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In Eurydice, the title character (Michelle Monteith) arrives in the Underworld via an elevator filled with pouring rain and is greeted by the Stones.

Cylla von Tiedemann

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Eurydice
Written by
Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Alan Dilworth
Actors
Michelle Monteith, Gregory Prest, Oliver Dennis, Stuart Hughes
Company
Soulpepper Theatre
Venue
Young Centre for the Performing Arts
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Thursday, June 18, 2015

In Orphée, Jean Cocteau's 1950 film classic, Orpheus enters the Underworld by stepping through a mirror that dissolves into liquid. It's hard to top that surreal image, but Sarah Ruhl at least equals it in Eurydice. For the American playwright's entrancing take on the Orpheus myth, getting an exquisite staging from Soulpepper Theatre, the portal to the land of the dead is an elevator filled with pouring rain.

Then again, this is also a play where stones speak, the Lord of the Underworld rides a red tricycle and a father builds his daughter a room out of string.

Like Cocteau, Ruhl started out as a poet and there have often been striking images and lyrical touches in her plays. But of her works that I've seen so far (The Clean House, In the Next Room, Passion Play), her Eurydice, first produced in 2003, is the most wildly poetic – and the most moving.

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Ruhl's 90-minute piece is a meditation on death and grief, memory and forgetting, that feels all the more profound for unfolding in the whimsical manner of a dream. It's a play that can be sad one minute and silly the next; it's funny and tender, nightmarish and nonsensical, the tones shifting as suddenly and simply as a change in the wind.

For her retelling of the Greek tale of Orpheus, the musician who descends into Hades to fetch back his dead wife, Eurydice, Ruhl adds a new wrinkle. Now it's not just the story of a husband's great love for his wife, but of a daughter's bond with her father.

This Eurydice (Michelle Monteith) dies on her wedding day, lured to her death by a sleazy stranger (Stuart Hughes) who claims to have a letter for her from her late dad. Arriving in the Underworld, she finds her father (Oliver Dennis) but doesn't remember him – prior to that soggy elevator ride, she took an obligatory dip in the river Lethe and has forgotten everything.

Her father patiently sets about helping her recover her memories, much to the chagrin of the Underground's Greek chorus, a trio of vocal if powerless Stones (a delightfully irritable Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster, Alex McCooeye and Oyin Oladejo). Meanwhile, back among the living, a distraught but determined Orpheus (Gregory Prest) conceives a means of singing his way into Hades – although not before having first tried to place a phone call to his dead wife.

Alan Dilworth's production is as strange, delicate and startling as the play itself. His last Soulpepper assignment was directing the heated jury-room arguments in that slice of mid-20th-century realism, Twelve Angry Men. But here he plunges confidently into the surreal and embraces the long, eloquent silences suggested by Ruhl's script. There's a wonderful wordless scene in which Dennis's father methodically constructs that string room for Monteith's Eurydice (I won't spoil the effect by saying how he does it), while she plays hopscotch like a child. At one point, he glances at her and smiles fondly and in that instant we see their blissful past recaptured.

Dennis gives a sweet, subtle performance as the father, while Monteith's Eurydice finds the actress at her most girlish and innocent. A curly-haired Prest, whose Orphic lyre is an electric guitar, balances nimbly between heartbreak and absurdity as the inarticulate genius musician. He and Monteith have a cute-couple dynamic here that's a stark contrast to their tempestuous relationship in Of Human Bondage, which is playing in rep with this show.

Soulpepper's wizard set designer, Lorenzo Savoini, creates a bleak, Beckettian vision of the Underworld, all greys and blues, but enlivens it with his crazy costumes. The Stones appear dressed in clay-coloured wigs and gowns, looking more like a Las Vegas chorus than a Greek one. The rugged Hughes, as a comically juvenile Lord of the Underworld, rocks OshKosh overalls and a cardboard crown. Later, going for a more suitably hellish effect, he dons buskins and a goat head. Kimberly Purtell's lighting puts us in an infernal mood and Debashis Sinha's sound design adds to the play's recurring water theme with dripping-faucet effects.

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Ruhl dedicated this play to her father, who died in 1994, and it's partly a love letter to him. Her feelings for him also enrich the narrative, so that when Orpheus comes to reclaim Eurydice from Hades, she must choose between father and husband – between the happiness of a shared past or the excitement of an unknown future. But in remaking the Greek myth, Ruhl also reasserts its potency as an allegory for the power of art. With the music of her poetry, the playwright, like Orpheus, has briefly brought her loved one back from the shadows.

Eurydice runs to June 18 (soulpepper.ca).

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