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Thursday, 11 April 2013 22:28

'Til death do us part

Written by Bob Wilcox
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With her plays "The Clean House", "Dead Man's Cell Phone", and "In the Next Room", Sarah Ruhl has become one of my favorite playwrights. She combines a quirky sense of humor with a serious examination of life in a way that appeals to me. And she writes good theatre.

I have now seen her "Eurydice" twice. It's disappointed me both times. For me, it doesn't live up to her other work.

Not that "Eurydice" isn't often funny and thoughtful and original. It is.

Take the title. Ruhl is telling the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, how she died on their wedding day and he went to Hades and, using the power of his music, persuaded the ruler of the Underworld to let him take her back to life – with a condition. Which proved to be insurmountable.

In the myth as usually told, Orpheus is the central character, the active character. As her title suggests, Ruhl shifts the focus to Eurydice. That certainly opens up interesting possibilities.

Ruhl begins with the death of Eurydice's father. It's a traumatic event for her. When she marries Orpheus, she says that weddings are for fathers and daughters – a curious attitude on one's wedding day, especially when it follows the joyful courtship of two people obviously very much in love. And when she gets to the Underworld, she immediately reunites with her father – they have both somehow managed to avoid a complete immersion in the River of Forgetting.

Eurydice's death differs in the play, too. In the myth, she's bitten by a poisonous snake on her wedding day. In Ruhl's play, the snake in the grass is “A Nasty Interesting Man” who seduces her to his apartment in a high rise, from which she falls to her death.

And as she and Orpheus are on the long ascent from Hades, does she deliberately startle him so he will turn and look at her and she will not return to earth with him but can go back to her father?

The play does inspire all kinds of thoughts about the state of a young woman's mind when she marries – about the man she is leaving, her father; about the attractions of other men; about the need to find some way of preserving her own identity when two become one in marriage.

But somehow, the play leaves me with too many loose ends to be entirely satisfying.

Ann Kreitman directed the recent production at the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts. It was her final senior directing project, and she turned her imagination loose on the project, sometimes very fruitfully, sometimes leaving me wondering. She used dance moves to enhance the charming scene of the young lovers picnicking, and to show Eurydice's fall to her death and her slide back to Hades. Orpheus was said to move stones with his singing, so Ruhl has included three Stones in her cast. As the Stones, Sarah Harmon, August Stamper, and Michelle Wallace were still learning clear human speech as they served as guards and attendants to the Lord of the Underworld. Michael Fariss was a scary, irresistible seducer as the Nasty Interesting Man. He turns into a giggling, childish Lord of the Underworld, also scary. Joey Otradovec showed the love and concern, if not quite the requisite maturity, for Eurydice's father. Mason Conrad's Orpheus could have fit into any pop boy group but without the commercial hype and with, eventually, considerable depth of feeling. Hillary Brainerd gave Eurydice an attractive girlish quality that opened to the strange and painful events of her life and afterlife.

Following the director's lead, scenic designer Rai Feltmann also exercised her imagination with some fascinating junk sculptures in Hell, a motif Abby Dorning followed in some costumes. Marcy Barbeau's lighting illuminated the script's movements through worlds and emotions, as did Patrick Burks' sound design. David Sita-Gray designed wigs and makeup and Lauren Motil coached dialects, though I haven't figured out why there were dialects.

The production, especially in the later parts, seemed slow, taking too long to get anywhere. I'm not sure how much was the fault of the production and how much of the script. The script is challenging, and fascinating, as Ruhl struggles to shape the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to her ends. The Webster production was equally challenging and fascinating.

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