The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is, pardon the pun, frustrating as hell. Orpheus had one seemingly simple task as the pair made their escape from the Greek underworld: don’t look back at Eurydice. He fails. Severing the lovers, Orpheus returns to the realm of the living and Eurydice to the realm of the dead.
However, Eurydice, written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by William Dao, and performed at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse from December 6–8, extended the narrative beyond this one devastating moment. The true pain in Eurydice lies in watching Orpheus, Eurydice, and Eurydice’s father face the preposterous task of living and dying without their cherished loved ones.
Dao is a friend of mine, and I’ve bore witness to the obsessive care he invests into his plays. As such, I had high expectations for his latest creation.
Walking into the sold-out theatre, I was met with sugary ’50s and ’60s pop songs playing across a bright pink and blue set. The stage was bare, save for a series of whimsical bird houses, lanterns, vases, and figurines shelved neatly on the back wall. While the songs had cheery melodies, they each expressed the aching that accompanies overwhelming love: “I’m all shook up,” sang Elvis Presley.
Then the play began. Eurydice (Margaret Rose) and Orpheus (Stephanie Zeit) lay gushing with mutual affection and agreed to marry against the noise of seagulls and lapping sea. Their marital bliss is cut short, however, when the Nasty Man (Jacob Kay) in a foreboding blood red suit lures Eurydice to his high-rise condo using a letter from her dead father. In her attempt at escape, Eurydice tumbles down the stairs and perishes.
Whereas the original Greek myth follows Orpheus in his epic quest to save his wife from death, this retelling focuses on Eurydice, as she learns to exist in the underworld by recalling the memories and language she lost to the prowess of the river Styx.
Rose executes the title character with a delightful performance worthy of the script’s poetic prose. At one point she captivates the audience with only her hands as she silently mimes puppets while waiting for her father (Sid Srikanth) to build her a room in the underworld.
As Eurydice settles in the land of the dead, without her memories or language, a chorus of three Stones (Eiléanór O’Halloran, Tuhi Sen, Jamie Fiuza) arrive to guide her. The Stones remain on stage for the rest of the show, sporting porcelain doll makeup to mesh with the baubles shelving the back wall. Though the Stones dress and speak like glamorous French women, they twitched like otherworldly creatures and intently followed the action on stage with their eyes, acting as spotlights. This contrast stole scenes and left the audience astonished.
Not to be overlooked are the feats of Zeit and Srikanth, who played Orpheus and Eurydice’s father, respectively. Srikanth gave a patient and tender performance as he taught Eurydice to remember her language and her loved ones. Zeit has a beautiful voice, fitting of a legendary musician such as Orpheus, and is able to express desperate love in his frenzied search for Eurydice, which makes their parting all the more difficult to watch.
And finally, Kay, in both the roles of the Nasty Man and as Lord of the Underworld, is able to hit a fine balance of acting both terrifying and leery toward Eurydice, while not wholly alienating the audience. Upon every exit, Kay produced a maniacal laugh that still haunted me for days after.
The colourful set, costumes, and music were sewn together for a visually stunning show and every actor went above and beyond to bring out the beauty in Ruhl’s imaginative script.
I came away from Eurydice into rainy Toronto reflecting on some of the show’s powerful images, like love letters delivered to the dead via worms, and pondering the idea of trust. Of whether I’d be capable of achieving what Orpheus couldn’t.
Dao’s take on this play was visually and emotionally mesmerizing. I highly recommend catching Dao’s final few on-campus shows as he enters his last semester at U of T. You won’t want to miss them.