Dream world travelers
With 'Eurydice,' New Rep offers a shimmering meditation on life and death, memory and loss
WATERTOWN - I feel as if I need a new language to talk about Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice." Both in New Haven two years ago and at the New Repertory Theatre this week, Ruhl's reimagining of the Orpheus myth evokes so many emotions and thoughts at once that I find myself groping for words that don't sound like hollow cliches next to its complexity and depth.
Grief. Joy. Energy. Terror. Laughter. Tears. Comprehension. Mystery. Yes, yes, Ruhl's story about Orpheus and his failed attempt to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from Hades has all that. But there's also something . . . something . . . well, there isn't a word for how it feels to feel all of these things at once. Not in the language of the living, at least.
For Ruhl's characters - some of them immediately, all of them eventually - are dead, and so they speak the language of the dead. "A very quiet language," as one of them explains, and the sly amusement of that line gives a shivery intimation of the humor/sorrow that suffuses Ruhl's writing in this play. "Like if the pores in your face opened up and talked": The image makes no sense, and yet it precisely conveys how Ruhl imagines the dead speaking. We don't know what she means; we know exactly what she means.
In short, "Eurydice" is poetry, poetry made play. It inhabits some dream world that is neither foreign nor familiar, a world that looks just like the one around us and a world that none of us has ever seen. It is a metaphor of memory and loss realized with such elegant simplicity, such unexpected but utterly right images, that it moves beyond metaphor and becomes real - even as it retains the shimmering aura of impossibility that reminds us it could be real only in a dream.
Like dreams, Ruhl's plays can seem at once banal and strange on paper; they become truly vivid only when a director, a design team, and a cast of actors enter into the dream and create their own vision of it onstage. In "Eurydice," for example, the title character (Orpheus's wife, who dies on their wedding day) arrives in the underworld via elevator - and, inside the elevator, it's raining. In the script this can just seem a little odd; onstage it's thrillingly strange.
Of course such a play calls for intense commitment and vivid imagination on the part of any company that produces it. New Rep rises magnificently to the challenge.
Janie E. Howland's set at first looks a little plain - just some blue-green walls with a papier-mache-like surface, a few plastic orbs suspended from metal rods, a water pump, and a trough - but it morphs amazingly, with help from Deb Sullivan's brilliant lighting design, into everything from a beach to a high-rise apartment to the gates of hell. Frances Nelson McSherry contributes costumes with a wonderful retro-classical vibe: A fatally long veil for Eurydice on her wedding day, complementing a vibrant and flouncy red dress, gives way to a neat pillbox hat when she steps off that otherworldly elevator. Silly, lovely, and right - and, thanks to our collective memory of Dallas, with just a soupcon of tragic young death.
Director Rick Lombardo finds many such nuances in the play and draws them out with understated grace, beautifully augmented by his subtle musical compositions for strings, electric guitar, and dripping faucet. His casting is just right, too. Ruhl's "chorus of stones" - three characters who, for whatever reason, are stones who instruct Eurydice in the rules of the underworld - here appear as three bratty tween girls, full of sass and sarcasm.
He's also built a marvelous ensemble for the lead roles: Zillah Glory, heartbreakingly pert and bewildered as Eurydice; Brian Bielawski, who shows the musician Orpheus dumbfounded and lost whenever he tries to express himself in words instead of song; and Ken Baltin, wry and humane as the father who, dead before Eurydice, greets her at the Styx and helps her find her way in this strange new world. Brian Quint, too, finds a new assurance and sneering creepiness as "Interesting Man/Lord of the Underworld."
All of them - along with those marvelous stones, Whitney Sandford, Abby Spare, and Rebecca Stevens - bring deep understanding to the play without ever weighing it down with excessive underscoring. Lombardo keeps them beautifully balanced between humor and grief. In every scene, they find and share the meaning in each of Ruhl's words - and, even more important, the meaning, the mystery, and the magic that live in the spaces between.
Louise Kennedy cam be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.