Friday, May 10, 2013


E282-1024x819.jpgJules Wilcox as Eurydice, with her recumbent Father (Geoff Elliott) and the menacing Lord of the Underworld (Ryan Vincent Anderson); three Stones in background
Pasadena, May 10, 2013—
SAW A PLAY down here last night that needed reseeing in my mind's eye this morning: Sara Ruhl's 2003 romantic comedy Eurydice. We're here for the spring season of a company we've followed for a number of years, A Noise Within: one of the things we like about them is their propensity for thoughtful repertory. (Tomorrow we see The Grapes of Wrath; next day, The Beaux' Stratagem.)

Sarah Ruhl is perhaps better known just now for a more recent play, Dead Man's Cell Phone, which we saw a few years ago up in Ashland. Like it, Eurydice is an entertaining and very contemporary play on verbal language, mindless American leisure, and Life and Death. I suppose her antecedents include the American novelist Robert Nathan, whose bittersweet fantasies were once bestsellers and produced hit movies — think Portrait of Jennie — but is now so neglected none of his thirty-eight novels now rate an individual Wikipedia entry. (I particularly loved One More Spring, which I try to re-read every ten or twelve years.)

I wouldn't be surprised if Eurydice is similarly forgotten in twelve or fifteen years: and that is not to its discredit. Theater must be of the moment. There are of course, and thank both Melpomene and Thalia for them, plays that manage to hold the stage for centuries, even millennia. A Noise Within offers them, usually two or three a year. It seems reasonable, though, given the limits of human activity, that for every one of those plays there must be hundreds and thousands that have shorter runs.

And there's no reason that among them there shouldn't be some whose short shelf life is due to their specific address to their specific audience, in its specific social context. One of my objections to Eurydice, during the ninety minutes I was actually watching its single long act, was that it trivialized the Orpheus myth. Myths owe their power to their ability to speak to the most basic concerns of their audiences, what you might call root level desire, fear, and comprehension. The higher you go (to use suspect spatial analogy) in the intellectual reception of the audience, conscious or subconscious, the more particular the appeal, the more delimited to a specific construct of social or psychological issues.

Eurydice opens with the two characters on a beach, apparently in the United States, apparently in the late 20th century. Orpheus is a glib, rather bland young man whose head is full of tunes. Eurydice, equally adolescent, prefers the books she reads. They prance and preen and prattle good-naturedly about their differences, and they seem not really all that passionate about one another.

They engage to marry, though — one's not sure why — but during the ceremony, or just short of it, she runs off to the apartment of a sinister fellow who has picked up a letter written to Eurydice by her dead father, who has some advice for her. After stealing the letter she rushes out of the apartment, falls down a flight of six hundred stairs (not "steps": Ruhl's language is occasionally oddly imprecise), and dies.

From there the play returns more or less to the standard myth, saving the presence in Hades of Eurydice's never named Father, who coaches her in verbal communication following Lethe's erasure of her intellect.

The cast is rounded out by a Greek chorus of three Stones, who comment on the action from time to time, more to remind us that Ruhl's play grows out of antiquity than to enlarge the effectiveness of her theater.

Looking back on the play this morning, a few hours after seeing it, I see its resonance — in terms of physical production, at least, but through that also in terms of suggestion — with such plays as Il Re cervo (King Stag), which Noise Within did ten years ago. If Ruhl's play looks back, consciously or not, to Robert Nathan, it also recalls, at least to me, the plays of Wallace Stevens: Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, for example.

Geoff Elliott's direction of the play was consistent, a little subdued, sympathetic, and intelligent. (The same can be said of his portrayal of the role of Her Father.) He didn't flinch from the playwright's idea of anchoring, miring perhaps, the play in the specifics of bland American adolescence, and that speaks for the esthetically ethical respect he has for the script. In the other main roles, Jules Willcox found some wonder and depth in the title role; Ryan Vincent Anderson was often imposing as A Nasty Interesting Man and Hades. Graham Sibley was, I thought, weaker as Orpheus, but then in Ruhl's play this isn't a very rewarding role.

As the chorus, Abigail Marks, Jessie Losch, and Kelly Ehlert were perhaps a bit too indulged as Big, Little, and (especially) Loud Stone, sitting stolidly on the ledges of the back wall of the set, blue, comically ominous and eternal, enigmatic. These stones can't help but bring the dead in the closing pages of Our Town to mind. I like them, the more I think of them.

The physical production was effective and memorable, especially Meghan Gray's lighting design and Jeanine Ringer's scenic design. Indeed it was those components, abetted by Endre Balogh's offstage violin improvisations (if indeed they were improvised), that force me to rethink my immediate reaction to the evening, and to find considerable merit in the play. I'd see it again, especially in this production, if I lived down here: the production closes May 19.

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