In a Director’s Note, Kathy Scambiatterra refers to Sarah Ruhl’s Euridyce as “that reach back, that looking back one more time to hold on to what we’ve lost before looking ahead.” What could be more perfect for a play coming at this point in time? Looking back at what we’ve lost, whether it is a job, a relationship, a relative, a friend (or any other one of the 700,000+ lives snuffed out by COVID in America alone), or whatever, is part of being human. But stagnating in that “reach back” isn’t good for anyone. We all have to find ways to face the future and move on.
The play is being produced by The Artistic Home, a company that has had to let go of its storefront on Grand Ave and has moved on to the Den Theatre…yet another kind of change wrought by the pandemic. And Scambiatterra’s vision here honors the past while acknowledging that we all need to focus on what’s ahead. Ruhl’s version of the ancient Greek story, which focuses on Eurydice instead of—as usual—Orpheus, seems a brilliant selection for both of those purposes. And, along with the message, Ruhl’s script offers up a healthy dose of humor, reminding us that, even in this bleak time, laughter is a basic human need.
A considerable amount of that laughter comes by way of Ruhl’s “Greek chorus” made up of stones. These stones, ever-unchanging (like the dead themselves), watch over the land of the dead in which Eurydice (a very likable Karla Corona) finds herself after her tragic end, which here occurs during her wedding, as in the original, but not from a snake bite. Rather, she is taken advantage of by a sleazy man (played by Todd Wojcik, who later plays a young, salacious Hades) who informs her that he has found a letter for her from her dead father. (It’s real: we actually watch him, as played by Javier Carmona, compose this letter in the Underworld and send it soaring into the abyss.) When the man turns on her in his upper floor condo, she runs from him, accidentally falling to her death while her new husband Orpheus (Steven Cooper) watches from the ground in horror.
The stone chorus, decked out in glow-in-the-dark makeup and Zachary Wagner’s flowing costumes, offers commentary (and criticism) about the bond that grows between Euridyce and her father in the afterlife. (Such relationships are not permitted, but then again all knowledge of previous lives is as well, so there’s that.) The stones (who at one point take their name more figuratively and get stoned) move in choreographed, twisting, other-worldly ways that make them eminently watchable, and their omnipresence is a constant reminder that, no matter how much the father and daughter explore and remember the past, this is not the living world, and this is not designed to end happily. Orpheus, of course, will make his ill-fated journey into Hades, and the lovers will lose each other forever. But this version doesn’t end there: Eurydice, her father, and even Orpheus himself are given agency to make the decision to move on, which is clearly what Ruhl (and Scambiatterra) wants them to understand.
Throughout the play, Scambiatterra, who gets some often-unique and “interesting” performances from her actors, is aided by her co-designers. Scenic Designer Kevin Hagan doubles as Lighting Designer, allowing him to realize his own vision through color, light, and shadow. Petter Wahlback’s sound design combines earthly and ethereal sounds that bridge the gap between our world and the Underworld, and he gives Orpheus the kind of music that makes it as easy to see the character’s well-known brilliance as it is to see his love for Euridyce.
This is an Orpheus and Eurydice story that does not hinge on that final emotionally-fraught journey. It is about the love and connections we make in life and the fact that they cannot last forever. It is about looking back at them with fondness and then moving on into an uncertain future instead of allowing them to color our whole futures. And it is about what is real (like love and commitment) as opposed to what is not (like the pornographic desires of Wojcik’s characters). Ultimately, despite its supernatural setting and talking rocks, this may be the most realistic and ultimately unsentimental retelling of this story I have ever seen.
Eurydice is playing at the Den Theatre (1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago) until Nov 21. Tickets may be purchased here.