Loss and identity issues surface in modern Greek tragedy Eurydice

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February 26, 2010

1:00 AM

Something strange and exciting has happened to the auditorium in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. Over the past few weeks at the College of William and Mary, the stage as most students know it has completely disappeared. In its place there is a crystalline playground, colorful and bleak, inviting and ominous. This playground is where some powerful forces have come to frolic. Those fortunate enough to be in the auditorium can watch these forces dance to the words of Sarah Ruhl, whose play “Eurydice” opened last night on the barely recognizable Mainstage at the College.

Ruhl’s “Eurydice” is a classic Greek myth turned on its ear several times. The old story is a familiar one: The lovers Orpheus and Eurydice live in bliss until the bride, Eurydice, passes away without warning. For Orpheus, life is unbearable without his true love, and he ventures to the Underworld to bring his wife back. His pleas are successful insofar as he is allowed to lead her back as long as he doesn’t look behind him at his bride.

The story is Greek, so no points for guessing what happens next. He looks, she disappears forever, and Orpheus doesn’t hold onto the mortal coil for very long after. But Ruhl isn’t satisfied with such a pedestrian tale. She shifts perspectives at breakneck speed, embellishes details not mentioned in the source material, adds characters, and makes changes to already established roles. Here, the Underworld is populated by drones who know nothing of their past lives. They go about their day not noticing much, but they are not zombies. The changes strengthen the already poignant fable, which touches on the nature of identity and coping with loss in deeply moving ways.

With such weighty and complex material, having a cast who can tackle the themes of the play while keeping the cleverness and emotional tone of the dialogue intact is of the utmost importance. No worries here: the major players in “Eurydice” are in great form. Abby Cawiezell ’11 plays the title character with an effervescence and grace that impresses. Orpheus, Stephen Dunford ’10, provides a glimpse into a man’s tortured life that has lost its meaning. His desperate attempts to reach his lost love offer stirring contrasts to the family reunion that takes place in the Underworld.

Ruhl added the character of Eurydice’s father (Sean Close ’10) for her version of the story. Close infuses the already sympathetic character with an ever-cracking mask of stoicism that finally breaks apart by story’s end. His metamorphosis is difficult to watch, as his fervent efforts to re-educate his daughter about who she is and her past life are so compelling, one nearly forgets how we know the story must end. And in a dual role, both parts darkly comic, Chad Murla ’10 is daringly sleazy. His turn as a nasty interesting man is simultaneously disgusting and enticing, as he traps Eurydice in his apartment just before her death. Murla as a childlike Lord of the Underworld keeps a hint of menace beneath his lighthearted teasing, and the malice in his eyes make good on their promise when rage bubbles to the surface.

In her script, Ruhl also calls for three Stones, to play the happily dead of the Underworld and to comment on the action around them. Director Elizabeth Wiley and Movement Director Joan Gavaler, in one of many moments of brilliance, elected instead to cast a group of nine stones, to function as a chorus for the main actors. These stones are unlike any monotonous Greek chorus Sophocles could have devised. They move in synchronization, but at times break apart and go their own directions. They speak together, but often have individual lines. Each one of them has applied a character to what is, essentially, a walking corpse. Yet there is a cohesiveness that speaks volumes even when the chorus has no lines at all.

Collectively and individually they steal the show. Were this a open-ended engagement, it would be worthwhile to watch each Stone for a performance to fully appreciate the nuances of their roles.

The work done by the production team in conjuring a vibrant and sinister Underworld is far too effective here to be ignored. Matt Allar’s set sparkles and shines, with a raining elevator providing passage to Hades, and a small pool that functions as the river Lethe, whose waters would make the dead forget their lives once more. The lighting design by Steve Holliday dazzles, creating spectacular scenes. The work of the technical crew creates a beautiful landscape for this story, and a terrific palette upon which the cast can practice their craft.

The cast and crew of “Eurydice” have worked hard to offer up an oft-told story with an artistic flourish by Ruhl that doesn’t disappoint. Although the water in this play appears as a symbol of lost identity and ephemeral memory, the nearly flawless success achieved in adapting the tale to this stage makes one wonder what might be in the water that they’re drinking. Whatever it is, let’s hope there’s some left for the future.

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