Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl is my favorite non-Shakespeare play—that is what my bio on the ASC website has said since I arrived here in 2018. Embarrassingly, if anyone had pressed me on what the show was about when I turned in my bio form, I would have been stuck. Honestly, I couldn’t have told them anything beyond “it’s a retelling of the Orpheus myth”. However, I would have insisted that it was—and is—my favorite play.
See, a little over a decade before I arrived at ASC, in 2007, I had taken in my first New York play—Eurydice—during its off-Broadway run. I remember being a little star-struck that Famke Janssen, of Bond Girl fame (or X-Men depending on your reference point), was sitting right behind me. I remember being a little irritated that my friend didn’t take me to a musical. I remember the elevator opening to the underworld and her umbrella.
What had really stuck with me, over all those years, was the deep emotional reaction I had to the show. It was beautiful, melodic, haunting, and funny. I immediately rushed to my local Barnes and Noble (remember, it was 2007) and tried to find anything and everything written by Sarah Ruhl. I searched high and low for a copy of the script. I told everyone who asked for a full decade after that night that it was my favorite play, even after I had long forgotten the actual plot. It didn’t matter that the details were gone, how it made me feel is what endured.
It’s almost perfect that I didn’t remember most of the plot of the show, considering one of the key themes of the show is just that—memory.
Eurydice had its world premiere at Madison Repertory Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin in 2003, after which it was performed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2004, and Yale Repertory Theatre in 2006, directed by Les Waters. It opened off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater in 2007. Recently, it was also adapted into the libretto for an opera, Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin, which premiered at the L.A. Opera in February 2020 (we’re definitely doing the non-opera version).
The basic framework of the play revolves around the ancient legend of Orpheus. In case this particular Greek myth is escaping you: after his bride, Eurydice, dies on their wedding day, Orpheus vows to bring her back from the dead. Traveling to the underworld, he charms Hades and Persephone and is allowed the chance to lead his bride back to the land of the living—under the one condition that she would have to follow behind him and he couldn’t turn to look at her until they were back. Of course, as the story goes, at the very last minute he does look at her and she is sent back to the underworld forever.
It’s a story that has been retold and reimagined in a thousand ways through art, theater, music, and dance.
But their love story is not the only, or even main, love in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Arriving in the underworld, Eurydice has forgotten life after being dipped in the River of Death—her name, language, anything of her past. She is reunited with her father, who has retained his memory after his death, and he painstakingly reteaches her language and about her past. When Orpheus arrives to retrieve her, it isn’t as simple as the myth. Returning to her husband would mean leaving her father alone in the underworld.
As my own memory of this show has been rebuilt, I cannot wait to encounter it again, especially staged for the iconic Blackfriars Playhouse.
I won’t give away much more about the plot but I do suggest looking up more on the play and its author—below are some resources to get you started. And, of course, get some tickets to experience it for yourself.
2023 is ASC’s 35th Anniversary and we’ve got an incredible artistic year planned. First up, join us in the Underworld this spring–performances of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice will take place at the Blackfriars Playhouse from February 24-May 13. Pair it with tickets to an equally magical offering, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, opening February 17. Visit our website for a full calendar of events!