Thursday, February 26, 2009

Not Orpheus but Eurydice

Last night, the housemates and I were sponsored by a volunteer corps board member to go see the play "Eurydice" at the Roundhouse Theater in Bethesda. I had determined that I wanted to go see this play some time ago. Its at a theatre called the roundhouse so I assumed (wrongly) that it would be theatre in the round. Its based on a Greek myth, and its by a contemporary female playwright. These are all things I'm very interested in. After a conversation at coffee hour, a very kind board member bought us 5 tickets to go see "Eurydice." Honestly, I was a little surprised that everyone wanted to go. Every time I've brought up theatre in DC, its been met with a lukewarm response. This is OK. I'm used to my "non-theatre" friends not always wanting to go see plays with me. In fact, if i really want to see something I will go by myself.

I decided last night that I've become a theatre snob. I had this feeling that I was the only one of the group who could really enjoy the play. This is totally untrue. Just because theatre is my chosen artistic medium, doesn't mean that people who haven't spent hundreds of hours studying theatre can't enjoy a play! Just because the housemates couldn't tell me what type of stage it was doesn't mean they can't understand what is happening on stage. For those of you who are curious, I guess you'd call this stage a non-proscenium modified thrust. Not in fact theatre in the round at all, but the audience was almost on 3/4ths. But you don't need to know any of that to enjoy it.

So to move on the storyline, the myth of Orpheus, what do we know about it? Orpheus is an epic story. Countless plays, and operas have been written about it, it echoes everywhere. It may not quite be common usage now, but I think it has been in the past. While I know the basic myth, it is not one of my favorites and I've never really studied it in depth. Before seeing the play I might have told you something like this:
Orpheus is a musician, a maker of beautiful music. On his wedding day his bride, Eurydice, dies. His love for her takes him to the underworld to beg for her back from Hades. He plays Hades beautiful music and for once, Hades shows mercy and strikes a bargain: Orpheus can have Eurydice back if he can lead her out of the underworld with out looking back, without seeing her. Orpheus almost makes it to the surface with Eurydice, but looks back to make sure she is there and loses her to death. They are not reunited until Orpheus dies, many years later.

This is what I knew going in. And look at my description. The story is all about Orpheus. And the different versions are almost always titled "Orpheus." This story is about him. However, this play is really about her. In the mythology, Eurydice is a non character. Not that most women in greek mythology get wonderful treatment, but I think it would be difficult to find one less developed as a character or more passive. We have some wonderful women, and some who are slighted. Even Helen is a strong presence "the face that launched a thousand ships", though she hardly gets to speak a word. Odysseus's patient Penelope waits at home for 20 years for her husbands return but is wily enough to trick her suitors. What does Eurydice do? She dies. Then she walks behind her husband. That's it.

To make a story centered around Eurydice is ambitious. And wonderful. I thought it was a great play and a fantastic production. The playwright did a good job navigating the original myths while making some additions. Eurydice is given a father who has been in the underworld for years, and is there to meet her when she dies. Eurydice is finally given a personality and the love between Eurydice and Orpheus seems very strong and reciprocal. They actually seem to have a connection that could conquer death. The Eurydice and Orpheus of this play could go on anyone's list of star crossed lovers.

The most interesting change is that in this play, Hades himself is obsessed with Eurydice; he actually causes her death and wants to make her queen of the underworld. This is not a part of the original myth. It gives some weight to the story. It presents an actual villain. Eurydice, instead of being bitten by a snake on her wedding day, is actually stolen by death. Orpheus is then trying to right a wrong of the universe, not just wildly mourning a woman who died too young, but one who shouldn't have died at all.

I will move on and discuss some of the particulars of this production. I realized last night that apparently I have a few rules for theatre. One of my rules is that if you have an elaborate set, you better use it. Another rule is: if you have a real body of water on stage, someone better get submerged in it! The production did both of these things.

I don't like huge, expensive set pieces that are used only once. I once saw a play that had the capability to revolve their entire set to reveal an alley way, and they moved the whole set for a two minute dream sequence. Then it was back to normal and never used again. I thought that was ridiculous. I'm not interested in how big or gorgeous your set is. I'm interested in how you it. This production's use of their set was very pleasing.They had a reasonably complicated set, but used it all to satisfaction. The back and forth movement between the underworld and the real world was done through a complicated scaffolding system, extensive lighting and some draped fabric.

The set itself was a thrust stage built to look like a shore. A stream ran down the middle of the stage, and the very front of the stage was water, with a sort of ledge to keep it from running into the audience. This water turned out to be shallow, maybe a foot deep. However three was some kind of trap door in the water that allowed a character to be completely emerged to great effect. I was honesty surprised by the technical capabilities of this show, and this theatre. They had several trap doors. They dropped things from the catwalk. At one point they showered balloons form "heaven" and managed to get every single one of them in the water. They even had a elevator into Hades, that either worked, or they were very clever in the sound and lighting to imitate a working elevator. I think it must be the latter, but it was very convincing.

I have been considering the concept of "knowing" a story for several days now. I went into this production knowing the myth. One of my housemates refused to be told the myth, preferring not to know anything before she saw the production. Is the the theatre major in me who wants to know the story? Why do we want to read a play before we see it? What does that do for you the audience member?

Interestingly, I am going to see a production of the Checkov play "Uncle Vanya" next week when I'm in Tacoma. I talked to a friend who is in the production and I asked if I should read the play before I come to see it. He told me no, that it was not necessary to my enjoyment for me to know the play. So where does this idea come from? In Shakespeare's day, his whole audience would have know the plot of most of his plays. Almost all of them come from other sources that would have been familiar to Shakespeare's audience. And today the popular Shakespeare plays are in our vernacular. It would be difficult to walk into Hamlet without knowing "to be or not to be" and how it ends. So how does this translate to "Eurydice?" Well I think it doesn't really matter. I got something from know the mythology, but did my housemate loose anything by not knowing? I don't think she did.

So to conclude this very very long ramble on theatre. I loved this play. I thought the way they incorporated the themes of music and water (and actual music and water) were well done. The production values were amazing and the ending was beautiful, surprising and heartbreaking (not to mention myth breaking).


Kate Z Stone said...

Dang. I really want to see this now. You are a great theatre critic, Char! I totally agree with your belief that a set should be used to greatest possible degree, and that if you are going to have something as phenomenologically hot as water on stage you had better be planning on REALLY using it. Love you darling, can't wait to see you!

grandpa jack said...

Charlotte, this is the best theater critique that I have read in may years. I learned about Eurydice and stages and water, but most of all I was reminded about how clever and wonderful a granddaughter I have. I hope you see lots of more theatre stuff and write about it.

Love granDpa jAcK