When the ancient Greeks wrote their tragedies, there was no mystery in the paths that the stories would take. Their tales of heroes and gods were as familiar to them as our stories of the Founding Fathers and the Nativity are to us. The great art of those plays was in their poetry, and in the way a writer might alter the viewer's perspective of certain events.
Such is the case with Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, now onstage at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company. Based on a great, tragic romance from Greek mythology, the story is at once familiar and utterly new. And while the production is uneven and frequently flawed, it may be one of the most inventive and magical productions in Tucson this season.
The beautiful Eurydice, played by Kristina Sloan, and the legendary musician Orpheus (Lucas Gonzales) love each other greatly, but on their wedding day, fate intervenes: Eurydice dies unexpectedly. Grief-stricken, Orpheus travels to the underworld to reclaim her, singing his sorrow so compellingly that even the stones weep.
However, in this 2003 version, Ruhl (an acclaimed young playwright who also wrote The Clean House) focuses not on Orpheus' journey, but on Eurydice herself. In the underworld, Eurydice meets her dead father (Bill Epstein), who lovingly re-teaches her all that was washed from her memory as she passed through the River Styx. When Orpheus comes to claim her, Eurydice is unsure whether she is willing to lose her relationship with her father.
Conflict is generally the motor that drives a story—think of Orpheus defying death itself to regain his love—but Ruhl's adaptation is largely conflict-free. Occasionally, a character has a challenge to confront or a decision to make, but events mostly pass in an air of stillness.
What Ruhl offers instead of drama is poetry. Scenes drift by like stanzas; events transpire in visual metaphors; and characters behave in a sort of dream logic.
The poetic elements are the strongest part of the show, and offer up unforgettable images: Eurydice emerging from a rain-filled elevator; her father building a fragile shelter from string; Orpheus filling a letter with the music of an unheard symphony. Against this ethereal texture, the play's Orpheus and Eurydice have a down-to-earth energy that sometimes highlights the poetry, but at other times punctures it.
Sloan imbues Eurydice with a fearless, spunky energy that reinforces the character's pragmatic nature. Her performance is childlike: She's full of wonder, but she prances rather than floats, and reveals little indication of an active inner life. Sloan is a delight to watch, but when Eurydice makes her final, fateful decision, she seems no more deeply motivated than when she sings or plays hopscotch.
As Orpheus, Gonzales seems youthful as well—his boyish enthusiasm is mixed with adolescent self-centeredness, and in his early interactions with Eurydice, he seems more condescending than smitten. His reputation as a musician is preserved through composer Chris Black's sublime incidental music, but Gonzales isn't able to summon much emotional depth on his own.
Epstein offers a more mature performance as Eurydice's father. He has the advantage of playing the most straightforward character in the show: He wants to connect with his daughter, and he pursues that goal throughout. At one point in the show, his character realizes that Eurydice has forgotten the word "father," yet knows what a tree is, so Epstein spreads out his arms to offer shade. In that moment, a look passes across his face that says this is not how he imagined his reunion with his daughter, but it is precious nonetheless. In this scene and others, his outer actions expose his inner feelings.
Director Lydia Borowicz has her hands full juggling the many free-wheeling details of this dreamlike play, and the results fly and fall short in fairly equal measure.
She coaxes some wonderful performances from her ensemble. Dressed in Kristen Wheeler's subtly detailed costumes, Allison Rose, David Swisher and Joi Marie Johnson win plenty of laughs as a chorus of sardonic stones.
Nicholas Gallardo turns in off-the-wall performances as the Lord of the Underworld and "A Nasty Interesting Man," yet he comes across as a symbol without an antecedent. Is he pursuing Eurydice's love or her death? Is he a representation of her own desires? He changes over the play, but why, and to what end?
Jared Strickland's set (enhanced by Jessica Creager's atmospheric lighting and Alex Greengaard's otherworldly sound design) creates a wonderfully original image of the afterlife. The stage is crammed with tunnels, doorways and platforms, apparently built from scrap lumber and freight pallets. This Hades is part playground, part prison, part warehouse. Somehow, though, the set and the play don't enhance each other. Movement around the space feels largely uninventive, and the transitions between scenes, in spite of their brevity, consistently break the flow of the play.
The most exciting use of the set (and, not coincidentally, the most unexpected) comes in the two moments when panels light up to reveal some beautifully executed shadow puppets. These moments are surprising, authentic and truly theatrical.
In spite of its shortcomings, this production is an earnest, engaging representation of a truly unusual play. Its flaws are primarily sins of omission, and there is much to love. Even under the best conditions, this script would be full of unanswered questions—there are, after all, no easy answers when it comes to death.
Just like readers of poetry, the audience members for this play must draw their own conclusions and create their own meanings. Eurydice offers a series of dreamlike, moving tableaux that allow us to discover new meaning in an ancient, familiar tale.