The story of Orpheus, master musician and bereft husband, is one of the most enduring of the Greek myths. So it’s no wonder performer, composer, instrumentalist, and poet Rinde Eckert, together with American Repertory Theatre artistic director Robert Woodruff, has chosen to give the hero a contemporary identity in Orpheus X , whose world-premiere production at Zero Arrow Theatre starts March 25. The pair also collaborated on the evocative music-drama Highway Ulysses , a post-Vietnam recasting of the Odyssey that won an Elliot Norton Award in 2003.
Orpheus, you’ll recall, loses his wife, Eurydice, to a viper bite; she descends into Hades, but he’s determined to bring her back, and he actually persuades the gods to free her. On one condition; he must not look at her till they reach the sunlight or she’ll have to return to the underworld. Given human frailty, he’s undone.
But Woodruff and Eckert have a different notion. Their Orpheus X, who’s played by Eckert, is a rock-and-roll singer, and he’s obsessed with the memory of a female poet named Eurydice, who died in an accident when the cab Orpheus was riding in struck her down. Eckert explains, “A chaos is being evoked because Orpheus has shut himself off from the world to mourn for Eurydice. It’s about the removal of an icon of the people’s love, like Elvis. Orpheus is an Apollonian figure of song, poetry, and culture, with a Dionysian side, being a pop star.
“In the normal way, Eurydice has no power or interest. She’s just the addendum to the grief of Orpheus. I wasn’t interested in a Eurydice who has no agency, no mind of her own. I made her an intellectual figure, an artist. It allows her to have something to say about her fate.”
The third person in the cast is John Kelly, the ravishing Cupid of last season’s Dido, Queen of Carthage , doubling as Jon, Orpheus’s agent, and Persephone, Queen of the Dead. Suzan Hanson, who appeared in the ART production of Philip Glass’s The Sound of a Voice , plays Eurydice. Hanson fields a rich soprano; the voices of Kelly and Eckert float between chest tones and falsetto. Kelly calls Eckert’s densely woven words and music “beautiful and challenging.” A four-piece on-stage orchestra completes the ensemble.
Video artist Denise Marika has designed a visual skin for the production to accompany sets and costumes by David Zinn. Woodruff: “I had seen a video by Denise of a woman projected inside a very narrow structure. I saw that woman as Eurydice.”
Eckert believes the timeless tale “doesn’t break when you push on it. I tend to look for large issues that are occupying a small space.” Woodruff adds, “I think the work has something to do with mourning and how your life can be turned upside down in a second. What happens when it’s gone? What are you left with?”
ORPHEUS X | March 25-April 23 | American Repertory Theatre, Zero Arrow Theatre, Mass Ave at Arrow St, Cambridge | $15-$48 | 617.547.8300
On the Web
American Repertory Theatre: //www.amrep.org