In Santa Clara University’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (2003), all Eurydice ever wants to do is think about language and how it opens up new worlds. While Orpheus has his head in the clouds dreaming up music, Eurydice lugs gigantic books with her onstage and even in the Underworld delights in the mystery of words and letters from the living. The production choices of director Jeffrey Braco beautifully showcased the virtuosity of the young woman Eurydice that rivals the musical genius of her would-be husband Orpheus. For where Sarah Ruhl’s play critically departs from two millennia of adaptations is that Eurydice as a whole person — body, voice, soul — is put front and center onstage while her lover, traditionally given the spotlight, is literally relegated to the sidelines of the drama.
Body. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice historically focuses on how the passionate, divinely-inspired musician Orpheus literally goes to the bowels of hell to try to win back the love of his life. The play opens with two dancers leaping about and thrusting their arms around each other as an expression of the mythological lover’s passion, immediately establishing that this play will not be a feature-length presentation of the legendary musician. The directorial choice to have dancers Hannah Cole and Isaiah Youngblood perform as Orpheus and Eurydice’s shadows literally takes the drama to new heights when they frequently appear silhouetted against the railed balcony of the two-story set.
The industrial cityscape set also features an onstage rectangular trough and faucet with real running water as well as a giant projector screen that allows for different land- and sky-scapes, depending on whether characters onstage are dead or alive. The two levels of the set often establish different locations within a scene, such as when Tavi Leon’s thoughtful Orpheus sits by the water trough onstage while Skylar Adam’s rhapsodic Eurydice deflects the Nasty Interesting Man’s propositions up on the balcony platform. Entrances and exits throughout the aisles of the proscenium theater, trapdoors and “elevator” creates delicious dimensionality as characters move between the face of the earth and “the Hotel” underworld. The earthen color palette of the set moreover allows the vibrant costumes of the ardent lovers and their antagonists to stand out from the other denizens of the Underworld.
Voice. From Anais Mitchell’s critically acclaimed folk opera-turned Broadway musical “Hadestown” (2006-19) to Marcel Camus’ film “Black Orpheus” (1959) that reimagines the myth during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “Orpheus and Eurydice” has featured prominently in the arts since its inception in Ancient Greek culture. Where Ruhl’s female-centric account of “Orpheus and Eurydice” critically differs from ancient accounts such as Ovid is that no one is spared a metamorphosis. Not the weeping “Stones” played by three female actors that serve as a sort of Greek chorus or the rattlesnake transfigured into Tony Pierce’s red velour suit-wearing Nasty Interesting Man. Ruhl does not even spare Eurydice’s wholesome ghost father (played by Carter Duncan) nor Pierce’s Lord of the Underworld as the former attempts to send his love through letters and the latter has his stage presence defined by tricycles, trapdoors and silts.
The visible transformation of characters onstage extends to how their voices project, as the Stones explain to a babbling Eurydice, “You’re dead now and must speak the languages of stones.” The language barrier between the living and dead as conceived by Ruhl is tangible thanks to an otherworldly shriek sound effect and the brilliant performances of Duncan and Adams in pretending that they cannot understand basic words such as “love” or “father.” The lifting up or quelling of voices is at the core of the tragedy, as Eurydice cries out when she plummets off the stairs to her death when fleeing the Nasty Interesting Man or when she calls the name of Orpheus, dooming herself to oblivion and separation from her lover for eternity. While other characters may tell Eurydice what she cannot say, she always speaks her mind, whether it be telling the jeering Stones to “shut up!” or asking her father who Orpheus is in a refreshing take on the myth in which the woman is the silent love object of the loudly-lamenting male lover.
Soul. In the opening scene, Orpheus asks Eurydice if she can remember a melody he invented to represent her. Music plays second string to dialogue in the production, with a few original compositions and sound effects sprinkled among the scenes. Water drop sounds and percussive seem to hint at how the water of the Underworld washes away the memories of the living from the soul of the deceased. The tinny, distant instrumental music meanwhile suggests the subconscious yearning dread Eurydice may feel for the musicianship of her Orpheus.
Though most of her memories are wiped when she arrives in the Underworld wielding a rain-drenched umbrella, Eurydice establishes a rhythm she never could on earth by persistently asking for a room and the help of her father the “porter.” Eurydice forgetting and remembering things as she spends time with the shade of her father reading, laughing and even dancing makes for strange yet heartwarming moments that lull the audience into forgetting all about Orpheus. The dramatic stakes increase when Hades himself is revealed to lust after Eurydice and when Orpheus’s attempted rescue mission fails, she ultimately forfeits her memories of the living world and her dear father with the water of the River Lede. Yet, true to her love of language, moments before giving up her human soul, Eurydice writes a poignant letter to Orpheus testifying to her fate and her advice for whatever lucky girl may become his new lover.
The play thus gives the character of Eurydice a voice, body and soul onstage through intentionally making Orpheus an auxiliary character in what is traditionally interpreted as his story. Through smart casting and visionary design choices, the Santa Clara University Department of Theater and Dance brings to life Sarah Ruhl’s alternative narrative of Orpheus and Eurydice. One does not need to be a classicist or well versed in Greek mythology to appreciate both the humor and pain in the separation of lovers through not only death, but also the breakdown of languages as primal as love.
By having music feature so little in the show, Ruhl undermines the traditional narrative of Orpheus conquering hell through his musical virtuosity and instead underscores how Eurydice is not saved. For Eurydice has stories she wants to hear from her father for the duration of the drama, even though she ultimately permanently loses her memory of the living world and even her own name to save herself from being consumed by Hades. While she may never willingly adopt “the language of stones in the play, Ruhl’s “Eurydice” certainly sets in stone the voice of Eurydice as a fighter for the people and languages she loves.
Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice presented by the Santa Clara Department of Theater and Dance will be playing on Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m at the Louis B. Mayer Theater.