Friday, December 04, 2009

Orpheus X

"Orpheus X" presented by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke, December 3, 2009

I was fascinated by Greek Mythology as a child and couldn't get enough of the stories of gods and mortals, all courtesy of the Scholastic Book Club at school.  It would be much later in life when I realized just how homogenized and sterilized were the tales I pored over in those slim paperbacks.  Mythology is a ripe source with innumerable versions in plays and music.  The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is among the most popular stretching from the Greeks to the Romans, through the Renaissance into and beyond the twentieth century.

Rinde Eckert's Orpheus X, is the latest entry to receive a significant NY mounting, following Sara Ruhl's eurydice at 2econd Stage in 2007.  As Ryan McKittrick shares in the program notes for Orpheus X, using Eurydice as the focus in the story is a bit more recent, following the centuries of Orpheus as the suffering lover, lost without his love.  Ms. Ruhl's version took a similar Eurydicean approach by leaving Orpheus completely out of the title, reducing him to merely a featured player.

Mr. Eckert has taken steps in this direction as well.  In this post-modern, rock-operetta interpretation, Orpheus (Mr. Ecker) and Eurydice (Suzan Hanson) are unknown lovers in an apocalyptic world where "...half-formed creatures [rise] from the sea."  He is a rock star, she a poet.  They meet when she is struck by the taxi he occupied on the way to an event, stepping off the curb to retrieve her dropped glasses case.  She dies in his arms - her first and last words to him, "Oh it's you, how strange."  It's very much a "New York" story in this way.  Eurydice is continuously questioned by Persephone (John Kelly), wife of Hades and therefore, queen of the dead.  Persephone is fascinated that Eurydice is a writer, particularly a poet. After reading a selection of Eurydice's work Persephone says, "Like a list, you accpet its terms and let it run until it stops.  You'll do well here. Poets generally do...poets come closest to what I'd call thriving...all the narrative junkies feel perpetually unsatisfied."  Eurydice, twitching with a chalk in her hand, is compelled to continue writing, scribbling across glass panels what appears to evolve from gibberish into Greek.

In true rock star fashion, Orpheus is obsessed with her and withdraws from the world trying to resolve how she came into and left his life so quickly.  The thought of her overtakes his mind.   He can picture her image, but it's not real enough.  He spends hours just sitting at the impromptu shrine where she died surrounded by candles, copies of her book of poems and dried flowers.  He convinces his manager John (also Mr. Kelly) to find a way to bring her back so he can see her as "A woman displacing volume as she enters or leaves the room."

Blindfolded, Orpheus casts the spell and follows the instructions from John, meeting Persephone and convincing her to release Eurydice back to him.   Dragged away from her writing, Eurydice recognizes him and tears off the blindfold. This action sends herself back for eternity, to bathe away her memory and pain.

Ms. Hanson's Eurydice is a mature woman, lost and confused in the underworld.  She seems to have known of Orpheus, but had never met him.  She sings the difficult score well, nicely managing its demands. Mr. Eckert's Orpheus is less than a protagonist but more than a plot contrivance.  Generally deadpan, this Orpheus relies more on the content of his words and lyrics.  Mr. Kelly's androgynous dual roles of John and Persephone becomes almost an on-stage stage manager, John fueling Orpheus to resolve his grief and return to life, and Persephone convincing Eurydice to let go of her own life and memories.

Mr. Eckert and director Robert Woodruff have created quite a unique evening of theatre, unusual in the way Mr. Eckert's Horizon was unusual in 2007 - thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Mr. Eckert's score is operatic and hard rock all at the same time.  The cacophony created as he sings the spell to take himself into the underworld is ear shattering and effective (if about 16 bars too long).  Mr. Woodruff presents a nude and oblivious Eurydice scribbling on the floor beneath the seating risers as the audience enters, stripped both literally and figuratively of everything - her life, her possessions - except her need to write.  Scenic Designers David Zinn & Denise Marika have created a set of patinated steel floors, panels and I-beams, surrounded by glass walls.  Ms. Marika's video projections get a clever and interesting display throughout the performance, sometimes flowing water, dripping honey (another homage to the Eurydice myth), Eurydice scribbling, Eurydice dropping her glasses case.  The impact is powerful.  The ending, when Eurydice snatches Orpheus' blindfold and challenges him "Did you think I would welcome a rescue? Did you think you were saving me from something?" is a variation I hadn't expected.  "I'm done with the world." she says, "I won't remember anything but my name. I'll hear my words without their pain."  The two stand close in silence, almost kissing, almost daring the other to respond until Eurydice turns away. 

As the lights went black, the audience sat in perfect silence, each of us entranced by the moment.

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