Eurydice at Pillsbury House

Orpheus (Paris Hunter Paul) goes to hell and back for Eurydice (Andrea San Miguel)
Dan Norman

What lies beyond the veil of death has long been a human obsession. You can imagine that among the first thoughts of human beings, after "Why is that big thing always chasing me?," was "What happens to the people who go to sleep and don't wake up?"

Because what lies on the other side is unknowable, humans have developed religions centered on the question, and they have told, and later written, libraries full of stories about those mysteries. Sarah Ruhl presents a decidedly modern take on the subject in Eurydice, which merges the ancient Greek tale of newlyweds divided by death with more modern thoughts on the importance of memory.

In Walking Shadow Theatre Company's production, the different elements make for uneasy partners, with the company reaching for a greater significance that they don't quite find. It's well acted and put together, but Eurydice is often just clever when it should be profound, engaging when it should be heartbreaking.

Part of this comes from the basic story: Eurydice and Orpheus are soul mates when, hours after the marriage, Eurydice dies. Grief-stricken Orpheus makes his way to Hades and makes a deal for her soul. His job: walk straight ahead out of the underworld without ever glancing back. Of course, on the edge of the world, he can't help himself — and loses Eurydice forever.

Ruhl explores the memory-cleansing effects of the River Styx by introducing Eurydice's father, who has retained much of his knowledge of the world overhead. These moments, fueled by strong performances from Peter Ooley and Andrea San Miguel, make for beautiful music. These aren't profound memories, just thoughts of sitting under a tree in the comfort of youth or duck hunting around the Mississippi River. Like the souls returned to Earth in Our Town, these characters know that the beauty of life lies in the mundane moments — and they'll do anything to retain them.

This heartbreak doesn't always sit well with some of the play's dark whimsy, from a chorus of sentient rocks to the childish Lord of the Underworld. Actor Dan Hopman makes his first appearance as the character decked out like a child from the early 20th century, complete with curls and short pants, riding a tricycle in through stage fog to the strains of Black Sabbath's "Children of the Grave." It's all very entertaining, but it almost feels like window dressing for the story being played out a few feet away. The same goes for Orpheus (Paris Hunter Paul): His quest is almost incidental to that of Eurydice and her father.

The show looks great, with the designers (especially set designer Steve Kath and sound designer Michael Croswell) crafting an immersive experience. This is a Hades of brick, pipes, and the sound of running, dripping, or raining water. It's every bit as oppressive as the more childish visions of hell that run through our culture, and one that funnels our experience into the play's final heartbreak.

In her notes, director Amy Rummenie notes that the play's themes of loss of memory were extremely close to her heart, as her father died from Alzheimer's. That, and the fact many of us have dealt with a loved one disappearing long before they actually pass on, may be why the moments between Eurydice and her father are more powerful than any of the scenes of her with Orpheus. Like I said, heartbreak is at the play's center. Everything else just gets in the way.

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