The beauty of myth is its infinite adaptability — borne out afresh by “Orpheus X,” Rinde Eckert’s eerily lovely adaptation of the Greek tale of Orpheus and Euridice as the modern-day love story of a rock musician and the dead woman he makes his muse. This haunting multimedia piece combines elements of music, poetry, visual art and theatrical performance into a ravishing spectacle that gives contemporary meaning to the classical myth’s eternal themes of loss and grief. Under Robert Woodruff’s inspired helming, three singers narrate the story via the sung-through score, with visual assists from Denise Marika’s stunning video projections.
As designed by David Zinn and Marika, the entire stage is a work of art. Animated images of a naked woman are projected onto vertical screens and horizontal beams like some avant-garde film. A collection of memorial artifacts has the look of a gallery art installation. Chalk writings on transparent sheets of glass function as a silent poetry reading. And the stylized movements of the three singer-narrators constitute their own kind of performance art.
The disquieting story that emerges from Eckert’s elegiac lyrics (set to the eerie music emanating from those singing spheres in his brain) speaks to our modern age of angst.
Played by the introspective Eckert, at his most intense, Orpheus is an aging but potent rock star whose creative juices dried up when a woman died in his arms after being hit by the taxicab in which he was riding. The haunted musician makes the dead woman his muse, creating a shrine of the pitiful effects she left behind.
“Useless artifacts,” Orpheus is told. “Keys that no longer open locks/Reading glasses that make nothing clear/Pens that have nothing to write.”
The woman, the poet Euridice (given soaring voice by Suzan Hanson), has gone to the land of the dead, where she will soon lose her poetic voice and become purged of all her memories. As she awaits her fate, she is allowed to continue writing her poetry — but only in chalk, so her words will not last.
“When you die,” goes her pitiful plaint, “They take your pens/They give you chalk/They say we shouldn’t talk or write/When you die.”
Unwilling to give up his muse, Orpheus descends to the Underworld, where he makes an impassioned attempt to convince Persephone, the Queen of the Dead, to release Euridice. As played by the ethereal John Kelly (a downtown legend for his memorable Joni Mitchell impersonation), Persephone is a frighteningly soothing presence, a seductive spokesperson for the calming peace of death.
“Forgetting is important here,” she sings in Kelly’s otherworldly falsetto. “You too will be forgetting soon. We will bathe you in a river and only your name will be familiar to you.”
Eckert’s musical style reflects all the conflicting emotions of an introspective artist’s meditation on the death of art. As played by a tight and technically proficient onstage band, the eclectic songs run the gamut from operatic arias and atonal dirges to muscular rock anthems, mirroring the artist’s feverish state of mind as he ponders a world gone mad.
“The ignorant see the wrath of god,” Eckert declares of a civilization without art. “The soldiers see women as prizes. The rich see the poor as sacrificial animals. The leaders have no art, no poetry.”
The piece plays like a dream — but it’s really a nightmare.