Now, from a troop of shades that last arriv’d,
Eurydice was call’d, and stood reviv’d:
Slow she advanc’d, and halting seem to feel
The fatal wound, yet painful in her heel.
Thus he obtains the suit so much desir’d,
On strict observance of the terms requir’d:
For if, before he reach the realms of air,
He backward cast his eyes to view the fair,
The forfeit grant, that instant, void is made,
And she forever left a lifeless shade.
From Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Having just directed a production of OUR TOWN, the hymn “Blessed Be The Ties That Bind” is etched in my psyche. It kept coming to mind as I viewed Curio’s inaugural production of their 7th season. EURYDICE’s plot focuses on the title character’s familial and emotional ties, asking which is stronger: the bond of parent and child, or that of man and wife.
Sarah Ruhl’s 2003 play is an imaginative retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus; she tells the story from the perspective of the young god’s wife, the titular EURYDICE. Having inspired operas, artworks, poems and ballets, it is not surprising that a playwright would eventually tackle the story. Written as a way to continue conversations with her father (who died of cancer in 1994), Ruhl has created a surreal dramedy that challenges the viewer at every turn.
In the original Greek myth, Orpheus (the son of Calliope, known for the beauty of his music) and Eurydice (a daughter of Apollo) fall in love and marry. On their wedding day, he played joyful songs as his bride danced through the meadow. One day, a satyr saw and pursued Eurydice, who stepped on a venomous snake, dying instantly. Distraught, Orpheus travels to the Underworld to retrieve her. After his music softens the hearts of Hades and Persephone, he is permitted to take his bride back up to the land of the living only if he does not look back at her before they reach their destination. However, just as they are at the portals of Hades and daylight, he cannot resist the urge to turn and see the one he loves, and Eurydice vanishes again from his sight…this time forever.
Ruhl made several changes to the original myth’s story-line. The most notable of these is the invention of Eurydice’s father, who serves as her protector in the afterlife. In need of fresh air on her wedding day, Eurydice leaves the celebration. She has a chance encounter with a stranger who tells her he has a letter from her dead father, the news of which ultimately leads her to her death and entrance into the Underworld. Having been partially washed in the River Lethe, Eurydice has limited memory (she grapples for words, remembering only the opening sounds of her groom’s name) and thinks her father is a hotel porter. Her father managed to avoid the river’s effect by holding his breath and has been struggling with his memories as he adjusts to this new existence. Thus we enter into Ruhl’s imagining of Eurydice’s story.
Ruhl’s script has been explicitly written so as to be a playground for the designer of the sets, and Curio’s Paul Kuhn has created yet another scenic wonder. A long slatted walkway spirals down from the upper reaches of the converted sanctuary to a pool of water at the center of the playing space (which is put to creative use by the young lovers as they frolic on the beach at the start of the play, by the denizens of the underworld and, finally, by Eurydice and her father). Partway down, there is a platform playing area with slatted panels that serve as walls or entranceways. Below these is another set of slatted panels at floor level that create, among other things, the elevator to the underworld. Director Liz Carlson has cleverly and fluidly moved her actors around the space as they tell Eurydice’s tale. Her touches are evident throughout, but never heavy-handed.
This is the third iteration I have seen of Ruhl’s play, and it was the clearest in story telling for me. Aiding in that clarity were Jared Reed’s lighting design and Drew Petersen’s soundscape, both of which evoked the perfect mood. Reed’s lighting focuses the viewer around the space as needed and Petersen’s sound effects compliment the action perfectly. His musical choices are equally adept. And Aetna Gallagher’s costumes created both the 50s look required for Eurydice and Orpheus and wonderfully intriguing palette for the denizens of the Underworld.
The cast includes real-life daughter and father, Tessa and Paul Kuhn as Eurydice and her father. Their real relationship brought a very touching element to the portrayal of the parent/child dynamic in the play—particularly as the father mimics the walk down the aisle in the Underworld as Eurydice is heading towards her groom above. Ms. Kuhn is a high school senior, but she understood the material and held her own amongst the more seasoned cast members. Her innate youthful innocence added a lovely element to the role. And Mr. Kuhn is always solid in everything I’ve seen him in. Here he is gentle and loving as the father who was taken from his daughter too soon. Playing opposite one’s own child must add a great deal of subtext to an actor’s portrayal.
Steve Carpenter is suitably earnest and musical as Orpheus. He gently schools the bookish Eurydice in carrying a tune and then shows us the young groom’s anguish as he desperately tries to get his bride back. CJ Keller is hilariously smarmy as A Nasty Interesting Man (yep, that’s the character’s name) and just plain hilarious as The Lord of The Underworld. He plays brat wonderfully. At times he reminded me of the villain, Syndrome, in The Incredibles—enjoying being mean for the pure sport of it.
The Greek Chorus here is comprised of three characters known collectively as “The Stones” (as in, Orpheus even makes the stones weep with his music…). We are presented with Little Stone (Eric Scotolati), Big Stone (Harry Slack) and Loud Stone (Aetna Gallagher). The three actors function as a unit brilliantly. They are called upon to make several intricate movements, to speak simultaneously on several occasions and to freeze in difficult poses. They do all of this beautifully—and with terrific comedic effect. I applaud them, the director and their movement coach for the inventiveness and precision of their work.
One key piece of business in the play is when the father creates a room for Eurydice in the Underworld out of string. That is the only direction given in the script, and each version I’ve seen has done this in unique ways. At Curio, it takes on a balletic feel, with Petersen’s music evoking strong emotions from the viewer. As does the father’s disassembling of it when Eurydice is following Orpheus back up to the world of the living.
The other big change to the original made by Ruhl is that she has Eurydice call out to Orpheus just as they are reaching the gates of Hades (causing him to look back), perhaps in part because of her fear of reentering the world of the living and perhaps as a result of her desire to remain in the land of the dead with her father. In Ruhl’s version, Eurydice’s bond to her father is stronger. Sadly, in order to kill the pain of losing her twice, he has taken a second dip in the River Lethe and is now as mindless as the rest of the dead. The father and daughter are destined to spend eternity side-by-side with no connection. What a chilling image to be left with. It makes me grieve for the father I no longer have with me—and the one my children no longer have as well.
by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Liz Carlson
October 12-November 12, 2011
Curio Theatre Company
4740 Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143
For tickets call 215-525-1350