April 4 – 7, 2012
Sarah Ruhl is a playwright I’ve been following for some time now. The New York Times has called her a theatrically adventurous and gifted young playwright and the New Yorker has praised her work as bold and imaginative. Her plays are some of the most produced of any contemporary playwright in the United States and at 38; she is already a MacArthur “genius” grant winner as well as a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many of Ruhl’s recent plays in Toronto and New York, but when I heard that her 2003 play Eurydice was being performed in Calgary as part of the University of Calgary’s Taking Flight: Festival of Student Work, I jumped at the chance to experience her earlier creation.
Putting a contemporary and quirky spin on the Greek myth of Orpheus, the play tells the famous story from the point of view of Orpheus’s wife Eurydice. In the classic myth, which has spawned several operas, a Balanchine ballet and at least two movies, Orpheus, the great musician, mourns his beloved bride (she died on their wedding day after being bitten by a snake) so much that he travels to the underworld to retrieve her. Through his beautiful music, he convinces the Gods of Hades to let him have her back, but loses her again when he disobeys the Gods’ orders not to look at her until they both reach the land of the living.
In Ruhl’s hands, the snake is replaced by a creepy, otherworldly Nasty Man who lures Eurydice from her wedding with a letter from her dead father who she misses terribly. It is during her escape from this stranger’s presence that Eurydice dies and then finds herself in the underworld, unable to remember anything of Orpheus or even who she is. Greeted by three bossy and cranky stones, Big, Little and Loud, Eurydice is told that she is dead and must now do as the stones do, namely not cry, care about relationships, or try to remember anything from when she was alive.
Ruhl then adds a completely unique and personal element to the story. Eurydice’s father greets her in Hades and helps her remember their father-daughter relationship. Together they reminisce, make up for lost time and become closer than when they were both alive. Apparently Ruhl wrote this play for her father who died while she was at University and it feels as though the story is a cross between a love letter to their relationship and a form of therapy for her grief.
Back above ground Orpheus is dealing with grief of his own and begins formulating ways to contact Eurydice, find her and bring her back. Thus Eurydice plays out as a 90 minute, one act, short-scened, dual narrative that follows the action both on earth and in the underworld.
In a sense this dual narrative was sweetly mirrored by the audience at the show. On the one hand the full house was there to see a polished staged production with trained actors. But looking around the theater at all the parents laden with flowers for their performer children, you were instantly reminded that this was a student production with all the nerves and tender talents that come with it.
While every family has the right to be substantially proud of their actor child, no one has more reason than the family of the inspiringly talented Sarina Sorensen as the title role of Eurydice. Asked to show a breadth of emotion from giddy to suspicious to confused to inconsolable, Sorensen evoked it all with great credibility and richness of character. Much of the joy of watching this production was the pleasure of watching her work and I look forward to seeing where her career goes once her schooling is done.
Strongly representing the eccentric elements of this play were the Stones played by Courtney Charnock, Riah Fielding-Walters and Brett Tromburg. Whether speaking in unison or in quick fire consecutive barbs, the trio delivered powerfully strange performances that were as much about what they said as how they moved when they said it. The scene where Eurydice’s father recounts directions to the underworld river punctuated by the Stone’s physical enactment was beautiful, mesmerizing, melancholy and reason enough to see the play. Kudos to Movement Coach Melissa Thomas for giving the performers compelling physicality to complement their dialogue and bravo to the actors for being brave enough to give in to the gestures.
Less successful in the choreography was the strange treatment of the Nasty Man. Moving like a cross between a rubber band blowing in the wind and what I can only guess was an interpretation of the snake in the original myth, Connor Pritchard unfortunately lost much of his impact due to awkward staging that distracted from both the plot and the dialogue. Later in the play Pritchard gets another chance to show his idiosyncratic side as the huffy, over the top Lord of the Underworld. While he certainly can do sensational with great aplomb, I would have liked to seen a more nuanced treatment of the character with a little less hamming it up for effect.
Rounding out the performances with decent efforts from Reese Jones as the Father and Jonathan Molinski as Orpheus, extremely effective theatre in the round staging by director Alyssa Bradac and some clever set design elements from Geneal St. Clair, the production was successful on many levels. I may not have seen this Sarah Ruhl play on a professional stage, but I can happily file my experience of Eurydice away with the rest my Ruhl repertoire and not feel like I missed out on anything.
For the guys – it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s creepy and it’s about loss. You’ll relate to Orpheus’ pain at losing the woman he loves and the lengths he’ll go to get her back. SEE IT
For the girls – How do you choose between the love for your father or your husband? And what are you willing to lose in the process? You will instantly warm to Eurydice and wrestle along with her struggle. SEE IT
For the occasional audience – I think the talking Stones may be too much for you. I’ll leave it at that. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – It’s a beautifully written play that is at once clever and incredibly sad. Go for the writing and be glad you’ll be able to say you saw Sarina Sorenson before she hits it big. SEE IT