August 12, 2015

Princeton Summer Theater Wraps Up 2015 Season with “Eurydice,” Sarah Ruhl’s Lyrical, Contemporary Spin on the Poignant Greek Myth

DON’T LOOK BACK!: Orpheus (Brad Wilson) defies Hades’ warning not to look back, as his bride Eurydice (Caroline Hertz) follows him out of the Underworld, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (2003), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 16.

DON’T LOOK BACK!: Orpheus (Brad Wilson) defies Hades’ warning not to look back, as his bride Eurydice (Caroline Hertz) follows him out of the Underworld, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (2003), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 16.

In Eurydice (2003), currently playing at Princeton Summer Theater, Sarah Ruhl takes an original slant on this familiar myth of the brilliant musician Orpheus, his bride Eurydice, who dies on their wedding day, and his journey to the Underworld to try to bring her back to life. Ms. Ruhl’s version presents quirky, contemporary characters, relates the story from Eurydice’s perspective and brings the relationship between Eurydice and her father, who does not appear in the original myth, to center stage.

The allure of this story throughout the ages is remarkable. It has inspired operas (including the earliest opera in the repertory, Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo), numerous plays, movies, ballets, novels, works of visual art, and even video games.

The artistic possibilities with a musician as protagonist and the recovery of a deceased loved one from the world of the dead provide endlessly rich, thought-provoking dramatic material. One of the most fascinating, troubling moments in all of western literature is that moment (repeated three times from different viewpoints in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses staged by PST earlier in the summer) when Orpheus, having successfully persuaded Hades, Lord of the Underworld, to release Eurydice, and having proceeded most of the way up the steep path back to life with his bride following faithfully, looks back in violation of Hades’ command, and Eurydice immediately, irrevocably begins to recede back into the darkness of the Underworld.

Was it simply doubt or curiosity that led Orpheus to defy the god’s mandate and pay such a high price? In this version Eurydice seems to be responsible for the transgression, as she calls out to Orpheus, perhaps because she wants to remain with her beloved father in the Underworld rather than move forward with her new husband in the upper world, or maybe because the prospect of returning to life and starting again is too daunting for her to face.

Ms. Ruhl’s Eurydice, an off-Broadway hit in 2007, with its intense emotionality, whimsy and charm, mixes a certain surrealism and humor with the poignancy of love and loss. Ms. Ruhl, 40-year-old MacArthur Genius Grant winner, whose other successful plays include The Clean House (2004), Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2008) and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2009), began her writing career as a poet, and Eurydice is imbued with that poetic sensibility. She once described her plays as “three-dimensional poems.”

As designed here by the redoubtable and resourceful Jeffrey Van Velsor, the set is made up of multi-colored strands of hanging yarn and five inverted umbrellas with lights above the stage, along with a larger umbrella with hanging yarn to depict a “raining elevator.” Inhabited by a wildly bizarre chorus of three speaking stones, the nether world fashioned here aptly fulfills the playwright’s vision, as noted in the script, “closer to Alice in Wonderland than to Hades.” An eclectic, evocative, fascinating array of original sound and music (some derived from Monteverdi’s 1607 opera) composed by Vince DiMura and Steven Tran with Wren Murray on the cello, helps to create the magical world of this play.

Eurydice opens with a sweetly romantic scene between Orpheus (Brad Wilson) and Eurydice (Caroline Hertz), then proceeds rapidly to their wedding day. When Eurydice briefly leaves the wedding celebration, a “nasty interesting man” (Ross Baron) lures her to his apartment with a letter he has found, sent to Eurydice on her wedding day from her dead father (Evan Thompson) in the underworld. (The play is dedicated to Ms. Ruhl’s father, who died in 1994, and she has described this play as a way to “have a few more conversations with him.”)

Eurydice soon joins her father in the after-life, after she dies in falling down the apartment stairs. In the Underworld’s river of forgetfulness she loses her memory and her ability to use language, but her loving father re-teaches her and creates for her a special space, a room made out of string. In Hell, in addition to the Lord of the Underworld (Mr. Baron again) who rides in on his red tricycle, she also encounters the strange chorus of three stones — Big Stone (Kanoa Mulling), Little Stone (Maeve Brady) and Loud Stone (Bits Sola) — who, with their broken black umbrellas and ragged motley attire, covered in various shades and shapes of yarn, behave like bratty children and refuse to provide any solace or assistance at all. “Being sad is not allowed. Act like a stone.”

Meanwhile, Orpheus, mourning in the upper world, is able to send a letter and even to lower a large book of Shakespeare’s plays for Eurydice in Hell. His ill-fated journey, however, ends in loss, melancholy, and forgetfulness for the three principal characters, as the stones seem to get the last word and the River Lethe prevails. “How does a person remember to forget?” the father asks. “Dip yourself in the river,” the stones reply.

The skillful, smoothly coordinated PST ensemble of seven, under the direction of Princeton University senior Wesley Cornwell, handles this delicate, challenging material with polish, style and intelligence.

In the title role, Ms. Hertz is credible in portraying a wide range of emotions and in establishing her relationships with Orpheus, her father and the other curious individuals she encounters. A lighter, more whimsical touch, however, would have enhanced the characterization and the tone of the play, in accordance with Ms. Ruhl’s script notes on the need for Eurydice to play the role “too young,” “too in love” and not “classical.”

Mr. Thompson creates a strong, sympathetic, loving father figure, and Mr. Wilson is excellent as the bereft musician husband. The surreal characters here, River Lethe notwithstanding, are unforgettable. Mr. Baron is truly nasty and interesting as the “nasty, interesting man” and suitably provocative on his red tricycle as the Lord of the Underworld. Mr. Mulling, Ms. Brady, and Ms. Sola deliver spirited energy and humor as the three stones, providing a clever spoof on the traditional Greek chorus. Though obviously in a supporting role, they threaten to steal the show.

Eric Falcon’s lighting design richly enhances the poetic, surrealistic atmosphere of the production and effectively distinguishes between the different worlds of the play. Costumes by Caitlin Brown, ranging from realistic to fantastical, are colorful and ingenious. Mr. Cornwell brings the production elements together with efficiency and clarity, as the action proceeds swiftly through its numerous scenes in 90-minutes without intermission.

“A wedding is for daughters and fathers,” Eurydice reflects to herself early in the play. “The mothers will dress up, trying to look like young women. But a wedding is for a father and daughter. They stop being married to each other on that day.” Fathers and daughters, love and loss, memory and forgetting — this formidable young PST Company’s Eurydice delivers an inspired, moving, entertaining finale to a superb 2015 season.

Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” the last show of the season, will run Thursday through Sunday, August 13-16, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the University campus. Call (732) 997-0205 or visit for tickets and further information.