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One Step Beyond 

A Greek legend made modern traces a miniature map of the female psyche

Wednesday, Nov 3 2004
Here's the point: When the brief, intense, intermissionless, odd, and in some ways very formal Eurydice ended on the night I attended at the Berkeley Rep, half the audience was crying. Everyone knew how it would turn out; reworking a myth can be like painting by numbers. But playwright Sarah Ruhl found ways to take us by surprise.

Most people remember from grade school that Eurydice was married to Orpheus, the lyre player. She died of a snakebite (after fleeing a rapist), and Orpheus carried his lyre to Hades to play until the tortures of the damned were suspended. Hades himself allowed Orpheus to lead Eurydice back to life, on one condition: Orpheus was not allowed to glance at her until they were out of the underworld. He had to play his lyre and keep moving. Of course, Orpheus did look back, and the story has resonated with western artists for centuries, from Ovid to Cocteau and beyond.

Eurydice, here, is a modern chick in love with a slacker musician. She's unable to follow the flights of his distracted mind -- he can hear 12 lines of melody in his head -- but anxious to hear the song he's composed for her. He's an eager, rough-shaven kid in a Nirvana T-shirt who can score for violins and lots of other instruments. He proposes to her cleverly; she's elated. The first scene is a (sometimes overplayed) thumbnail of happy unshadowed young love.

On their wedding day, she meets a "Nasty Interesting Man" who lures her up to a fancy high-rise with the promise of a letter from her dead father. One thing leads to another, and she steps out the window and floats, like Alice in Wonderland, to her death and a subterranean Hades, where the patient, indulgent, melancholy figure of her kind father waits. At first she doesn't recognize him. She takes him for a hotel porter. Since an elevator has carried her down the last stretch to the underworld, she believes she's in a luxury hotel. To indulge her fantasies, her father takes her suitcase and traces a hotel room in the air, out of string. Eurydice moves in, acting quite spoiled. She orders breakfast and asks the porter to flick a bit of dirt off the letter from her dad.

By now Ruhl has wandered so far from the myth that you wonder how she'll make it back. But adding a father to the story is a stroke of brilliance. The play is called Eurydice, after all, not Orpheus, and every girl has a father in her underworld to complicate relationships with even the most charming and talented boy. "When I imagined Eurydice going into the Underworld, it made sense to me that she would meet her family there," Ruhl explained to American Theater magazine after the show premiered last year in Madison, Wis. It makes no difference that she wrote Eurydice with her own father (who died when she was 20) in mind. Instead of painting a detailed portrait of a specific woman, Ruhl has traced a miniature map of the female psyche.

The underworld in this play has rules, enforced by a Chorus of Stones. For example, "DEAD PEOPLE CAN'T SING." Eurydice and her father sing anyway. The Stones are three pallid cadavers in Edwardian suits who evoke Beckett's riff on stones in Molloy as well as the tradition that Orpheus, when he sang, made the rocks and trees dance (or weep). The Lord of the Underworld is a horrid little pubescent kid who rides around on a giant tricycle, towing a stuffed baboon. He loathes the violins in Orpheus' new composition -- "I like happy music with a nice beat!" -- and sets the rule about glancing back at Eurydice for no real reason at all; the Lord of the Underworld is just a tyrannical brat.

Scott Bradley's excellent set evokes a drained swimming pool. There's a blue-tiled wall, a rust-stained tile floor with iron drains, and an old hand-pump to represent the River Lethe. Bradley has canted the set at an angle that tricks the eye, so that when water pours out of the underworld elevator you think the Berkeley Rep's carpet will get ruined and the people in the front row will have to slosh out in sodden shoes. But the water runs evenly into a drain. The water, and the Greek material, might remind Berkeley Rep fans of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses from a few years ago; references to the swimming pool in that production keep coming up.

In fact, Eurydice has a lot in common with Zimmerman's newer play, The Secret in the Wings, which just ended its run next door at the Rep's Roda Theatre. Ruhl approaches her old stories with the same cold but playful precision. Her main characters are minimalist; their idiosyncrasies belong to the actors, and Maria Dizzia (as Eurydice), Daniel Talbott (as Orpheus), and especially Charles Shaw Robinson (as Eurydice's father) do colorful work. Mark Zeisler also plays the Nasty Interesting Man as well as the Lord of the Underworld -- two overgrown boys -- with gleeful malice. The flaws happen only when an actor overdoes some emotion.

Which is the strangest surprise of Eurydice -- that it can be so controlled, so quirky, yet so affecting. David Mamet tried (and failed) to pull the same trick with Dr. Faustus last February at the Magic: He took an old legend, dressed it up in modern clothes, wrote stylized dialogue from an ironic distance -- and the play flopped. But Eurydice comes beautifully to life.


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