Originally produced last year at Madison Repertory Theater, before Susan Smith Blackburn winner “The Clean House” made Sarah Ruhl this season’s hot “new” playwright, “Eurydice” is a playful, pleasing if perilously slight meditation on the Greek myth of love beyond death. A production less resourceful than Les Waters’ might underline why this wasn’t Ruhl’s breakthrough work, but as staged at Berkeley Rep, all intended piquancy and humor come through. Surreal yet familiar, it’s a charming dream whose 85 compact minutes don’t — maybe don’t need to — leave a deeper, lasting impression.
Squirrelly, antic tenor is set from the moment lights go up on Eurydice (Maria Dizzia) and Orpheus (Daniel Talbott) — a conspicuously youthful couple whose body language screams “puppy love.” Their spoken lingo is very freshman-dorm, too, as gushing assurances of mutual devotion are sandwiched between his unconscious bragging (mostly about the music in his head) and her more quizzical statements.
Like many brash young men of any era, Orpheus is mostly infatuated with his own infatuation, a bit blind to his beloved’s own reality. He doesn’t notice how he “corrects” and directs his girlfriend’s actions, even her thoughts. And like many a young woman, she accepts being steered because … well, if he says he knows best, he must know, right? ‘Tis the job of a muse not to think, just to be. Prettily.
Next stop, wedding bells, an occasion marred only by the physical absence of her recently deceased father (Charles Shaw Robinson). In the afterlife, however, he’s a well-wishing attendee: There are lovely, wordless sequences of his walking an invisible bride down the aisle, then leading a phantom partner as the newlyweds jitterbug to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.”
Restive at her reception, Eurydice steps outside for a drink of water, where she’s accosted by an odd stranger (Mark Zeisler) who proffers an invite to a more “interesting” party, usinga letter from the sorely missed ghost dad to persuade her. Wary but curious, Eurydice goes to the man’s high-rise penthouse, where things get weird. (His creepy seduction line: “You need to get yourself a real man … a man with big stupid hands like potatoes.”)
Fleeing, Eurydice tumbles fatally straight down into the Underworld, which, natch, this insinuating stranger turns out to be Lord Of. She arrives already well-washed by the River of Forgetfulness, mistaking her own father for a hotel porter. He checks her into a “room,” then sets about reawaking her grasp of the life just left behind. This does not go down well with either Lord of U. (now regressed to bratty toddler-type behavior) or his rule-enforcers, a hilarious “Chorus of Stones” (T. Edward Webster, Ramiz Monsef, Aimee Guillot) who prissily censor every reversion to mortal emotions, language and habits. Meanwhile, Orpheus descends to reclaim his stolen bride from the grave.
Their doomed ascent is staged with touching simplicity in a show otherwise much dependent on the ingeniousness of Scott Bradley’s set (an aquamarine, tiled Roman bath, complete with frequent waterflow), Russell Champa’s intricate lighting, and the myriad music cues in Bray Poor’s sound design.
Without such exquisite packaging, the material — clever, impudent, self-conscious — might come off a wee bit too precious.
Ruhl is onto something intriguing in shifting focus not just from Orpheus to Eurydice, but from their stand-alone love to her Oedipal-complex reluctance in exchanging “daddy’s little girl” role for the scarier one of grownup spouse. But “Eurydice” just dances around its themes, seldom engaging them in serious or resonant fashion. Like a bubble, it’s shiny and buoyant. Then it just pops.
Dizzia is a completely winning protagonist, well-matched by Robinson’s gentle papa. Talbott seems to be following authorial intent in making Orpheus a rather callow lover, while Zeisler strains a bit in the Lord’s various wacky incarnations. While apt, use of Arvo Part pieces as widower O.’s sad new compositions reminds that the Estonian composer’s 1981 “Tabula Rasa” album is perhaps the disc most over-exploited by theater/dance-makers in the last two decades.