Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008

Random Thoughts About the Rep's Eurydice

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Given the opportunity to do a review of a Rep show for online, I’ve decided to give my opinions a little more breathing room than I usually do. This will, undoubtedly be somewhat long and rambling, but what follows is an unbridled, unedited stream of consciousess piece about the Milwaukee Rep’s latest main stage offering.

Lanise Antoine Shelly as Eurydice

Sarah Ruhl’s EURYDICE

There’s passion, poetry and emotion, but the visuals here are everything. As carefully crafted as Sarah Ruhl’s script for Eurydice may have been, (and I have no reason to doubt that it was) much of the actual dialogue is flat and lifeless. People express things in vague and vaguly poetic languge that does little to illuminate the story. The regrettable state of the script leaves little more to the stage than a surreal, aesthetically fantastic landscape populated by talented actors breathing powerful emotion into poorly-executed quasi-poetry.

A contemporary adaptation of ancient Greek myth, Ruhl's Eurydice brings the story of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld into the world of modern aesthetics. The plot manifested in the script lacks any real insight into the nature of the story. Those looking for modern insight into the story would be better served by Neil Gaiman’s take on it in the Fables and Reflections book of his acclaimed Sandman series. Aside from harnessing some very visceral visuals, Ruhl’s adaptation comes across without any feeling of inspiration. The dialogue, while somewhat poetic and surreal, lacks the kind of coherent energy of the far more powerfully surreal work of far more accomplished contemporaries like Caryl Churchill (Far Away) and pioneers of this kind of theatre like Sam Beckett (Endgame.) There’s definitely a feeling that Ruhl loves the language, but without much coherent energy to organize any of Ruhl’s dialogue, the Rep’s high-end production of Ruhl’s script ends up feeling like a great deal of inspiration and effort thrown at a hastily-written rough draft.

The visual dimensions of the production are by far some of the most impressive that the Rep has managed in recent memory. Chicago-based longtime Rep scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, who recently won a Tony for his work in August: Osage County did a phenomenal job here. Rather than going for a traditional look for a modern underworld—(a derelict subway after a nuclear or biological holocaust perhaps) Rosenthal took a cue from the script that asked for something more “Alice In Wonderland.” The resulting set ends up manifesting as a vividly surreal, minimalists dream world. The elevator to the underworld is thrust into the ground at an odd angle. The rain cascading from within the elevator achieves a remarkable effect, the water draining as it does onto the rest of the stage from a crevasse in the slate tiles of the floor. The tiles themselves add to the scenery as forgotten words are scrawled onto them with chalk—bringing with them that distinctive sound of chalk against blackboard. The sound of the rain against the inside of the elevator brings a very natural feel to the production as well. This is very, very visceral theatre. One of the most notably novel bits of staging here is a scene occurring on a balcony placed as high above the Quadracci’s voluminous stage as the space will allow, making for a kind of vertical distance from the actors rarely experienced in local theatre.

Some of the specifics of the play seem a bit too arcane to really be all that . . . interesting. The dreamlike repetition of the word interesting in the dialogue is anything but . . . interesting. There’s a giant, colorful beach ball in the background that deflates symbolically at some significant point in the story . . . the Greek chorus shows up as a trio of lost adult souls dressed as children from another era . . . there’s a lot going on here that doesn’t necessarily fit together all that well, but there’s enough emotional power behind what’s being presented to keep it from being completely disinterestng. Evidently in the underworld of the story, no one remembers how to read (or much of anything else) as they have been dunked in the waters of forgetfulness when they’ve passed out of earthly existence. As a result, when they see a book—one like, say . . . the Second Edition of The Riverside Shakespeare—their first inclination is to open it up and stand on it barefoot. There’s probably some arcane significance to standing on an opened book in bare feet, but the audience is given little incentive to figure it out. All of the many dreamlike bits of casual surrealism present here are interesting, but not interesting enough to fit into anything bigger that could make them seem any more profound than they are at face value.

As mentioned before, the acting really is quite good in places. The talents of Lanise Antoine Shelly (in the title role) and Wayne T. Carr (in the role of an impetuous agent of the underworld) are largely lost to a script that is this uninspired. Wlliam Dick manages to make the role of Eurydice’s deceased father seem far more captivating than the dialogue alone would allow for. The remainder of the cast is limited to relatively flat stereotypes (most regrettably: an Equity Actor who is probably quite talented named Davis Duffield as a particularly drab and depthless Orpheus.)

A modernization of the classic Greek story is very promising and with a big main stage Rep production featuring some really great acting talent, this could’ve been one of the best shows in the county this season. It’s kind of disappointing seeing the potential of a show like this completely lost on a less than stellar script.

The Milwaukee Rep’s Eurydice runs through November 23rd at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. A far more polished, concise and undoubtedly classy review by the ever-insightful Aisha Motlani runs in this week’s print edition of the Shepherd-Express.

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