At age 20, playwright Sarah Ruhl lost her father to cancer. 10 years later, she wrote “Eurydice,” a reinterpretation of the Greek myth “Orpheus and Eurydice.” At Shotgun Players in Berkeley, a fearless cast brings new life to an ancient tale of loss and, in the process, proves that the underworld is anything but dead.
To call “Eurydice” a modern-day retelling of the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice” would fail to capture much of its power. Instead, Ruhl has written in the style of a contemporized Greek tragedy — the register is poetic, and the sense of time and place is nebulous. Ruhl even pulls from generic conventions such as the Greek chorus with her trio of “Stones” (Jeannine Anderson, Peter Griggs, Beth Wilmurt). Despite the somberness of its name and affect, the trio is costumed in a style that lands somewhere between outlandish and garish — a jolt of neon and lycra in a sepia underworld.
Eurydice (Megan Trout), might be costumed less flamboyantly than the Stones — who are, essentially, the colorful hall monitors of the underworld — but her character is anything but meek. Trout’s Eurydice is headstrong and a bit aloof, a bookworm whose thoughts are her constant 1010companions. “I was working on a new philosophical system,” she explains to her father. “It involved hats.”
Historically, the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth has been told from Orpheus’ perspective. In Ruhl’s play, Eurydice is our vehicle to the underworld. While the narrative is primarily propelled by Eurydice’s untimely death and her own reaction to it, it also asks the audience to trace the tangled emotional web in which the two men who love her most — Orpheus (Kenny Toll) and Father (James Carpenter) — are caught.
As Orpheus, Eurydice’s beloved, Toll first beams with the triumph of young love and then descends into the desperate, gnawing edges of grief with gut-wrenching sincerity. As Father, Bay Area theater veteran Carpenter brings a quiet, steadfast care to his scenes with Eurydice. Orpheus’ love is music that is set to a 12-piece symphony. Father’s love is drawing Eurydice a bath.
Rounding out the cast is Nasty Interesting Man (Nils Frykdahl), the childlike, tantrum-prone overlord of the underworld whose trickery forces Eurydice into the underworld in the first place. In the role, Frykdahl is predatory and utterly repellent. Neither the audience nor Eurydice wants anything to do with him, and for good reason.
Director Erika Chong Shuch has worked primarily as a dance theatre choreographer, and in “Eurydice,” Shuch’s direction helps to ground Ruhl’s text — with its soaring, lyrical quality — in the language of bodies. Outright dance sequences, such as the playful seduction between Orpheus and Eurydice at the play’s start, stand out against a backdrop of subtler, but equally skillful blocking. Of particular delight is the Chaplin-esque movement sequence in which we see Father go to work — tie on, hat on, briefcase in hand — day in and day out over the course of one brief scene.
Shuch explains in a director’s note, “Sarah Ruhl has written something that…demands that we bring all of our tricks to the table. The work asks us to flex our imaginations in profound in difficult ways, to imagine the world she introduces through our own lenses, experiences and sensibilities.” Indeed, the world Ruhl creates is profoundly different than our own, and it is boundless in the questions it raises: In a world where the dead live on, how do they mourn the living? In an underworld with no language, how does one remember without words? Perhaps most searingly of all: When you lose someone you love, how do you let them go?
In this way, “Eurydice” is as much a tale of loss as it is a tale of what comes after it. At Shotgun Players, the aftershocks of love and loss are explored with all the grace — and rage — that are owed to them.
“Eurydice” is playing until Oct. 4 at Shotgun Players in Berkeley.