Monday, September 22, 2008

Broken Ruhl

Eurydice (Zillah Glory) goes to hell, and you're right there with her.

There are two Sarahs stalking the American landscape right now, Sarah Palin and Sarah Ruhl, who both elicit roughly the same reaction from me: how can this be happening??? Both are incompetent impostors, playing to coteries of girl-crazy partisans (Ruhl has been short-listed for the Pulitzer, and won a MacArthur grant). But since Ruhl is a playwright, not a politician, and currently enjoying a production of her latest effort, Eurydice, at the New Rep, she falls more easily within the purview of this blog.

First, however, a note of contrition: today I have to eat my words. Yes, I'm going to say what everyone is always hectoring me to say: I admit I was wrong. I confidently predicted that How Shakespeare Won the West would prove the season's biggest "disaster," only to see Eurydice immediately push it right out of contention, and indeed perhaps re-define how bad a play can be and still garner a major production in Boston. I'm sorry, Peter DuBois! There really are worse plays out there!

But my embarrassment should be nothing compared to that of other critics. Here's the Globe's Louise Kennedy, a long-time Ruhl fanatic, on the show:

"I need a new language to talk about Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice" . . .Ruhl's reimagining of the Orpheus myth evokes so many emotions and thoughts at once that I find myself groping for words that don't sound like hollow cliches next to its complexity and depth . . . Grief. Joy. Energy. Terror. Laughter. Tears. Comprehension. Mystery. Yes, yes, Ruhl's story . . has all that. But there's also something . . . something . . . well, there isn't a word for how it feels to feel all of these things at once. Not in the language of the living, at least."

I'm cringing as I re-read that, because it seems to me that to love Sarah Ruhl's work amounts to a self-declaration of superficiality. I can only agree with Kennedy on one point: this play made me feel that I had left the land of the living. Watching it was like being in Hell, in fact, where someday no doubt I will have to endure forever the meandering jottings of some undertalented undergraduate's journal. Because Eurydice plays like a mix of the deep thoughts that might have occurred to Ruhl when her father died, or when she (perhaps coincidentally) broke up with some dude who played guitar. Apparently somehow she then came to believe these ruminations could serve as a "re-imagining of the Orpheus myth."

If only. Those outside the Ruhl echo chamber might note there's no dead daddy in the original myth (hence the character is simply known as "Father" - what, not "Dadditreus"?). But he's the focus here (even unknowingly precipitating his daughter's death), while Orpheus is almost a footnote; indeed, Eurydice doesn't "get" her husband, as she can't handle the simplest rhythms or even carry a tune (that represents a weird subconscious admission from Ruhl, IMHO, but never mind). With Orpheus on the sidelines, we can of course forget about the struggle between death and passion the myth gives voice to, and instead concern ourselves with the poignant mini-myth of remembrance that Ruhl constructs around "Father," who's all about caring for and comforting Eurydice, and even builds her a little house of string to live in.

You can probably tell from this that he's more Hallmark card than character; still, to be fair, there's a sad sweetness to a few of his exchanges with Eurydice, and the theme of memory loss, symbolized by the river Lethe, and water in general (Eurydice leaves Orpheus at their wedding to get a drink), is definitely a poignant one. Ruhl also conjures a few striking visual gambits in her meandering magic realism; it's raining in the elevator to Hell, and that house of string, though it takes awhile to build, does have some resonance as a metaphor for the evanescence of memory. There's probably enough material here for a winsome one-act.

But the play is clogged with so much Z-grade filler that it makes you want to scream, and it's pretentious as, well, Hell. Ruhl's The Clean House, which was a hit at the New Rep last year, may have been utterly derivative but was at least beautifully crafted. Here one senses Ruhl relying on her own, rather than received, resources, and suddenly you understand why she borrowed so much before - meanwhile, any commitment to craftsmanship has all but been tossed out the window. It's as if having received a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, she decided that anything she came up with must, perforce, be genius. So her Eurydice is prone to pseudo-poetic non sequiturs (at one moment she babbles about a "philosophy of hats"), there's a good chunk of stage time devoted to a trio of talking stones who exude "attitude," and Orpheus just generally sounds stoned, too. Plus the whole piece feels knee-deep in disguised narcissism.

It would be nice to believe that the play somehow has tapped into wells of grief in its fans (Charles Isherwood of the Times also gave it an inexplicable rave). The problem with this idea is that I lost my parents over the past few years (one to Alzheimer's, so I know from memory loss), and the friend I brought to the show had also lost his. Yet I found myself staring into space, counting the lighting instruments during much of the show, while he fought back the giggles. In fact, when I think of all the tears I shed for my brilliant mother and gallant father, I find myself all the angrier at the silly little poseur who wrote Eurydice. But then, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, it takes a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell. Real grief easily recognizes the kind of tender self-regard evidenced in Ruhl for what it is - an awareness seemingly rampant in the audience I saw it with, many of them elderly, most no doubt with grown children. You could see Indiglo watch faces flickering like blue fireflies during the show, and there was a good deal of yawning throughout. But my bored tolerance gave way to anger when Ruhl began quoting my favorite speech in Lear ("We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage . ."), not merely because the playwright was trying to puff herself up as the equal of Shakespeare, but because that perforce required dragging the Bard down to her own childish level.

As for the production itself - well, I'm not sure how better to apply lipstick to this particular pig. Director Rick Lombardo clearly senses the script's weakness, as he has cast three little girls to play those wise-cracking stones and distract us with their cuteness (oh, snap!). But he's also encouraged the talented Zillah Glory to overplay Eurydice (she's always gushing, and often even up on her tippy-toes) and he doesn't get much out of Brian Bielawski as Orpheus (but then what is there to get in the role as written?). The reliable Ken Baltin does much better by cagily underplaying "Father" (indeed, his final dip in the River Lethe almost made me forgive the playwright). The design is strong, but not outstanding; Janie E. Howland imagines Hell as a kind of blue martini, with glowing olives on giant swizzle sticks, which are lit evocatively by Deb Sullivan; Frances Nelson McSherry's costumes are even better, with a scarlet wedding gown for Eurydice (it's exactly the color of Orpheus's guitar), a little Jackie Kennedy ensemble for her arrival in Hell, and some fairly amusing punkette duds for those not-rolling Stones.

Still, it would take truly brilliant design to float this stinker. Something tells me that, MacArthur or no, Eurydice may mark the beginning of the end of the hype of Sarah Ruhl. Her rise seems to have been fueled by a certain kind of feminist politics, which is always looking to crown a new Sylvia Plath, as well as long-term trends in the academic theatre (Ruhl essentially puts right in the text the kind of surreal "poetry" that directors such as Robert Wilson used to 'violate' traditional dramas with). But can provocation survive being so boring? The crowd at the New Rep left the theatre talking openly of how mystifyingly dull the show had been. Luckily, when the critics lose their way, there's still word-of-mouth.


  1. I received a phone call from a nice Goodman Theatre telemarketer asking me to subscribe to their 2008-2009 season. I declined (not admitting, of course that I can't afford to do so anyway), saying that I need a year or two to see if the Goodman will improve its programming choices. The telemarketer asked, "Did you have a problem with one of our productions?" I told her, "Passion Play was the worst play I've ever seen." The telemarketer sighed, saying she has heard that a lot, and the call was over.

  2. A note to the uninitiated: Passion Play is another Sarah Ruhl script, which clocks in at 3 hours, 40 minutes and "covers nearly 500 years of history, from Elizabethan England to Nazi Germany to Reagan-era South Dakota."