Theater Review: Actors’ Theatre’s Beautiful Meditation on Memory With ‘Eurydice’
Actors’ Theatre continues their triumphant return to Schiller Park with a dazzling production of Eurydice, Sarah Ruhl’s vibrant inversion of the Orpheus and Eurydice directed by Beth Josephsen.
In shifting the focus from musician Orpheus (Jackson Mullins) to Eurydice (Emily Grim), Ruhl introduces Eurydice’s father (Matt Moore), long dead by the time we meet the two lovers, still reaching out and influencing his daughter.
We first meet the father writing a letter from the underworld in honor of her wedding day that sets the action rolling. The dynamic between father and daughter gives us some of the most touching sequences. He reminds her how to read, one of her favorite pursuits in life, including a marvelous, touching snatch of King Lear.
He jogs her memories of family, at first oblique, with a tree metaphor, and then with direct, physical detail. The rich chemistry between Grim and Moore implies their intertwined lives in chiseled, sometimes almost haiku-like scenes with more movement than talking.
Josephsen’s direction shines when she plays with the porous relationship between death and life. She uses the physicality of the production and very simple props to ground what could be overly precious flights of fancy in a tangible reality.
We see the letter Eurydice’s dead father writes appear in the path of the Nasty Interesting Man (Connor Daughtery), a boorish catalyst/representative of the waking world who also appears as the King of the Underworld. We see the straw Orpheus breathes himself through to enter the underworld and we see him dangle a volume of Shakespeare off the edge of his world down to Eurydice like he’s fishing. These brief moments amplify the feeling and the surrealism.
Also crucial to the reality of this world of the dead where most of Eurydice takes place is the chorus of stones, Big Stone (Treasure Davidson), Little Stone (Krista Lively Stauffer), and Loud Stone (Ronda Christie). Electricity shoots among these three players, implying a charming, long-term coworker relationship but never letting the audience forget how alien they are. They knock it out of the park on one of the most arduous tasks for an actor: playing an abstraction in a purely narrative work.
As befitting stones, their intense interest in the status quo and, simultaneously, their inability to do anything but observe, is a perpetual delight. Whenever they’re on stage, they fall into positions that remind us which stone is which and simultaneously never seem to stop moving, vibrating and shifting, adding to the dread of the underworld.
Josephsen fleshes out Eurydice’s setting with exceptional technical partners. Brendan Michna’s set balances a mid-century look at the future with surreal angles. Rowan Winterwood’s nuanced lighting plays a more important role than usual, frequently the first and sometimes only clue that reminds the audience where – above or below the ground – we are.
Catherine Rinella’s sound design also carries a lot of weight without drawing undue attention to itself, swirling record-spun-backwards sounds and ambient drones underpin the emotional state and we’re reminded the role sound plays in memory and the role sound can play as a bludgeon from Orpheus’ obsessive dedication to his art that doesn’t leave much room for other disciplines.
Eurydice asks “How do you say goodbye to yourself?” and that question reverberates through this production. Grim draws her struggle – abetted by the father’s struggle to do the right thing, letting go, when it’s what he wants least – with the comfort she’s found ironically in the world of death, and more, the world of memory, in subtle brushstrokes.
She sells lines like that – or “This is what it is to love an artist: The moon is always rising above your house…But he is always going away from you. Inside his head there is always something more beautiful,” like a dagger of ice pointed at every heart.
Mullins imbues his Orpheus with fascinating texture, makes his love for Eurydice clear but also hints at the character’s – and maybe all artists – inability to love someone else until you tap into a greater vulnerability.
The modifications to the climax land with the thud of inevitability and surprised the audience enough at the performance I attended I heard gasps spring up around me. Josephsen and her cast balance the abstract and accessible elements of this modern take on one of the western world’s classic tragic love stories in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and powerful.
Eurydice runs through August 8 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. For more information, please visit theactorstheatre.org/2021-season.