Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Leah Cohen and Lauren Rhodes
Photo by Taylor Sanders
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told and retold throughout the past two-plus millennia by ancient poets (Ovid, Plato, Virgil), modern novelists (Salman Rushdie), almost twenty opera composers from 1600 to 2009, ballet composers/choreographers (Stravinsky and Balanchine), pop songsters (Zooey Deschanel), and even video game creators (Terry Cavanaugh's "Don't Look Back"). Joining the likes of Tennessee Williams with his Orpheus Descending, Sarah Ruhl penned yet another version of the tale of the struggle between life and death and between love of spouse and of parent. Entitling her play simply Eurydice, she focuses the story from the perspective of the heroine rather than the hero.

Since its premiere in 2003 at Madison Repertory Theatre, the metaphor-rich, watery underworld Eurydice has received many creative productions from Off-Broadway and London to regional stages across the county to hundreds of high schools and universities—including a fabulously creative, surreal, water-bucket-stacked production by Berkeley's Shotgun Players in 2015. Perhaps no prior production of Sarah Ruhl's version, though, has quite ventured into the territory now tread by City Lights with its thoroughly engaging, fascinating, and impacting bilingual Eurydice. Each of the English-speaking actors is paired with an actor using American Sign Language, blending the two languages to underscore in ways imaginative and enlightening a play whose focus is communications across worlds and between people when speaking to each other is next to impossible.

In this duo-language outing, no actor is passive; none is only interpreting for the other. Each actor is highly integral in the mixture of interactions as language-paired actors sometimes mirror each other in expression and action, sometimes prompt a paired partner to remember or do something, and sometimes interact as an English speaker of one character (e.g., Orpheus) with an ASL speaker of another character (e.g., Eurydice). Director (and City Lights Executive Artistic Director) Lisa Mallette interjects into Ruhl's fantastical script scores of wonderfully delightful decisions that add new meanings to the words—both spoken and unspoken—as the achingly beautiful story plays out before us with much Ruhl-enriched humor added throughout.

While there are many versions of this mythic tale, the basic outline of the story is similar to all and to this modern adaptation of Sarah Ruhl. On the wedding day of the music-loving Orpheus to his beloved bookworm Eurydice, she tragically dies (by different means in different versions) and is swept away to the Underworld where she meets (at least in Ms. Ruhl's imagination) her dear father who has preceded her in death. Totally distraught, Orpheus uses his vocal sweetness to persuade the netherworld's powers to be to bring his betrothed back to earth's light and life. He is granted that wish, but only with the condition that he leads Eurydice out of Hades without ever looking back at her.

Like Lot in the Bible, Orpheus cannot help but turn his head when she suddenly calls his name as he crosses the infernal gates, whereupon his bride is immediately swept back to the watery abyss, leaving him once again miserably alone. The playwright's decision to tell the tale from the viewpoint of Eurydice allows the young woman to describe firsthand to us her joys of life's love and marriage, her conflicted draws both to husband and to father, and her confusion, loneliness, and longing of sudden loss and dying.

Lauren Rhodes and Leah Cohen play the English-speaking and ASL Eurydice, respectively, each bringing her own unique expressions and mannerisms that help define a girl-barely-woman with all her wonder, excitement, and naivitê about love and marriage. Each also portrays with increasing maturity a woman-no-longer-girl as she encounters the realities of loss and longing. Often with knowing looks at each other in gazes that speak volumes, both actresses show an astounding range of emotional and physical states while convincingly and authentically telling Eurydice's story of love gained and lost, heartfelt reunion with her father, relearning what it means to be human in a world deprived of memories and emotional connections, and transitioning to a state eventually where death is the welcomed next stop in her underworld sojourn.

Likewise, the duo-language duet playing Orpheus brings a plethora of insights beyond the script itself about the just-married husband who seeks to contact his sudden-gone wife via such means as a worm and a straw. By pairing a female as the ASL Orpheus (Stephanie Foisy), director Mallette is able to illustrate even wider ranges of Orpheus' persistent personality, as Robert Sean Campbell speaks aloud Orpheus' unbounded determination to contact and rescue his love. The pair's interactions are a partnership defined by elaborations of emotions, suggestive solutions by the silent partner to the speaking one, and empathic looks and touches (like when it is time to move on after an attempted communication to the Underworld seems to be going nowhere).

Brian Herndon (English-speaking) and his shadow side Spencer Stevenson (ASL) are the deceased father Eurydice meets in the underworld—a man whom both actors portray with a warm, optimistic personality, the kind of father anyone might want to have. He is also devilishly rebellious as hell, having stubbornly held on to his ability to speak the language of the living and having continued since his death to send letters to be his beloved daughter, even though none ever reaches her. Together, they render in their unearthly surroundings a very human father who gently cares and counsels a daughter who must be retaught to love him as well as the words and books she once adored.

The rest of this expanded cast of eleven never disappoints as well. As the sleazy, creepy "Interesting Man" who first entices Eurydice away from her wedding party to his apartment (and eventually down a rainy elevator to hell), Erik Gandolfi (English-speaking) and Dane K. Lentz (ASL) team as two plotting buds out to lure another innocent victim to their hellish lair. They only become more hilariously bizarre when they later enter on a kid's trike and scooter in outfits from a Saturday morning cartoon show, now portraying the completely spoiled King of the Underworld who is like the loud, snotty kid everyone used to hate in elementary school. For both characters, Erik Gandolfi's voice takes on otherworldly, bizarre amplifications through just one of dozens of examples of sound designer George Psarras's creative genius.

Watching all that goes on among these principal characters and overall monitoring the nether atmosphere are Big, Little, and Loud Stone (the English/ASL pairings of April Bennett/Dane K Lentz, Jennifer DeLane Bradford/Spencer Stevenson, and Keenan Flagg/Stephanie Foisy). Serving as a Greek chorus, their commentary is full of sharp-worded cautions, snippy commands, and pointed advice of how to let go of what was in life and to succumb to the silence of death; but they also revel (especially in their collective ASL gestures and vivid facial expressions) some true hope that Eurydice can succeed in her quest to reunite with Orpheus.

Ron Gasparinetti has created a multi-leveled set of earthly and otherworldly locations that blend together, separated by a flowing river where to dip is to forget all that is in the sunlight of the above. Huge trees with limbs and trunks that fit in both worlds envelop the scene, while a modern-looking elevator awaits on the side to unload its next water-soaked passenger on a visit that will last forever.

John Bernard's lighting creates celebratory sunshine, saddened shadows, and darkened corners, and focuses probing rays of spotlight on moments of decision or solitude. Pat Tyler's costumes have plenty of tongue-in-cheek intentions as well as clear messages about the personalities of those clothed. The aforementioned sound design of George Psarras often includes effects like dripping water and grating on metal that are both heard and seen—the latter thanks to the vivid interpretations by Dane K. Lentz. His design of music provides a score of both the familiar and of out-of-this-world sustaining of notes and pulses that add greatly to the richness of the telling.

The delicate, tipping balance between life and death, sure reality and faded memory, and remorse and redemption is beautifully illustrated in script and in this City Lights production. Water becomes both the sustenance and reviver of life as it rushes out of a pump as well as the waves that pronounce once and forever an ending of that life as it flows along the winding river. Sarah Ruhl uses multiple metaphors throughout her play to remind us of the delicate balance we walk each day, always a step away from the final plunge. The characters who are in death's hands clearly value one last time—much like in Wilder's act three of Our Town—the seemingly mundane parts of life and seem to be warning us all to relish and appreciate our daily habits and relationships before they startlingly pass from us. As the playwright aids each of her key personas to come to peace with their new state of no life, she also gives us avenues to see death as sad but also as the inevitably right next step in our tentative journeys as humans. To her and to the City Lights dual-language cast and its production team, we can only say a heartfelt thanks for a must-see evening of first-class theatre.

Eurydice, through April 14, 2019, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.