The Magic of a Little Fishing Line

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Remember the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice?

Orpheus, the virtuoso musician, enchants the world with his songs. The young nymph, Eurydice, falls in love with him. The two are married and on their wedding day Eurydice runs through a meadow where she's bitten by a viper and dies.

Orpheus is devastated. He plays the saddest music the world has ever heard and is magically transported to the underworld. There he makes a deal with the devil. Orpheus will be allowed to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living but only if he walks in front of her the entire way and never looks back. If he even glances, Eurydice will die a second death and be taken from him forever.

Even if you've never heard the myth, you know what happens next, right?

Playwright Sarah Ruhl uses this beautiful myth as the backbone for her play Eurydice now playing at South Coast Rep.

Ms. Ruhl's take on Eurydice is at once terribly modern and poignantly timeless. She's added Eurydice's father to the tale. Pining for his daughter from the underworld, he writes her a letter on her wedding day. He wistfully imagines what it would be like to walk his daughter down the aisle. It's heartbreaking and joyous at the same time.

Ms. Ruhl's myth becomes a story of both the love for a husband and the love of a father. Through a series of reunions and departures, the play rehearses the inevitable act of letting go of the things we love.

This is a play that I've loved, intellectually, since the first time I read it almost a decade ago. Ms. Ruhl is a smart, poetic writer who creates wonderfully theatrical worlds. The challenge, both on the page and unfortunately in this production at South Coast, is the ideas are more vivid than the emotions. I find myself more deeply moved at the memory of the play than the performance itself. That's in part because the actors haven't fully embodied the simple but profound moments of loss.

But the reason to brave the drive to Orange County is the stage magic, or to be more specific the stage mechanics. Director Marc Masterson, who's the new artistic director at South Coast, has threaded through the production a series of technical tricks that create a sense of theatrical wonder. There's a dropped letter that mysteriously floats into the air. There's a book that's lowered through a trap door and suddenly descends from the ceiling. People pop up from under the stage and descend down into it.

It's a theatricality we see too little of in LA theater. Now, there are two simple reasons for that. One is architecture: LA theaters generally don't have the technical space - the fly lofts and trap rooms - to pull off these feats. The other reason: money. Some of these tricks can be a little pricey. But I have to confess, the trick that charmed me most required little more than some fishing line and creativity.

That's director Marc Masterson's gift to this production: creating a theatrical world where anything can happen. If that's his gift to LA theater as the artistic director of South Coast Repertory, we'll all be the richer for it.

Eurydice plays at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through October 14.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: Carmela Corbett in South Coast Repertory's 2012 production of Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl. © Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.