A classic myth retold

Posted: Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Don't look back."

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Good rules to live by, or to at least abide by in the Underworld when leading your loved one out of the depths.

That same advice should apply to Perseverance Theatre-goers who venture in to watch New York playwright Sarah Ruhl's version of the ancient Greek myth of Eurydice, bride of Apollo's musical son Orpheus. Don't look back, don't look to the left, don't look to the right... you do not want to miss one gesture, one word, one musical note, one letter floating searchingly down from our world to the next.

"I met this play a couple years ago," Perseverance Theatre Artistic Director Art Rotch said. "Sarah Ruhl is someone I have had my eye on."

Rotch, who has been involved with Alaska theater for 22 years, previously worked with Paula Vogel, who wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning play "How I Learned to Drive" in Juneau in 1996. Ruhl was a student of Vogel's.

"I think Sarah writes the best roles for female characters and writes the best from that gender point of view of any young writer I know," Rotch said. "And that was something I was interested in. And this one, of her many plays, felt right for Perseverance because of its Greek reference. There is something old about the story, something ancient... and I think Alaska has a sense of time."

To Rotch, the play presents a beautiful relationship between a woman and her father and her husband, and will make the audience hold those people close in their own lives.

"It's very moving," Rotch said. "Very profound yet simple."

Ruhl's play differs from the original Greek myth in that she concentrates on the female character Eurydice (played by Ekatrina Oleksa Sotomayor), instead of the male character Orpheus (played by Jed Hancock-Brainerd) and introduces the character of Eurydice's father. The original story concerns Orpheus, who could move rocks and rivers with music, and the heartbreak of losing his true-love, quest to redeem it by charming Hades, and failure to achieve redemption when he looks back to make sure Eurydice is following him.

Ruhl follows more closely the feelings of Eurydice, her tangled emotions of being in love, engaged, married, tempted and then struggling with the choice between husband and father.

With Eurydice as the focus, the play highlights the acting talent of Sotomayor.

"The other reason we are doing (this play) is because of Ekatrina," Rotch said. "She is an actress I really admire."

Sotomayor moved to Juneau in eighth grade, graduated Juneau Douglas High School in 1996 and the University of Alaska Southeast in 2007. She started taking acting in high school under Donna Breeden and became a community theater favorite. She now lives in Portland.

"I think it is a really beautiful story," Sotomayor said. "Beautifully written prose, strong imagery, mythic elements, family, loss, trying to overcome death, finding out what love is, growing up, coming of age... I think it is about a lot of things."

"I hope that people really enjoy the show," she said. "Sometimes people have the perception that Perseverance does a lot of dark scratch-your-face-off productions. I think that even though this is a love-story tragedy, it will also hit home with people on so many different levels."

Ruhl builds strength to Eurydice's character by weaving scenes of love and loss, adding the sad vision of Eurydice's dead father (played like the father we all wish we were/had/knew/remember by Jerry Demmert) watching his daughter's life above while he plods along alone below.

"I've been trying to figure out what this play is about, and I'm still not sure but I think that is a good thing," Sotomayor said. "Maybe it is about losing a parent when young, or just losing a parent, or maybe you never had a parent and it is the idealistic vision of what that would be. I think everyone has a longing to be accepted for who they are and I think that is something that really drives Eurydice in a lot of ways."

What patrons should know is that Ruhl, while just a child, lost her father to terminal cancer. She had just six months to say goodbye. Knowing that fact gives this character much more meaning and depth, beyond that imparted by good writing and acting. Ruhl draws on her own experience as a young woman losing her father and then meeting her husband to expand the brilliance of the myth.

"Theater is a very collaborative work," commented "Eurydice" director Roblin Gray Davis. He works with Akiko Nishijima Rotch (set design), Brieanna Lewis (costumes), Ed Littlefield and Jocelyn Clark (sound), Art Rotch (lighting), and stage manager Stacy Stout to coordinate these elements with the play's text.

"This particular text is wonderful in how poetic it is and how simple it is," Davis said. "And how Sarah Ruhl really allows a lot of space in between the lines. Such as the string room scene, composed of just the simple stage direction to build the string room... there is no text at all. For me, as a director, that is so exciting to fill those spaces with action, with movement, and (to) look at what the character relationships are, and how to convey the theme of the play with those relationships in space."

Davis has been involved with Perseverance for about 10 years and received a masters of fine arts in acting in London. The style there was to be expressive through the body, not just a clown-like physicality, but more along the lines of Cirque Du Soleil. Davis brings three of his colleagues from that program to the play: Rebecca Noon (Little Stone), MK MacNaughton (Big Stone) and Aram Alan Aghazarian (Loud Stone). Besides their bantering wit, the mocking of our heroine, and their ghouliy sexiness, fans should be aware of a simple repeated step that may be overlooked: an effortless scaling of the underworld wall, where they simply walk up on each other's shoulders and walk down.

The three are bold and unabashed until they have to answer to The Lord of the Underworld, played by Ryan Conarro. We first meet him as "A Nasty Interesting Man" in the world above. Down below he grows from a petulant child on a trike to a towering, lusting young man trying to seduce Eurydice. He is the reason they are so bold, carefree, and 'harmless' outside his presence.

When you have settled in your seats, take the three stones' stern admonishment to Eurydice with the humor intended: "Shut up and get used to being dead."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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