If you appreciate poetry, you’ll want to see Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, which opened last Friday at the Curio Theatre and runs until November 12. If you like mythology, you’ll probably want to see it. Or if you like Greek tragedy. Or regular tragedy. Or if you’re a father, a daughter, or a lover. Actually, even if you are, or like, or are like none of these things, you’re going to want to see Eurydice at the Curio. Because it may be the finest production in Philadelphia right now.
The play retells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The two lovers test the boundary between life and death when Orpheus attempts to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. The powers that be allow Orpheus to abscond with his dead lover only if he can escape without looking back at her. He fails. Ruhl enhances the story by adding a new love interest for Eurydice: her father. After the two bondâ€”bending the rules of death to do soâ€”Eurydice greets Orpheus-the-rescuer with doubt as she weighs her relationship with her husband against that with her father.
If Ruhl set out to present the Greek myth from Eurydice’s perspective, then Tessa Kuhn’s performance as Eurydice is a conflict. At times she handles Ruhl’s poetic lines with the presence of a middle school student reading Shakespeare aloud. She comes off as only nuanced in the most superficial ways. It’s hard to credit her for wresting the heroic mantle from Orpheus’s shoulders (where it has rested for some time now) until an arresting monologue in the final scene, in which she paints Orpheus in such conflicted colorsâ€”and with such surprising emotional powerâ€”that it’s hard to imagine that her performance was not deliberate. In this moment it becomes clear that the play isn’t really about Eurydice, and Tessa Kuhn isn’t bearing the weight of the entire play on her shoulders.
Eurydice is only ever the object of loveâ€”whether Orpheus’s or her father’s. It’s therefore fitting that Tessa Kuhn’s performance seems a bit flat. Whether intentional or not, Kuhn makes a strong statement about the personality of one particular woman as it is defined by her relationship with two men. Indeed, the production plays with the tradition of fathers handing off their daughters at weddingsâ€”first showing it with an absent father before manifesting it in reverse with Eurydice returning into her father’s arms. As a result, the standout star of the play is Paul Kuhn, who plays Eurydice’s father. With stunning and understated power, Paul Kuhn embodies the unmitigated sadness of loss and loneliness even while drawing the audience into the bottomless well of tenderness in the heart of a father for his daughter.
The play also benefits from a strong supporting cast, including CJ Keller as a recurring seducer. Keller’s clownish antics deliver laughs while nonetheless conveying ominous gravity. Similarly, the stone chorusâ€”Ruhl’s answer to the Greek chorusâ€”both frightens and amuses. The three stones move rhythmically across the stage when they’re not posed in stillness. Their use of language is equally surreal.
It’s difficult to do justice to director Liz Carlson’s production simply in dealing with its plot and characters. The play is an extended work of poetry that refuses to succumb to the kind of simple narrative experience that theater-goers may be used to. Her set, for instance, is a massive helical platform descending into a shallow pool at center stage. The cavernous space results in towering shadows that remind the audience what denizens of the underworld consider themselves to be. The multi-tiered and spacious area allows the actors to perform simultaneously, a technique that enhances the overall beauty of the production, as the audience races to keep up with action while nonetheless catching every emotional tone of Ruhl’s symphony. The action itself weighs as much as the verse, an expectation set from the very beginning with the two lovers dashing after each other across every inch of the stage. In one scene, Eurydice’s father builds Eurydice a room of string in the underworld. Not a word is spoken for minutes at a time, yet it is hard not to break down and cry. It is only one of several such scenes to have this effect.
Carlson’s and Ruhl’s triumph is in infusing such complicated emotional power not into the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but into the relationship of Eurydice and her father. There isn’t much conflict in this pursuit. None of the characters seem to oppose each other. Stains in the lovers’ relationship are only hinted at and bear no significance to the sequence of events. The only villain is death, or separation, manifesting as that surreal and aching sense that somewhere else, a character of one’s thoughts is conscious and moving independently. Often the intellectual stimulation of the narration moves faster than coherence. This effect is undoubtably the goal of the play. It is why Ruhl’s work resembles a poem more than it does a myth, tragedy or story. Like the very best poems, it will move you to tears before unveiling its meaning.