College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Ole Miss Theatre Delivers Modern Take on Ancient Greek Tragedy

‘Eurydice’ is last production by longtime scenic design professor

MARCH 26, 2019 BY KATHERINE STEWART

UM theatre arts majors Matthew McMurtry, a freshman from Brandon, and Gabrielle Quintana, a sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, star as doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice in Ole Miss Theatre and Film’s latest production of ‘Eurydice,’ which opens Friday (March 29).

UM theatre arts majors Matthew McMurtry, a freshman from Brandon, and Gabrielle Quintana, a sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, star as doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice in Ole Miss Theatre and Film’s latest production of ‘Eurydice,’ which opens Friday (March 29). Submitted photo

It’s two weeks before opening night, and Dex Edwards, associate professor of scenic design in the University of Mississippi Department of Theatre and Film, has a fake vent problem. Not a fake problem with real vents, but a real problem with fake vents: specifically, how to fit them where they need to go amid the unalterable structure of the stage.

Edwards has designed the set for “Eurydice,” by Sarah Ruhl, to look like a crumbling swimming pool at an abandoned resort, and believability lies in the tiniest of details.

“We have the drain, and you can see where there are pieces breaking away, and there will be broken tiles on the floor,” Edwards said. “Sand, grass, weeds – all of it will have ‘scunge’ dripping down, as if nature has taken over.”

The show, a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpehus and Eurydice, is Edwards’ last to design and direct for Ole Miss after a 22-year career with the department. “Eurydice” opens Friday (March 29) in Meek Auditorium and runs through April 7, with performances at 7:30 p.m. March 29-31 and April 2-6, and 2 p.m. March 30-31 and April 6-7.

Friday’s opening night performance will be followed by a reception at the Oxford-University Depot. Tickets are $20, with discounts available for Ole Miss students and faculty-staff, available from the UM Box Office or by calling 662-915-7411.

Elaborate, fantastical design is a hallmark of Edwards’ work. His 2008 production of “The Grapes of Wrath” involved a massive tank, in which six people could swim, built into the stage in Fulton Chapel. The design so impressed New Stage Theatre in Jackson that they borrowed Edwards’ plans – and his stage directions, as well.

“Some people have done ‘Eurydice’ where the whole stage fills up with water,” Edwards said. “I thought about pulling the orchestra pit and putting a big thing of water in there like we did for ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”

Instead, Edwards opted for a less splashy way of communicating the idea of water: using a series of vessels – including everything from a bathtub to buckets – to stand in for a river. This more symbolic approach is well-suited to the script, Edwards said.

“It’s all dream imagery,” he said. “Sarah Ruhl does it a lot: She puts in all these little surreal, subconscious images that mean certain things to people.”

“What I’ve tried to do is take the story, which already has some surreal and symbolic elements in the show, and add yet another layer.”

Those layers of surrealism include everything from umbrellas suspended from the ceiling over the audience to an elevator, in which it appears to rain. Plus a few oversize cellos, the largest of which is 12 feet tall – the same height as an actor who will be wearing stilts on stage.

“It’s like if you were dreaming the story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” Edwards said. “For a lot of it, audiences will be thinking, ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like that.’”

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tragedy, and Ruhl’s version tells it from Eurydice’s perspective – and makes it even sadder than the original. The basic plot is simple: Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, girl dies, boy follows her to the underworld.

Throw in mourning a deceased parent, memory loss that causes the girl to forget the boy at the time of their reunion and a few gloomy tunes, and you’ve got the makings of a real pity party.

And yet, the show’s utter despair is one of the director’s favorite things about it – his sensibility in all things could be summed up as “go big or go home.”

“It’s just tragedy on top of tragedy on top of tragedy,” Edwards said, with a laugh. “So when the script is sad, our production is really sad. And when the script is lighthearted, it’s funny.”

The actors are having a good time with the emotional depth of the show. A.J. Howell, a senior Bachelor of Fine Arts acting student from Lindale, Texas, plays Eurydice’s deceased father, who gets to reunite with her – temporarily – in the underworld.

“It is deeply tragic, not only in the original story but also in the layers that Sarah Ruhl has added,” Howell said. “For me, this is exciting, because I get to allow audiences to have an emotional catharsis through the play.

“They may have dealt with something or currently be dealing with something that makes them feel the way the characters do in the show. And if they haven’t let that out, or if they are stuck in that mindset, then the show is a way for them to let it out and begin the process to move past it.”

Gabrielle Quintana, a sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, in the BFA Acting for Stage and Screen program, plays the title character, whom she described as “sweet,” and views the role as an opportunity to stretch as an actor.

“Eurydice has a wide range of emotions, which makes her very human,” Quintana said. “At first, it was a bit challenging to explore the emotional range. The show is fast-paced, and I worried a little bit about how quickly I would have to switch from one emotion to another.

“However, Dex and the rest of the cast have truly helped and supported me throughout the process.”

While both the set design and the emotions are bold, not every aspect of the show is quite so emphatic. Subtler effects are produced through the use of color, sound and repetitive actions.

“We’re doing a whole lot of playing with the subconscious and the subliminal,” Edwards said. “I would love it if the audience enjoys it greatly and then when someone asks what the show was about, they say ‘I don’t know how to explain this to you.’

“I think that’s part of what delights an audience: that feeling of, ‘that shouldn’t make sense, but it did.’ I want it to be like one of those jokes you had to be there to get. I want it to be a story you had to be a part of, to witness, to get it.”