Review of Tom Dugdale’s Orpheus & Eurydice, presented by The Trip Theatre of San Diego at TheatreLab NYC, 357 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10018
Viewed: July 18, 2015
That the principals in this company have some knowledge of their source material—Ovid’s The Metamorphoses--is a given. There was homework. I approached this play with a lot of enthusiasm because I have given a lot of energy to interpreting Ovid in my lifetime. Tom Dugdale's intention is intriguing in this multimedia update of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. The online content and digital media are a snazzy structural update to Ovid's tradition of using letters between lovers. This version of Orpheus & Eurydice draws heavily on sources of 21st century angst, featuring an online romance, which results in a wedding between two people who don’t really know each other at all. Have things changed all that much since the time of arranged marriages? Ponder that, for starters.
In addition, the white box TheatreLab is a terrific venue for digital projection, with the painted brick surfaces adding texture to the dramatic lighting by Maruti Evans Tindall and Karen Janssen’s affecting films. This was a good technical production facilitated by Nick Drashner (Sound), rounded out by effective and delightfully comic costumes by Desiree Hatfield-Buckley. Kudos to the well-credentialed, earnest artists who form The Trip and to TheaterLab for giving them the space to invent.
Let’s talk about the homework first. Eight short films are meant to be viewed by the audience before attending the play. You can see them at this link.
[Video spoiler alert: Parts of two videos are advertisements for tickets for the play, and the last video refers to a December 2014 performance. While time often turns in on itself in the play, I can’t assume the December date was somehow meaningful to the July 2015 performance. I'm not sure how I feel about commodifying the play within the play. But this is not your mother's Ovid.]
In fact if you watch the films ahead of time, you’ll know quite a bit about the first half hour of the play, which reviews a number of them because the bride, of course, is late to her own wedding and the groom needs to reveal his nervousness about the unknown. During the wait, we, the audience, are asked by Orpheus’ best friend, played by The Trip’s co-founder, Joshua Kahan Brody, if we’ve watched the excellent films, but our replies are ignored. The players assume we haven’t. Note to Writer-Director-Orpheus, Tom Dugdale: This gesture made it difficult for me to tell where I was in the theatrical dynamic—a participant? A spectator? A character? My deliberation took me out of the play for awhile.
While my confusion about my role may be satisfying to this conception of the story, it adds to some already weighty temporal questions Dugdale raises by having us watch a film of an event that has already occurred, which we will see in the future in the play. Ultimately, however, my confusions did not take away from the excitement of watching this unconventional union unfold.
We entered a white room decorated with white and yellow balloons. We shared a wedding toast of sparkling water with the actors. Orpheus’ artistic anguish coupled with his uncertainties about the marriage were both well-played in Dugdale’s fluid acting style. It might be interesting for him to try this again without taking on all of those roles in the production. The program notes reveal Dugdale’s anguish of being in and out of the myth, not sure where the entry point is for us in this time period, and some of those experimental entrances and exits are taxing to the energy of his play.
I’ve titled this review by borrowing some words from Eurydice, speaking about a performance by Orpheus, a rock musician, during which the speakers were thrown on the floor. As a tribute to his power, she says, “Music was coming out of the broken pieces.” This is a good description of the uneven, but often fierce and awesome, progress of the play. Some of the parts are beautifully musical.
The strongest lines of the play are given to Eurydice, played potently by Jenni Putney* (* Appeared courtesy of Actors Equity Association.) In a never-spoiled traditional white wedding dress, she gives voice to the feelings of the play. Even when she dies, there is no blood, and she seems to speak from beyond the grave: “Why don’t you see what is possible?”
Three additional characters, at times wedding functionaries, at other times guests or medical technicians, round out the cast. Actor Paul Marino, sometimes called “Paul,” gave a number of distinctive performances, and his concentrated facial expressions often provided a strong emotional track for the action. Joey Odom and Miranda Dainard also rose to the occasion of leading the Dionysian frenzy and passionate lip-synching as needed.
The tragedy of the original story is preserved in a contemporary crisis and denouement, including cigarettes, cars, and CPR. It was my feeling that the final sequences, including CPR and the film, however beautiful, could have been shortened to tighten up the action. The warning for Orpheus—do not look at Eurydice—was ignored. Maybe that was the point—in our intermediated world, do we every really see each other? It might be better to risk a look despite the consequences.