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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008

Screwball Tragedy

Theater Review

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Perhaps no one is better qualified to point out the shortcomings of language than a writer. Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice, which runs through Nov. 23 at the Milwaukee Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, illuminates the failure of language to express the joy and pain of life or the profundity of familial ties. As she reminisces about her husband, the title character recalls his observation, "Words can mean anything. Show me your body… It only means one thing."

The play, a modern retelling of Orpheus' descent into the Underworld told largely from the point of view of his dead wife, comprises an earnest attempt to pierce the strictures of language using dialogue that careens effortlessly between the somber and the droll, and manages for the most part to steer clear of the trite. The characters' quirky idioms are interspersed with stark, melodic observations that cut through their forgetful limbo or bridge the gap between their disparate worlds-a gap that's apparent even before Eurydice falls to her death.

Likewise the mood of the play is an idiosyncratic blend of "Twilight Zone" and romantic tragedy, with elements of the popular comedy lent by Wayne T. Carr's sporadic appearances as the sleazy satyr and the pettish boy-king of the Underworld. Todd Rosenthal's tilted stage set mimics the peculiarity of the premise without going overboard. Only the stones, trussed up in gaudy, child-sized part outfits, threaten to force the screwball element of the play over the edge, and might succeed were it not for Davis Duffield and William Dick's humble and humane performances in the respective roles of Orpheus and Eurydice's father. Tellingly it's their silent, pained gestures rather than their words that deliver some of the most poignant moments of the play.

Lanise Antoine Shelley plays Eurydice as a changeable, spirited young woman for whom death poses an opportunity to clarify conflicting and often shapeless thoughts. It's no surprise that she's loath to return to the world of the living. That this idyllic period of renewed clarity is also only a temporary state comes as something of a shock at the end of the play. One can't help feeling cheated at coming this far only to strike against the characters' sudden and impenetrable oblivion. Ruhl's brave assault on language comes to a jarring halt.