swim the River Lethe. Like all the dead – except her father – her dive into the river of forgetfulness causes her to lose memory of her history, her language, and the everyday experiences of life. Not only does she forget how to read, she forgets how reading is done, and stands barefoot on a letter, hoping to absorb its content through her soles. When she first sees her father in the Underworld, she mistakes him for a porter, and implores him to get her a room with a bath.
Dad plays along, and slowly, gently, he brings Eurydice to herself. He teaches her her name, and how to read, and her history — all to the great roaring distress of Hell’s stones (Tamieka Chavis, Charlene V. Smith, and Briana Manente), whose business it is to establish a proper underworld: one where the dead forget the living, and lapse into a stupor of a constant present tense, bereft of memory of the past or hope for the future.
closes November 20, 2016
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Of course, Orpheus plunges ahead, resolved to do what he can to rescue his beloved from her Hellish surroundings. His mournful music literally renders tears from the stones, and, face-to-face with the Lord of the Underworld (Zavistovich again, on a tricycle), he wins the same reprieve that Ovid’s Orpheus won: that his beloved bride would follow him to the exterior world, as long as he not look back.
But this time we see the dilemma from Eurydice’s side. Does she abandon her father, who has brought her to awareness of her world as all good fathers do, toreceive the affections of Orpheus, constant but self-absorbed, whose love is profound but not specific? Or does she return to Hell, where she can reinvest herself in the love of a father who has invested himself in her? (“I named you,” he says. “Your mother named all your brothers and sisters, but I named you.”)
Well. I’m not going to answer that question, but I will tell you this: NextStop’s production does, with clarity and artistic integrity. Ruhl was a poet before she was a playwright, and her images pop and startle; in some instances — particularly in the first scene — she has her characters say some things which are difficult to credit, and Kester and McGowan struggle with them. But once things get going, they are spot-on.
Kester’s Eurydice is throughout a child, albeit a child who grows during the play, to the point where she can make a difficult choice credibly. Credit belongs not just to Kester and director Jay Brock, but also to Kramer, who makes himself the sort of father who can bring a child to maturity. McGowan’s Orpheus is like a less crude version of Tim Curry’s Mozart in Amadeus, immersed in his art and otherwise giddy with pleasure.
The other actors are commendable in that they do not draw attention to themselves, to the dereliction of the play. The stones are both irritating and vaguely dangerous, as the stones you might find in your shoes after a long walk would be. Zavistovich, in multiple roles, is seedy and malevolent, exactly as he should be. It is one of Ruhl’s astonishing conceits (another: it is raining in the elevator to Hell) that the Lord of the Underworld be a small child; that Zavistovich, a large, mature actor is able to pull this off is not only a credit to him but to Brock as well.
What makes this work, in the final analysis, is the intelligence and consistency that Brock brings to this production. I recall the more playful version Round House did seven years ago; it was fun to watch, and “interesting”, but this version delivers the goods in a clearer way. J.D. Madsen’s set was a Hell for our times; canted in grey (C.S. Lewis called Hell “the grey place”) and perfectly consistent with Ruhl’s concept (her Hell resembles our own lives to the extent that Eurydice’s dad still had a regular job to which he had to go every morning in Hell.)
And what are we to make of the fact that Ruhl’s own father died when she was twenty? That he would take his kids to the Walker Brothers Original Pancake House every Saturday and teach each of them a new word, much as Eurydice’s dad did to help her reclaim her memory? Or that Ruhl said she wrote this play in order to “have a few more conversations with [her father]”? Nothing, except that a real artist expropriates the world, including her own history, in recognition of the fact that anyone’s experience can be everyone’s.
Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl . directed by Jay D. Brock, assisted by Dani Ebbin. Featuring Emily Kester, Michael Kramer, Kiernan McGowan, Alex Zavistovich, Tamieka Chavis, Charlene V. Smith, Briana Manente . Scenic design by JD Madden . Lighting design by Catherine Girardi . Sound design by Kenny Neal . Costume design by Kristina Martin . Stage Manager Sara K Smith, assisted by Sierra Pearson . Produced by NextStop Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor