The Bay Area theater scene is smitten with Sarah Ruhl. The upcoming seasons at Marin Theatre Company, San Francisco Playhouse and the playwright's usual haunt, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, all boast new works by Ruhl in their local or West Coast premieres.
The Bay Area’s love affair with Ruhl’s work began in 2004 with Berkeley Rep’s luminous production of Eurydice directed by her frequent collaborator Les Waters. A half-dozen smaller companies around the Bay have performed the play since then. But that first breathtaking introduction to Ruhl’s fanciful, bittersweet vision, packed with humor, tenderness and magical realism, remains impossible to forget.
A more sinister new production at Shotgun Players proves somehow to be equally indelible. Part of a season entirely made up of works by women, the Shotgun version is directed by Erika Chong Shuch, a choreographer who’s worked a lot with theater companies. Shuch's staging is bold, aggressively physical and packed with stunning imagery.
Eurydice is a love story, but not the kind you might expect. The titular character is best known from Greek myth as the wife of the great poet-hero Orpheus who becomes the object of his quest when Eurydice dies and he goes down to the Underworld to retrieve her. Orpheus is told to head back home and his spouse will follow right behind him. But if he turns back to look at her, Eurydice will be lost forever.
The love between Megan Trout’s lively Eurydice and Kenny Toll’s dreamily preoccupied Orpheus is palpable. They talk philosophically of books and music while doing a playful, passionate dance involving wrestling, biting, choking and kissing. But this is not Orpheus’s story, and he fades into the background as soon as Eurydice descends into the Underworld.
This play is also a story about the love between fathers and daughters, and Eurydice’s touching reunion with her long-dead, nameless dad lies at its heart. James Carpenter exudes tenderness and stoic reserve as the father who has somehow managed to retain his memory of life and human language despite the requisite dunking in the river of forgetfulness that all the dead have to undergo.
Eurydice is not so fortunate. At first when she tries to speak, all that comes out are cacophonous bursts of thundering noise (the work of sound designer Matt Stines.) She doesn’t recognize her father either, or even the concept of a father. But he patiently teaches her. After all, they have all the time in the world.
The land of the dead is far from a nice place. Sean Riley’s spectacular set is reminiscent of the interior of a very old ship, its rusty walls corroded green. There are metal pails everywhere, in tall stacks and on an elaborate pulley system that the father uses to create an outline of a room for his daughter in a land where rooms (and fathers) are forbidden. We know all the dos and don’ts because of a fretful chorus of stones who are always chiding father and daughter to knock it off and behave properly. There’s nothing particularly stone-like about the trio of grimly comical busybodies embodied by Jeannine Anderson, Peter Griggs and Beth Wilmurt in Christine Crook’s gaudy Burning Man-chic costumes, unless it’s their obstinate insistence on maintaining the status quo.
Eerily unnerving music pervades composed by Nils Frykdahl of the cult art-rock bands Idiot Flesh, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Faun Fables. Frykdahl also performs a major acting role in the play, perfectly cast as the Nasty Interesting Man, who stalks Eurydice with a predatory leer and insistent questioning about “interesting people.” Equal parts comical and menacing, Frykdahl morphs marvelously into the baby-talking, tricycle-riding Lord of the Underworld.
Despite the humor and compassion that permeates the piece, it’s more chilling than heartwarming. Like the will-he-or-won’t-he conclusion of the original Orpheus myth, Ruhl’s version hinges on free will, an especially remarkable thing in the afterlife, where choices are supposed to be a thing of the past. The play also explores the notions of fate and inevitability. After all, you can't cheat death forever. Even if somehow Orpheus were to succeed in bringing Eurydice back to the land of the living, it would mean tearing her away from the touching, unlikely new home she’s built with her long-lost father in the land of the dead. It’s a heartbreaking piece, and Shotgun’s production drives the tragedy home with unforgettable emotional rawness.
Eurydice runs through Oct. 4, 2015 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit shotgunplayers.org.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED