|Megan Trout & Kenny Toll|
Several dozen metal water buckets stacked to form a wall facing us a dozen feet tall. More buckets lined up on the floor and others hanging in the air on the opposite side, all connected to ropes and pulleys. Curved, brackish-green, metallic walls with a metal-fenced walkway running along halfway up the ceiling and two wall-flushed metal doors that clearly look nautical in nature. And finally, one lone lead-like pipe with a waterspout that might be found in a garden. Sean Riley’s surreal, somewhat submarine-like setting we see as we enter the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players clearly says one thing: This production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is going places where previous versions of this 2000+-year-old saga have never been before.
While there are many versions of this mythic tale (Virgil’s and Ovid’s among them), the basic outline of the story is similar to all and to this modern adaptation of Ms. Ruhl. On the wedding day of the golden-voiced Orpheus to his beloved Eurydice, she tragically dies (by different means in different versions) and is swept away to the Underworld where she meets (at least in our play) her dear Father who has preceded her in death. Totally distraught, Orpheus uses his songwriting and vocal sweetness to persuade the netherworld’s powers-to-be to bring his betrothed back to earth’s light and life. He is granted that wish but with the condition that he leads Eurydice out of Hades without ever looking back at her. Like Lot in the Bible, he cannot help but turn his head as he crosses the infernal gates whereupon his love is immediately swept back to the watery abyss, leaving him once again miserably alone. Unlike previous tellings, Ms. Ruhl gives us the tale from the viewpoint of Eurydice, allowing her to describe firsthand to us her joys of life’s love and marriage and her confusion, loneliness, and longing of sudden loss and dying.
Erika Chong Shuch’s directorial creativity must have been on steroids as she and her collaborators dreamed this fantastical theatrical rendering of the much-told story. Told through dance, songs of both original and known origins, acrobatic antics, and Ms. Ruhl’s dialogue that is straightforward and likewise full of metaphors, this Eurydice is magical from beginning to end. Supported by Christine Crook’s costumes so out of this world that worded descriptions serve little purpose to give them their full merit, by hauntingly beautiful original music (Nils Frykdahl) and additional arrangements of familiar standards from rock to gospel (Beth Wilmurt), and by lighting (Allen Willner) and sound designs (Matt Stines) that work to produce a world far apart from our own, Ms. Shuch pulls surprises and creates eye-popping images that result in 100 minutes passing by in too quick of a flash.
The opening dance between the shirtless Orpheus and his scantily clad Eurydice is one of the most beautifully seductive, sensual, and sexy couple of minutes I have seen on a stage, leaving them and all of us in the audience in a sweetly, sweaty flush. Kenny Toll has both the idyllic looks and the honeyed voice easily to persuade us of the superhuman charm of his Orpheus. He also brings a daringness that often led to audience gasps as he in Spiderman-fashion weaved in lightening speed his way up and down and around the two-leveled setting. As his bride and the doomed Eurydice, Megan Trout shows an astounding range of emotional and physical states while so convincingly and authentically telling her story of love gained and lost, heartfelt reunion with her father, relearning what it means to be human in a world deprived of memories and emotional connections, and transitioning to a state eventually where death is the welcomed next stop in her underworld sojourn. Through graceful and daring movements, masterful command of vocal and facial expression, and a presence that is always demanding its own limelight, Ms. Trout gives us a Eurydice wonderfully unique and meaningful.
And the rest of this well-cast group never disappoints as well. The much-esteemed James Carpenter once again comes upon a Bay Area stage to bring a seasoned, sterling performance as Eurydice’s Father. His measured, often underplayed rendering among all his other unearthly surroundings and beings allow his paternal counsel and love to shine forth. As the sleazy, part rock-star, part aged hippie “Nasty Interesting Man” who first entices Eurydice away from her wedding party to his apartment (and eventually down the watered slide to hell), Nils Frykdahl brings a powerful voice and persona to this weird creation of our writer and director. He only becomes more wonderfully bizarre when he later enters on a kid’s trike in red cape and tight shorts, Mickey Mouse ears, and wildly striped knee socks as the rather spoiled King of the Underworld. Watching all this and overall monitoring the nether atmosphere are Big, Little, and Loud Stone (Jeannine Anderson, Peter Griggs, and Beth Wilmurt), a Greek chorus adorned in various water-related regalia (water wings, hanging snorkel) and necessary kneepads (for all that kneeling that every stone must of course do). Their commentary is full of caution and advice of how to let go of what was in life and to succumb to the silence of death, but they also revel a bit in hoping Eurydice can succeed in her quest to reunite with Orpheus. Each is delightful, but it is Jeannine Anderson who just about steals the entire show with a powerful, soul-touching “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” as she watches the misery and sense of loss that Eurydice experiences when first arriving in her new home.
The delicate, tipping balance between life and death, sure reality and faded memory, and remorse and redemption is so beautifully illustrated in script and in Shotgun’s use of watered buckets that rise and fall with just one more or one less drip. Water in fact becomes both the sustenance and reviver of life as well as the waves that pronounce once and forever an ending of that life. Ms. Ruhl uses multiple metaphors throughout her play to remind us of the delicate balance we walk each day, always a step away from the final plunge. The characters who are in Death’s hands now clearly value, much like in Wilder’s Act Three of Our Town, the seemingly mundane parts of life and seem to be warning us all to relish and appreciate our daily habits and relationships before they startlingly pass from us. As she aids each of her key personas to come to peace with their new state of no life, she also gives us avenues to see Death still as sad but also as the inevitably right next step in our tentative journeys as humans. To her and to the Shotgun Players cast and production team, we can only say a heartfelt thanks for a must-see evening of first-class theatre.
Rating: 5 E’s
Eurydice continues its extended run through October 4, 2015 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/Online/eurydice or by calling 510-841-6500.
Photo by Pak Han