Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by David Anderson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"like potatoes sleeping in the dust."
Rachel Storey and Chris Smith; photo: Daniel Region
In her modernization of the legend of Orpheus, the musician and his love, Eurydice, who has been spirited away by the Lord of the Underworld - death himself, playwright Sarah Ruhl has created an almost childlike visual essay. First produced in 2003, two years after she left college, it has the feeling about it of a college show. It goes on too long in search of a satisfying ending. It has characters who come off as both juvenile and overly drawn. It uses metaphor and the visual imagery of allegories for reasons that don’t quite make theatrical sense. For all this it is a fascinating play, currently being given by Walking the Dog Theatre at PS21 in Chatham, NY.
Early works by developing playwrights often fall into this category. "Pippin" was one example, as was "Godspell." Ruhl, who made a splash on Broadway last year with "In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play," is represented here in a work that shouts beginnings and squelches futures. Her language is less than subtle. Her imagination is showing. The rewrite of the legend is fascinating as her contemporary characters face the eternal question of death and love’s supremacy over it. Ruhl has added a major character into the mix and here a spark of genius springs out at us. The character of Eurydice’s father, also dead, makes a world of difference to the story presented here and it saves the play from falling over the edge of an abyss.
Director David Anderson has done a lovely job of putting this early work of the playwright’s onto the open-space stage at PS21. He has, with the aid of designers Katie-Jean Wall (costumes), Wendy Frost (set) and Bradley Fay (lighting) managed to create a mystical world for his actors to inhabit. I don’t know who created the makeup design for the three women playing the Stones (Big, Little and Loud, but not Rolling) but the look of half moon, new moon and full moon is terrific metaphoric design and works remarkably well for the naysayers of Hades.
Nancy Rothman is Big Stone, Pooja Karina Thomas is New Moon and Helena Zay is Loud Stone. Almost always in concert these three move about the stage creating spaces and, like a good Greek Chrous, commenting on the action when they’re not making demands that no one obeys. The women are uniformly wonderful here.
Paul Boothroyd, odd accent in his mouth, plays A Nasty Interesting Man in the first movement of this symphony for actors and is vaguely threatening while intensely quizzical. The second and third movements he portrays the bigger, or in this case littler, character of Lord of the Underworld. Never has such a manic male existed before. Boothroyd does obsessive behavior very well as he keeps proving during the evening’s entertainment.
Rachel Storey plays Eurydice as a somewhat disaffected girl who cannot work up much enthusiasm for anything or anybody. This works up to a point, but once she agrees to marry Orpheus she should show some slight interest in him and Ms. Storey does not. This turns his eventual quest for her, and her interest in finding him as well, somewhat into question. That’s not good for the story.
Chris Smith as her husband Orpheus starts out badly but turns into a fine actor along the way. By his final scenes as a mortal husband in search of a missing wife he was wonderfully touching and sweetly involved. It seemed almost like an opera singer who refuses to warm up before the performance but does it on stage with her first few numbers.
The surprise performance comes from Ron Komora as the father. A favorite actor from the former New York State Theatre Institute in Troy, he never suffers a missed note, a skipped beat or any of the other things complained about in the dialogue of this play. His sincerity and his honesty emotionally save the play from any and all of its potential pitfalls. He portrays an entity bent on helping his daughter somehow. He finally gets the opportunity and it may well be what tips the scales in this version of the story. Certainly if any actor can be said to be the winner in this derby, it is Komora whose performance could make a playwright change the play’s title, tipping those scales in favor of Her Father.
Jonathan Talbott’s music is well played by a trio including Beth Craig (cello), Miriam Shapiro (violin) and Cindy Ogulnick (viola). You’ll hear them play the oddest realization of "Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree" you’ve ever heard as well as some lovely original melodies which get credited to Orpheus.
On a cool summer evening, under the tent and near the stars that can be glimpsed from this gracious hilltop spot, this is a fine evening. Just ninety minutes long without an intermission, and with PS21 blankets near at hand for snuggling into, summer fare has never felt so timely or right. If "Eurydice" was ten percent better, and if the author could just find the ending sooner, this would be an enchanted evening. As it stands, it is only worthwhile.
Ron Komora, Nancy Rothman, Pooja Karina Thomas, Helena Zay and Storey; photo: Daniel Region
Eurydice arrives in the Underworld; photo: Daniel Region
Eurydice plays at PS21, located on Route 66 north of Chatham, NY in the Walking the Dog Theatre production through July 31. For tickets call the PS21 box office only at 518-610-0909.