Sundown Collaborative Theatre
Director: Nicole Neely
Stage Manager: Elizabeth Cantrell
Assistant Director/Music by: Clint Gilbert
Set Designer: Alex Krus
Props Designer: Jane Schaab
Makeup Designer/Producing Member: Lindsey Hall
Lighting Designer: Jena Chakour
Sound Designer: Danny Bergeron
Sound Board Operator: Patrick Bohmier
Eurydice – Tammy Partanen
Orpheus – Chad Withers
Father – Robert Lindler
Lord of the Underworld/Nasty Man – Jeff Burleson
Big Stone – Ryan Davila
Loud Stone – Jessica Smoot
Little Stone – Julia Bodiford
Reviewed Performance 4/2/2017
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Reflecting on my very enjoyable experience seeing Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s idiosyncratic take on Eurydice, in the top half of a decades-old duplex decked out in diffuse Americana with my anarchist friend and his aging buddy two hours later, he repeated what he always says before he tells me to move out there for good: there’s always something interesting happening in Denton. That’s his bottom line, however he fails to pitch it, and it’s true. I’ve certainly never been averse to the town. Seeing it through my UNT alum brother, I got the sense of it being a kind of humbler Austin: smaller, and thus having the advantage of a certain attractively affable close-community vibe. It’s a distinctly unpretentious town for one overrun by self-styled bohemian creatives. It has lovely food, and coffee, and culture, and people. But I’ve also heard folks speak of it as being cloistered to a fault – as having a self-assurance immune to a key level of self-questioning reflected in its denizens’ choices/miens. My friend is an example of this.
Still, I like Denton, and Dentonites, and respect their particular breed of collectively cultivated weird. So I was rooting for everyone involved in this weird-in-a-cute-or-sincere-or-sentimental-or-high-concept-way staging of a myth I don’t know by heart – okay, so he loves music (I get it, but in this more updated take that makes him a red-flag tunebro), she’s incidentally the daughter of the God of music [, etc.], but then of course is into things other than what her parents are. Incidentally, in this variation, Eurydice (a lovely name that should make a comeback)’s father is a sinister-seeming pseudo-zombie, stuck in limbo on the underworld’s upper deck. (Or at least, he seems sinister in Robert Lindler’s interpretation – and I wasn’t quite so taken with the performance when I found out he was a good guy.) She gets tricked into running off, dies, and Orpheus devotes every speck of energy to retrieving her, while E reacquaints herself with her dad in inventive, heartbreaking scenes playwright Sarah Ruhl penned in memory of her own father.
Ruhl’s script is very good, and there’s language I remember that I think is totally terrific – “’til the wind blows the dust from the grape’s purple faces”, sorry if I mangled that, and a great scene Lindler handles heartbreakingly, where his increasingly charming doting papa finally confronts his own fate. But though I’m a fervent appreciator of less traditional theatre down to the most anarchic avant-garde, I never quite grasped what Ruhl was going for here – whys for her odder devices, or the tone she was trying to strike. There’s a strange ongoing bit about the language barrier fresh souls in Hades encounter, which involves great sound effects, but soon gets tangled in a way it seems too banal, or at least undernourished, to justify. It provides for devices that get brought back for predictable(/sufficient) dramatic effect later, like the word “tree” being substitute for “father” in Hades, but it really never lands on a point you can use. When humor surfaces, it’s often a bit strained, though some of that might be directorial, or actorial.
It all went over in different ways in the audience, which was mostly filled with stoic people well over 60, a couple tighter-lipped girls my age and one middle-aged woman who responded to every possible joke with shrill whoops. Her enthusiasm was kind of infectious, and helped sustain my desire to keep faith in what was going on. But you never really felt a telegraphed point; the only thing that helped me predict the almost anticlimactic ending was how much time we’d been there. The opening is hopeful, the coda is tragic, and in between ponderous Orpheus and optimistic Eurydice come to a lot of conclusions that sometimes are profound and sometimes are confusing and only tacitly coagulate. The program makes clear both the myth and work mean a lot to the director, but rather than mining Ruhl’s words, which don’t leave many clues the more obscure they get, for the meaning in question, Nicole Neely’s simpler and lighter touches sometimes seem to work against Ruhls’ darker, and stranger material.
The actors adapt with inconsistent instincts. Tammy Partanen is the find – this is an actor that’s going places. She makes broader choices as a rule, as if betraying a professional preference for larger-venue material, so at first her good cheer exhibits a tinge of falsity (anxiety is what registers, so maybe it makes sense – butterflies! She’s getting married!). But in her more tender scenes with Lindler, her frustrated ones with the rest of the cast, and her beautifully diverse ones on her own, she does conjure seriously impressive emotional effects. She and Lindler have a particularly memorable scene dancing to their own off-key memories of “I Got Rhythm” that’s the play’s finest moment. Chad Withers begins to flourish on his own, though he’s inclined to burden his beats with whatever the heaviest choice is. But he boasts an even better chemistry with AD/fellow Chad Gilbert’s music – heartrending orchestral swells with slight smudges of dissonance, or zigzagging tinkles of eerie percussion – than he did with his distant bride.
Jeff Burleson gamely tosses a heap of earthbound comedy into things, tonic between the loftier scenes of letters* and symbolism and reminiscence, but as such he’s not really properly worked in. Sometimes he’s made to do corny things; two of his four iterations come off expertly, but one doesn’t land well at all. Still, for the Lord of the Underworld he really livens things up. The same can’t quite be said for the three stones (Ryan Davila, Jessica Smoot and Julia Bodiford), who work so admirably hard and pull such perfect faces as Ruhl’s all-purpose glue between her disparate scenes. But the various business they’ve been directed into grates very quickly. The frequent levity would be welcome if it were better balanced, less intrusive, funnier – the stones chime in too often. A great trio like this, Smoot, Bodiford and Davila being three hugely gifted comic actors who make a crack team, could’ve made for perfect punctuation, but by the time Partanen cries out “they’re HORRIBLE” you find yourself nodding in visceral agreement.
Alex Krus’ set, extremely spare and thus vaguely Brechtian, is wonderful. Umbrellas have been chosen for a motif, and they’re used very memorably, especially in the series of quick retractions that constitute the play’s tenderness, and greatest directorial, moment. The production bespeaks a strong tech crew – Elizabeth Cantrell managed stage, Jane Schaab, Lindsey Hall and Jena Chakour provided the minimalist props, makeup and lighting respectively, and Danny Bergeron’s sound design and Patrick Bohmier’s board work are especially effective. That said, be prepared for it to get louder on the actors’ part than is typical from even the most intense Black Box theatre – I say that suddenly conscious of my past as a bad indoor screamer – with the Loud Stone pretty mid-range by the end of the production. I’d also like to mention how preternaturally nice the members of the staff I dealt with were through the experience. The woman at the front table even gave me napkins to dry off the rain in which I’d just gotten caught.
*it’s OK to mime writing words rather than dragging a pen across a paper!
Point Blank Black Box Theatre, 318 East Hickory St Denton, TX 76201
Runs April 7th through April 9th, 8 PM.
Go to SundownTheatre.org for more information.