The gods must be smiling. Multihyphenate Rinde Eckert and helmer Robert Woodruff have taken an ancient Greek myth and reinvented it for the modern age of disenchantment and disillusionment. They have reshaped the story of Orpheus — musician and mourner extraordinaire — into a stunning music-theater production ART is world preeming. Powerfully acted and gorgeously sung by a trio of striking performers who include Eckert, the work should find an extended life on daring stages.
In this version Orpheus (Eckert) is a rock star, an idol who amazes all not with a legendary lyre but with an electric guitar. Unlike the hero of the source material, he’s mourning not the death of his wife but that of a total stranger — a poet named Eurydice (Suzan Hanson) — who dies in his arms after being struck by a cab in which Orpheus was riding.
This fluke of fate shatters his splendid life. Suddenly burdened by this strange loss, he becomes obsessed with Eurydice’s memory. Unable to comprehend or cope, he shuts himself off from a life that once gave him glory, riches and a semblance of meaning.
Meanwhile, in Hades, Eurydice is easing into acceptance of her new world. While the poet still clings to her words — desperately writing on any surface she can — she eventually realizes that, like these scrawlings in chalk (“organized dust”), her memory, too, will fade away, freeing her to hear her words again as if for the first time.
Determined to bring back this maybe muse, Orpheus goes to Hades. (His manager does the advance work.) Once there, Orpheus, through a heartfelt song that reaches into the depths of his soul, persuades Persephone, Queen of the Dead (the other-worldly John Kelly, who doubles as the manager), to release Eurydice to the world of the still-living.
In the original legend, Eurydice is released with the condition that Orpheus not look at her until they reach the sunlight. (Of course, he does and things end tragically.) In this version, Eurydice is not a passive female figure, the supporting star in someone else’s constellation. “Did you think I would welcome a rescue?” she asks. “Did you think you were saving me from something?”
It’s the poet’s arc and existential understanding we follow, and Hanson delivers a perf of bewitching transformation. In this version, Eurydice forces Orpheus to gaze at her, knowingly consigning herself to an afterlife where there is only a permanent winter. Orpheus is left gasping in the dust of memory.
Eckert and Woodruff, who previously collaborated on another revised epic tale, the post-Vietnam odyssey “Highway Ulysses,” create in “Orpheus X” a production of haunting beauty, harsh realities and fascinating rhythms. Video artist Denise Marika and designer David Zinn fill a raw and elemental stage landscape with steel I-beams, coffin-like closets (where the dead cast off their earthly possessions) and images of streaming blood, honey and water.
For all its passion, it’s a meditative piece that is both artful and accessible. It also can be playful. In Hades, where time is not of the essence, a cool but calming Persephone tells Eurydice that poets do better in the afterlife than novelists, screenwriters and “all the narrative junkies who feel perpetually unsatisfied.” Persephone also has a wonderful scene where the gatekeeper of Hades asks the poet for the tiniest details describing the process of how she writes.
As the rock god, Eckert is an extraordinary if unlikely presence. Bald and doughy, he’s more Ozzy Osbourne than Elvis, but when he sings, it’s a revelation. Backed by a solid four-piece band as adept at playing power chords as fusion jazz, Eckert’s climactic grand lament starts as a sappy power ballad but builds into a rock aria until it climaxes as grand opera: a cacophonous moment permanently etched in theatrical memory.