From Virgil to Ovid, many have heard the myth of Orpheus and his “half-regained Eurydice,” but few have taken the time to examine the story from the heroine’s point of view.
From March 16 to 19, UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies presented its rendition of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” — a play which seeks to do just that. With few specifications in terms of direction and design, Ruhl’s script leaves much open for creative interpretation, and the cast and crew filled in the blanks beautifully.
According to Ruhl, “Eurydice and Orpheus should be played as though they are a little too young and a little too in love. They should resist the temptation to be ‘classical.’” Bubbling with sprightly energy and apparent naivete, Orpheus (Tomás Fraçois) and Eurydice (Daynna Rosales) brought this vision to life. Dressed in 1950s attire and sealing their engagement with red string, the well-known characters and their tragic fates were presented in a new, slightly modernized manner.
While Orpheus and Eurydice frolicked in the sun, Eurydice’s late father (Nathanael Payne) lamented the separation from his daughter. As he wrote and orated letters from the underworld, this appended storyline added a poignant touch to the classical plot. Demonstrating a wisdom beyond his years, Payne balanced humor with sorrow, taking a beat at just the right moments as he delivered his opening monologue.
From the onset, the world of Orpheus and Eurydice felt off-kilter. Between scenes, eerily mute, masked figures playfully moved set pieces, turning transitions into a performance of their own. This sense of strange impending doom came to a head with the entrance of the Nasty Interesting Man/Lord of the Underworld, hilariously played by Ryan Gottschalk. With his nasally voice and uncanny interest in Eurydice, his energy was both childlike and sinister — an unexpected yet delightful form for the primary villain to take.
Attempting to flee the Nasty Interesting Man with the letter from her father, Eurydice tripped and fell down the stairs, triggering her demise and the play’s descent into further abstraction. A stagehand lifted Eurydice as she was spotlit in the darkness, her limbs moving as though through water. Her voice called out to Orpheus; his voice resounded back. Rather than a sudden end, death became a metaphysical dance, concluding with Eurydice’s ride down a rainy elevator into the underworld.
As Eurydice struggled to recall her life before death, Rosales expertly evoked a sense of youthful innocence. Reuniting with her father, whom she failed to recognize at first, the two built a room out of red string and balloons. Adding to the tragicomic absurdity of the play, the three stones — played by Bonnie Zhao, Tay Kavieff and Leo Kearney — jested, teased and pantomimed. Whether it was the stones’ mischief or Gottschalk riding a tricycle to “Crazy Train,” the underworld was less of a hell and more of a wonderland, the torment more intellectual than physical.
Though the play explored the separation of Orpheus and Eurydice, it primarily centered the relationship between Eurydice and her father. As Rosales and Payne rekindled their father-daughter relationship, they shared a loving, unbreakable bond. By the time Orpheus returned to retrieve his lost love, both Eurydice and the audience felt hesitation at leaving the underworld behind.
Walking through the aisles next to the audience, Rosales and Fraçois compellingly drew out the climactic moment of the original myth. But instead of Orpheus turning around on his own accord, Eurydice called out to him — causing her to fall back into the clutches of the underworld. This critical rewrite not only let the audience into Eurydice’s thoughts, but it lent her more of an active role in matters of her own fate.
“Eurydice” is nothing short of tragic, grappling with questions of grief and agency through to the end. But balanced against idiosyncrasy, it also reframes the way we think about life and death. When the darkness of the theater lifted, the audience saw the classical myth in a new light — understanding Eurydice not as “half-regained,” but wholly formed.