Sunday, April 30, 2023

Orpheus: "I was thinking about you. And music."

My wife and I took a trip across Afton Mountain to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. Performances at the ASC take place in the Blackfriars Theater, billed as the world's only reproduction of the late 16th/early 17th century indoor theater used by Shakespeare to stage many of his performances. Watching a play in this unique venue is an experience not to be missed.

We were not there to take in one of their performances of Shakespeare, which (I must say) are always outstanding, but their production of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice. This modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth was familiar, interesting, and, at times, a little bizarre.

First, the familiar. All the elements of the ancient myth are there. Without giving anything away, I can reveal that Eurydice dies on her wedding day and ends up in the Underworld. Orpheus, heartbroken, works to find his way back to his bride, only to lose her again when a misstep on their exit nullifies the deal Hades made for her release.

The interesting element comes from the story being told from the point of view of Eurydice. She arrives in the Underworld after a long and tiring journey. After having been bathed in the river (which is obviously the Lethe,  but never mentioned by name), she arrives unable to speak, remember her name, or even recognize anyone or anything. She is greeted by the shade of her father, who takes on the task of teaching her who she is, who they are (and were), and about her love and marriage to the musician Orpheus. It was fascinating, and a little touching, to watch Eurydice learn and grow, until she almost reaches the level of consciousness when she died.

Finally, the bizarre, and again I will try not give too much away about some other characters, namely the chorus and Lord of the Underworld. The chorus is played admirably by three individuals who represent rocks in the Underworld. They do not so much comment on the thoughts and actions of Eurydice as they try to teach her the rules of dead and existing in the Underworld. They are affected by Orpheus' sad music and, at one point, are so overcome that they roll across the stage and exit. They do provide an important part of the story, but I kept thinking that this is what it must have been like to watch a beatnik performance way back in the early 1960s. The Lord of the Underworld was portrayed as a childish, creepy individual "who is starting to grow" and "ready to become a man." It was uncomfortable watching his performance, as (I believe) it should have been. My wife commented on the way home that this whole character could have been removed, and the play would have continued on without him.

In all, this was a great performance, and I was glad to have seen it. This work fits right in with the recent publications of ancient myths and stories from the female perspective, and illustrates well the power of myth to remain timeless and meaningful, not matter the age.

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