Rocks that whisper and taunt, rain that falls inside an elevator and letters written by the dead: These are among the symbols populating playwright Sarah Ruhl's modern myth, "Eurydice." A re-imagining of an ancient tale, the 2007 play takes an intimate look at loss and grief, family bonds and the complexity of marriage. This weekend, Palo Alto Players presents this haunting, whimsical take on one of Western culture's most enduring stories.
The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, on which Ruhl's play is based, tells of a young woman who dies tragically on her wedding day. The story focuses on the agony of her widower, Orpheus the musician, who travels to the underworld in hopes of retrieving his lost love. Hades, the god of the underworld, is impressed by Orpheus's beautiful singing, and grants him permission to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living, as long as he resists the urge to look back at her until they reach the light. Too early, Orpheus turns his head to see his wife disappear from him forever.
In MacArthur "Genius Award"-winning Sarah Ruhl's contemporary remake, it's not Orpheus's journey to the underworld that takes center stage, but Eurydice's, and her grief stems from more complex sources than just the loss of her husband. Maybe the greatest amendment Ruhl makes to the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the addition of a third central character: Eurydice's dead father, whose presence in the underworld adds new dramatic tension to the storyline. Joyful at being reunited with her father yet sorrowful about abandoning her new husband, Eurydice is forced to choose not just between life and death, but between the two most important men in her life.
Ruhl wrote "Eurydice" shortly before her own marriage, and director Jeffrey Lo said the play can be seen as a letter to her own late father, who did not live to see her wed.
"There's a beautiful line in Ruhl's play when Eurydice says weddings are for fathers and daughters," Lo said. "A wedding represents a time when a daughter is no longer married to her father."
This love triangle between the young man, the young woman and her father lends Ruhl's "Eurydice" a distinctly Freudian tone, and there's something undeniably postmodern about seeing this drama unfold from the feminine perspective. At the same time, Ruhl's play remains built on an ancient story that transcends cultures: Japanese, Mayan, Indian and Sumerian mythology all feature similar tales of women who venture into the underworld and the difficulties they face in trying to cross back.
In researching plays for Palo Alto Players' 2014/15 season, Artistic Director Patrick Klein was drawn to "Eurydice" for what he called the play's "amazing poetic language and theatricality," as well as for its accessibility.
"It's a deeply relatable play: for parents, children and anyone who has suffered grief," Klein said. "It's about life, love, loss and language. Everyone will walk away moved in some way -- I'm sure of that."
The production is recommended for audience members age 12 and up, in large part because its emphasis on the lyrical rather than the literal would leave most younger viewers in the dark. At the same time, that reliance on symbolism and allegory are what lend the play its emotional power. Ruhl is known for her masterful and creative approach to language, and in "Eurydice," she explores the boundaries of verbal communication, pushing language to its limits.
Actress Sarah Moser, who plays Eurydice, said she was drawn to the role because of her admiration for Ruhl's writing, particularly the "poetry and playfulness" of her script, as well as the playwright's way of using dialogue to evoke a different world where the ordinary rules of conversation no longer apply.
"The underworld has an Alice-in-Wonderland feel to it," Moser noted. "There really is no subtext to the language. Every character says exactly what he or she feels most fully and forcefully at that moment. It helps fuel the sense that this is an epic tale of mythic proportion."
Aside from Ruhl's unusual use of language, one of the aspects of the play that appealed most to Klein as an artistic director was the fact that the playwright leaves the physical setting open to interpretation.
"It's essentially a sandbox for design," Klein said of the play. "You can do anything you want with it." Set designer Janny Coté has created a two-story set in order to simultaneously represent the world of the living above and the underworld below. "We're still working with the City of Palo Alto to get the rain elevator approved," Klein said, alluding to one of the few specifics called for in the script. "We're also sending the stage out into house a little bit, like a runway, so the audience can be closer to action of the show." Palo Alto Players' production will also use lighting and sound design to evoke otherworldly qualities and to convey the power of Orpheus' music.
In both the original myth and in Ruhl's adaptation, entering the underworld requires crossing the river Lethe, which erases all memories including the knowledge of language. Thus, entire sections of the play rely on movement and gesture, rather than speech, to convey meaning. None of the actors in this production are trained dancers, but choreographer Megan Trout has been brought in to work with the cast, particularly with the chorus of three stones who represent the entry to the underworld. Ruhl dubs these three Big Stone, Little Stone and Loud Stone, and notes that these characters might be played "as though they are nasty children at a birthday party."
Lo spoke of the importance of movement to the production and particularly to the chorus, explaining that Trout and the actors have worked to develop a "mechanical, daily feel to the underworld that's very specific and stylized."
Besides the three leads and the chorus, the only other character in Ruhl's play is A Nasty Interesting Man, who below ground becomes The Lord of the Underworld. In both guises, he's a seducer who tries to pull Eurydice away from those she truly loves.
For actor Wes Gabrillo, who plays Orpheus, it's love that forms the central theme of the play: young romance, familial devotion and even self-acceptance. "It's the old story of opposites attract," he noted of Orpheus and Eurydice's courtship. "But then for much of the play, Orpheus is without Eurydice in the physical sense, and his love for her grows as he learns more about himself. He even begins to use Eurydice's way of communicating through words instead of just through music."
Moser agreed: "I am really intrigued by the very specific and very different kinds of love we see in this play and how they seem to tug at Eurydice from all directions."
As for the most crucial moment of the classical myth, when Orpheus breaks the rules and looks back at his wife before she has left the underworld, Ruhl has made a subtle but significant change there, too. In her rendition, it's Eurydice who calls out to her husband just before she reaches the threshold, causing him to turn. Just why she does so -- is she simply afraid, or has she made a last-minute decision not to leave her father? -- isn't made entirely clear in the script. Gabrillo cited this scene as his favorite to play.
"There's this moment where she says, 'Orpheus!' and I say, 'You startled me,' and then we turn back to back, and walk apart ... until she can't remember." Gabrillo likened this dramatic moment "trying to pull someone back into the reality you both share -- maybe an elderly loved one or someone you're in a relationship with, where they're slipping away and you're reaching for ways to pull them back to you."
Gabrillo credited director Lo with guiding the cast to discover the personal resonance in scenes like this one.
For Lo himself, the most compelling aspect of the play is the parent/child relationship.
"Early on in the rehearsal process, before we were even on our feet, we sat around the table reading the script and sharing stories," he said. "Although the words of the text don't incorporate those conversations directly, I think there's a tenderness in how the actors interact on stage because we've opened up to each other."
Lo also noted that the love between Eurydice and her father is unique, because they've endured a separation, then met again.
"There's something so beautiful about characters who get to reunite after death," Lo said, "because they know what it's like to lose each other."
What: Palo Alto Players' "Eurydice," by Sarah Rulh
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Saturday, Jan. 17-Sunday, Feb. 1, with shows at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; preview on Friday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m.
Cost: $31-$45, with some discounts available
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.