Like Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice share a long, long storytelling history. Young lovers passionately commit to each other only for their union to end badly – for different reasons.
Last winter, Fort Lewis College staged Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in a modern setting and indulged in gender-bending casting and psychedelic partying. Theater major Maya Mouret played Juliet and Sienna Widen portrayed Romeo. Director Felicia Meyer and choreographer Suzy DiSanto brought a contemporary vibe to the tragedy with plenty of music and dancing to both offset and enhance the dark mood.
Something similar is happening this fall with the opening of a modern take on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus. Gifted son of Apollo and Calliope, a god and a muse, Orpheus charmed everyone with his music, the gods, humans, animals and all of nature. He beguiled Eurydice and she agreed to marry him. But his half-brother Aristaeus was seized with lust for Eurydice, and ran away only to be bitten by a venomous snake. She died and was sent to the Underworld. A grieving Orpheus followed and was allowed to bring her back – under one condition: He could lead her out, but he could not look back. Of course, he couldn’t resist the temptation, looked back, and she died a second irrefutable time.
Countless tellers have reinterpreted that evergreen story, from “Orfeo,” a very early, 1607, opera by Monteverdi, which was updated and staged last summer in Santa Fe, to the 1959 film titled “Black Orpheus,” with its memorable bossa nova theme “Manha de Carnaval,” and the recent Broadway musical “Hadestown.”
In 2004, American playwright Sarah Ruhl upended the Orpheus-centered story with “Eurydice.” Her heroine-centered play emerged out of Ruhl’s MFA program at the University of California. When she was 20, she said in interviews at the time, her fathers death precipitated a retelling of the Orpheus legend.
“Love, loss, grief, and painful growth suffuse this poetic script, and yet it is all masterfully lightened with humor and charm,” wrote Tom W. Kelly for the San Francisco Bay Times in October 2004.
WHAT: “Eurydice,” a drama by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Michael E. McKelvey, Fort Lewis College Department of Performing Arts.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29, 30, Oct. 5-7; 2 p.m. Oct. 1.
WHERE: MainStage Theatre, Fort Lewis College Drama Building, 1000 Rim Drive.
TICKETS: $20 adults, $5 FLC students. Available online at www.durangoconcerts.com.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.fortlewis.edu/theatre or call 247-7657.
In writing the play, Ruhl said she experienced and reexamined her own grief. She set Orpheus aside as a secondary character and put young Eurydice at the center. The play begins with playful lovers planning their wedding. It’s where Eurydice unexpectedly dies and soon travels to the Underworld – in a down-elevator. She unexpectedly reunites with her father and he helps her struggle with memory. That’s a playwright’s imagination at work.
“Ruhl’s insights into the bond between father and daughter give the play its most abiding sense of love and loss,” wrote critic Karen D’Souza at the West Coast opening in 2004.
FLC Director Michael McKelvey has given his new production another twist. He cast local actor Joy Kilpatrick as a mother in the father role. We’ll see how and if that changes any of the playwright’s intentions. Other cast members include Warren Rockett as Orpheus and Travis Carlson as Interesting Man. The Greek chorus employed by Ruhl, called The Stones, consists of Bella O’Bryan, Janelle Carico and De Rocheleau.
“Eurydice” has been staged before in Durango. In 2011, Durango High School mounted the work with Molie Mook-Fiddler directing, Haley Dallas in the lead, Kyle Downs as Orpheus and Joey Panelli as the father. As I wrote at the time (Oct. 4, 2011): “Much is made of water symbolism throughout the play, including a remarkable onstage baptism of forgetting in the River Lethe.”
And as a cautionary note I also wrote: “Like so many contemporary plays, ‘Eurydice’ is structured not in conventional acts but innumerable short scenes. Last Friday, the audience started to applaud after each scene, but it soon became apparent that the brief blackouts were better experienced in silence.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.