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.