Courtesy of Cornell Performing and Media Arts

Michael Southworth as Orpheus and Priscilla Olympio as Eurydice

November 11, 2016

The Schwartz Center Plays with Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice

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Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, opening at the Schwartz Center this Friday and showing until November 19, reinvents the ancient Greek myth.  In the original story, first introduced by Virgil, Orpheus strives to bring his wife, Eurydice, an Oak nymph and daughter of Apollo, back from the dead with his beautiful music after Aristaeus, a minor Greek God, pursues and kills her.  The version showing in College town modernizes the myth.  It points to the holes in the original story and colors each character with a 21st century care for individuality and self empowerment.  Primarily, what if Eurydice doesn’t want to come back?

The actors in the Schwartz production embody Sarah Ruhl’s vision.  They understand the complicated story line that ties their characters together, but they also give credit to Ruhl’s carefully crafted character identities.  In their off stage lives, the actors range in majors from Hotel Administration to Communications to Biological Sciences to Chemical Engineering.  When writing the play, Ruhl reflected on her own emotional dramas: the love and loss in her non-theatre life.  The Cornell students in this production do the same.  They augment Ruhl’s modernized Eurydice with their own perspectives, not just on the play but in their lives.

The Cornell production further extends the writer’s focus on self-identity by providing characters with, in some cases, several metaphorical allusions.  This creative addition spreads through to costume and stage design.  Viewers may realize how the costume designer, Sarah Bernstein, styles the Lord of the Underworld as a young Michael Kane and one of the Stones as Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  The three Stones act as strict law enforcement officers in the Underworld, calling for sameness, quiet, and monotony.  The Breakfast at Tiffany’s allusion points directly to the issue of structure and freedom in the Stones’ role. The reference hones in on the pervasiveness of conformist pressures — not just in death. Meanwhile, lighting and special effects throughout the show highlight the story’s most compelling parts.  Each design effort adds interest and intricacy to the ancient Eurydice myth.  Pop culture costume allusions make the work visually pertinent while David Feldshuh’s directing allows each actor to independently interpret his/her role.  Eurydice works like a multi-geared machine that stuns with its simultaneous complexity and grace.

Each actor plays a dynamic role, changing throughout the action.  The play begins with a simple conversation between Eurydice and Orpheus.  The audience imagines the props and scenery with limited visual supplies other than costume — only words and sound.  As the action continues, however, Feldshuh echoes the characters’ deepening introspections and emotional conflicts with elaborate, unforeseen effects.  As best as can be replicated on stage, the production takes on Julie Taymor-like qualities.  Later scenes reminisce the unconventional, intense, thundering creepiness that sprouts in Taymor’s The Tempest.  Feldshuh amplifies character developments with loud, outrageous and memorable theatric moments.

Sarah Ruhl intended her Eurydice to act as a “playground” for designers. The Cornell production proves this true for all members of cast, crew and audience.  Ruhl’s writing allows for multiple different directions, and the production leaves these interpretive doors open.  When watched closely, small details lend themselves to even more ambiguity.  The Lord of the Underworld seems to grow throughout the action or his environment shrinks.  Eurydice falls to her death or she’s murdered.  The Stones embody a dystopian society or a very real cultural compulsion to conform. Ruhl extends the Eurydice myth by shifting focus from the over analyzed Orpheus to the unstudied Eurydice.  This spotlight empowers Eurydice, the character and the actress, to guide an audience’s judgment.

The audience watches as Feldshuh tames certain elements of plot and highlights others.  Like swinging along multi-leveled bars on Ruhl’s playground, he comments on the story’s main issues with his direction.  The play, and especially Feldshuh’s production, recalls to mind Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse.  Barthes writes, “The Lover who doesn’t forget sometimes dies of excess.”  Eurydice presents this idea as a question between characters and toward the audience.  Orpheus teaches Eurydice a song made just for her, yet she worries he may forget the tune.  Corpses in the Underworld escape death until they wash themselves in the River — water that scrubs away memory.  The story builds a tension between remembering and forgetting, living and dying.  Memory follows and fails each character throughout the action.  Feldshuh and Bernstein play with excess and constraint to portray Eurydice’s story.  They overload some characters and scenes with metaphors, sound, and volume and understate other pivotal moments.  The resulting production leaves audiences turning over each choice and balancing rationality with emotion.

Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]