American Repertory Theatre, Zero Arrow Theatre. Music and text by Rinde Eckert. Video by Denise Marika. Directed by Robert Woodruff. First performance March 25, 2006.
The second performance space of the ART is the current home of this new work, conceived by Rinde Eckert, longtime collaborator with Robert Woodruff, and performed by Eckert as Orpheus, Susan Hanson as Euridice, and John Kelly as John and Persephone.
It is difficult to describe this piece, which runs officially ninety minutes but, in fact, more like 100 minutes, with no intermission. In general terms, it is an attempt to bring the well-known myth of Orpheus and Euridice up to date, set it in a modern city, and bring to its creation the musical forces we have inherited from the past — piano, viola, double bass — and complemented by more contemporary musical instruments — electric guitar, electric bass guitar, electronic keyboard, and modern jazz drums. In fact, the viola and double bass are electronically amplified. (The double bassist doubles on bass guitar; the pianist doubles on keyboard.)
The opening music was so loud and raucous I at first thought I was not going to last, but in the event the decibel level modulated and was for the most part bearable. All three performers were miked. Eckert’s Orpheus did not (it is almost unnecessary to say) play a flute, but rather, his own electronic guitar. He is in fact a rockstar, who meets and instantly falls in love with Euridice, a writer — and so gets in very deep over his head. The story is told in a series of flashbacks. Euridice enters singing of loss, specifically of all the possessions she loses when she arrives at the gates of Hades. So she is already dead when the action begins. And Eckert sings of the terrible car or taxi accident that claims her life so abruptly. There is a scene early on in which “John” (we never really discover who he is, unless he is an upper-world counterpart for the Persephone he plays down below and who seems to be the porter of Hellgate logging in the new arrivals) throws at Orpheus’s feet the possessions taken from Euridice as she arrives at the gates of Hades — possessions, all encased in plastic bags, like evidence bags used by police, that include a notebook and a pen, for Euridice is “a writer.” (All we really learn about this is that she writes in Greek on a large plastic screen using “chalk” — a fluid marker of some kind.)
Interspersed with these segments there appears the projection onto a medium-sized screen upstage right (as we see it) and also onto two long, narrow areas, one horizontal, the other vertical, a variety of images including a huge steam shovel razing a building and a rushing, tumultuous ocean crashing onto the shore; then, later, images of a naked woman — the Euridice, Susan Hanson — approaching through a shut-in expanse that appears to be the underside of the tiers of seats in the auditorium itself, and then turning in the middle distance and retreating again.
It is all somewhat mysterious. But gradually it comes clear. At the end, Euridice says to Orpheus, what made you think that I wanted to be rescued from Hades anyway? Persephone / John has already explained to her that in Hades what happens to you is that you are bathed in the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, with the result that all you remember is your name. At the end Euridice, having previously been troubled by the prospect of such near-total loss, attains a calm, attached, almost happy state, while Orpheus, having lost her forever, is devastated.
This is certainly a departure from the emphases traditionally laid on this story of heart-breaking loss. In fact, Eckert appears to have perceived that the Orpheus – Euridice story is centrally a tale of irremediable loss, punctuated by temporary, illusory hope. That idea does come clear, and stays with one afterwards. But meanwhile it is curious that we come to feel so little for the two major characters. They seem so self-absorbed that their love and their plight do not strike us as things we should engage and sympathize with. I felt an almost palpable distance between me and these characters, and began to wonder why one should care for them. Perhaps this distancing was part of the aesthetic plan; perhaps the idea was to prevent us from attaching ourselves to a hero and heroine in the manner and mode of nineteenth-century opera. Surely there was no mistaking this piece for something by Verdi or Bellini; clearly it is intended as a gross departure from the kind of theatre that Brecht vilified as culinary. Perhaps we are encouraged to be above that sort of thing. The only thing that was really big about this piece was the great volume of sound that electronic amplification now makes possible.
At the same time there was a certain inevitability to it. I have had occasion to note that technology creates a certain inevitability: if technology makes a certain thing possible, then it becomes inevitable to do it. For example, all three voices were very good, and Susan Hanson’s especially so — they hardly needed amplification in this small theatre space. But the musical instruments that were electronic created a pressure to amplify the acoustic instruments (all except the piano and drums), and a similar pressure seems to have been exerted to amplify the human voice as well. Somehow, the difference between the acoustic and the electronic creates a cultural divide, no less than that; and we, sitting on the other side of it, get only a small sampling of the acoustic world, in the instances of the piano and the drums (thank goodness!). There is a different ethos here, in which human life is simultaneously mechanically amplified, aggrandized with no extra effort involved, and cheapened in the process. As long as you hold the microphone close to your mouth, you can fill a football stadium with your voice.
And so this play with music, or musical play, seems to be about the dehumanizing effect of modern or contemporary life in the big, cold city — a theme we have been encountering for decades, if not centuries. If life is so unrewarding, then perhaps forgetfulness is a consummation devoutly to be wished for. But there seems at the same time to be, on Eckert’s part, no attempt to use these materials as a critique of society. His concerns appear to be entirely existential. This is the way life is: it inspires us with hope for love, for connection, only to take it from us again, cruelly, with no explanation. Finally, despair seems to be the upshot of it all.
Much effort has gone into this piece, along with a degree of collaboration that is noticeable and admirable. But, as I write this observation some twenty-four hours after the fact, a nagging feeling of sadness and helplessness comes over me and lingers. Is the piece symptomatic in some less-than-obvious way? Do we see mirrored here the ugly, dispiriting world at large? Are there no encouraging myths that might be invoked to save us from ourselves?