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The Commons: A new retelling of an old myth

Apron Theater Company presents a modern version of ‘Eurydice’ at Next Stage

Performances are at Next Stage Arts from Aug. 11-13 and 18-20, at 7:30 p.m. There will be one matinee on Sunday, Aug. 14, at 3 p.m. Next Stage is located at 15 Kimball Hill road in Putney. Tickets are $15 and available at the door, or online (with a fee) at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2560770.

By Richard Henke/The Commons

PUTNEY—Apron Theater Company is taking a new look at a very old myth.
For the next two weekends in August, Next Stage Arts’ resident theater company will present Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” a fresh revision of the Orpheus legend that a Company news release says is “full of dark humor, lyrical beauty and wit” that transforms a traditional myth into “a visceral, contemporary meditation on love worth grieving for.”

Directed by Karla Baldwin, the production stars Madeleine Sepe as Eurydice, Mason Washer as Orpheus, Jim Maxwell as Eurydice’s father, Lou Canelli as an Interesting Man/Child, and Gay Maxwell, Ian Hefele, and Ayars Hemphill as three stones.

The set was designed by David Ryan and painted by Heather Taylor. The lighting was designed by John Todd and the sound by Mason Washer, who also composed original music with Tucker Bettez. Alistair Follansbee is the stage manager.

Eurydice (Madeleine Sepe) and her father (Jim Maxwell) in the Apron Theater/Next Stage production of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice.

Eurydice (Madeleine Sepe) and her father (Jim Maxwell) in the Apron Theater/Next Stage production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice.

Orpheus and Eurydice is a compelling myth that has spoken to people for a very long time.
Involving two of the most famous characters in Greek mythology, the story tells how Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead. There, the music he plays on his lute softens the hearts of the gods, who allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: that he will walk in front of her and not look back until they both have reached the upper world. But he does look back, and so he loses her forever.
Although there have been many versions of this story, oddly there is no extant Greek tragedy of Orpheus. Probably the most famous version was written by the Roman author Ovid in his “Metamorphoses.”

The figure of Orpheus was important in the Italian Renaissance, especially in music (remember, Orpheus was a musician). The story of Orpheus and Eurydice was the subject of the very first surviving opera, “Euridice” (1600) by Peri, and of the first bona fide opera masterpiece still regularly performed today, “L’Orfeo” (1607) by Monteverdi.

There have been countless retellings of this story over the last four centuries. Offenbach wrote a comic operetta, “Orpheus in the Underworld” (1858), which made fun of the story. Jean Cocteau directed a classic French film of the myth, “Orpheus” (1950) setting the tale in the post-war existential cafes of Paris, replete with motorcycles and leather jackets.
In this tradition, Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” first performed in 2003, reimagines the classic myth of Orpheus, but this time more from Eurydice’s point of view.

In a news release, Next Stage gives an idea of how Ruhl revamped the traditional plot:
“On the day of her wedding, Eurydice falls victim to a tragic accident that sends her hurtling into a wonderland of an Underworld: ripped from her beloved Orpheus, the greatest musician in the world, Eurydice is reunited with her dead father in the Land of the Dead. Orpheus journeys to retrieve his bride, but Eurydice has begun to discover that the cost of living again can sometimes exceed the cost of staying dead.”

Baldwin says, “Ruhl makes changes from the traditional versions. When Eurydice goes to the underworld she meets her father who has recently died. In Ruhl’s version of the myth, it is not a snake that kills her, but rather she meets up with an interesting other man who becomes responsible for her death. She also meets three talking stones in the Underworld, which makes things kind of like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”

Baldwin wants to emphasize that although it tells a sad story, the play has its comic moments.

The Three Stones (Ian Hefele, Gay Maxwell, and Ayars Hemphill) in the Apron Theater/Next Stage production of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice.

The Three Stones (Ian Hefele, Gay Maxwell, and Ayars Hemphill) in the Apron Theater/Next Stage production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice.

“Most of the humor comes from the characters of the three stones, who function as a Greek chorus and commentators,” she says. “The stones advise the father and daughter how to behave in the Underworld, but in a rather school-marmy way, as if wagging their accusatory fingers at them.”

In Ruhl’s version of the myth, Orpheus turns around to look only after Eurydice calls out his name.“Ruhl represents Eurydice no longer as a passive woman, but one who has found her voice and speaks,” Baldwin says. “Of course, she knows what will happen when Orpheus turns around: She will be forced to remain in the Underworld. But why Eurydice chooses this fate is one of the haunting mysteries of the play.”

Ruhl was dealing with her own loss in writing Eurydice.
“Her father dying when she was young, she claims that this play was her opportunity to reconnect with her lost father,” Baldwin says. “The bulk of Eurydice involves our heroine meeting her father in the Underworld. In this Underworld, a person loses memory when she or he goes there, so together father and daughter work to regain memories through stories.”
“Eurydice” is very much a play about about memory, contends its director, and therefore doesn’t follow a traditional narrative.

“It’s a show made up of myths and memories,” Baldwin says. “Ruhl is brilliant in showing how we remember certain things, and how these things connect. One thought leads to another thought, and dreams can have a life of their own.”

For Ruhl, dreams and memories have sounds but no words.
“This is a play that has a lot of stillness,” Baldwin says. “I do not mean silence, for while often there is no text, the stage is filled with sound effects and music.”
Mason Washer, who plays Orpheus, is also the sound designer for this production.
“Quite like in the myth itself, our Orpheus has created wonderful music and sound effects,” Baldwin says. “In a play like this, what you can do is infinitely variable, both through sound, lighting, and setting.”

The play has two spaces which need to be represented, the Upper and the Underworld. The set was a big question. How do you create a multi-purpose space, representing upper and lower worlds? “Our set designer David Ryan was full of great ideas,” says Baldwin. “He chose to use 10 columns he salvaged when the original Brattleboro courthouse was torn down. He keeps the columns in a barn full of fabulous treasures. Broken and falling apart, the wooden columns were central to defining the look of our production. Full of mold and peeling paint, the wooden columns suggest decay and loss so pivotal to the play.”
Since both the Upper and the Underworld share the same set, it was important to delineate each, primarily through lighting.

“Lighting for this production is extremely important, and we are lucky to have John Todd doing the lighting for us,” Baldwin says. “Next Stage just installed a brand new lighting system which can do all kind of sophisticated things which John is utilizing to the max.”
Since the set can’t be put on board at Next Stage until shortly before the showtimes — since other acts need to perform in the venue — publicity photos for Eurydice had to been taken elsewhere.

“We chose Madame Shari’s decaying castle in Chesterfield, N.H., to use as our backdrop,” says Baldwin. “In its own way, that strange ruin captures the flavor of our production.”
Karla Baldwin first read Ruhl’s “Eurydice” many years ago, shortly after it was first done. She loved the play and always was looking for a chance to direct a production.
“Since Apron was on hiatus last summer with renovations at Next Stage, I was going to direct a production of Brecht’s ’Mother Courage’ at Landmark College,” she says. “But when the woman playing the lead got sick, we had to abandon the project. Then I decided to take the opportunity to put on ‘Eurydice’ at last.

“We got our cast together and began rehearsing. Then something happened and that production too had to be called off. But I then thought, ‘Hey, I should do this as part of Apron’s next season.’”

Baldwin brought over to Next Stage most of the cast from the aborted Landmark production.
“All the actors are new to Apron,” Baldwin says. “And while all of us here love working with favorite veterans, it is really exciting to be introducing new blood to our company.”
She believes that Eurydice is the kind of a play that can expand a director’s creative palette.

“I am used to directing a traditional narrative which follows the arc of the text through time,” Baldwin says. “Those rules do not apply in ‘Eurydice,’ which makes directing freeing but also scary.”

Baldwin wanted to play up that Wonderland quality of “Eurydice.”
“I must make so many choices to tell this story,” she says. “Ruhl is evasive [about] how anything should be presented. For instance, in productions of ‘Eurydice’ I looked at, I must have seen hundreds of different versions of how the three stones can be played.
“Productions have set this play in all eras. We ultimately decided to place our show in no specific time at all. We have costumed the three stones in Victorian punk Gothic attire, Eurydice’s father in conservative 1950s clothes, and Eurydice and Orpheus in modern dress. Also, rather than strumming a lute, our Orpheus plays a guitar.”

In a nod to the musical character of Orpheus, Ruhl wrote Eurydice in three movements, rather than acts. The first movement is 20 minutes, the second 40 and the third 20, for a total of an hour and a half performance.

“There will be no intermission,” Baldwin says. “But you wouldn’t want one because a break would interrupt the intensity of this riveting drama.”