Carmela Corbett and Timothy Landfield in "Eurydice" at South… (Henry DiRocco )
"Eurydice," Sarah Ruhl's playful retelling of the Orpheus myth from a female perspective, has returned from that underworld where plays go between revivals. It seems as though someone is always summoning this one up, and the current production at South Coast Repertory, while overplaying at times the work's theatrical whimsy, reveals what's so enticing about the playwright's vision.
Directed by SCR artistic director Marc Masterson, this "Eurydice" is visually quite alluring. Gerard Howland's lightly surreal scenic design is beautifully lighted by Anne Militello, who finds all sorts of otherworldly hues to suggest Eurydice's descent to the land of the dead on her wedding day. The multimedia design by John Crawford tickles the unconscious with flickering background images that mix the mythic with the postmodern with as much confidence as Ruhl splices together the ancient and the modern.
The soundscape created by Bruno Louchouarn adds another layer of tantalizing mystery to the design scheme. The effect is like being inside a computer whose clicks and beeps are riding on a stream of classical string music.
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The acting isn't quite as accomplished as the mise en scène. Alex Knox's Orpheus and Carmela Corbett's Eurydice make an attractive pair, though their characterizations sometimes seem stilted in a way that isn't very compellingly individualized.
They're archetypes of youthful lovers as imagined by a department store catalog art director. Not all of this is the direction. The play has these ill-starred lovebirds kicking up their heels as they sing a little of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me").
The most resonant performance comes from Timothy Landfield, who plays Eurydice's dead father, a key role in this updated version of the Orpheus tale. The play dramatizes the plight of a young woman torn between her loyalty to her deceased dad and her romantic excitement over her musician boyfriend, who has the advantage of being handsome and alive and the disadvantage of not being particularly verbal or literary, qualities passed down to her by her father.
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Landfield doesn't overdo anything, a refreshing tactic for a work that has a streak of preciousness running through it (something Masterson indulges rather than resists). The actor exudes a calm and steady paternal love that is neither clinging nor detached, allowing us to see Eurydice's quandary as the conflict of a woman who believes that "[a] wedding is for daughters and fathers. … They stop being married to each other on that day."
Corbett's portrayal deepens in poignancy in the presence of Landfield's quiet tenderness. The pathos here feels very personal and nonideological — the author clearly writes to satisfy herself and her audience and doesn't seem to worry if her gender politics aren't seen as progressive enough.
Ruhl's body of drama ("The Clean House," "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play," "Dead Man's Cell Phone," among others) is impressive not just for its precocious abundance but for its imaginative sprightliness. Psychological realism isn't her default mode: She's forever finding new ways of exploring complex and delicate emotions with a theatrical vocabulary that's entirely her own.
That vocabulary can seem willfully quirky at moments. The three talking stones (played by Patrick Kerr, Michael Manuel and Bahni Turpin) that greet newcomers to the underworld are a capricious touch that dwindles after the initial delight. The same can be said for the two characters played by Tim Cummings, A Nasty Interesting Man and the Lord of the Underworld, both of whom have a Pee-wee Herman-ish potential that is maximized in Masterson's production to diminishing effect.
Perhaps a smaller stage is a safer bet for "Eurydice." I was particularly fond of the 2006 production by Circle X Theater Co. at [Inside] the Ford. Masterson pulls out all the stops for his staging — there's a theatrical coup near the end that's eye-popping, though not in an especially meaningful way.
Yet SCR has been one of Ruhl's West Coast homes, and it's always a pleasure to encounter the work of this singular playwriting talent, even on a scale that might be greater than what's required.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct. 14.
Tickets: $20to $70
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
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