Monday, November 17, 2008

understanding the underworld: eurydice at the milwaukee rep

As promised last night, here's my take on Eurydice which is playing at the Milwaukee Rep through Sunday.

I am a huge fan of quirky. The majority of the time quirky, convoluted storytelling -- especially in film or on stage -- will automatically get my endorsement. Occasionally this can be done in annoying, poor way, fortunately in Eurydice by Sara Ruhl it is not.

Ruhl draws upon the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology as a foundation to set her entirely original play. As Shakespeare did with others, Ruhl takes liberties with this myth, adding in the character of Eurydice's father and repurposing the Erinyes (The Erinyes often stood for the rightness of things within the standard order) as "The Stones." The Stones attempt to maintain order in the Underworld, although become increasingly frustrated as the main characters Eurydice, her father and eventually Orpheus refute their demands.

The added character of Eurydice's father adds an extra dimension the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice's rather simple love story. One could argue it almost brought an Electra complex into the play. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, in Jean-Paul Sartre's play The Flies, the Erinyes (who represent remorsefulness--"The Stones" in this play) chase Orestes and Electra for the murder of their mother. No idea if that's just coincidence, but I'm thinking it is not.

What really made this play stand out for me was the exploration of the spatial relationships between life and death. Both the "alive" and "dead" characters co-existed on the stage. There were no set changes, the "above" world easily became the Underworld and back again. A stream on the beach became the River Styx. What I got from this bouncing back and forth between worlds was that the dead can be alive, and the alive can be dead. At the beginning of the play, when Eurydice's father was "dead" (and the other two characters were alive and kicking) he seemed alive because he held out hope for his daughter and was actively involved in following her life. Later, when Eurydice died, Orpheus, although alive in the above world, seemed "dead" due to his immense grief.

The concept of Memory and memories also played a large role in the play. Ruhl expands on the idea that the River Styx washes away the recollection of one's former life when one enters the Underworld. With the character of Eurydice's father she asks "what if someone wasn't fully washed?" Would they remember? He has to keep secret what he has retained from mortality, so as to not be washed again, more thoroughly. The father also teaches his daughter to remember after she joins him in the Underworld. Ruhl argues that even if someone is supposed to be programmed to forget, that human connection is stronger than any magical river and will draw out the memories.

For Orpheus, alive, the memories of Eurydice are what compells him to find a way to the Underwold to rescue her. The massive failure of that attempt (presented by Ruhl as a mutual fault -- his by turning around, but now hers by calling out to him) sets in motion a series of events that use both the aforementioned spatial relationships and importance of memory to set up an utterly tragic ending to Ruhl's interpretation of the myth.

Lest you think this is just another Greek tragedy, let me assure you that it certainly has its lighthearted and yes, quirky, moments. The Stones are a fantastic interpretation of the Greek Chorus, they are as creepy, yet uncomfortably funny, as the Bard's use of the modern chorus in the Witches in Macbeth. The Lord of the Underworld (played by the fabulous Wayne T. Carr, who was also in Love's Labour's Lost) in each scene represented a separate bizarre version of The Devil. Plus, the characters entrance, to what I believe was a Judas Priest song, was one of the best orchestrated comedic scenes I've ever encountered at the Rep. The elements of the Underworld were all designed to be "just a little off" from what should be in the real world. The set design captured the quirky essence of the play just beautifully.

A final beautiful quirky element in the play was the use of music (apart from the just plain funny aforementioned entrance scene). The wedding music for Orpheus and Eurydice drifted into the Underworld for her father to enjoy. The father carried around a small tape recorder from which he played haunting instrumental tunes. And ultimately, as in the myth, Orpheus burst into the Underworld on the notes of a song. Although any song could've been used, the director (or perhaps Ruhl) selected a wonderful modern piece (that I know I know and can't place, but it sounded like Sigur Ros or something along those lines) and the wondrous way that the scene plays out -- well you just have to go catch it by Sunday!

As I mentioned before, I love the slightly offbeat. If I had to make a "if you like x, you'll love Eurydice" comparison here, my definite go-to would be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Especially regarding the exploration of the importance of memory.

Alternately, my friend Maggie (who didn't care for the play) thought it reminded her somewhat of Labyrinth. But, she said it may just be that she equated the Lord of the Underworld summoning The Stones to Ludo (who apparently has a fansite) calling boulders. Regardless of whether Ruhl intended that comparison, I did promise Maggie that for her feedback I would include a picture of Bowie in spandex within this post.

Have you seen Eurydice? What were your thoughts? Any other good plays showing right now that I should catch?

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