Tuesday, October 03, 2006

by Sarah Ruhl
Yale Repertory Theatre

A little over two thirds of the way through Les Waters' beautiful staging of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at the Yale Repertory Theatre something surprisingly refreshing happens. It is not something that you will read in detail about in many of the reviews, but I will point it out here because it is something seemingly small, but matters to me a great deal.

Let me go back a number of years ago. I was attending a tech/dress rehearsal of Andrei Serban’s The Taming of the Shrew at the American Repertory Theatre. This period of rehearsals is an incredibly stressful time in which sound, light and costumes are all fighting for attention. At one point of the show, Mr. Serban had staged a character to enter with great panache and flourish to the Austin Powers theme music.

The first time the entrance was made Mr. Serban stopped everything and requested to do it again and to have the music be louder. So, they made the entrance again. Once again Serban stopped everything and had it done over. Finally, he yelled up to the tech booth, obviously agitated. He said something to the effect of this: “Louder, Louder, what is the problem? You have to FEEL the Music not just lightly hear it!!!”

Finally, the sound was raised to an appropriate level for next time, and I noticed the difference, I noticed how the scene came alive more, how much more response there was. It is a slight pet peeve of mine, especially in smaller, independent theatre shows when the volume is played at a tinny and low level.

The central image of the Orpheus myth is music. So, I was incredibly pleased when Orpheus makes his sad song at the Gates of the Underworld during Eurydice, and the volume keeps increasing and increasing until, as Mr. Serban said, we feel the music. I personally thank the sound designer, Bray Poor, for this.

It is a credit to the creative team, most of all playwright Sarah Ruhl, that we feel the importance of the moment intimately. Feeling that something is at stake for actual people is the essential task when wrestling with a legend like this. After all, we are dealing with a myth that is known to most of the world in some form or another.

In this production what we feel is the tender and aching pangs of loss. In this play loss manifests itself in such banal ways as realizing a lover’s annoying habits, or in such monumental ways as choosing to forget and thereby losing memories.

The inventiveness of Ms. Ruhl’s rethinking of this tale goes beyond her choosing to focus on Eurydice and her experiences in the underworld while awaiting Orpheus. The play also expands its meditation on loss to include another central character, Eurydice’s father, played with great compassion by Charles Shaw Robinson.

On an incredible set made of slightly decaying, but still beautiful, blue and white tiles, (and with the help of the aforementioned sound design,) Ruhl’s dialogue and themes charge into the space with a freshness and playfulness that invigorates.

While sitting at the beach, Orpheus makes a charming marriage proposal by trying to teach the musically challenged Eurydice a tune, but she is much more likely to read a book than to listen to a symphony and so he ties a string to her finger to help her remember. She notices that the string is tied to a “specific finger,” and she eagerly says yes to the implied proposal. But, after an embrace, she sheepishly asks, “Maybe, we could also get a real ring?” Ruhl knows people, and knows how to turn a scene.

This charming prelude is followed by her deceased father, now a resident of the Underworld, writing a letter in the form of a wedding toast . With a magnificent touch by the set and light designers, the weight of this simple scene is magnified with the subtlest change in our focus as we breathlessly discover something that was sitting right in front of our eyes.
The inventiveness keeps coming as we watch the wedding night unfold in both the real world and in the imagination of Eurydice’s father through playfully choreographed dances to the old standard, "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree." And the introduction of the Lord of the Underworld brings tension to balance the overly, (to my personal taste,) sweet feel of the nuptials. Mark Zeisler, as a cross between a lounge lizard and The Continental, (a Christopher Walken character on Saturday Night Live,) cuts a weirdly comedic, but seductively powerful Satanic figure, and he is helped along by Ruhl’s bold choice of overly theatrical dialogue.

Eurydice’s entrance into the Underworld is a steady progression of theatrical magic and stagecraft, (echoing many things from The Phantom of the Opera to Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses,) and I am hesitant to give away the pleasures, though most of them will probably be outlined in every review available for the play.

The visual feast this of this arrival and the brilliant soundscapes of the later journey of the doomed lovers out of Hades bookend what for me, (in what I am guessing will be a dissenting opinion,) a relatively mushy center. Ruhl becomes so sure of her clever conceit, but then chooses to revel in the more lyrical and melodramatic aspects of it for far too long. I am stealing this line (from Carl Rossi, a critic here in Boston,) but it seems that Ruhl has created, in Eurydice's father, just the sort of parent that all of us would like to preserve from death forever.

The running time of the play is approximately 90 minutes and the first 20 – 25 and the last 20 or so minutes are full of the inventiveness that has been heralded of Ruhl’s work, but the center 40 minutes are the textbook example of “second act problems.” We are held in the reminiscence of trees with swings and lovely pastoral images of home life as Father and Daughter reconnect. This is rich territory, but as we watch father and daughter in their little cubbyhole of the afterlife, we realize that what we have to learn from this, we get within five minutes. And to make things more awkward, we are treated to painfully quick scenes of Orpheus mourning or plotting on the other side as he races on and off the stage.

There is a brief shot of energy about midway through this period when the Lord of the Underworld (Zeisler againg) appears, played as a spoiled young child, complete with tricycle. But the brief, intermissionless, running time allows no development , and the overall feeling I had during all of these scenes was of marking time.

Ruhl has figured out an impressive way into the myth, and there is much too see and experience in this production, but a mind that thinks in such a wonderful collage of references should either explore themes to a greater extent, or have the discipline to cut them.

The actors contribute with wonderful performances. Maria Dizzia is a delightful Eurydice and Joseph Parks is a winning Orpheus. And the tightly bunched trio of Gian Murray Giano, Carla Harting and Ramiz Monsef avail themselves expertly in the slightly underwritten roles as a chorus of rocks.

A thanks is due to Paula Vogel for guiding and supporting this talent to the stage in a time when could lose people like Ms. Ruhl to Hollywood faster than you can say Charlie Kauffman.

I look forward to a future of theatregoing with Ruhl's work on the stage, and I am going to try as hard as I can to see the Clean House at Trinity Rep.

(Photo credits: All Photos, Joan Marcus, copyright 2006)

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