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Where Orpheus Meets Oedipus

In Sarah Ruhl's version of the Greek myth, Eurydice would endure hell for her daddy.



Eurydice Victory Gardens Biograph Theater

Think of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice as Endgame's cute little sister. The bleak vision, antic absurdity, and calculated stasis of the 2003 script give it a family resemblance to the great, grim play by Samuel Beckett—but it also has pretty balloons. As slyly codirected by Sandy Shinner and Jessica Thebus for Victory Gardens, Ruhl's retelling of the Greek story about a descent into Hades takes all the whimsical, faux-naive accoutrements for which the playwright's become famous and wraps them around a deep, dark core.

Of course, Eurydice is generally thought of as a supporting character in that story: the woman who triggers the most famous adventure undertaken by Orpheus, the poet-musician whose songs could charm stones. In the traditional version, a snake kills her on their wedding day, and Orpheus follows her down to the land of the dead, hoping to bring her back up with him. He nearly succeeds, too. The netherworld's presiding couple, Hades and Persephone, are so taken with him that they make a rare exception to the rules of mortality and permit Eurydice a second chance. The only condition: that Orpheus not look back at his bride until they've both reached the surface. Orpheus makes it across the finish line, but Eurydice's not quite there yet when he turns toward her. She's doomed again, this time for good, thanks to Orpheus's impulsiveness.

Ruhl's play reframes the myth from the dead girl's point of view. The first time we see her she's at the beach, wearing a 1950s bathing suit and having a swooningly coosome time with sweet, earnest Orpheus, who pops the question with an endearing lack of smooth. Her father is dead but writes her letters from beyond, which he attempts to deliver via helium-filled balloons. On her wedding day, a "Nasty Interesting Man"—who may also be the lord of the underworld, it's not quite clear—lures her to her death by promising to show her one of those letters.

As unfortunate as that may seem, there's a major upside for Eurydice in this telling: she's reunited with her beloved dad. In Endgame, Clov, who can't sit down, looks after blind Hamm, who can't stand up, in a subterranean room that's certainly the end of the line if not hell itself. Eurydice and her father share a similar, though much less cranky, mutual dependence. He's managed to cross the Lethe, Hades's river of forgetting, without losing his memory, so when Eurydice arrives—Lethe-washed and believing she's checking in at a very badly run hotel—he recognizes his daughter and coaxes her, tenderly and with the aid of still more balloons, back to full consciousness. The two of them share an idyll.

Meanwhile, dreamy Orpheus—having abandoned his first impulse, which is to find Eurydice by calling information—is searching for the musical tone that will allow him to penetrate the underworld and reclaim her. As in the Greek myth, he both triumphs and fails. But that's not the point here. This isn't his story. In fact, he's a third wheel, whose arrival threatens his dead wife's sweet, chaste oedipal romance. The only one who comes out ahead is death—that is, Hades, who's depicted as presexual, a big-talking kid on a red tricycle. Endgame closes with Hamm dropping a repulsive old handkerchief over his face—a gesture of capitulation to loneliness, life, entropy—while Clov stands silently by, holding an umbrella for the trip we never see him take. The final image of Eurydice has the same anomic, disheartening beauty.

All this is played out in the winsome-grave Ruhlian manner so many critics hate. Early on, for instance, Orpheus asks Eurydice what a book she just read was about and she replies, "There were—stories—about people's lives—how some come out well—and others come out badly." This sort of coyness can get on your nerves, and the whole script's like that: archly, self-consciously unsophisticated, a series of postmodern tropes, innocence as style.

But this is one play where it works, because Eurydice is about a determined effort by someone who should know better (actually, several people who should know better) to resist maturity. The title character is so enamored of her own childhood, her Elysium of Daddy, that she's willing to die for it. Coming from her, a studied innocence makes perfect sense, and her reply to Orpheus about the book ultimately takes on some of the power of Hamlet's cunningly simplistic reply when Polonius asks what he's reading: "Words, words, words."

Shinner and Thebus embrace Ruhl's idiom completely. Their production masters the paradox of slick unpretentiousness, combining metal painters' ladders with an elevator on Daniel Ostling's uncluttered, iconic set. At times they achieve something very like poetry. When Eurydice's father built a room for her in roomless Hades—using balloons, naturally—I was like to die.

The icons on the set include veteran Chicago actors. It's a pleasure to see William J. Norris, Caitlin Hart, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce play a chorus of talking stones whose old-coot repartee recalls Nell and Nagg, the parents in the garbage cans from Endgame. Joe D. Lauck? Also a pleasure, returning from years at a marketing firm to play Eurydice's father. Tall, white-haired, and generous of spirit, he does a dance with Lee Stark's Eurydice that's archetypal in its spring-prom resonances. And Beau O'Reilly, with his grizzled satyr looks, was born to play both the Nasty Interesting Man and Hades, child king of the underworld. The only cast members who come across as somewhat bland are the principals—Stark and the production's Orpheus, James Abelson. That's entirely appropriate, though: they're playing innocents.v

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