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Eurydice — Villanova Theatre at Vasey Hall

Eurydice -- interiorEurydice leads a charmed death.

Holding her breath while submerged in the River Styx during her crossing from life to the Underworld, and jauntily sporting a tentlike umbrella as she reaches the Underworld’s portal, Eurydice does not quite succumb to the finality of her mortal condition. Much to the chagrin of stones that serve a chorus, she retains her ability to think, talk, and yearn. She also retains the human traits of being sentimental and indecisive. That means she can make noise and break rules the Stygian stones find jarring,

For instance, in a place where the dead are supposed to fade into spatial oblivion, Eurydice remains corporeal and marks off a corner of Hades to be her room.

She doesn’t actually mark it. Her father, also animate and with human senses and emotions though dead, creates the room for her by an ingenious use of ropes set designer Parris Bradley employs in director James Ijames’s comic yet movingly evocative production of Sarah Ruhl’s play, “Eurydice” for Villanova Theatre.

Death, as experienced by Eurydice, is a continuation of life. And not just in the sense of an afterlife, but in a manner that extenuates her earthly life and presents her with more conflicts to consider than when she lived.

Then, she was pretty much in tune with her existence and relatively carefree. She mourned the death of her father but accepted it as a passage of life, one generation proceeding to the Underworld while its progeny continue to live and savor their mortal years.

Eurydice seems a lot to savor. She met a man, Orpheus — yes, the Orpheus of the mesmerizing musical gifts, who loves her exceedingly and whom she loves just as ardently. Orpheus rarely speaks. He sings his plaintively poetic love songs. In Ijames’s production, Orpheus doesn’t invent tunes. He borrows them from Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. The melody he wants Eurydice to retain in her head as a code that he is near and wants to be with her is Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” In Ijames’s playfully witty staging, when Orpheus asks Eurydice to repeat that ballad’s gentle opening notes, she beliigerently blares out the strong beginning of “Beethoven’s Fifth,” turning Orpheus’s dulcet example into an almost barked “BAH BAH BAH BAH.”

Rebecca Jane Cureton, an actress with a record of fine performances who has a breakthrough to brilliant as Eurydice, is especially funny is thwarting the more serious Orpheus, who in turn, becomes amused by the taunting. Orpheus asks Eurydice to marry him, and it looks as if the two could live happily after ever, Eurydice alternatively delighting in and mocking Orpheus’s musical mode of communication, Orpheus doting on her every response and movement. “BAH BAH BAH BAH!”

As the famous Greek myth tells, fate, magic, and the mischief of a god intervenes.

The god in this case is Hades himself, called by Ruhl the Lord of the Underworld after she first nominates him “A Nasty Interesting Man.”

Hades is as enamored of Eurydice as Orpheus is and is not shy about using his vast Olympian powers to unscrupulously lure her to him.

His ploy is temptation. He allows Eurydice’s late father the opportunity to write Eurydice a note from the Underground, one that pits her role as dutiful daughter against her position of happy bride. Not knowing Hades’s identity — She still thinks he’s a rude, intruding man who is bothering her at her wedding reception. — she snatches the letter he artfully has exposed in his trench coat pocket for her to discover and filch and agrees to follow him for a meeting with her father who bemoans his loneliness for her and his need for her attention.

Eurydice believes she can calm her father, then return to Orpheus and the frolicsome dancing that is part of their wedding.

Hades is too clever. While helping Eurydice remain vital enough to serve his fancy, he takes to the Underworld where she can see her father and have lovely filial meetings with her but cannot escape.

NealBoxAs the myth again tells us, Orpheus’s love is so great, his ardor so unshakeable, that rather than mourn for his taken bride, he follows her to the Underworld with the intention of rescuing her, taking her back to Earth, and enjoying the marital bliss their wedding promised.

It’s all so romantic, and Orpheus’s song of woe is said to be such a cry of pain and woe, the stones guarding the Underworld says they wept in sympathy for Orpheus’s titanic grief.

Orpheus is so resilient and so persevering, he, beyond human expectation, spans the distance between Earth and the Underworld, defies the River Styx, ignores the stones, and knocks in a way that will accept no refusal on the gates of Hades’s domain, in Ijames’s production a rusting corrugated garage door on a winch that raises and lowers like the door on a service bay.

All works beautifully, and a happy ending seems certain, but there’s that myth again. And the creativity of Sarah Ruhl.

Eurydice is so ineluctably human, she cannot make up her mind. Leaving the Underworld means abandoning her father to the loneliness and despair that touched her daughterly emotions in the first place. Staying means abandoning Orpheus who has proved the magnitude of his love by braving all and testing Hades’s nefarious powers by coming for Eurydice and devising a plan, reluctantly aided by Hades who has to divulge the one way a person can escape from the Underworld to life on Earth.

Then, there’s Hades’s overtures which, as proferred by Chris Monaco, are sleezy but promise a bit of fun, Monaco playing Hades as a spoiled playboy of this modern era, simultaneously smooth and nerdy, and dressed with comic yet stylish flair by Janus Stefanowicz.

Daddy calls Eurydice one way. Orpheus entices her another. Hades practices his seductive wiles to some avail. What is a girl to do?

Especially a girl, a woman, who has the room she wants, plenty of company, and even Orpheus’s songs to leaven her days.

Death, for Eurydice, seems ideal. Why choose anything else?

The Greeks millennia ago, and Sarah Ruhl, have an answer to that question.

So does James Ijames who shows that Ruhl’s script for “Eurydice” can take several unexpected turns and address many ideas instead of concentrating on the depths of Orpheus’s consuming love.

Ijames has a point, The play is called “Eurydice,” not “Orpheus.”

At Villanova, Ijames decrees wit will prevail first and foremost. He will make Ruhl’s play dazzle with his clever way of directing the principal characters — Eurydice, Orpheus, and Hades — and the complaining monotone he prescribes for the three actresses playing the stone.

To Ijames’s credit, he is able to have fun with large sections of the text while keeping a tone of romance regarding Orpheus and Eurydice’s love for each other. Mischief elides into tenderness, and the two combine well as Ijames shows the absurdity of Eurydice’s situation while conveying the all-too-human dilemma of too many good choices and how love should triumph.

But love for whom? The child’s love for a father. Might a father justifiably claim a daughter’s adult years to his companion when those years can be spent in partnership, affection, and sexual compatibility with a man who returns his wife’s love tenfold? Can the pranks of an immortal clown really sway Eurydice’s feelings from Orpheus? The questions boil down to a bigger one — If you can have it all, should you not take it all, or must you choose one option, preferably the unconditional, undying love of a man who might not talk but intensely communicates his ardor?

These are the cruxes of Ruhl’s play, as staged by Ijames at Villanova.

His choice is different from letting the romance between Eurydice and Orpheus dominate, rendering all else to a tangential, clarifying place in a passionate love story.

Ijames has tapped something else, something much more fascinating from Ruhl’s script, a look at a woman who is so admired, and whose company is so coveted, three men, two suitable, vie for it, and she has to choose between the eternally doting affection of a wonderful man or being the belle of an Underground ball in which she makes sport out of teasing Hades, enjoys pleasant time with her father, and has Orpheus banging down doors and driving stones to tears to be with her.

Eurydice becomes more than a symbol for lost love, love taken by trickery by a god who can trump the power, and willpower, of mortals. She is a woman, who contrary to her inclusive, impulsive nature, has to make a choice, has to pierce through what she enjoys, finds comforting, or takes as sporting, to figure out if a good man’s love does conquer all and bring lasting satisfaction.

Stephen Matthew Tornetta should make that choice easy. He is a brooding, pouting, sexy wooer who, in striped T-shirt and bathing trunks, is the Lochinvar or Werther of his time.

Tornetta exudes love for Cureton’s Eurydice. A kiss they exchange is an early scene is quite steamy and shows both Tornetta and Cureton can convey the chemistry that must exist between the young lovers. Especially if he, for the most part, refuses to talk and expresses himself via popular tunes and the occasional instrumental accompaniment.

Tornetta always plays hurt well. You see immediately how wounded he is by Eurydice’s departure and how longingly he wants her restored to her place by his side. When Tornetta’s Orpheus is seen behind that opening corrugated door, he’s like a silent Stanley Kowalski come to bring his Stella back where she belongs. With him! You can see the resolve in addition to uncompromised love when he looks at Cureton’s Eurydice.

Cureton is remarkable in her skill at playing a gamut of attitudes and moods.

Her basic approach is animatedly comic. Hers is a Eurydice who enjoys life even as she casually wrestles with its complexity.

Ruhl gives Eurydice some great comeback lines and response, and Cureton handles them with flawless aplomb, finding the right tone and placement for each retort, riposte, and straight answer.

Her Eurydice is as musical in expression as Tornetta’s Orpheus. There is a constant merriment in Eurydice’s tone. She is ready to respond to any remark directed toward her. This is a woman who must be fun to be around, but she can also convey confusion, flights of sadness, and a yearning to be, ultimately, with Orpheus.

It is amazing how the entire mood in Vasey Hall changes as Cureton’s Eurydice goes from an almost wistful contentment to sincere contemplation of the fate, then to sincere, heartfelt melancholy of a kind that mirrors Orpheus’s. Cureton’s is a beautifully measured performance that wends towards genius when you realize how authentic and believable she makes all of Eurydice’s contradictions.

There’s no self-conscious in Cureton’s performance. She flows as randomly as Eurydice does, and the flow seems natural, an integral part of a character who might have made up her mind but doesn’t have the fortitude or discipline to stick to her plan or to allow her honesty to inform it.

Eurydice might be muddled, but Cureton isn’t. She moves artlessly from one of Eurydice’s dispositions to the next. She never cues any sudden change Eurydice might undergo or seems inconsistent in her portrayal of Eurydice’s various thoughts, action, and temperaments.

This ability to make the complicated Eurydice all one is so admirable. Cureton practically lofts from one scene to the next, one minute being too clever to give in to Hades’s clumsy seduction, another moment egging the Underworld lord to try again. Misbehavior and flirtation blend neatly with respectful love for Eurydice’s father and clear realization that Orpheus, for all of his callow faults, is her real soulmate and genuine love.

The completeness of this performance, the easy, consistent, credible flow from one part of Eurydice’s character is the breakthrough. Rebecca Cureton has been an actress to watch since her strong, on-the-mark portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in Hedgerow’s “Pride and Prejudice.” That began a skein of notable performances at Hedgerow and Villanova.

The difference between Cureton’s Eurydice and her other roles is I never saw an actress conceiving or thinking about to make Eurydice special. I saw an artist living her role and finding the all of the right vocal, physical, comic, and dramatic traits that denote a person as an individual and not just a character in a play.

Cureton’s performance in “Eurydice” is cohesive. It’s of one piece. It recognizes the beats and pacing that constructs and conveys the character, but it blends them seamlessly so you are always riveted in Eurydice’s plight of the moment and concerns about whether she’s made a good choice or if fate will conspire to grant her the life of Earth she realizes at last is best for her.

Cureton’s Eurydice inspires you to share her excitement and enjoy her playful side. She also leads you to the still waters of silence, concern, regret, and contemplation. Cureton, Ijames, and lighting designer Jerold R. Forsyth all contribute to creating the palpable atmosphere Villanova’s “Eurydice” inhabits, but it is Cureton alone who brings the production’s gifts to the audience. She realizes Ijames’s vision by being so secure in her presentation of it. This is an actress being, as opposing to playing, a character, and the result is breathtaking.

At opening night curtain call, Cureton looked emotionally drained, far different from her usual ebullient, animated personality. She also looked tearfully grateful for the rousing response of the opening night audience, which included key figures from Villanova and several critics among students who were probably assigned to see Ruhl’s play. I think she, as Rebecca, realizes how much the work she put into her performance paid off and was moved to hear the audience’s approval.

For me, it was an occasion of a fine actress showing she could be a great one.

“Great” is not reserved for Rebecca Jane Cureton alone.

James Ijames deserves mounds of credit for envisioning Ruhl’s play uniquely.

In the last decade, all theatergoers have seen a lot of Sarah Ruhl. She is one of the brightest voices among current regularly-produced playwrights with an evolving volume of work.

Usually, I enjoy and admire Ruhl’s plays. I appreciate her wit and offbeat way of presenting the world. The impression is good, and I leave the theater satisfied but never with a sense of, “Wow, I saw something special just now.”

Inelegantly as that last thought is expressed, it’s what I said to myself as I crossed Lancaster Avenue to the parking lot after the show.

My reverie led especially to James Ijames and all of the cunning touches he employed to make this “Eurydice” a comedy with a point that keeps you thinking and with a mood that can turn mellow and romantic in a warranted moment.

Eurydice interiorOne of three elements that stand out is the way Ijames conceives the character of the Lord of the Underworld, the character he would most naturally play if he was acting rather than directing Ruhl’s piece. Another is how active he keeps Eurydice in death. She is a participant in her existence and not Hades’s victim or pawn. Eurydice does passively and plaintively wait as pain for Orpheus in the manner she’s been depicted in other productions of this play. She is not Penelope or Solveig being faithful and patient until her love returns. The third is the juxtaposition, sort of like his contrast of broad comedy with quiet thoughtfulness, of brash, garish pieces, such as the omnipresent garage door to lovely, fanciful touches such as Janus Stefanowicz’s costume and Forsyth’s ephemeral lighting of the Vasey stage floor. The in-your-face real combines with the elegantly provocative in ways that give Ijames’s “Eurydice” intelligence and texture that remains fun. The chorus’s performance as the stones confirms that as much as anything physical or mechanical. A fourth blast of inspiration would be that umbrella, and full suite of luggage, Eurydice carries when she arrives in the Underworld.

Cureton’s line readings make Eurydice a constant source of humor. The classic lord of misrule in Ijames’s production is that Lord of the Underground, played with smooth vaudevillian grace by Chris Monaco.

Monaco portrays Hades as an irrepressible jokester and brat, a young Peter Falk who always has one more question before he goes off to continue his mischief.

Even though he seems sleazy in his first appearance, Monaco is a tempter. Hades wants Orpheus’s bride, Eurydice, to be his bride, but he knows he will have to use presto-changeo mumbo jumbo, his own brand of gods’ voodoo to make that happen.

Being the ultimate con man, Hades knows exactly where to put the letter from Eurydice’s father so she has a chance to steal it, read it, and sentimentally succumb to it. On her wedding day no less.

Monaco is even funnier and more attractively repulsive as Eurydice’s wooer once he’s inveigled her to the Underworld.

There’s nothing subtle about Monaco’s performance like there is with Tornetta’s. He is all-out villain and clown, reveling in both aspects of his role.

Monaco exudes an oily slyness, a devil’s way of going about things. You can see his dubious charms working on Eurydice in her weaker moments.

To emphasize Monaco’s hoodoo sliminess, Janus Stefanowicz dresses his in a trench coat for his Earth scenes and a spruce tux, completely with red vinyl vest and cape for Underworld wear.

Monaco looks sharp in his well-fitted formal suit. He can even pull off vinyl without have it look too crackling or clinging. The costume seems to add to Hades’s nerve. You want him to leave Eurydice alone and let her bid her time until Orpheus arrives to save her. At the same time, you enjoy seeing Monaco being the proud bad boy, reminiscent of Peter Cook’s ecstasy in 1967 movie, “Bedazzled,” when he tears final pages from Agatha Christie novels or cuts the collar buttons off of new shirts.

Monaco has fun with his part, and he provides plenty of it too. As irritating as Hades is to Eurydice, we’re happy to see him enter the stage. He indicates a good time.

Kevin Esmond is properly earnest as Eurydice’s father. You can see how content it makes him to spend time with his little girl and how it gratifies Eurydice to be with.

Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez sets a snarkily complaining tone for the stones that want the absolute peace Eurydice is interrupting restored.

O’Hanlon-Rodriguez and her cohorts, Elizabeth Meisenzahl and Megan Rose, are hilarious as, in synch they bewail the havoc Eurydice has caused in the Underworld since Hades took a liking to her. Their dicta, “There are no rooms in Hades; there is no music in Hades,” go all for naught as Eurydice blithely violates every rule, and the Lord of the Underground dotes on her for it. The doleful Eeyore-like griping of the stones never wears out its welcome. Individually, as a group, O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, Meisenzahl, and Rose rate kudos for their fine, disciplined work.

From the plangent plop of water to the sound of a river soothingly rushing by, Alex Bechtel’s sound design captures the sedate side of Hades and Eurydice’s disruption of it. Bechtel and Ijames also employ a great echo effect when Monaco tries to restore order in an Underground his Hades has allowed to get out of control with no tangible benefit, i.e. sex with Eurydice, for him. This bit makes Monaco’s Hades seem as ersatz as the Wizard of Oz. Thinking about it, Monaco comes off like a nerby, pintsized wizard in this sequence.

I have mentioned Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes a few times. That’s because they bruit the wit of Ijames’s staging. Monaco’s tux is a highlight, but the simple black and white horizontal-striped T-shirt Orpheus wears, the bathing suits in which we see Eurydice and Orpheus in the beginning, Eurydice’s wedding dress, and the garb for the stones all have elements of humor, glamor, or smart correctness for the characters wearing them.

“Eurydice” runs through Sunday, October 4, at Vasey Hall at Villanova University, Lancaster and Ithan Avenues, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $21 and can be obtained by calling 610-519-7474 or by visiting www.villanovatheatre.org.

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