I see dead people

Posted on 26 Oct 2008 at 1:03pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones Stage Critic

Sarah Ruhl ‘Eurydice’ is just what it wants to be: a lifeless inside joke for pseudo-intellectuals


The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is among the most poignant in the canon of twisted mythology: Eurydice dies tragically young, and her lover, Orpheus, is so overcome with grief, he does the unthinkable, traveling to the underworld to retrieve her. There, Hades makes him a promise: She can return to the living, but she must follow behind Orpheus, who cannot gaze upon her until both are safely topside.

Orpheus treks and trudges along for an eternity, taking it on faith that Eurydice is, in fact, behind him. Finally, when he’s within sight of daylight, be panics, turns quickly to make sure that Eurydice is really there, but upon seeing her, is forever separated from her. Trust, doubt, anxiety, passion, foolishness, mystery — it’s all lip-smackingly present in the myth, a tale twinged of irony. How do you screw it up.

Sarah Ruhl has.

The "genius grant" playwright’s retelling of the myth, called "Eurydice" and now being staged by the Undermain Theater, has none of that. No longing, no eternal passion, no drawn-up sense of doubt. Why, by the very titling of the play she’s shown where her sympathies lie — not with the man who, quite literally, moves heaven and earth for love simply to lose it in a fit of human weakness, but with the woman who dies (twice). As feminist tract it has, I suppose, some academic merit (Eurydice has been objectified by patriarchal phallocentric storytellers for too long!) but as drama it’s short on everything. What is the story without irony?

This "Eurydice" belongs to a self-sanctified cabal of smug "art" theater that generates raves from the New York Times but leaves those of us who actually enjoy going to shows puzzled, drowsy and a little angry. At only 90 minutes, "Eurydice" didn’t steal much of my time, but stolen it was.

You probably couldn’t convince me in a week of brainwashing that giving a character a name like "The Nasty and Interesting Man," or anthropomorphizing minerals in a badly dressed chorus of rocks called "Little Stone," "Big Stone" and "Loud Stone" (loud? really?) is anything but navel-gazing rot. There’s no engagement with the audience — it just reminds us why Thespis stepped forward and classical Greek theater hasn’t been in mode since a time when the world was flat.

The strongest emotion I felt all night was for the actors themselves, cursed to serve as the tools of a private joke between Ruhl, the director, Bruce DuBose and those self-congratulatory pseudo-intellectuals who don’t understand the play any more than I do, but find value in knowing that they should like it.

It’s not that I have anything against staged myth, or even water used onstage in the most craven "wow" manner. (A few years ago, Theatre Three did a bang-up job with Mary Zimmerman’s "Metamorphoses.") But this production feels as if its details (raining inside an elevator, a beach with words written permanently in the sand like the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater) were pure artifice.

You could say Ruhl’s poetic quality can trump the dramatic weaknesses, but even there the play fails to generate much heat. It’s simply too crushingly dull to allow yourself to be carried away.

Throw this one in the River Styx.

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