Theater Review: Stageworks' Eurydice, starring Dahlia Legault and Dayton Sinkia, is strange and true

Eurydice (pronounced you-rid-ih-see) is a lovely poem of a play, a meditation on death and memory that has the elusiveness and allusiveness of a dream. What author Sarah Ruhl gives us in this unusual work, brilliantly staged by Karla Hartley of Stageworks, is a narrative that doesn’t mean anything in particular, but instead exists, as a fine piece of music exists, shimmering with lyric beauty and pervaded by a touching melancholy. Dahlia Legault, who in only a year or so has vaulted into the ranks of the Bay area’s most gifted actors, is splendid in the title role, and Dayton Sinkia, though still a USF student, is so convincing as Orpheus, we instantly believe that he would enter Hades itself in search of his lost beloved. (Pictured: Legault and Sinkia; photo by Brian Becker Photography).

Jim Wicker as the title character’s dead father is poignantly patient with his flustered child, and Chris Perez, as both A Nasty Interesting Man and The Lord of the Underworld, adds a dollop of grotesquerie to a play that’s never too far from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland as illustrated by John Tenniel. And then there are the hilarious three Stones – as in rocks, not rock music – played by Joshua Goff, Alex Perez and Brittany Smith. This petulant Greek Chorus insists noisily on hellish propriety (“Being sad is not allowed. Act like a stone!”) and tries to bully poor Eurydice into seeing death from a stone’s-eye view (“It’s hard work to be a stone: no time for crying, no no no!”). Add it all up and you’ve got one of the most original plays to grace a Bay area stage in years, a serio-comic retelling of myth that’s kookily modern. I can’t think of another American play that vaguely resembles it.

The myth that it reworks has various versions, the most familiar of which says that musical Orpheus lost his bride Eurydice on their wedding day, when she was bitten by a serpent. Eurydice promptly went to Hades, but Orpheus’ love was so strong, he broke all the rules and traveled alive there to bring her back. Charmed by this husband’s melodies, the Lord of the Underworld allowed that Eurydice could follow Orpheus to the surface of Earth, provided that he didn’t look back at her till they both arrived. Reaching his destination, Orpheus looked behind him; but Eurydice was still in Hades, and this glance sent her tumbling backward. So Orpheus was bereft of his one true love ever after.

Ruhl uses this story as an opportunity for a series of key encounters, beginning with the moment when Orpheus, offering a ring made of string, asks Eurydice to marry him. In this case as elsewhere, Ruhl’s touch is light, her dialogue brief and suggestive. Suddenly we’re in Hades, where Eurydice’s dead father is composing a letter to her (“This is what it’s like being dead: the atmosphere smells. And there are strange high-pitched noises – like a tea kettle always boiling over”). At her party after the wedding, the Nasty Interesting Man approaches her and tells her that he has her father’s letter. He entices her into his elegant high-rise apartment, tries to win her away from Orpheus, and is somehow responsible for her fall down 600 stairs and into Hades.

Here she loses her memory –- a result of her immersion in the river of Lethe -– but finds her father, who caringly tries to ease her stay in the Underworld. But Eurydice can’t recognize him, has forgotten Orpheus and even how to read a letter (she tries standing on it). Finally, the Lord of the Underworld, resembling an enormous, self-satisfied child, pays a call on Hades’ latest resident. He tells her she needs a lover –- and as we later discover, that lover is him. By the time Orpheus finally gets down to business, it’s clear that this isn’t his play at all: it’s Eurydice’s, and her father’s, and that evil force that wants to turn flesh to stone and replace love with lust. The ascent back to the surface, in this re-imagining, hardly matters.

Some things that do matter on the Shimberg stage: the doorway of rain that stands for Lethe, the quiet music that plays almost constantly (sound design also by Hartley), Adrin Puente’s evocative costuming, especially for the silly/sinister Lord of the Underworld, and Scott Cooper’s abstract two-level set with its motif of umbrellas and sheet music. This is theater-as-experience, beyond paraphrase, beyond intellect, emotional, intuitive and strangely resonant. The whole thing lingers in the mind like an unfamiliar but affecting melody. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for days to come.

Sometimes art adds to nature a texture that nature doesn’t have. This is one of those cases. No aficionado should miss it.

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