Fresno City College’s production of “eurydice,” which continues through Saturday, is a stunning work of theater: handsomely mounted, decisively directed, gorgeously costumed, gracefully acted. It’s one of the must-see local theatrical events of the year.
From the production’s first moments as the house lights dim and a plaintive voice sings the lyrics “Don’t Let Me Go,” to the very last moment of the show, when a major character makes a heart-breaking last gesture before everything slides to black, the show casts an almost hypnotic spell on the audience. Director Chuck Erven has described the play as a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Cirque du Soleil. That’s an apt way to capture the mood he crafts: part fairy tale, part dream, in a brisk, intermissionless, 90-minute run time. It’s the kind of stage experience that resonates on more than just visual and auditory levels. It’s as if you can taste the crispness of this show, stroke its rich textures, smell its musty-yet-modern aromas.
I loved it.
The classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told in many ways. In playwright Sara Ruhl’s version, which opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2004, we float through a sort of timeless space that bridges modern sensibilities (there’s an actual elevator to the Underworld) and ancient classicism (this IS still a Greek myth, after all, with the stormy whims of the gods). Ruhl’s language is spare, elegant and eminently accessible. (At one point a character describes the background noise of the afterlife as if a tea kettle is boiling over but no one seems to care — just one of many lines that rattled me with their depth and clarity.) Guest scenic designer Matt Scarpino’s multilevel set mirrors the play’s language with its own spare, refined sensibility — a mostly open space dominated by a broad expanse of handsomely swirled floor, backed by an imposing wall affixed with small tiles that suggests the mosaic-decorated urban vibe of a New York City subway station.
It’s in this versatile space that the sad and compelling tale of the musician Orpheus (Jarod Caitlin) and Eurydice (Melissa Booey) unfolds, with the two of them first frolicking in the waves of the sea, then getting married, and then finally confronting her unfortunate demise and descent to the Underworld. The distraught Orpheus composes music so sad that even the Stones cry, and he finagles a deal with the Lord of the Underworld (Magnus Chhan): Orpheus can take Eurydice back with him to the land of the living, but if for any reason on their journey he looks back at her, she’ll stay forever.
One joy of this production is the way that the design of the show — the sumptuous set with its running water fountain, the layered-fussy Victorian splendor and high-water-pants humor of Debbi Shapazian’s costumes, the nuanced impact of Christopher R. Boltz’s lighting, the intensely vivid quality of Jeff Barrett’s sound design, the mood-enhancing original music by Nick Campbell and the Bluefields — all serves as a framework to elicit impressive peformances by student actors. The eight-person cast is uniformly strong, and I felt as if they reached even greater heights because of the precision and forward-momentum impact of the design.
Caitlin and Booey are riveting in their opening scene as they act out gooey, romantic love, and it’s interesting to see their relationship deepen and darken as the play progresses. Mike Harrison, as Eurydice’s father, gives an aching performance. Jon Hollis, as the Nasty Interesting Man, is deliciously malevolent, and Chhan’s Lord of the Underworld is yet another strong turn from this talented young City College actor.
Erven’s precise direction unfolds with moments of nearly crystalline physicality. Among the most impressive performances come the three actors who portray the Stones (Marcos Hammer, Jochebed Smith and Bridget Manders). Their modulated voices as they recite their choruslike commentary is a music all its own, and the physical choices they make — the way they hold their hands, their heads, seemingly even their noses — combine in a wonderfully witty and endearing way.
There are many surprises along the way that I don’t want to diminish. I’ll just say that the moment when Eurydice’s father builds her a room in the Underworld is absolutely transfixing. And while I don’t quite think that every creative choice in the production works — I wasn’t crazy about the projected images, for example, which I thought only cluttered the vibrant visuals — I appreciated the theatrical joy that seemed to infuse every minute.
What makes the whole experience even more notable — and worthy of a true gush — is the emotional impact. There’s a deep melancholy to “eurydice” that connected strongly with New York audiences in the aftermath of 9/11. There’s nothing tangible in the play that makes the leap to that tragedy, but I can see how a mourning audience could have that sort of communion with the material. For me, “eurydice” was much less specific — more about the bittersweet fleeting nature of life and the way that one small word or gesture can have great impact. This production seemed to hang with me as I left the theater — not like a dark shroud, but more like a light, refreshing mist. I felt blessed.