TAMPA — If you appreciate difficult, provocative and literate theater, you've probably been yearning for a chance to see Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice.
The retelling of the myth of Orpheus, centered on Orpheus' wife, Eurydice, has been widely produced and widely praised, and it was one of the works that made Ruhl one of the country's most acclaimed current playwrights.
The new Stageworks production at the Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts seems to have all of the elements that should make for a compelling evening of theater. The play itself is challenging and full of lyrical language, and in this staging, the acting is strong and the direction is imaginative.
Somehow, though, it ends up being intellectually intriguing but emotionally vacant. It's a timeless tale of undying love and loss, and its central metaphor (looking forward redeems love, looking back destroys it) ought to have much more power than this production delivers.
Audiences familiar with the source story will have a huge advantage. Even reading something such as the Wikipedia synopsis will help immensely.
Essentially, Eurydice dies on the day of her wedding to Orpheus. He is given permission to travel to the underworld to retrieve her.
She must follow him out, and he can't look back at her. But he can't resist the temptation to turn and look at his bride, so she is banished irretrievably into the world of the dead.
Ruhl's play is set mostly in the underworld, populated at first only by Eurydice, her long-dead father and three talking stones. A bizarre child, apparently an incarnation of the Lord of the Underworld, appears later.
The playwright seems to have much to say about art, love and communication. But exactly what she's saying remains muddled.
Dahlia Legault, who has become a Stageworks regular in the past year or so, gives another lively and appealing performance as the title character.
Chris Perez is wonderfully creepy as the Lord of the Underworld, and Jim Wicker turns in his usual rock-solid performance as the father.
Director Karla Hartley, who also designed the lighting and the sound, has set an appropriately eerie and dreamlike mood, enhanced by hauntingly hypnotic music that effectively but unobtrusively underscores almost the entire production.
Scott Cooper's set, mostly in shades of gray and dominated by umbrellas festooned with stylized waves, is effective visually and bolsters the play's dynamic use of water as a metaphor. But a wall-sized representation of a picture postcard that dominates the early scenes doesn't work at all.
So the play, and every aspect of the production, is interesting. For people looking for intellectual stimulation, there's plenty here to recommend.
But most people come to theater for emotional force, provocative ideas or mere entertainment, and this production unfortunately never quite hits those targets.