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Orpheus

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Coping with the loss of a loved one has been one of the most pressing human problems since the beginning of time. Few stories, though, deal with it better than the Greek legend of Orpheus, who ventured into the underworld to rescue his wife Euridice after her untimely death, only to be sabotaged in the final moments of their escape by giving into his own human failings.

Juliet Chia, Kristin Marting, and David Evans Morris have conceived a new musical version of the story, titled simply Orpheus, and which is playing at HERE through October 9. The basic outline of the story is the same, though some updating has occurred: Orpheus remains a musician, but is now an alt-rock superstar, and Euridice his reclusive wife. Though few surprises creep into this retelling, there are enough new twists to keep you alert and keep you involved throughout.

The entire show is set in the Asphodel nightclub, a dark and dirty establishment where what few clothes the waiters and other employees wear are augmented with chains, metal, and outrageous makeup. (Imagine Sam Mendes's Cabaret set in the Cantina from the original Star Wars.) Presiding over the Asphodel is Persephone (Daphne Gaines), the queen of the underworld, and the one who essentially guides Orpheus (Taylor Mac) on his quest to regain Euridice (Leeanne Hutchison).

That this story cannot end well is evident before the show even begins - the legend of Orpheus has always been one detailing the very real borders of love. Yet this production brings that message home on a particular tidal wave of tragedy: Both Orpheus and Euridice are portrayed as young, attractive, and bearing unlimited potential that will never be fully realized.

To director Marting, this is a story not only about the loss of great love, but the loss of young love. Orpheus, brimming with passion, cannot bring himself to move past his grief, even when it becomes evident his art would be the better for it. A slight alteration to the story's final moments, when Orpheus finally is allowed to remove Euridice from the underworld, suggests new questions about not Orpheus's belief in Euridice, but in himself. No other moment in Orpheus packs a greater emotional wallop than this seconds-long exploration of faith and selfishness.

The nightclub conceit allows the libidinous pleasures of the afterlife to become vital to the story, though most of the ensemble performers - who play a number of shades drawn from the annals of Greek myth - seem more concerned with meaningfully intoning their lines than being an integral part of Asphodel. Gaines is much better, a harsh but forgiving mistress, and she's backed up by three slithering sirens (played by Kate Cunningham, Nina Mankin, and Arie Thompson) who revel in and effectively portray the excess so important to the show. Mac sings and acts with searing intensity, and Hutchison's unsure, ethereal tones and unkempt beauty evoke a woman who hasn't yet completely surrendered to the afterlife.

The show's score was composed by Nikos Brisco, and is played by a four-man band including such instruments as a gypsy guitar, a Greek tzouras, and an accordion, giving the show a Greek yet inescapably modern sound. If many of the songs (which are played and sung almost continuously) tend to sound the same after a while, none ever feels inappropriate or out of place. Liz Bourgeois's costumes, Chia's extensive (and often creepy) lighting plot, and Morris's set all nicely help complete the experience.

Most of the production's problems spring from Marting's work: She has quite a bit of difficulty executing her ambitious environmental staging concepts in a way that makes it easy to determine who's saying what, and the ensemble members don't have much in the way of individuality. Sound engineer Tim Pickerell should be complimented for his restraint in terms of the amplification's volume, though it's often more than a little unclear where each actor is standing when he or she is speaking.

These issues, taken together, create a fair amount of confusion during this Orpheus. Luckily, they're about all that does; the rest of the time, the details of this complicated and moving love story have seldom seemed so clear.

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HERE Arts Center
Orpheus
Through October 9
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission
HERE, 145 6th Avenue south of Spring
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444