Anthony Arnista was in the final weeks of rehearsal for Maine Masque’s annual production when the University of Maine last month released a preliminary report calling for the elimination of the theater major.
The irony of it would have delighted the Greeks since the play Arnista chose is all about death.
After protests, the university this week backed off the elimination of the major along with other proposed cutbacks.
A senior theater major who has had starring roles in several university productions and worked with professional companies around the state, Arnista had never directed before. He chose Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” a retelling of the Orpheus myth, long before plans to eliminate his major were announced.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the father of song. His bride, Eurydice, died on their wedding day and Orpheus’ sad songs so filled the gods with grief they sent him to Hades to rescue her.
The god of the Underworld agreed to allow Eurydice to return to earth with her husband on one condition — Orpheus should walk in front of her and not look back until after they’d both arrived on Earth. He set off with Eurydice following and, in his anxiety, Orpheus turned too soon to look at her. His bride vanished forever.
Ruhl turned the myth on its head in her 2006 play by retelling the story from Eurydice’s perspective in a modern setting. The character marries her singer-songwriter love only to be seduced by a devilish character and poisoned on her wedding day.
In hell, she finds her dead father but does not remember him, even though he knows her. Eurydice also is tormented by three talking rocks that provide many of the play’s lighter moments.
Arnista, his cast and technical crew last week mounted a flawless production. Ruhl’s play is about loss — the kind of loss college-aged students shouldn’t know or understand. Yet, the novice director illuminated the dark recesses of the playwright’s soul as if he’d visited them himself.
Mandy Fahey was pitch perfect as Eurydice. She infused the character with an Alice-in-Wonderland quality but never slipped into a state of cloying purity. Fahey brought out in Eurydice the naive strength Ruhl, rather than the Greeks, gave the character.
As Orpheus, Sam Watson was charming and charismatic. His grief-stricken rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Wagonwheel” stopped the show. It was Watson’s evocative interpretation of the ballad more than Ruhl’s dialogue that broke theatergoers’ hearts.
Karl Livonius gave a subtle and understated performance as Eurydice’s father. In the hands of a less-skilled actor, the character easily could have become overbearing and controlling of his daughter. Livonius’ father never veered in that direction but always portrayed the strong and loving man most members of the audience wished they had.
As the Stones, Ryan Jackson, Allison Smith and Gavin Pickering created an intricate dance of dialogue. In their hands, Ruhl’s version of the Greek chorus was equally funny, insightful and menacing.
Much of the success of “Eurydice” Arnista owed to his set designer Tricia Hobbs, lighting designer Rob Connors and sound designer Sarah Murrell. Their shared vision of the production gave it a cohesion few first-time directors are able to accomplish.
“Eurydice” was a shining testament to the strength of the university’s theater department and its teaching staff. It also was a tremendous tribute to the history of Maine Masque, which was formed as a student organization in 1906, 28 years before a degree in theater was first offered.
Perhaps the university’s theater department should heed the warning of “Eurydice.” Don’t look back.