It seems only fair to admit up front that I’m in love with Sara Ruhl’s playwriting. If I manage to squeeze some theater into my schedule, and the theater company is producing a Sara Ruhl play, they’re already more than halfway there in completely winning me over. The work of director Lisa Channer and the artists working with the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota easily filled in the rest and then some with their moving and funny production of Ruhl’s spin on the legend of Eurydice.
“The moon is always rising above your house.”
The wonder of Ruhl’s work as a writer is that in looking at the world from odd angles, much like a poet, she unlocks the deeper humanity lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. She creates a world where things exist like talking stones and rain falling inside elevators and music always has a central place. But in these weird and whimsical worlds, we get a closer glimpse of the powerful bond between a parent and their child, even after that child has become an adult. The foreign landscape and peculiar situation of the characters makes the recognizable human elements of the story that much more compelling.
“His eyes were like two blackbirds and they flew to me.”
Just as in the legend of old, Eurydice (Kiara Jackson) dies on the day of her wedding to the musician Orpheus (Edward Euclide) and is carried off to the land of the dead by a stranger who may or may not also be the Lord of the Underworld (Nico Swenson, who plays both roles). Orpheus follows Eurydice to the land of the dead and plays music so bewitching that he is allowed to take his beloved back to the land of the living—on one condition. Orpheus must walk ahead of her and not look back until they’ve reached their destination. If Orpheus turns back to look at Eurydice, she will be pulled back into the underworld, and he will lose her a second time, forever.
“All the interesting people I know are either dead or speak French.”
“Well, I don’t speak French.”
Where Ruhl departs from the standard narrative is in the introduction of Eurydice’s father (Nathan Tylutki), already among those in the land of the dead. He writes letters to his daughter that he fears she’ll never receive. He imagines walking her down the aisle of the church and dancing with his daughter on her wedding day. When Eurydice arrives in the underworld, he is both delighted to see her, and sad that her life has been cut short. Later, he is happy that she has a second chance at life, but unable to hide the fact that he will miss her when she is gone.
“When you were alive, I was your tree.”
Everyone entering the land of the dead must drink from the waters of forgetfulness and leave behind the memories of their old life. Eurydice’s crafty father, however, holds his breath and retains not only his memories but the skills of being able to read and write. Though Eurydice herself has drunk from the waters and forgotten, she still senses this kindly older man is a friend to her. Eurydice’s father rebuilds her knowledge and some of her memory, as if he were teaching his child a second time. His willingness to be whatever she needs or finds comforting—whether it be a porter in a hotel, a tree, or to build her a room from stones and spools of string—is both humorous and tender. Tylutki and Jackson get this off-kilter father/daughter dynamic just right, charming the audience and often daring them not to cry. (The moment they nearly did me in was when the father consented to be a tree for Eurydice and she sat in his shade, leaning back against his leg.) This turns out to be the real love story at the center of the retelling of a tale that has always been considered a legend of romantic love.
“I heard your name inside the rain.”
The other thing Ruhl’s Eurydice provides is a playground for directors and designers to go a little nuts. Scene designer Annie Henly makes the underworld a land littered with piles of paper that the inhabitants have forgotten how to read. A twisted knot of long metal pipes also cuts across the space in strange directions. Lighting designer Kathy Maxwell has light emerging out of the pipes and peeking through the piles of paper, as well as simulating the beautiful blue waters of forgetfulness. Sound designer Kevin Springer and musicians Aviva Gellman, Glenn Geppert, and Bree Schmidt work together with the live action orchestrated by director Channer to create a soundscape where all three elements take turns in prominence or blend together seamlessly as the needs of the story dictate. It’s hard to talk about any of these design elements in isolation because it’s the production’s layering of each one on top of the others that makes for the richness of this imaginary world. My mind keeps harkening back to the moments when the sound design was playing with the sounds of dripping or rippling water, and the real sounds of water onstage with the rain in the elevator, or the stones pouring water from one metal bucket into another, while the musicians would dip in and out of the soundscape in their own watery way.
“No one knocks at the door of the dead!”
Another thing Maxwell’s lighting does so wonderfully is reveal characters gradually out of the dark corners of the space, surprising the audience with their presence. This makes for a great entrance moment for the chorus of stones: Little Stone (Evan O’Brien), Big Stone (Gaosong Vang), and Loud Stone (Rick Miller). They begin very still, as stones will do, but then suddenly the light reveals these three figures. Costumed by Katie Wicker as three gray stone statues come to life, these slow-moving oddballs become the perfect comic relief and somewhat obtuse tour guides to the underworld. They, too, have their ominous moments. The audience is never quite sure what they’ll do next, and the stones never really take to Eurydice and her father the way we do. The stones remain distrustful of this father/daughter bond and the havoc it creates in their previously well-ordered society.
“I’ll give this letter to a worm. I hope he finds you.”
Ruhl’s version of Eurydice makes for a different sort of love triangle. After all, you don’t stop loving your family just because you find someone with whom you want to make a family of your own. You can fit them all in your heart, but sometimes you have to choose between them. Anyone who’s ever lost a parent or other close family member can relate to the comfort in the thought that one day we may see them again. To actually see a father and daughter reunited in the afterlife, and then see them have to part ways once again, the audience is torn. Wanting the young lovers to be together again doesn’t mean you want a parent and child separated. It’s a wonderful/horrible source of conflict because there is no right or wrong answer. Both come with a cost.
“Love is a big, funny word.”
If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Sara Ruhl’s Eurydice (or even if you have), this production of the play at the U of M makes for a great way to spend a night at the theater.
Read Matthew Everett’s reviews of Spring Awakening (presented by Theatre Latté Da and the University of Minnesota, 2012) and Something About a Bear (presented by Theatre Novi Most and the University of Minnesota, 2013).
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.