What cosmic forces are drawing artists to Orpheus and Eurydice these days? Are we all feeling pulled toward the underworld of late? Is it the economy? Whatever the reason, we're getting a lot of O & E around here, which is fine by me. I recently saw Sarah Ruhl's take on the ancient Greek myth, "Eurydice," at ACT Theatre, which was modernized in a lovely way--gorgeously staged, funny and quite moving. I missed Seattle Dance Project's companion dance performance, "Orpheus," but I'm told it too gave the tale a modern spin (particularly via the soundtrack), while retaining the central storyline: boy follows girl into the underworld to drag her back among the living, then botches it just as he's about to cross the finish line by looking back at her.
Compagnie Marie Chouinard's version, which I saw at On the Boards
last night, is more hellbent on shock and awe than the abovementioned pieces (starting with the gold pasties both male and female performers wear throughout). Nude satyr-esque men sport sky-high mule heels and large (VERY LARGE!) phalluses (phalli?). Other nearly nude humans gyrate spastically and emit horrible grunts, groans and retching noises. There is a lot of thrusty simulated sex--much of it accomplished with big rah-rah cheerleader grins (quite effective in rendering the actions completely un-sexy).
Much of this darkly funny pageantry works--it is, after all, the underworld, and the Greeks were seriously into raunch. But a lot of it goes on too long and would have been much more effective in short glimpses, such as when the company curls up like stones, moved to moaning by Orpheus's soulful poetry, or the brief, witty section in which the underworldians engage in a NASCAR-style "race out of hell." The announcer reminds, "Not that complicated, just don't look back," yet none of them can resist.
But here I must confess that I'm tired of performers crawling around in the audience. Enough! As soon as poor, doomed Eurydice took her footing on the backs of the front row seats I thought, oh no, we've got another crawler. We (granted, "we" being those of us who frequent dance theater shows) have seen this gimmick before. And sometimes it's just as effective to leave that fourth wall firmly standing.
I found the smaller moments in the piece the most affecting. The snakes--a cool effect in which serpents seemed to slither suspended from the performers' mouths. The jingling golden bells, which served both as choking hazard and liberator. And the awful way the performers held their mouths agape--as if both unknowing and all-knowing. And of course, the few sequences acknowledging the truly wrenching part of the myth--the moment that Orpheus looks back (no, Orpheus, no!) and loses his beloved forever. As the lovers fall away slowly from each other it becomes instantly clear why this old story retains its relevance.