Pushing Daisies: PURE packs an uneven play with compelling images

Produced by PURE Theatre
May 1-3, 8-10, 14-17, 7:30 p.m.
May 4, 2 p.m.
10 Storehouse Row
2120 Noisette Blvd., North Charleston
(843) 723-4444

PURE Theatre specializes in startling and imaginative drama primed to resonate with a contemporary audience. The company's latest beautifully strange concoction has many modern-day touches, but it's also steeped in Greek mythology.

Eurydice is a play fresh from New York, written by Sarah Ruhl. Her script won't appeal to everyone — you'll love or leave its whimsical structure. But director Sharon Graci and her actors rise to the challenge of making a flawed play shine.

Ruhl retells the legend of Orpheus in the underworld from Eurydice's point of view, fleshing out her character and giving her father a prominent role. By the time Eurydice begins, her dad's been long dead and is familiar with the mind-numbing routine of Hades. Orpheus' own distant father, Apollo, does not appear, but has given the youth great musical ability.

On their wedding night, Eurydice is lured away from her reception by the mysterious Nasty Interesting Man and falls down the steps from his penthouse crib to her death. Descending into Hades in an elevator, she is showered by the water of forgetfulness from the River Lethe.

What could have been a joyful reunion between father and daughter becomes a frustrating time for both of them. Eurydice no longer recognizes her father, and she can't even communicate in the same language with him anymore; instead she speaks the "language of stones," like a dead person should. The father patiently reintroduces himself to her through words and anecdotes from their family life up top.

This behavior is frowned upon by the Stones, a Greek chorus-like trio who complain about anyone who doesn't act dead.

"Being sad is not allowed," one of them says. "Act like a stone."

Back in the land of the living, Orpheus tries to communicate to his lost love through letters (mailed via worms), a tin can phone, and music. He finds the express elevator to hell — but will he rescue his corpse bride, or will the spoiled-rotten Lord of the Underworld claim her as his own?

The most successful element in this play is the relationship between Eurydice and her dad. Ruhl writes from the heart, commemorating her own relationship with her late father. Rodney Lee Rogers wrings every ounce of sympathy, wit, and nuance from his heartbreaking role. Amanda Franklin Johnson plays the heroine with the right amount of passion and honesty. Chad Layman is lots of fun to watch as the petulant Lord of the Underworld, but seems somewhat one-note as the Nasty Interesting Man.

He's just plain nasty.

Recent CofC grad Brian Smith gives one of his best performances to date as Orpheus, adding a dose of pragmatism to his romantic character. The Stones, played by Bill Carson, Ron Wiltrout, and Nathan Koci of the New Music Collective, double as accompanists with their own original score to the show.

On the night we saw Eurydice, understudy Nathan Koci took Wiltrout's place and replicated his fellow boulders' engaging comical presence.

So with a strong cast and clever mid-20th century costumes from Janine McCabe, what's there to dislike about this production? Most of the problems lie with Ruhl's storytelling choices.

In the surface world, Eurydice is introduced as a wide-eyed innocent, so her naivety after losing her memory in the underworld has less impact than it could have. And even with plenty of events and colorful characters, the story still seems slow at times.

Graci has done her best to keep the play tight and makes imaginative use of a space that's new to PURE — 10 Storehouse Row at The Navy Yard. Beyond a set of cargo loading doors, characters move in slow motion as if they're backstage waiting for their cues. Once they move inside they come alive (or become ghosts, depending on the scene). The setting certainly makes for some great stage pictures, most notably the sight of the three musicians standing outside playing a tuneful dirge for Eurydice's funeral.

There's wonderful language here, too — for example, Orpheus' bedclothes "smile with a crooked green mouth" — but Ruhl needs to learn when to use such words and when to restrain them so that we get a stronger sense of the two disparate worlds. If you can get past her excesses, you'll be moved by a play full of inventive imagery, starry-eyed notions, and everyday resonance.

Eurydice may be imperfect, but it's by no means dead in the water.


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