With a MacArthur “genius” grant in her pocket and a Lincoln Center debut weeks away with her popular regional hit “The Clean House,” a revival of Sarah Ruhl’s earlier “Eurydice” at Yale Rep shows the playwright as a fresh, imaginative and exciting voice in the theater. But this personal and surreal elegy on love, death and the acceptance of both is not a fully satisfying experience despite heartfelt perfs, individual scenes of exquisite beauty and some stunning production feats.
Reconceiving the classic myth of Eurydice and Orpheus from a distaff point of view, Ruhl presents a smart, literate heroine who’s all quirky charm, playfulness and resolve. Play opens with a scene of fanciful infatuation with the pair of young lovers on a beach, ending in a promise and a proposal. Ruhl’s leading characters captivate the audience at hello, which helps later as both go to hell and (almost) back.
It’s clear that Eurydice (Maria Dizzia) is the driver in the relationship with musician-lover Orpheus (Joseph Parks). She’s also the intellectually curious one of the pair who dares to explore. That probing trait manifests itself tragically when she takes a break from her own wedding party with a mysterious stranger who lures her to his penthouse with a letter from her dead father. The stranger is Lord of the Underworld (Mark Zeisler) but as played here with overripe lechery, the stylized portrayal makes one question Eurydice’s choice as well as her character. It’s one of several disconnects, along with some thematic vagaries and take-offs on the legend than don’t always land, making the play at once slight and profound.
But the mythic pull is nonetheless powerful. After Eurydice’s fateful death she is washed in the River of Forgetfulness. (Represented here by a hand-pump, it brings to mind a reverse of “The Miracle Worker”‘s climax — here erasure, not enlightenment, is found.) As Eurydice acclimates herself to her new weird world, she discovers her language disappearing along with her past. An encounter with a trio of Stones (played with vaudevillian playfulness by Carla Harting, Ramiz Monsef and Gian-Murray Gianino) suggest disengagement is the prescribed m.o. in hell.
When Eurydice meets her father (played with elegant paternalism by Charles Shaw Robinson), she fails to recognize him at first, mistaking him for a hotel porter. But soon bits of memory return and eventually they find their own private corner of hell, together clinging to scraps of their pasts.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Orpheus’ mourning is overwhelming and his music becomes symphonies of sadness that make even the Stones weep. His grief is so deep he manages to transport himself into the Underworld where he’s granted permission — with a stipulation — to retrieve his wife and muse. But Eurydice’s fate is not, as classically depicted, in his hands but rather her own.
In the end, timing is everything and the merging of words and music is doomed. Inevitably, the deep sleep of the dead becomes not just an escape when the past gets too painful a place to dwell alone but a natural and cleansing goodbye to one’s self.
Ruhl’s play has evolved some in the productions from Madison Repertory Theater in 2003 to Berkeley Rep in 2004 (with Les Waters helming) to Yale Rep.
Cast members Dizzia, Robinson, Zeisler and Monsef and the design team also reunite here to seasoned effect. Terrific production values range from Bray Poor’s super-woofer sounds of hell to Meg Neville’s playful wedding frock to Scott Bradley’s turquoise, tiled bathhouse set, magically lit by Russell H. Champa. Audience gasps come from the tech effect when an elevator door opens revealing a rain storm on its inhabitants followed by a wave of water, swooping like a tsunami across the raked stage.
Along Eurydice’s journey as imagined by Ruhl and realized by Waters are moments of aching beauty: Eurydice penning a goodbye letter to Orpheus, including instructions to his future wife on how to love and care for him; a scene with the diseased father imagining himself giving away his daughter at her wedding; Eurydice’s father creating a room in the Underworld’s void out string in order for his daughter to feel safe in her strange surroundings.
In these moments, one gets the rush of witnessing, if not quite a genius, at least an emerging artist of poetry and purpose.