Second Stage, whose stage is second to none Off-Broadway in wearing a set well —any set — has currently camouflaged itself as the coolest hell on earth for Sarah Ruhl's radical reimagining of Orpheus (tellingly retitled Eurydice, after his ill-fated bride-for-a-day).
This Ruhl-switching allows her to gender-spin this Greek tragedy of love beyond death, emphasizing the forgotten woman in the case and her previously unexplored afterlife.
Heretofore in the unfolding of this myth, focus was stolen by Orpheus, the lyre player whose musical magnificence was such that the Furies let him lead his bride out of the Underworld and back to life — on the condition he not look back. Being a man in love, "Never Look Back" and "Love, Look Away" weren't in his repertoire — so she died twice.
Eurydice's home-away-from-earth — designed to dazzle by Scott Bradley — falls somewhere between an abandoned swimming pool with chandeliers and a tilting bathhouse lined in turquoise and aquamarine tile, all awash in Russell Champa's soothing blue-green lighting. By any other name, this is hell — and you get there by elevator, always arriving in the midst of a pounding thunderstorm, it seems. Les Waters, the play's well-named director, means more waters in this instance. The elevator doors are floodgates, which, when opened, send a torrent of rainwater surging across the steeply raked stage into waiting manholes.
It's a great effect and a great entrance, and title player Maria Dizzia has reveled in it through three different productions during the past three years — first at Berkeley Rep in 2004, then at Yale Rep in 2006 and now at Second Stage. The elevator's arrival ding cues the waterworks above her, she says, assuring she'll hit Hades looking sufficiently storm-tossed and waterlogged — an effect not entirely acted, she wants you to know: "They pour a huge vat of water through the back wall, so I always have to brace myself because it does lift me off my feet a bit. But the water's heated — warmer than body temperature."
There hasn't been such an outpouring of Grecian grief — and water — since director Mary Zimmerman turned Second Stage into one vast wading pool for Metamorphoses, an enchanting ensemble piece made up of the myths of Ovid (including Orpheus, abbreviated and relayed from the traditional male point of view). It opened less than a month after 9/11 and was so emotionally embraced it was accorded a Broadway run.
In that and other versions of Orpheus, Eurydice rarely emerged more than a damsel waiting to be rescued. Ruhl's modern-dress reworking endows her with wit, strength, contemporary quirkiness and a list of Things To Do While in Hell. Most of these involve her father (Charles Shaw Robinson), who has preceded her in death and is waiting there for her to ease her confusion when she arrives in the Underworld. She doesn't recognize him, having swum through the River of Forgetfulness that washes away memories of her time on earth. In fact, she takes him for a porter and asks if her room is ready. In one of the play's most stirring moments, the father silently constructs out of a long, single piece of string a safe haven onstage where she'll wait for Orpheus (Joseph Parks) to save her.
"Sarah has always been very up front about how personal the play is to her," says Dizzia. "In interviews, she has spoken about how her father passed away when she was young and how a large portion of this play was written out of her desire to have a conversation with him again. Hearing that from her, in a very specific way, grounds the play for me."
That is not the only authentic sorrow informing this production, either. Director Waters, whom Dizzia first encountered as an acting teacher at the University of California at San Diego, lost a father prior to beginning the first of the three Eurydice productions.
"Listening to Les work his way through the play was, on a deep level, the most helpful direction that I got," she says, "just being quiet as an actor and watching his responses."
Also: "Our set designer, Scott, lost someone very close to him and said he actually dreamt the set. In his sadness, he dreamt he wandered into a room and suddenly realized he was on the ceiling where these chandeliers were hanging. He then woke up and drew the set.
"Prior to that, he and Les had conversations. Sarah was concerned the Underworld would be a dark place. She suggested bringing Alice in Wonderland to the Orpheus story, sort of Alice in Underworld. She wanted the Underworld to be like the real world, just split some way — like going through the looking glass but not necessarily into a foreboding area."
The result is one part fanciful, one part frightening. "The set perfectly embodies the play in terms of being really extraordinary and lovely to be on, but it also has a hostility because it's so steep and, with the water, slippery." Translation: a whole lot of slippin' and a-slidin' was going on. Hence, most of the cast of seven shed their shoes. "In the beginning, at the beach, we don't have shoes on, but we do later for the wedding — and the first time that Orpheus comes down, he does have sneakers on. So we did try that: when you're dead, you don't have shoes on; if you're alive and visiting, you do have shoes on."
Worlds and moods collide in Eurydice. "Oh, yeah," Charles Isherwood added as an afterthought once he gave the play credit for its "cockeyed allure" in his New York Times review of the Yale Rep version, "it may just be the most moving exploration of the theme of loss that the American theatre has produced since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. . . . Maybe it was all the water imagery, but I fought off tears for half the play, not always successfully."