The Berkeley Rep really has the lock on haunting retellings this season. First Mary Zimmerman's atmospheric The Secret in the Wings reshaped classic fairytales into something rich and adult; now Sarah Ruhl's beautifully sad Eurydice retells the Orpheus myth from the viewpoint of the mythical musician's doomed young bride. Like Secret, Eurydice is visually and emotionally engaging, pitting whimsy against tragedy and relying on just a few characters to tell a story of loss. But unlike Zimmerman, Ruhl is new on the scene, which is far from obvious from this debut, stunningly staged by Les Waters on a set that makes the best use so far of the Rep's obsession with water effects.
Ruhl is not the first to tackle Orpheus, whose name is similar to the Greek word for "lament." He's popular in Western opera. Tennessee Williams and Neil Gaiman have both told his story, and it influenced Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. But before Ruhl, nobody had given much thought to Eurydice, who was fatally bitten by a venomous snake while running from the lecherous Aristaeus on her wedding day. Maddened, Orpheus descended to the Underworld to try and retrieve her. His songs softened the heart of Persephone, queen of the dead, and he was told he could have Eurydice back. There was a catch, though; Orpheus had to walk out of the Underworld without looking back, trusting that Eurydice was following. When he panicked and looked back, she disappeared forever.
Ruhl wanted to know what was going on with Eurydice, and while her play does show Orpheus growing ever more desperate, she spends a lot of time building a complex heroine who may not be all that anxious to leave the Underworld. And Maria Dizzia delivers as a bright, sparrow-like Eurydice, open both to love and deception, cheerful and occasionally imperious.
The playwright frequently departs from the Greeks, but never to the detriment of her storytelling. In the original, Orpheus petitions both the king of the dead, Hades, and his bride, Persephone. Ruhl dispenses with the integral Persephone and moves Hades -- played to slithery perfection by Mark Zeisler -- to center stage. This sets up a completely different dynamic between Hades and Eurydice; it also raises the possibility that as "Nasty Interesting Man" he has actually come in disguise to the world above to ensnare her. In the world above, Hades is oily; in his own domain, he rides an oversized tricycle dragging a snarling stuffed thing behind him to the sounds of Guns 'N Roses and is essentially a petulant -- but powerful -- child.
But Hades isn't the only man in Eurydice's postdeath life; she also reunites with her long-dead father. The relationship between the two is tender and funny; he shields her from the charmingly Muppety Chorus of Stones and teaches her words. But more vivid than their moments together are the ones before the wedding, when we see Father miming the motions of walking Eurydice up the aisle and waltzing with her at the reception. Charles Shaw Robinson's wistful dancing provoked sniffling from the audience.
Daniel Talbott's Orpheus does his share of tear-jerking too. Standing bereft after Eurydice's death, he howls "I will find you, Eurydice!" The goofy slacker of the opening scene soon dissolves to reveal a man so raw it's clear he'll do whatever it takes to get his wife back. Unfortunately for Orpheus, down in the Underworld Eurydice's dose of the River Lethe has made her forget about him, leading to another interesting perspective shift, in the moment where Eurydice and Orpheus are separated a second time.
According to the Greeks, Orpheus doubted, and turned around to see if Eurydice was really behind him. Ruhl recasts the moment as one of decision on Eurydice's part, and suggests that she is making a deliberate choice to return to her father.
Other than a final misstep, Ruhl's Eurydice is a keeper; assured, powerful, heart-wrenching. The combination of language, sound, emotion -- even the water, sheeting, showering, and dripping down Scott Bradley's Turkish-bath-like set -- brings an ancient story to brilliant new life.
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