The hypnotic new production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at NextStop Theatre Company is more like a painting or a poem than a movie or a book. It’s a fantastical canvas of broad brushstrokes and bright colors. The language is strange and pretty, the kind that gets stuck in your head like a catchy pop song. The result is an immersive, bewitching experience that you’re not likely to encounter in any other DC area theatre this fall.
Based on the ancient Greek myth, Eurydice stands as a worthy compatriot to the legions of artistic endeavors that have drawn inspiration from the story for centuries. And aside from several notable alterations that Ruhl makes, the story remains much the same. Eurydice (Emily Kester), the bride of Orpheus (Kiernan McGowan), dies tragically on their wedding day, and Orpheus enters the Underworld to bring her back. Hades – or, in Ruhl’s version, the Lord of the Underworld (Alex Zavistovich) agrees to allow Eurydice to return. There’s only one condition (and isn’t there always?): Orpheus must walk ahead of his beloved, never looking back until they are both safely above ground, lest she die another death. Now, I don’t have to tell you smart readers how this ends, but what you should know is that the way it ends is importantly and interestingly different from the myth. Ruhl’s other major alteration is the addition of Eurydice’s father (Michael Kramer), who has already passed on to the Underworld and who is intent on reconnecting with his daughter when she arrives prematurely.
Director Jay D. Brock is skillful at unwinding Ruhl’s tale in a manner that is engaging while taking it at an appropriately legato pace. He enlists a team of designers that, taken as a whole, are responsible for perhaps the most effective overall design I’ve seen for a show in 2016.
Scenic Designer JD Madsen creates a breathtaking set that evokes the concrete monoliths so often present by the sea, all covered with barnacles and fishing nets. Madsen is particularly adept at creating a number of organic pathways and levels for the actors, fulfilling the adage, described by Next Stop, that Eurydice should be a “playground” for set designers.
Lighting Designer Catherine Girardi complements Madsen’s set with a gorgeous wash of greens, blues, and violets that are somehow soothing even as they project high drama.
Sound Designer Kenny Neal deserves credit for crafting a soundscape that is a truly integral element of the show. A constant background of dripping water and ominous tones helps immerse the audience in subterranean depths.
Costume Designer Kristina Martin apparels her cast in a variety of outfits that are contemporary, though not quite naturalistic. Togas, begone; these costumes are more like a fashion show in fairyland. Be sure to check out the blood red tones that seem so lively and vital against the cold greens and grays of the underworld.
Truly, Eurydice is worth checking out for the design alone. But the mesmerizing stage effects are not fully brought to life without the actors, who have their work cut out for them with Ruhl’s unusual language. Said language is highly poetic, and those with a strong preference for linear narrative may wish to avoid this show altogether. But make no mistake – underneath all the surrealism there remains a discernable thematic through line, and a rock solid objective for each character in every scene. It is a trap to approach the lines, poetic as they are, like a poetry reading itself.
This is to say that lilting, one-note line deliveries are not helpful here; they do not propel the narrative and can yield a somewhat soporific atmosphere. Where the actors are most successful at anchoring themselves to a clear intention, the show is at its most compelling. Lucky for us, this is the case more often than not, and there are many moments where the show simply soars.
As the titular heroine, Emily Kester exudes a feminine sweetness and deftly navigates the emotional windings of a character who goes through many significant changes throughout the course of the play. Where Kester could be stronger is in the depth of her relationships to other characters, particularly her father. A great deal of the play hinges on Eurydice’s ambivalence to returning to the world, primarily because of her intense bond with her father. The more intensely we see this bond, the stronger the show will be.
Kiernan McGowan plays Orpheus, a pillar of Greek mythology whose love for Eurydice is so powerful it transcends death. McGowan is a playful, almost childlike Orpheus, exposing a facet of the character rarely seen in other artistic depictions. Like Kester, McGowan has room to grow in the depth of his relationship with his bride. Those moments when he is most connected to the intent of his love shine brightest.
Michael Kramer, who plays Eurydice’s father, navigates his role with nuance, especially when he speaks about his memories – which are doubly significant, because in Ruhl’s Underworld the dead have no memories.
Perhaps most adroit at speaking Ruhl’s language is Alex Zavistovich, who builds a lot of complexity into what could be stock roles: A Nasty Interesting Man and Lord of the Underworld. He radiates charisma when he is on stage, and the ease with which he embodies his character is a refreshing delight.
An interesting device is “The Stones” a group of three talking rocks that are halfway between a Greek Chorus and the Weird Sisters. Played by Tamieka Chavis (Big Stone), Briana Manente (Loud Stone), and Charlene V. Smith (Little Stone), respectively. The Stones move well together, and at their best moments they seems like numerous flailing limbs on a single hydric beast.
Eurydice is a lush, captivating play, all the more alluring because it defies easy analysis. The design is incredible, and the acting, when deeply felt, brings the poetry to life. It is well worth a visit to anyone who craves a truly mesmerizing play, and isn’t afraid to make a journey of their own – as long as you don’t turn back.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.