Greek mythology doesn't seem grounded enough in our modern world for us to completely identify with it. The stories play out like any fable or parable, populated with actual characters but meant for moral lesson. It's not that they're boring, they just don't seem like our stories. E. Annie Proulx or Don DeLillo might be better picks to accurately express our modern mythology.
But the themes of Greek myth–humility, patience, respect—stand the test of time. They have a stripped down clarity you don't get with the postmodernism of DeLillo. Simple is best. And so it takes a deft vision to recraft a Greek myth in a modern setting without seeming heavy handed. Playwright Sarah Ruhl (Dead Man's Cell Phone) does a magnificent job in doing this with her play Eurydice.
In the original version, Orpheus, a musician, marries an Oak nymph, Eurydice, who is killed by a poisonous snake and taken to the Underworld. Orpheus gets permission to take Eurydice back to the land of the living with him as long as, during their journey home, he never looks back at her. But, of course, he can't help himself, looks back and she vanishes.
Ruhl is surprisingly literal with her approach to the story. I'd expect a contemporary version to subvert the Underworld to complete metaphor, but Ruhl refrains. In her version, too, Orpheus marries Eurydice, she dies (from falling down stairs rather than a snake bite) and ends up in a very literal Underworld. What makes the play different is in how Ruhl reimagines the Underworld. New arrivals come by elevator. The Lord of the Underworld wears sunglasses and '80s-styled clothes. What happens down there is topsy-turvy, often nonsensical, but within a modern context.
The University of Montana's production of Eurydice, directed by Ezra LeBank, takes full advantage of Ruhl's beautifully scripted story. The stage evokes aquatic imagery with a small pool of water, platforms that look like pooled raindrops and an elevator in which it's always raining when the door opens. The set, designed by Mike Monsos, depicts exactly what it needs to but nothing more specific than what's listed in the program: "Place: The World and the Underworld. Time: now and then."
Shanna E. Lodge pulls off a nimble performance as Eurydice, a bookworm who, on the night of her wedding, is lured by a stranger to his condo after he promises to give her a letter from her dead father. When she falls to her death, she reunites with her father in the Underworld. This is where Ruhl roots the script—it's less about Orpheus and more about the relationship between father and daughter; she actually wrote the play for her dead father.
Lodge's Eurydice is light on her feet and merry, curious with a lilting laugh. In the beginning, when Eurydice is still alive and talking with Orpheus about books and love and music, it's hard to care about her fate. At that point, she seems like an affected movie star, romantic in a melodramatic way.
But after Eurydice dies, Lodge's portrayal turns exquisite. In the Underworld she's been dipped in water (presumably the Water of Oblivion from Greek mythology) to make her forget language and who she is. At first she thinks her father is a bellboy and she's in a hotel. She asks for a room. She cries and laughs. She thinks her father is a tree to sit under. She stands on top of a letter to read it because she doesn't understand literally how to read anymore.
The other actors take advantage of fun roles. Zach Thiessen as the Lord of the Underworld is easily likable with his wacky costumes, props and smartass lines. The "chorus of stones," played by three actors in wild disco-styled tights, provide dynamic banter as the Underworld's Greek chorus that tries to browbeat Eurydice and her father into forgetting language. And Daniel Haley's Orpheus comes across with believable earnestness.
But it's Eric D. Hersh as the father and Lodge who make Eurydice breathtaking. In one scene, Hersh carefully builds a room out of string for Eurydice. It's an incredibly intense moment, heightened by the play's soundtrack of melancholy orchestral music. He teaches her the meaning of words and together they swap memories. In scenes that could easily come off as saccharine and cheesy, Hersh and Lodge interact in such a genuine manner, with such nuanced persistence against the despair of their characters' situation that you can't help but be moved by it. I'm not a crier and I couldn't stop welling up with tears. It's not that it's a sad play; it's haunting. It's like the ache of nostalgia. The whole play feels like the fleeting moment from a dream in which you're talking to dead loved ones, where language is malleable.
Sarah Ruhl's taken the larger-than-life, weighty themes that mythology uses and created an intimate story. Played differently, the characters could be cardboard, delivering lines about the ideas of language and death, but not delivering the visceral blow of those things. This production fulfills the lyrical story with devastating poignancy.
Eurydice continues at the Masquer Theatre in UM's PARTV Center Thursday, Nov. 5, through Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7:30 PM nightly. $14/$12 seniors and students/$8 children 12 and under.