Mythology has the power to focus our attention on fundamental issues like love and grief. The sad tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, with its roots in ancient Greece, has evoked tears, heartache and sadness for several millennia.
In Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, it’s given a fresh new voice that speaks to contemporary audiences while still addressing those age-old themes. The 2006 play, in its Midwestern premiere at Know Theatre of Cincinnati this month, is a production that no serious-minded theatergoer should miss.
In the classic myth, the musician Orpheus marries the beautiful nymph Eurydice but she tragically dies on their wedding day. The distraught musician uses his melodic talents to follow her to the underworld where he convinces its lord, Hades, to release her. His petition is granted, with one condition: As he leads her back to the land of the living, he must not look back at her. Despite his great love, he indeed glances back for reassurance — and loses Eurydice forever.
The story has inspired numerous works of art over the centuries — at least three operas, movies, a ballet, paintings, sculptures and plays. Local audiences loved the Cincinnati Playhouse’s staging of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses in 2001, which included a retelling of Orpheus’ mournful quest for his lost love. But Sarah Ruhl’s play is designed for contemporary sensibilities, and it offers a modern, expressionist exploration of love and loss, memory and forgetfulness, grief and longing — not to mention the complex nature of many forms of love, from romantic to that between parent and child.
Through Ruhl’s filter, Orpheus (played by Fang Du for Know) is an idealistic composer in the here and now. He professes his love to the romantic and bookish Eurydice (Courtney Brown) during a date at the beach. She swears to remember a melody he teaches her. On their wedding day, she’s enticed away from the reception by a “nasty, interesting man” (Daniel S. Hines) with a promise of a letter sent by her deceased father. She follows the man to his highrise apartment; things go badly and she falls to her death.
She arrives in the underworld via an elevator in which it rains. She meets three “stones” (Liz Vosmeier, Ayla Ocasio and Jenny Guy) who amusingly and vociferously advocate the status quo. (“Being sad is not allowed,” they tell her. In fact, no emotions are permitted, nor is reading or remembering.) Her late father (Robert Pavlovich) appears, although Eurydice does not recognize him. He weaves a simple room for her with a single piece of string.
He has held onto his memory (the stones call him “a subversive”), and he gradually coaxes from Eurydice a recognition of who he is. She cannot recall what a book is for, but he gives her a volume of Shakespeare and she responds to lines like “We two alone will sing like birds in a cage” from King Lear.
All the while, Orpheus feverishly sends letters and songs to Eurydice, floating them in one of the three pools of water that surround the performing space. The program does not credit a scenic designer, but the lyrical lighting is the work of Sean Savoie and I’m sure that Doug Borntrager, Know’s production manager, created the waterworks that splash, drip and flow throughout the play’s 95 minutes.
Orpheus convinces the annoyingly childish Lord of the Underworld (Hines, again, now tooling around on a tricycle as another incarnation of the man who lured Eurydice to her death) to release her. He succeeds, but Eurydice’s lack of rhythm throws him off and he loses her again. “You couldn’t wait for the beat,” he mourns, recalling her promise to remember his melody.
The story doesn’t end there, however: Eurydice and her father evolve through forgetfulness to acceptance of the peace and quiet of death. It’s a gentle, soft conclusion, rather like drifting off to sleep.
Ruhl’s script and Know’s production, inventively and fluidly directed by Jason Bruffy, make this telling of the story more profound. It’s not merely about the loss of a passionate love: Eurydice becomes an exploration of the many forms of love and connection, especially between a father and a daughter. (Ruhl apparently began working on this play shortly after her own father’s death.) And it is about the pain and power of memory: “How does a person remember to forget?” Eurydice asks before she takes her final dip in the river of forgetfulness.
All the actors in Eurydice with the exception of Pavlovich are part of Know’s 2008-09 company. Brown brings a pleasant inquisitiveness to Eurydice, and her naive, frustrated groping to understand the underworld is poignant and charming. Du plays Orpheus with an earnest eagerness that makes sense; the musician is, however, the least interesting of Ruhl’s major characters.
Guest actor Pavlovich has just the right presence, substantial and caring, to make memorable his portrait of Eurydice’s father. Hines’ two roles provide comic relief, and the stones often punctuate scenes with hilarious outbursts.
Eurydice is the work of an important new American playwright. Three years ago Ruhl’s play The Clean House was presented at theaters across the U.S., including the Cincinnati Playhouse. Its mix of reality and fantasy, much like the blend she offers in Eurydice, captivated audiences and made that play a contender for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.
If you want to see a work that people will remember — not to mention a playwright whose words are sure to resonate for many years — I recommend that you experience Eurydice.
EURYDICE, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through March 28. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.