Review of 'Eurydice' at Round House Theatre

Mitchell Hébert in Round House's mesmerizing production.
Mitchell Hébert in Round House's mesmerizing production. (By Danisha Crosby)
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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 13, 2009

The Fates must be smiling on the Round House Theatre staging of "Eurydice," Sarah Ruhl's achingly poignant yet whimsical gloss on Greek mythology. At the press opening, theatergoers were alerted that actress Susan Lynskey, who plays a Hadean figure called Loud Stone, had laryngitis and thus would deliver her lines in American Sign Language while two other performers voiced her character's text.

Surprisingly, the adjustment seemed to suit Ruhl's eerie through-the-looking-glass vision of love and loss. Loud Stone's eloquent silence seemed wholly in tune with Derek Goldman's incantatory production, which expertly balances the play's lyrical melancholy, sphinxlike humor and moments of chilling weirdness.

A poetry-infused meditation on mortality, grief and forgetfulness, the play riffs on the Orpheus legend, focusing on the experience of Eurydice (Jenna Sokolowski). In Ruhl's version, Hades is a Mad Hatter-worthy realm populated by exasperating talking Stones (KenYatta Rogers plays Big Stone, and Linden Tailor is Little Stone) and a creepy schoolboy Lord of the Underworld (Mitchell Hébert), who careens around on a tricycle and ghoulishly gloats that the afterlife makes people itchy. In a heart-rending subplot, while the desperate Orpheus (Adriano Gatto) plots his dead wife's rescue, Eurydice meets her deceased Father (Harry A. Winter), and parent and child build their relationship anew.

It's a heady brew of sadness, quirkiness and fantastic metaphysics, but Goldman's production complements the oddball ethos with a very human physicality. In the opening scene, set on a beach, Gatto and Sokolowski's appealingly callow lovers indulge in amorous roughhousing that emphasizes their hold on life.

The Stones make equally expressive use of movement -- now simian, now dancelike. In notes to her script, Ruhl -- the MacArthur "genius" award recipient whose plays "The Clean House" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone" have been staged at Woolly Mammoth -- compares the Stones to "nasty children." Goldman and costume designer Kathleen Geldard have taken this notion in an eye-catching direction, dressing the trio in candy-colored motley, with patterned stockings and punk-tinted hair, and a flouncy dress for the Loud Stone. The three resemble bratty dolls come to life.

Delectably outlandish as the Stones are, they seem almost staid in comparison to the Nasty Interesting Man, who, it's implied, is the Lord of the Underworld in disguise. Clad in funereal black and initially seen licking a blood-red lollipop, Hébert gives this figure a mesmerizing freakishness, his voice ranging crazily in pitch, his hands exaggeratedly gesturing to emphasize his words. The actor is equally riotous as the macabre Dennis the Menace-type who peddles his tricycle dressed in a red-velvet tuxedo jacket and knickers, now whining, now issuing bossy orders, now addressing Eurydice in a basso of stomach-churning lustfulness.

Amid all this zaniness, Winter's Father is judiciously down to earth, his stolid wistfulness fueling the production's most touching moments.

Ruhl once postulated that "Eurydice" could be "a playground for designers," and that is certainly the case here. Set designer Clint Ramos provides a bleak interlacing of ladders and scaffolding that hints at the dizzying distance between life and the Stygian kingdom. An elevator, smack in the middle, supplies one of the production's many shiver-inducing coups de theatre. Colin K. Bills chips in with menacing shadows, eddying rivulets of brightness and other artful lighting touches.

Sound effects are pivotal to any "Eurydice" production. Designer Matthew M. Nielson has supplied spooky acoustic layers of electronic keenings, ominous rock chords, rumblings and a plaintive, evolving music-box melody that gives two wordless scenes a wrenching pathos.

And, speaking of sound: Theatergoers who miss Lynskey's laryngitis should not despair. To judge by the finely calibrated detail and overall polish of this production, performances should still be wry and stirringly elegiac when the Loud Stone is actually loud.

Eurydice, by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Derek Goldman; associate set designer, Robbie Hayes; movement coach, Karin Abromaitis. 95 minutes. Through March 1 at Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Visit or call 240-644-1100.

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