THEATER REVIEW: As myth retold, spare Eurydice yields performance full of surprises

Eurydice/Walking the Dog Theater with PS/21

IF PLAYWRIGHT SARAH RUHL has not met director David Anderson in person, it is past time she did. She will seldom be better understood. At PS/21, all directorial ego and actor-narcissism has been carved away, and there is nothing left but text and movement and breathtaking connections. It is director as sculptor, releasing the play from where it lives in the marble script.

You remember the basic Orpheus/Eurydice story: A brilliant musician, Orpheus, loves and marries the dryad, Eurydice. Soon thereafter she is bitten by a snake, dies from the poison and descends to the underworld. He employs his magical music to convince the gods that he should go there and retrieve her. Erebus, king of the underworld, allows him to lead her back to life on the condition that, during the journey, he not look back. He looks back. She dies again. He is so grief-stricken that he can never engage with women again. This rejection so enrages the Bacchae (priestesses of Bacchus) that they tear him limb from limb.

Ruhl focuses on Eurydice, supplying her with a powerful, loving, dead father and an Orpheus whose musical art threatens to be her competitor.

The text is full of small surprises, each like a small drop of lemon on your tongue. “I always have string in case I come upon a broken instrument,” says the musician Orpheus. “I’ll give this letter to a worm,” the lovers both say when they hope to reach the other in the underworld.

Ruhl’s poetry seems all the more pungent because she inserts the mundane, modern language of the father’s remembrances or the Lord of the Underworld’s boasts about having become “a real man,” or harsh-parental Stone-pronouncements such as, “There are no pens here!” or “Dead people don’t sing!”

Ruhl sings. Her play defines aliveness.

“I hate you!,” Eurydice cries to the Stones. She and the playwright shout it at all the hard, facts-of-death things the Stones embody. Even so, these are permeable stones, and they are occasionally “moved.” They unfold from dead stillness at a spoken line and confess to tears at Orpheus’ music. They move and speak, sometimes in the rich voice of Nancy Rothman, who plays the Big Stone.

In addition to the basic story, there are quiet references to the myth: The half-blue faces of the Stones are a reminder of pre-Christian religions; the father’s effort to awaken Eurydice’s memory by portraying himself as the tree from which she, in her dryadness, emerged; the snakiness of Paul Boothroyd as the Nasty Interesting Man/Lord of the Underworld; the river of forgetfulness, Lethe, which is not named by Ruhl but is crucial to her story.

Incidental music composed by Jonathan Talbott and performed by the Rosamund Trio is effective glue, saying something about time passing and bringing an intensity to the silences. (Talbott often seems to compose the silences.)

Particular actor-performances do not leap out. It is as if the actors decided to humbly submerge themselves to words and mime. They are Rachel Storey as Eurydice, Ron Komora as her father, Chris Smith as Orpheus, Paul Boothroyd as the Nasty Interesting Man/Lord of the Underworld, and Nancy Rothman, Pooja Karina Thomas, and Helena Zay as the Stones. They cause it to happen.

For most of us in the audience, I suspect the “it” that happens arouses our keener hearing, our keener observance of movement, and 90 minutes of astonishing biological aliveness that feels like fresh breezes gamboling in our chests.

 

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