EURYDICE (LEGEND OF LOVERS)
Lookingglass Theatre Company
at the World Tattoo Gallery
MY SISTER’S MARRIAGE
at the Live Theatre
It seems odd that Jean Anouilh would choose the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as the basis for an essentially intellectual argument about idealism and realism because it’s so quintessentially a tale of romantic love. His Antigone more easily transposes a classic myth to the 20th century–but then it deals with the relatively simple question of the conflict between God’s law and man’s law. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is set in the lands of Life and Death, ruled by actual deities; it does not transfer as smoothly to our rational age.
In the original tale Apollo’s son Orpheus, a musician, falls in love with Eurydice. Soon after their marriage, Aristaeus the beekeeper becomes enamored of Eurydice; fleeing him she is killed by a snake. Orpheus journeys to the land of the dead and, through his beautiful music, persuades the gods to release his beloved. They set one condition–that he not look upon her until the two have reached the world of the living. Orpheus agrees, but succumbs to temptation at the last moment and looks back. Eurydice disappears again into the land of death; after seven days of mourning, Orpheus is murdered and his soul joins Eurydice’s in the underworld.
In Anouilh’s version, Orpheus is a street musician playing for pennies in a railway station, the son of a harpist who’s equally fly-by-night. Eurydice is an actress in a traveling troupe, the daughter of a blowsy ex-soubrette. After Eurydice’s jilted boyfriend has obligingly committed suicide and her marriage to Orpheus has been consummated in a shabby hotel room overseen by an eerie landlord (“our first eccentric,” the lovers whisper in excitement), another obstacle looms. Dulac, the impresario of the troupe Eurydice has deserted, tells Orpheus that his angelic spouse is not as angelic as she appears. “She’s no angel,” Dulac jeers. “Look at me! Is this a face that could seduce an angel?” Then he tells Orpheus that Eurydice has been killed in a traffic accident while fleeing both men.
We never see the process by which Orpheus trades a song for his lover’s freedom–that happens between the acts. The story jumps to Orpheus valiantly turning his face from Eurydice despite her incessant bids for his attention. (Earlier in the play Eurydice announced that she’s stupid and that she talks all the time–and unfortunately she’s right on both counts.) Orpheus forgets that this is her way of discouraging questions she cannot answer, and demands to know the truth about his wife’s past. Turning, he finds it, seeing her as she really is and the life of petty compromise and boring mediocrity they would have shared. With both his ideal and his actual sweetheart gone forever, there is nothing left for Orpheus but to die–and be reunited with his ever-young and faithful Eurydice.
All this is clumsy enough in 1991, when the idea of a beautiful and transcendent death–in exchange for unsullied virtue yet–seems pretty outmoded. But director Justin Hayford has compounded the awkwardness by instructing his two lovers to deliver their speeches in brittle, high-speed monotones better suited to stream-of-consciousness monologues than to any genuine interaction, though occasionally the speakers face one another while talking into space. Whether this delivery is the result of an overzealous adherence to the playwright’s ideas about the artificiality of theatrical conventions or of Hayford’s own experience as a solo performance artist, it reduces Heidi Stillman’s Eurydice to a vacuous Chatty Cathy and Doug Hara’s Orpheus to a callow puppy. The other characters, whose robust banality should seem repugnant in contrast to the lovers’ spirituality, instead constitute a welcome wave of good, life-affirming common sense. Ironically the most heroic image in this production is the sweeping view through the windows of the World Tattoo Gallery loft: we see the Dan Ryan el crawling by, a reminder that life goes on, and will go on long after foolish lovers have opted to believe their departures will make a significant difference.
Last season the Lookingglass Theatre Company received ten Jeff citations for only two productions, neither of which I was lucky enough to see. Though several performers in Eurydice display superlative technique–most notably Lawrence E. DiStasi as the mocking Dulac, though David Kersnar, Christine Dunford, and Thomas J. Cox also do their best in various roles–this production did not show the kind of inspiration that would deserve such recognition.
Cynthia Rich’s 1955 short story “My Sister’s Marriage” remains something of a shocker even today–a bit of southern-gothic grotesquerie rendered even creepier for being narrated by a character who moves from victim to abuser with never a glimmer of moral awareness.
The character is Sarah Ann Landis, who vies with her older sister Olive for the affections of their widowed father; the relationships among the three grow more and more insular. The patriarch eventually so dominates the thinking of his younger daughter that when Olive breaks with her incestuous family to elope with a man held unworthy by the draconian Dr. Landis, Sarah Ann heartily concurs with her father that Olive has “betrayed” them–though she also feels a certain exhilaration at the prospect of becoming his sole helpmeet, and vows to care for him precisely as he cared for her.
As with any first-person narrative, adaptation to the stage is a gargantuan task, but Carolyn Powell Henly, who has the sensitive ear of a master wordsmith, has accomplished it. Doreen Bousquet embraces the excruciating role of Sarah Ann with a virtuoso vocal technique and unflinching courage–putting oneself into the mind of a psychopath is not a thing to do lightly–making her character an object of pity as well as horror. She is well supported by Michael Daly’s enigmatic Dr. Landis, Va Hamilton’s Olive, and some incidental music by Robert Bousquet and Scott Sherry formal enough to chill your blood and fragile enough to break your heart.
My Sister’s Marriage marks the debut of StageCraft Productions, a west-suburban company. If their future productions continue the standard set by this one, these self-admitted “perfectionists” may actually approach their goal.