Daily Archives: February 19, 2016

Orpheus Isn’t Calling the Tunes in Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” Told for Once from a Feminist Perspective

By Perry Tannenbaum

February 17, 2016, Charlotte, NC – The story of Orpheus and Eurydice didn’t start off as a particularly misogynistic myth. When Vergil told their story, he said it was the queen of the Underworld, Persephone, who decreed the conditions under which Eurydice was to be returned to life: that she follow behind Orpheus on the trek back to the living and that Orpheus not look back on his wife until they reached the light. After all of his musical exploits; charming the guardians, inhabitants, and rulers of the Underworld; it’s Orpheus who causes Eurydice’s second death by looking back – without the slightest provocation from her. Ovid’s subsequent retelling is even more benign, for he never states whether it was Pluto or Persephone who imposed the conditions that Orpheus violated.

In the annals of opera, the story has a hallowed place, sparking the first masterworks by Monteverdi (1607) and Gluck (1762). It’s only in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice where we might find some truly cringe-worthy traces of misogyny. Not knowing the conditions of her salvation, Euridice insists upon the two things Orpheus cannot do – look back or explain – with excruciating persistence until he gives in. But after that catastrophe, Orpheus grieves so eloquently that Eurydice is revived for a second time by the God of Love and all ends happily. So why did playwright Sarah Ruhl decide to drastically revise the myth in Eurydice, her 2003 play now at the Cunningham Theatre Center on the Davidson College campus? If the impulse is feminist, it’s likely because Ruhl wished to tell the story from Eurydice’s perspective for once.

Nor is Ruhl’s tone angry, for there is plenty of whimsy in her updates and alterations. Orpheus now plays a violin instead of plucking a lyre, and Eurydice calls more of the tunes. Taking a couple of breaks from her wedding celebration, she encounters a Nasty Interesting Man who lures her with the promise of something important – a letter sent to her from the Underworld by her dead father. Rather than dying from a snakebite as she flees a lecherous pursuer, the mod Eurydice dies in the act of recovering what belongs to her, an intrepid action rather than a fainthearted one. This Davidson College Theatre Department effort, student directed by Matthew Schlerf, remains timely without any militant edges.

Scenic designer Chris Timmons brilliantly utilizes the Barber Theatre stage, dividing the action into three distinctive levels. Floor level will be the Underworld, but we begin on a broad platform high above that, where Orpheus proposes and the nuptials are celebrated. Further above, a permanent upstage stairway to the studio’s catwalk arches over the Nasty Man’s lair, offering the highest point possible for Eurydice’s fatal plunge. Death is a downer, to be sure, but Eurydice certainly isn’t chastened or humbled by her fall. Impervious to the indignity of the shower that greets her at the gateway – she has come prepared with a handy umbrella – Eurydice expects to be shown to her living quarters even though a chorus of stones has told her that there aren’t any. Not to worry, Eurydice’s father dutifully shows up to pick up her empty suitcase, guide her to her room, and begin teaching her all that she forgot in the River Lethe. I can’t say how Dad is supposed to build Eurydice’s room in Ruhl’s script, but here he weaves his magic with a rainbow-colored ball of twine threaded through eyelets on the floor and the stage-left wall, forming a gleaming cat’s cradle.

By introducing Eurydice’s father into the mythic mix, Ruhl gives her heroine a reason to linger down below and feel some ambivalence about obediently following in Orpheus’s wake. On the other hand, Dad’s pre-nup letter to his daughter becomes a precedent after her untimely death, for Orpheus dispatches a letter to his vanished beloved, relying on the worms for delivery – and Eurydice has no less confidence that what worked for her dad will work for her. The eternal comfort of this system of family correspondence is spoiled by just one thing: the Lord of the Underworld, who reeks of the Nasty Man’s unsavoriness (they’re played by the same actor), wants to make Eurydice his bride. One more reason to go with Orpheus when he finally comes knocking.

Schlerf casts judiciously, using players who are mostly sophomores but not younger. As the lovebirds, senior Cy Ferguson as Orpheus and sophomore Savannah Deal in the title role pair up magnificently. He’s good-hearted, undoubtedly vulnerable, and the perfect antithesis of his nasty rivals. Deal is up to the spoiled, imperious figure she cuts entering the Underworld, but we never catch her trying to come across any older than she is. This is a natural Eurydice, not a flawless one. That approach may not be as ideal for Collin Epstein as Father or Ryan Rotella as the nasties above and below ground. Costumes by Carolyn Bryan help Epstein as Dad and Rotella as the Godfather-like Nasty put on a few years perhaps. But both speak as naturally as Deal does, a welcome change if you’ve ever been irritated by young actors straining to look older with the aid of makeup, hair coloring, or false beards. Once we adjourn to the Underworld, Rotella is purposely portrayed as childish when he appears as Lord of this domain, wearing a dopey beanie and pedaling a trike. And if this isn’t a punitive, hellfire Underworld, why can’t Dad be any age he likes while spending eternity there? Ruhl mischievously makes up her own rules as she spins her old yarn, twisting it enough to make it new and genially provocative. There’s even a beguiling touch of mystery when we reach the ending.

© 2016 CVNC

Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

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After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.

Albee’s Fantastic Day at the Beach

Theatre Review: Seascape

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Citizens of the Universe hasn’t announced the full details of its farewell season, but it has begun handsomely at “The Shell,” COTU founder James Cartee’s name for the suite on 2424 N. Davidson St. that CAST occupied in its latter days. The theater spaces where CAST often staged two productions at the same time have both been obliterated, stripped down to the original floors and walls, but the residue proves unexpectedly appropriate as a vast, bleak setting for Edward Albee’s Seascape, directed by S. Wilson Lee.

For awhile, the drama seems to revolve around Nancy and Charlie, a mid-life couple who bicker somewhat lethargically – compared with the titanic battles Albee staged between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – about what they should do now and in the future. The weak grip this opening had on my attention was further weakened by Kylene T. Edson as Nancy, indistinctly audible when projecting her gripes over across the beach to her husband diagonally downstage. Lee would be advised to either energize Edson during these opening moments or bring her downstage more often.

Luckily, these difficulties evaporate when two ginormous lizards crawl ashore, frightening the humans as they scope them out. Since the sea is upstage, fright not only raises Edson’s energy level, it also drives her naturally toward us where she can be easily heard. Wariness is well-advised, but the lizards, Leslie and Sarah, aren’t foraging for food so much as they are reconnoitering the possibilities of life on land.

Amazingly, Leslie and Sarah speak English, if only the rudimentary kind you would expect from high school freshmen matriculating in Lancaster or Cabarrus County. There’s a lot for Nancy and Charlie to catch the reptiles up on, including the origin of the universe, the primordial soup, evolution, mammals, and the whole concept of emotions, beginning and ending with love. Shuttling between the urge to educate and the impulse to flee in terror, Nancy and Charlie might identify more with teachers in urban school districts.

The spark for this intriguing production comes largely from the extraordinary work Lee elicits from Emmanuel Barbe as Leslie, abetted by the phosphorescent glow of Kenya Davis’s makeup design. I’ve often struggled to penetrate through Barbee’s French accent when he battled against the Bard’s blank verse in Shakespeare Carolina productions. But here he is admirably slowed down by Lee – and often formidably booming. The physicality of him can be menacing enough as he advances toward you, but you really don’t want to broach the possibility that his species might lose their mighty tails during the next billion or so years of evolution. He’s attached to that tail.

By comparison, Brianna Merkel is a cute counterpart for Barbe as Sarah, as adorably clueless when she doesn’t understand concepts – matrimony, pregnancy, the list goes on – as Leslie is frustrated and antagonistic. We see a certain bond forming between Sarah and Nancy, peacemakers trying to calm their mates’ warrior instincts, and it’s here that Edson’s performance begins to blossom.

Brian Amidai is more consistently reliable as Charlie, very adept at the inertia of a husband who doesn’t wish to travel or repeat past adventures. He’s on a beach and just wants to relax, dammit, maybe get lost in a book. But Amidai’s transition between this beach potato and an instinctual protector rings viscerally true, and there’s a faint layer of comedy in the moments when he thinks he’s gone insane or died. Obliquely, I found him cuing my own reactions as this wild, mysterious fantasy unfolded.