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A CurtainUp Review

I will always remember your melody! It will be imprinted on my heart.— Eurydice, though more book-minded than musical, treasures the musical gifts of Orpheus, her husband-to-be who in turn envisions writing music with an instrument made with her hair. "Your hair will stand on end as it plays my music and become a hair orchestra. It will fly you up in the air."
Maria Dizzia and Charles Shaw Robinson in Eurydice
Mark Zeisler (Lord of the U derworld), Maria Dizzia (Eurydice), Ramiz Monsef, Gian-Murray Gianino and Carla Harting (The Stones).
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Like the bookish Eurydice she's conjured from the famous myth, Sarah Ruhl is smitten with words —words which, as illustrated in the above quotations, are often imbued with poetry. Those words have won Ruhl productions by prestigious theaters and, courtesy of the MacArthur Fellows Grant, a "genius" label.

Even more than Clean House, which played in New York (at Lincoln Center) last year and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, eurydice showcases Ruhl's gift for marrying realism with fantasy, straightforward dialogue with poetic flights of fancy. It may not make a case for Ruhl as a genius, or even her becoming synonymous with definitive new voices of the current century as Miller, O'Neill and Williams are with the last. However, it is an inventive and lively adaptation of the story that has been dramatized for film, choreographed for ballet lovers and turned into countless operas—as well as by Mary Zimmerman who, like Ruhl, did her own spin on the myth in her Metamorphoses (which moved from this very theater to Broadway five years ago).

Ms. Ruhl doesn't depart drastically from the basic story of Orpheus (a role that seems made to order for the charming Joseph Pars), who used his sweet music to win a reprieve from death for his beloved wife Eurydice (a rich and varied performance by Maria Dizzia) — only to lose her a second time because he forgot the admonition not to look back during their return journey to the world of the living. And yet it's drastically different: The focus is on Eurydice and her relationship with her father (Charles Shaw Robinson, demonstrating the power of quiet understatement) as well as her husband. . .the romance is set in the modern world . . . the lovers' differences (music dominates his thinking while she's an avid reader and more curious about other people) are used as omens of the tragic turn their lives take. . . instead of being bitten by a deadly snake, Eurydice plunges to her death from a skyscraper (shades the unexpected and untimely deaths of 9/11?).

The accolades this euydice collected during its premiere productions at the Berkely and Yale Repertory theaters, and likely to increase during its Second Stage run, are due in large part to director Les Waters fluid staging (no pun intended) and the wizardry of the design team that has been with the production since its inception.

Since water figures prominently in the story, Scott Bradley's slightly off kilter green-tiled bathhouse set is not only stunning but brilliantly apt. Thus water is pumped slowly from a blue water pump (symbolizing the mythical river Lethe of forgetfulness). It pours down in heavy rain showers from the ceiling of an amazing, carved door fronted elevator. The water images are subtly intensified by Bray Poor's sound design.

The set serves the initial modern beach and party scenes as well as the eerie Underworld. It also has a manhole cover that functions like the trap doors common to many Shakespeare productions. And speaking of Shakespeare. . . Ms. Ruhl has invented a chorus calling itself Loud Stone (Gian Murray Gianino) Little Stone (Carla Harting) and Big Stone (Ramiz Monsef). The threesome is reminiscent of Macbeth's weird sisters but, in their chocolate hued Victorian garb (bravo, for these and all costumes by Meg Neville), could also have stepped out of Alice in Wonderland.

It's Eurydice's curiosity and yearning for her dead father ("A wedding is for a father and daughter. They stop being married to each other that day") and disappointment that her wedding guests weren't more interesting, that makes her take a fatal break from her wedding party. That break leads to a meeting with a mysterious stranger (Mark Zeisler, funny if a bit too over the top as a character called The Nasty and Interesting Man, who turns out to be the Lord of the Underworld). The stranger lures her to his penthouse by promising to give her a letter from her dead father who, unlike other residents of the Underworld, has not lost his memory.

What follows Alice's fall down the rabbit hole —oops, I mean Eurydice's fall out of the penthouse window and journey to the land of the dead and forgetfulness— is filled with a mix of quirky comedy and tragedy. This includes some touching scenes as when the Father's imagines himself giving his daughter away in marriage and when he fashions a room with string for her to help her adjust to a place where rooms are as forbidden as memories. Some scenes are too self-consciouly stylized, but all are visually amazing.

As the staging encompasses both naturalism and fantasy with varying success, so the playwright's dialogue is a similarly intriguing hit and miss mix of succint realism, humor and unabashedly emotion-pushing poetry. It's all wonderfully accessible, thanks to the actors who have no doubt been fine tuning their parts since their premiere performances. Ultimately what's most intriguing about Ms. Ruhl's play is that it finally gives a starring role to the woman whose death inspired a trip to Hades but who has heretofore been overshadowed by her musician husband.

Postscript: In case any other art gallery watchers are curious about Mark Zeisler's zooming on stage on that bike with the stuffed baboon in tow, here's this interchange with a reader from our letters section:
June 19, 2007. Isn't that weird Devil biker taken from a famous post-modern art work? Is that cricket? If I were the artist, I'd call it plagiarism.— Bob Hymowitz, Bronx.

Editor Response: I'm not going to get into the legal ramifications of this, but, yes, Zeisler's bike riding devil and stuffed baboon are a staged replica of a work by a photographer named Simon Johan. If you google the name you'll find lots of his images--and this one, an obvious model, among them.
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters
Cast: Maria Dizzia (Eurydice), Gian-Murray Gianino (Loud Stone), Carla Harting (Little Stone), Ramiz Monsef (Big Stone), Joseph Parks (Orpheus), Charles Shaw Robinson (Father) and Mark Zeisler (Nasty Interesting Man/Lord of the Underworld)
Sets: Scott Bradley
Costumes: Meg Neville
Lights: Russell H. Champa
Sound: Bray Poor
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Second Stage in association with Yale Repertory Theater, and Berkeley Repertory Company at Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43 Street 212/ 246-4472,
From 5/30/07 to 7/21/07--2 extensions, to 8/26/07; opening 6/17/07
To July 8thTues @ 7, Wed to Sat @ 8pm, Wed and Sat at 2pm, Sun @3pm; After July 9th: Mon @8, Tues @7, Wed to Sat @8 and wed and Sat @2pm
Tickets: $65 with limited $15 student and rush tickets
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on June 17th
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