OREM — As long as people have been dying, the question has been asked: what becomes of the dead? Countless tales have been spun in every tongue to try and make less frightening this most veiled and inevitable eventuality we each face.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice holds a distinct position in the annals of theatrics: it is credited as being the original tragic play. However, when I left the Noorda Theater at UVU Thursday night after viewing Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of this timeless narrative, entitled simply Eurydice, I felt far from tragic; I was utterly uplifted.
The use of the space and it’s unique design was inspired. You enter the small, black theater to what appeared to me a scene from a half remembered dream. The lighting, designed by Jaron Hermansen, is ethereal yet passionate. A steady trickle of fog seeps from a spout at the head of the trash-dammed stream of actual water that wends its way downstage. Scenic designer Casey Marshall Price has created something very unique here. A raised platform, raked at one end with a hill leading to an elevated space; which is surrounded by a heap of discarded suitcases and trunks of all shapes and sizes. From the grid overhead hang bicycles, tree branches, instruments and other seemingly disjointed trinkets. Everything you can see is encased in stark white, which gives the appearance of dust settling over a valley following a volcanic eruption.
The show begins abruptly and without warning when three figures, cloaked in white, wander unwittingly onto and around the stage. We later learn that these three represent narrators, or stones. In keeping with the subject matter’s ancient Greek foundation these stones, artfully portrayed by Amber Cummings, Emily Griffiths and Jessamyn Svensson, take on the role of the Greek chorus. Their responsibility is to be a warning voice and to narrate the actions of others, but not to interfere with those actions. I was very impressed with the character development of these three young ladies. They were very in tune with one another and one could sense the time spent practicing to ensure perfect unison. Throughout the show they were ever-present and brought a level of depth and intrigue that would have been sorely missed.
Suddenly bursting onto the stage are Orpheus, played by Kyle Oram and Eurydice played by Aubrey Bench. They are quite obviously courting and they’re playful banter is very easy to enjoy. There were one or two blocking choices in this opening scene that I felt pulled away from the closeness I would expect in a couple who are on the verge of engagement; particularly a moment where the couple lay down a few feet apart and perpendicular to one another. However, that aside they overcome and draw us into believing their mutual adoration. There is a comfortable chemistry between this pair.
Oram’s portrayal of Orpheus, particularly in these first scenes, is steady and well thought out. His character is very heady and in himself, which Oram manages to accomplish without seeming aloof. I came to like Orpheus very much during the first scenes. However, I must admit that as the piece added layers and this character is supposed to unravel and fall into a desperate state, I found that Oram struggled to keep emotional pace. I wanted, and I feel the writing called for, raw incomprehension at certain events. I feel that he came up just short in those cases. This is not to say that he was distracting, but I didn’t see him heighten the stakes either.
While she started out a bit cardboard in my opinion, Bench as Eurydice quickly captures a youthful, nearly manic distraction that I felt played very well to the believability of this character. As the piece progresses, the audience becomes quite vested in her wellbeing. She adeptly experiences a full range of consciousness. Eurydice is called upon to revert to an extremely unknowing and confused state. Bench shined in this aspect. She was singularly committed and I bought every “mistake.” I did take issue with one scene very late in the show in which Eurydice writes a letter to another woman. I felt that Bench’s emotions at this point were quite forced and seemed rushed. She seemed to come to her pain too quickly. That said; there is a stunning, beautiful moment of realization when she finally sees a character for who he is that could not have been more realistically portrayed. I get chills even now, remembering it.
Next we are introduced to a complex and captivating character, known simply as father. Christopher Clark owns the stage with such dexterity that you may as well receive college credit for watching him. At times philosophical, ecstatic, obsessed, depressed, at peace; each more believably woven than the last, Clark is not to be missed in this role. Shortly after our introduction to father, we learn two vital bits of information: first, that he is Eurydice’s father and second, that he’s dead. Although he’s passed on, he has relearned much of his mortal existence. He daily and dedicatedly attempts contact with Eurydice, because he so desperately misses her.
We are witness to Father’s voyeurism of his daughter’s wedding. There is a moving vignette in which Father imagines himself walking his daughter down the isle to begin her new life. This tender scene was made even more poignant as these events replay themselves near the end of the piece, with much more at stake.
Finally, during a break from the wedding party, a Nasty, Interesting Man enters. This is Eric Phillips who will be our antagonist for the evening. Phillips has the distinct pleasure of playing three characters during this show; or, more to the point, playing one character, three ways. At the outset he appears as a very confident, self-assured ladies man with impeccable dance moves. Later we see him as a selfish, spoiled child; complete with tricycle and speech impediment. It is in this form that we come to learn that he is the Lord of the Underworld. There was something so gratifying and yet terrifying to the imagery of a child running the Underworld. Indecisive, easily bored, prone to tantrums and causing suffering for no reason other than to do; it was such a stark, brave and brilliant scripting decision. Lastly we see him as the fully-grown demon, in human form. It was in this manifestation where I noted a flaw: I would have loved to see a more smarmy, persuasive salesman persona. This character just seemed a bit underdeveloped, where the other two had been so solid.
The staging and incorporation of the full space was truly a thing of beauty. Ropes were let down from the rafters to denote a room, sheaves of paper billowed down throughout the theater, fully clothed characters immersed themselves in a river. This was one of the more visually arresting presentations I’ve ever seen.
Having seen, and thoroughly enjoyed this production, I wouldn’t say I understand the afterlife any better; but there was one bit of wisdom shared by Orpheus which I plan to retain. That is that there is power in DOING. “Animals don’t practice,” he says. “A gazelle doesn’t run for practice. She does so because if she doesn’t she’ll be eaten. Birds don’t sing for practice. They do so out of love, or a desire to be loved.” (This quote may not be exact; I’m paraphrasing it as best as I can.) This is a lesson easily learned, but difficult, at times, to employ.
This is a brilliantly adapted story, masterfully directed and staged by Lisa Hall Hagen (and crew), and captivatingly portrayed by a very talented cast. See this show. Solid A-.