Watching Sarah Ruhl's unique but irritating "Eurydice" at South Coast Repertory is much like awakening from a particularly disturbing dream then being unable at first to shake off its impact.
There is much of value in director Marc Masterson's intricate and imaginative staging of this retold Greek myth presented in modern dress — certainly Gerard Howland's setting is a work of art in itself — but the play itself is curiously unsatisfying.
Told from the point of view of its title character, who, according to legend, perished on her wedding day and was thrust into the underworld, "Eurydice" is, by turns, poetic, spiritual and comical, but rarely truly dramatic or involving. Its dreamlike quality pervades the brief, ultimately ambiguous 75-minute production.
The production's primary problem is one of overkill. The physical dimensions of the setting (and one of its characters) tend to overshadow the interaction between the title character and her brand-new husband, who vows to descend to Hades and retrieve her. More of a connection is established between Eurydice and her late father, who must restore her memory of the upper world.
Eurydice herself is beautifully interpreted by Carmela Corbett, a fresh-faced British import who radiates beauty, innocence and spirit. Corbett firmly establishes her individuality in her strange new surroundings, despite having had the memory of her past erased.
Ruhl's most important contribution is her addition of the girl's father, already residing in the underworld. SCR veteran Timothy Landfield brings a consummate passion to this character in the production's best-realized performance as he strives to refresh his daughter's perceptions.
As Orpheus, who weds and loses Eurydice on the same day, Alex Knox portrays a character whose love for his bride, strong as it is, plays second fiddle to his passion for music. Were his character not written so blandly, his mission might be accomplished more fervently. His final sequence is particularly frustrating.
As for pure scene stealing, Tim Cummings takes the brass ring in a dual role, billed as "A Nasty Interesting Man" and "The Lord of the Underworld." In the former guise, Cummings stalks Eurydice as an obnoxious dirty old man (overcoat but no pants), while his second characterization, as Hades himself, is bone-chilling in its impact. "Larger than life" is a colossal understatement in this case.
There are three other characters, all "stones," comprising a literal Greek chorus of hellish commentators reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame." Patrick Kerr, Michael Manuel and Bahni Turpin fill these head view-only roles with sardonic finesse.
Howland's imposing setting, including a rain-soaked elevator to hell, the green-hued "stones" and the devil's gargantuan doorway, is the hallmark of the production, along with Soojin Lee's modern costumes and Anne Militello's unique lighting designs.
Greek mythology is, at best, an acquired taste, one which Ruhl obviously has acquired wholeheartedly. Whether her audiences choose to follow her along this literal road to hell may be quite another matter.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
Where: South Coast Repertory Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday until Oct. 14
Cost: $19 to $70
Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org