Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice!
A unique Milwaukee Opera Theater festival offers several shows about the mythological character.
Jill Anna Ponasik had no idea one little project could get so big.
“Every time you think you’re done – there’s more,” she tells me as we walk the halls of Carroll University’s Otteson Theatre with her collaborator James Zager, an associate professor of theater with the school. They’re guiding me along the path that’ll be taken by visitors to the “Eurydice Festival,’ Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s first production in 2014 and the culmination of three years of planning. Originally, Ponasik says, the festival was to be a single work developed out of a variety of commissions, but it’s since blossomed into a multi-show event dedicated to the ancient Greek myth of Eurydice, featuring a new chamber opera, two song cycles (one original) and a student-developed, experimental theater piece, along with varied visual art decorating the venue and pop-up performances to-be-determined.
The initial stage of the project began in 2011 with an event intended to workshop a brand-new work of lyric theater inspired by Eurydice, a mythological figure, the wife of the musician-hero Orpheus. Upon her death, Orpheus descends into the underworld to try and save her, succeeding until he breaks his promise not to look at her before reaching the surface, thus losing her forever. The traditional story puts Orpheus at the center, but Ponasik says this project aimed to explore the myth from Eurydice’s perspective.
For their second installment a season later, MOT had commissioned three artists, Joel Boyd, Nathan Wesselowski and Joey Kerner, to write new works to be performed in a gala concert alongside other famous Eurydice-themed pieces. The idea was to combine those commissions into one big work, Ponasik says, but they found the trio’s individual visions were too “fully-formed” to support such a synthesis without having to dismantle much of what made them so great.
And so the festival grew to one that takes a look at Eurydice’s legend from more perspectives and genres than might seem possible for a single evening. Originally, Ponasik says, the plan was to treat this as a traditional fringe festival, with all the productions occurring simultaneously, but it became clear this would be too complex for both the performers and audience members.
Instead, audiences will follow a pre-determined path, beginning with one of the two song cycles. The local choice is Wesselowski’s completed cycle Eurydice, a seven-song series that takes its lyrics from poems and letters written by the Imagist poet H.D., sung by two sopranos (Julianne Frey and Teresa Gracyalny). Alternately, audiences can begin with the festival’s only non-original work, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, a piece for soprano (Ruth Brown), clarinet (Jon Lovas) and piano that MOT has augmented with the addition of a dancer (Casey Ott).
Next, audiences will be ushered into the Otteson Theatre proper for The Crawling Dove, a fully-staged chamber opera and the only time during the event the whole audience will be united. Boyd’s work takes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice into modern times, pulling from the Virgil version of the myth in order to gain an extra character, Aristeus (Doug Clemons), who serves as a rival to Orpheus (Nathan Wesselowski) for Eurydice (Heidi Boyd). Following the work, the audience halves will trade places, attending the song cycle they haven’t yet seen.
In the intermissions in between – each 30 minutes in length, and featuring a variety of refreshments – the audience will be offered the opportunity to go to hell. More precisely, Go to Hades, the experimental theater piece being devised by Danny Brylow along with Kerner. Her commissioned work for guitar, “Crumbling Love,” will serve as the backbone of the piece, but the rest is in ongoing development by its student performers, who’ve determined to set it in a chamber of the underworld specifically set aside for women who die on the day of their weddings, as some myths say Eurydice did.
It’s a festival of staggering ambition – one Ponasik says was occasionally terrifying to imagine in its early stages. But once they began working on it directly, she says, it all came together: “When you assemble the right people, the work appears.”
In short, Ponasik and company are optimistic about where the show is going. As they should be. The first lesson of Eurydice is never look backwards.
The Eurydice Festival will occur twice, on Friday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 25, at 3 p.m., at Carroll University’s Otteson Theatre. Tickets are $25, $30 for reserved seating, $20 for students/seniors. To order, call (800) 838-3006 or visit their online box office.
REVIEW: The Understudy at Renaissance Theaterworks
It’s actually a little alarming how wonderful it is to watch The Understudy, Renaissance Theaterworks’ new show. I’d guessed going in the play’s subject would keep me locked in – the play takes place during an understudy rehearsal for a newly discovered Kafka play that’s all the rage on Broadway – but The Understudy keeps the theatrical in-jokes to a minimum. In a sense it’s a workplace comedy, albeit for theater folks, but one that slowly becomes something else too: a poignant, penetrating look at our search for fulfillment in what we do.
Director Mallory Metoxen makes her professional debut with the show, but you’d never know it from the incisive clarity with which the play’s dueling impulses of wit and wisdom are conveyed. Its three characters are the stressed yet astoundingly capable stage manager, Roxanne (Cassandra Bissell), the action movie star slumming it on Broadway to earn more respect, Jake (Philip Sletteland), and the struggling understudy who is Roxanne’s ex-fiancé, Harry (Ken T. Williams) Every rapid-fire exchange between them is timed to connect just right, be its purpose bubbling laughter or biting pathos.
None of the characters seem like much at the start of the play, but playwright Theresa Rebeck knows exactly what she’s doing, giving each a moment to reveal their hidden gifts – Jake an unexpected reverence for his craft that elevates his otherwise-average skills; Harry an insight into the mind of Kafka’s demoralized protagonist that movie star Jake could never have imagined; Roxanne a brilliant, gender-influenced perspective on acting that makes her the most talented of them all yet is wasted by her need to pay the bills working behind-the-scenes. To make these revelations work requires performers as talented as the actors they’re portraying, and Bissell, Sletteland and Williams are up to the task.
That talent all comes together in a beautiful, resplendent production, made even more so by the elaborate pop-out set designed by Nathan Stuber that’s continually in motion, to the annoyance of the characters, thanks to an unseen, stoned board operator. It’s honestly hard to oversell The Understudy. This may be one of the first shows I’ve seen in 2014, but I’m quite optimistic I’ll be thinking of it once again at year’s end – as one of the best.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ The Understudy runs through Feb. 9 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Performances are 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $36 and can be purchased online or at (414) 291-7800.
PREVIEW: The Cat in the Hat, at First Stage
First Stage has a well-deserved reputation as a hub for children’s theater, but for the parents of especially young kids, the average show might not be quite the right type of entertainment. The Cat in the Hat isn’t the average show. Rather, its the latest of the group’s First Steps productions (all targeted to 3 to 6-year-olds) tells the classic Dr. Seuss story in the most toddler-friendly of ways: at the less-daunting Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, always lit by house lights, and with interactive elements that get kids involved in the show. It’s a charming way to introduce kids to theater without the pressure of a big show – and it’s the Cat in the Hat, so double-bonus. The Cat in the Hat runs Jan. 25 to March 2; tickets start at $12 and can be purchased at (414) 267-2961 or online.
CLOSING THIS WEEK
Splinter Group: Trailer Park Prophesies, through Jan. 26
ALSO ON STAGE
Milwaukee Rep: Woody Sez, Stackner Cabaret; End of the Rainbow, Quadracci Powerhouse
Fireside Theatre: Solid Gold ‘60s
First Stage: A Midnight Cry
Renaissance Theaterworks: The Understudy