As longtime residents of West Philadelphia, this was not our first visit to a Curio Theater Company performance. For those who have not had the pleasure, a vital feature of Curio is their choice of venue–a multipurpose old church building, which, though aging and somewhat musty, strikes me as an excellent place to put on a show.
The cast of a typical Curio performance tend to fall in the 20-to-30something age group, and the quality of the average Curio show varies from well-intentioned amateur all the way up to genuinely great theater. There are many strengths present in this six-year-old troupe, including (but not limited to) a willingness to perform both classic and original works, ambitious use of a unique space, intelligent set design, and a laudable devotion to staging live shows in a neighborhood far outside Philadelphia’s primary theater district.
What it is, according to them:
The offering on display through November is Euydice, billed as follows on the Curio website:
The story of a young girl separated from her lover, hounded by the denizens of the Underworld, and reunited with her deceased father. Will the power of love be enough to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living? Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is a poetic and bizarre retelling of the myth of Orpheus from the viewpoint of the tale’s unfortunate heroine.
Though I’m fairly conversant with the major figures in Greek mythology, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was not particularly familiar to Tara or myself. Now that I’ve seen the play and been indoctrinated to the mysteries of Eurydice, allow me to present a brief plot summary, written in my best “bored fifth grader” voice:
Orpheus was some great musician but I couldn’t really tell based on the songs he played in the play. His wife (Eurydice) died a real sad death (I think snakes bit her, which would have been cool to see, but the play forgot to show it) and so she went straight down to “Hades” which is the Greek way of saying H-E-double hockey sticks. Orpheus was so sad over losing his girlfriend (pretty dumb) that now his music made the Gods cry like a bunch of giant babies (the play didn’t show this either), and so they told him to shut up already and go down to “Hades” and bring the girl back. But so when he got there, Orpheus turned out to suck at rescuing people, he didn’t follow the instructions and screwed up his mission, so he never got his wife back and I guess the play ends and he’s still sad. I wasn’t sad, I was half asleep. The moral of the story is that if you go on an important rescue mission you should probably follow the instructions better than Orpheus did. I thought he was really stupid for blowing it. –Signed, A Bored 5th Grade Clay
In seriousness, I have to admit that I was less than thrilled by this Curio offering. On one hand, we did get advance tickets to a preview performance, so perhaps the show hadn’t entirely hit full stride (it opened to the general public two days after our viewing). On the other hand, doubting that Curio planned to rewrite the entire play between our visit and opening night, I would not recommend this show as the best example of Curio’s true potential. The overall flavor and plot of the play are largely depressing–we spend a lot of time listening to Eurydice’s wistful attempts to recall her former life, and entirely too much attention is given to the heroine’s sad sack of a father, pining endlessly over his daughter’s plight. Given that these are the primary plot elements, the show quickly enters “ultra downer” territory–not necessarily my favorite genre.
The playwright must have known that something was needed something to offset the gloom; enter a choral trio of ragged, outspoken ‘stones’ (entertainingly played by three soot-covered actors). Though I generally enjoy abstract or tangential plot lines–and welcomed the humorous contrast–the goofy chorus of stones feels as though it were inserted into the play with no grace or subtlety, and leaves the audience (or at least this audience member) to wonder what specific function the shouting stones were meant to serve. Though funny, the stones felt like a tacked-on salve against Eurydice’s redundant tragedy. I can imagine some critic interpreting the stones as some kind of Beckett-infused inspiration, but for me, I just didn’t get it.
The set design worked very well, and quite honestly, was one of the primary strengths of the play. An abstract cityscape rises above the stage, while a large spiraling ramp circumscribes the room and defines the space of the play. Water flows from a valve hung over the set, splashing into an eerie underworld pool. Cast members create stage fixtures out of twine while the audience watches; this particular innovation was put to excellent use as tents and walls appeared from the imagination of the players.
I’ve got nothing against modern interpretations of classic material, but in this case, the source didn’t translate well into a full two-hour play. The pacing felt intolerably slow at points, and I have to admit that by the conclusion, I’d stopped trying to grieve for the characters. The acting was acceptable if somewhat forgettable–they did their best–the real problem was simply that this myth, at core, is too sparse to make great theater.
For the first program of their 2011 season, Curio theater presented an adaptation of the myth of Orpheus. For me, the most striking aspect of the play was the sparse set design. There were minimal fixtures in use; however, the troupe had made unique use of available space by constructing a long winding wooden walk way (representing the world of the living) that winds across the room and leads down to a small pool of water (meant to stand for the “river” one crosses to enter Hades). Another creative aspect of the play was the way players created props from simple twine. I especially liked the moment when Eurydice’s father ‘builds’ her a house out of string while the audience watches. This usual device was one of the most memorable highlights of the show.
Overall, I found the play to be enjoyable, though slightly slow.