Against a blue-green expanse of tiled stage and backdrop, a young couple, swimming goggles pushed back, dallies at the beach. He’s always thinking about—or hearing—music. She’s talking about the books she’s read, and can’t get the rhythm right when he asks her, “Will you remember my melody underwater?”
She asks when he’ll play her the whole song; when he gets his orchestra, he says: “I’m going to make every strand of your hair an instrument. Your hair will be my orchestra.” He slips a string around her finger. “That’s a very particular finger,” she says, knowing he’s omitted the proposal, “Maybe you could get me another ring.”
They go down to sport in the water. Mannerisms, language, fashion are all young and contemporary. This is Orpheus—and Eurydice.
Sarah Ruhl’s retelling of perhaps the most retold tale of classical mythology is onstage at Berkeley Rep. The play recounts the tale of Orpheus the poet, whose singing moves trees and stones, as he follows his dead wife to the underworld and frees her, only to lose her again by looking back at her before regaining the light of day.
The program notes run through a litany of the better-known retellings: Ovid (and there’s David Slavitt’s translation of Book X of The Metamorphoses excerpted, also mentionin g Arthur Golding’s Tudorian version that Shakespeare read), Rilke (and not just the Sonnets to Orpheus)—and in theater, Anouilh, Cocteau’s play (and two films), Tennessee Williams, the movie (and wonderful sambas) of Black Orpheus, operas and orchestral m usic by Monteverdi, Gluck, Haydn, Berlioz, Offenbach, Stravinski, Kurt Weill, and countless paintings.
(Funny, with all the footnotes, there’s barely a hint of Virgil’s IV Georgic, the most fantastic—almost stagy—literary version. Ruhl—who meditated on the famous backward glance—says there are “a few mentions in Virgil.” Poet George Stanley’s version: “Forgetful he,/turns to his Eurydice,/and she sees him and the Day./Crash! crash! crash! the words/break. The words of Hell break./‘Who has doomed me, and you, Orpheus?/Who hates so much?’”)
Does Eurydice answer questions such as, “Who hates so much?” Ruhl expressed her desire to go into the lovers’ relationship (a theme of Cocteau’s versions—how do you live day-to-day with an artist?), Eurydice’s point of view, her relationship with her father (dead, he writes her letters that paper the tile wall—and are used as bait to snare the unwary young woman), the denizens of the underworld (vaguely symbolic of the living), the role of poetry, of music.
(Some of Ruhl’s on-the-side research is intriguing, especially her re-reading of Alice in Wonderland—a little girl lost underground, in a dream—which, only touched on in her play, could’ve proven to be a key to open a new perspective.)
Peopled with strange appar itions in both upper and underworlds—a somewhat bumbling stalker who finds Eurydice “interesting” (when she’s being ignored by Orpheus, oblivious to all but his music), a puerile King of the Underworld on his tricycle, a waxen-faced chorus of “stones” (pa rtly inspired by Beckett, “his understanding of silence, stillness and vaudeville all at once”), Eurydice’s dead father (who she doesn’t recognize, taking him to be a porter in Hell)—there should be ample ground for characterization to flesh out a fable o f Eurydice’s situation in life and death.
And the cast—Maria Dizzia, Daniell Talbott, Charles Shaw Robinson, Mark Zeisler, T. Edward Webster, Ramiz Monsef and Aimee Guillot—all put out a lot to bring it alive. But the text is stretched too thin, its poet ry becomes cloying.
Director Les Waters has done his job, too: the most impressive moment comes when, beneath crystal chandeliers, Eurydice arrives in the Underworld; elevator doors open and rain pours down on her standing inside with suitcase and transp arent umbrella, the water eddying out onto the tile stage.
(It’s apparently a chronic problem with the bigger repertory theaters. Although much care and budget went into Scott Bradley’s beautifully elaborate set, well-lit by Russell H. Champa, the text i s still in need of development. It’s true of work billed as “avant-garde” too—the very high production values of Black Rider, the recent hit touring show at ACT dressed up a text that barely sampled William Burroughs’ verbal brilliance, much less explori ng the story.)
The Orpheus myth that Eurydice promises to illuminate has been remounted, revised—rehashed—many times, quite a few with genius. Ruhl’s play touches on some interesting sidelights, but doesn’t take them very far. And as for its heroine’s po int of view, the couple’s relationship put into contemporary terms, other versions of the past (notably Cocteau’s film, with its social overtones of the Occupation) have dealt better with these themes (and others she leaves mostly untouched, already found in Ovid and Virgil: a kind of triangle between the artist, love and society).
Few have seemed as immediate as Robert Browning’s poem “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which focuses on that moment of the glance: “Hold me but safe again within the bond/Of one immor tal look! Oh woe that was, /Forgotten, and all terror that may be,/Defied,—no past is mine, no future: look at me!”