Eurydice at the UNO Amphitheater
After two online productions last fall (Single Black Female and The Emperor Jones), Theatre UNO rousingly returned to live performances recently with an outdoor production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Though I’ve attended many productions at UNO over the past 15+ years, this was my first time at its Amphitheater–I even had to ask where it was, tho I’ve passed by its perimeter often. I hope it won’t be my last.
Eurydice offers Ruhl’s take on the oft-told tale (the Tony-winning Hadestown, the Oscar-winning Black Orpheus, etc.) in which the musician Orpheus, to reclaim his wife from the underworld, must lead her back from Hades without looking back at her. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
Ruhl, best known for The Clean House and In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), gives us the story from Eurydice’s perspective, a perfectly appropriate and intriguing approach. Yet too often, as I have found in her other works, the script lacks narrative tension, and long passages come off as tedious and/or precious as opposed to the lightness and wittiness she strives for.
For example, after being dipped in the River Lethe, Eurydice forgets what many words mean; the “vocabulary lesson” that follows is, alas, painfully boring, despite the actors’ fine efforts to enliven it.
Only towards the end, when Eurydice must decide whether to return to the living to be with Orpheus, is there a truly moving scene as her well-meaning, if bourgeois, father (think Polonius in Hamlet) encourages her to leave the underworld despite her inclination to stay there with him. Ruhl wrote Eurydice, in part, to honor her father, who had died of cancer, as a way to “have a few more conversations with him,” and her love for him imbues this section with tenderness and palpable emotions missing throughout the rest of this often too cerebral drama.
Despite my reservations about the play itself, I admired Directors Maggie Tonra and Richon May’s imaginative realization of it. Cast members were deployed throughout the amphitheater, roaming through the audience, in an excellent use of the space. Phantasmagorical puppets, magic tricks and live music added visual and aural appeal.
That music, composed by Bryan Armand in a neo-classical style and played by Jason Percle (piano), Mike Perez (violin), and Nick Passabet (cello), was particularly noteworthy (and beautiful), layering this Eurydice with a melancholic, contemplative sensibility that enhanced the production with an ineffable grace.
In the challenging role of Eurydice, Josie Oliva, lithe and elegant as a swan, was coyly charming, bringing out the heroine’s intelligence and headstrongness at the start. Later, however, she communicated the aching subtext with an understated finesse.
As Orpheus, in his acting debut, David Hidalgo was enthusiastic and boyishly endearing, which is just what the role calls for. Though not quite as polished a performer yet as Oliva, together they made a pair of dewy lovers.
With his strong, solid presence, Drew Stroud manifested deep paternal concern as Eurydice’s Father with subtle conviction. He and Oliva brought to life the play’s emotional centerpiece with a precise delicacy.
Russell Leak, Ja’Quan Henderson and Ashtyn Corcoran made Lords of the Underworld, and other assorted baddies that Eurydice encounters, suitably distasteful, but gave them a knowing comic edge.
Kenneth Latour II’s costumes–hearts cut out of Orpheus’ pants, calla lilies attached to Eurydice’s pantsuit, shapeshifting patchwork gray outfits for the Greek chorus of Stones (Laural Tannelill, Will Leonard, Emmanuel Guillot, Saxon Ball)–enhanced with fanciful visual flair the Alice-in-Wonderland-like nature of the script. As the sun went down, Adachi Pimental and Diane K. Bass’ lighting took over with glowing yet understated tones.
And while Asher Griffith’s sound design came off without a single, staticky hitch, I’m honestly not sure if that includes the actors or if they all did an outstanding job of projecting from beneath their masks.
Blessed with perfect weather and a capacity, socially-distanced crowd seemingly eager to attend a live presentation, I hope that such al fresco offerings will become a UNO tradition as we go forward into a, hopefully, COVID-free (or, at least, GREATLY reduced) new world.
Romeo and Juliet outdoors at Hahnville High School
In the past two years, Hahnville High Theatre has presented two superb musical productions, Steve Martin’s Bright Star (2019) and Matilda (2020, pre-pandemic). As I headed to Boutte recently, I wondered if the students there could do as exemplary a job with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. As it turned out, indeed they could.
In crafting this verily impressive production, the first wise thing Director Megan Harms did was to use an abridged, 95-minute version of Romeo and Juliet which, despite its brevity, sacrificed none of the plot points; in fact, by focusing a bit more on the story than the standard edition, this one aptly conveyed just how quickly the events of the play occur.
Second, not only did Harms keep the action constantly flowing, but she staged the tragedy in a sylvan-lite setting, utilizing the trees and the rest of the landscape with bountiful imagination and touches of wit. Having Romeo paddle his way across the adjacent pond in a rowboat as he approached Juliet in the famed balcony scene was truly ingenious (and expertly executed), an absolutely fabulous image I’ll not soon forget.
Third, Harms did a magnificent job of insuring that all her young actors completely understood Shakespeare’s sometimes challenging lines and were able to fully impart their meanings with clarity in a well-spoken, natural manner. For example, this was the first time I distinctly heard Mercutio’s wonderful line to Benvolio, “…the very pin of his [Romeo’s] heart [has been] cleft with the blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft.”
Fourth, let me just acknowledge Harms’ marvelous use of Gregorian chants and the splendid swordplay among Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo, flawlessly done. (Not sure how much credit should go to Assistant Director Lucas Harms, Megan’s husband, but do want to give him a shout-out.)
About the only quibble I had was that, with many young ladies taking male parts, the reverse of Shakespearean times, Harms had these hot-headed young nobles addressed as “Gentlewoman” or something similar. I think that was a mistake. While I certainly don’t give a fig as to who plays these parts, as written, they are definitely male; at least I’d like to think that females would settle such situations more intelligently and less violently. Such gender-swapping may work with older characters (Prospero to Prospera in The Tempest as has been done), but, here, it just seemed a wee odd.
In any case, Adam Vedros, who had previously given noteworthy performances in Bright Star and Matilda, delivered a nigh-perfect, age appropriate long-haired Romeo. Mopey and lovestruck one moment, utterly charming the next, and ready to fight when necessary, his was an entirely organic portrait of young manliness struck by urgent passion, as much of our time as of Shakespeare’s.
Long-legged and blonde, Amanda Selman made Juliet headstrong allowing her rebellious actions to be fully believable. If she had a tendency to rush her lines, that detracted only slightly from an otherwise accomplished performance. Taelor Bailey stood out in the key role of Friar Laurence, effectively getting all the nuances out of her lines, as did A’Nyah Johnson (Lord Capulet), Matthew Rechen (Tybalt) and Kate Faucheux (rendering an excellent Queen Mab speech as Mercutio), though there was not a weak link in the cast.
Although masks, squawking frogs and temperamental microphones occasionally made some lines a bit difficult to understand, Harms & Co. overcame all of those challenges plus those inherent in these pandemic times plus those that always accompany Shakespeare, to create as memorable a Romeo and Juliet as one could desire. I hope the folks at Hahnville High School value these young creative talents every bit as much as they value all their student athletes. Forsooth, ‘nuff said.
Over the past two weeks New Orleans’ theater community has lost two of its most stalwart and beloved figures.
Mark P. Burton (1950-2021) was a kindly, gentle bear of a man whose resume spanned over four decades on stage. While I never saw him in any lead roles, I enjoyed him many times as a vital, always appealing member of the cast of so many shows, including Lettice And Lovage, Something Cloudy, Something Clear, Damn Yankees, At The Club Toot Sweet On Bourbon Street, Cabaret, Buddy–The Buddy Holly Story, Urinetown, The Boys Next Door, Prelude To A Kiss, and, perhaps most memorably, The Normal Heart. Deepest condolences to his husband, Kyle Daigrepont, and his entire family.
Michael Martin (1957-2021) was a force of nature, an actor/director/producer plus all the many other hats that he wore. If he said to me on more than one occasion “[blank] is not speaking to me anymore”, that “blank” filled in by either a specific person or, sometimes, the theater “establishment” in general, enough other people happily did speak and worked with him to keep him steadily occupied on local stages for the twenty years he lived in New Orleans.
Not every performance Martin gave was great (sometimes he needed to, as he’d admit, just memorize all his lines), but when he connected with a part, magic occurred. During rehearsals for John Grimsley’s Finding the Enemy at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, an actress threw a can of peas at him, accidentally hit him in the face, and knocked out two teeth. He recovered, tho, and came back with a performance that was nominated for an Ambie Award for Best Actor in a Play.
His galvanic turn as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? justly brought him accolades. Of his James Tyrone, Sr., in Long Day’s Journey into Night, I wrote “Martin looks the part of a matinee idol yet is not afraid to be less dashing around his home and more of a pain in the ass. Recalling a hardscrabble childhood, Martin abjures any trace of sentimentality as he desperately tries to explain his niggardly ways. If he’s the father whose sons can never do right by him, on those occasions when he does display tenderness and understanding, Martin melts your heart.”
As a producer/director, he did shows everywhere including the cluttered back room of a storefront on N. Rampart, a second floor space in a rickety building in the Bywater (climbing the stairs to get there induced a justifiable nervousness), and once even in Kenner, during which a hurricane ensued.
One venue he presented a show was The Hi-Ho Lounge, where he produced two one-act plays of mine under the umbrella heading Love at the Lounge. With Kathryn Talbot directing, it was an utterly wonderful experience and I’ll forever appreciate the opportunity he gave me.
I also had the pleasure of twice participating in More Lovely and More Temperate, his daylong reading of all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It might have been organized madness, but it was also jubilant fun filled with oodles of creativity. If only a crazy person would endeavor to mount such an extravaganza, it served as a wondrous tribute to Martin’s indefatigable enterprise and energy.
Wherever Michael Martin is now, he’s probably organizing a production or a reading or some other singular spectacular. How fortunate are those who’ve now fallen under his spell. Deepest condolences to his husband, Eric Webb, and his entire family.