When theatrical spectacle isn't enough

Posted: Thursday, January 21, 2010

Perseverance Theatre's current production, Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice," opens with symphonic genius: Jocelyn Clark and Ed Littlefield play a haunting duet that evokes the ocean's steady rhythmic tide. Even though the play is not a musical, the live music created by Clark and Littlefield throughout the performance is a defining character in Roblin Gray Davis's production, and in my view, the star of the show.

I attended the Jan. 16 performance of "Eurydice" with high hopes for the story, based on an ancient Greek myth about a gifted musician, Orpheus, and his journey to the Underworld to conquer death to bring his new bride back to the world of the living. The notion that playwright Ruhl spun the tale into Eurydice's journey instead of Orpheus' intrigued me. However, I soon sat confused as to why Ruhl's play has become the new buzz in so many theaters across the country. I, myself, didn't see the appeal.

The play trudged through endless dialog and stylized choreographic moments that were born in ingenious inspiration, but fell flat because of a sluggish pace. One scene that has no words shows Eurydice's father, who is also in the Underworld, building Eurydice a house of string while she wanders endlessly around the stage and the chorus of stones merge in and out of interesting statuesque poses. The scene, at first so full of passion, took too long to play out and quickly became mundane, losing its power and purpose.

The continuous conversations between Eurydice (Ekatrina Oleksa Sotomayor) and her father (Jerry Demmert) were also dull; this was not the fault of the actors, but was evidence of the lack of compelling dramatic dialog. In fact, Sotomayor and Demmert's characterizations were true and sound, but the material which held such promise in its premise and design missed the mark in literary merit.

The best scene in the show came and finished too soon. When Eurydice meets the Lord of the Underworld (Ryan Conarro) at her wedding, the characters created by Sotomayor and Conarro personified passion and finally I was hooked. But their magical fervor broke as soon as Eurydice entered the Underworld, and I lost my interest the moment the chorus of rocks (three characters who narrate and comment on the important details of the show) held for what one could only suppose was a comedic gimmick that lasted too long.

Even in the midst of playful Cirque du Soleil-like entertainment, the pace of the play inched forward with little variety in building and waning tension, creating insufficient climactic moments. Some scenes lagged at a snail's pace while others romped loudly in a frenzy of mindless activity and frivolity.

Similarly, the Cirque du Soleil style of the show visually attracted my interest, but was inconsistent and lacked a tightly woven theme. For instance, Brieanna Lewis emphasized a distinctive, vintage carnival flair for most of the costumes, painting an intriguing palette for the play. However, several of the costume choices showed a different style altogether. One of the biggest visual problems for me came in the incongruent choice of Eurydice's wedding dress, a stunning carnival-like fashion, and her underworld outfit, plain and unassuming. These were not the only missing thematic pieces of apparel. Orpheus' swimming attire and Eurydice's father's business suit lacked carnival class as well.

I assume that the costume designer was trying to highlight the difference between Eurydice, Orpheus, her father and the other beings in the underworld by visually setting them apart, but the inconsistent thematic use of costumes disappointed and gave an unpolished feel to an otherwise well thought-out, overall stage picture.

The lighting and set were both strong, simultaneously showing the Underworld and the land of the living. The huge set was merely a painted background for the costumed characters, so that together they created an artistic masterpiece. The set was also reminiscent of the simplistic functionality of a circus big top, the clowns in this show being the chorus of stones who, along with the Lord of the Underworld, used the set for acrobatic feats.

The choreography of the show was also thoughtfully and artfully planed. Akiko Nishijima Rotch created a running water system that rained down on the characters to symbolize the passing of souls from life into death through the River Styx. Those moments in the production were lovely and evocative. Even the lights and fog seemed to breathe with a life of their own, and, together with the music, led to the most enjoyable moments in the play.

If you would like to see a production that is truly a different theatrical experience, where light and color and music dance freely with capable dramatic artists, then "Eurydice" is worth a peek. Roblin Gray Davis is an artist with every aspect of the show. But even his ingenuity wasn't enough to compensate for the lack of luster in Sarah Ruhl's wearisome and disappointing script.

Performances of "Eurydice" run until January 31.

• Michaela Moore, theater director Juneau Douglas High School, can be reached at michaela_moore@jsd.k12.ak.us

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