Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Elysium Blues - A New Twist On An Old Story

Tweet review - Elysium Blues- worth it 4 great voices/music; still puzzling out the unexpected revision of Orpheus/Euridyce legend - 4.5 stars

Elysium Blues didn't go where I thought it was going to go.  That bothered Mom a little more than it bothered me, but I'm still puzzling it out.  Writer Jessica Huang, director Ricardo Vazquez and composer Eric Mayson took the time-tested legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it into a rock musical about violence against women.  I kept fighting this concept, but it kept winning me over and pulling me back into the story.

"Sing a requiem for what we wish we did not know."

The primary reasons I kept getting pulled back in are the amazing vocal chops of the cast, particularly Eurydice (Rachel Austin) and Orpheus (Eric Mayson, the composer who also plays a mean guitar).  All their moments of song are high points for the production, both emotional and artistic.

"I'm sleepwalking and everything I love is dead."

Elysium Blues starts off like a modern retelling of the Orpheus/Eurydice story we know.  Eurydice dies and goes to the Underworld, where she drinks from the waters and forgets her old life.  Orpheus follows Eurydice into the afterlife in order to bring her back.  He uses his music to charm those dwelling in the Underworld so he can reclaim the woman he loves.  In the legend, he almost gets her back to the land of the living, but that doesn't happen here, and for good reason.

"Where roots wither and wells runs dry."

Huang's script is written in rhyme which, let's face it, can get on a person's nerves if it's not done right.  This cast does it right.  They don't belabor the rhyme scene, as bad poetry readers would do, but simply say the lines as normal people would converse.  If the rhyme falls in an obvious place, at the end of what would normally be a stopping point in a sentence, so be it.  Otherwise, they breeze on through and let you appreciate the rhyme scene on your own time.  It's a risky convention that pays off mostly because it so beautifully lends itself to characters segueing into expressing themselves in song.

"There's Hades to pay when there's music in hell."

Persephone (Rebecca Wall) is in charge of this corner of the Underworld, and she rules it with an iron fist.  She keeps the populace doped up on the waters of forgetfulness, and cuts off singing as something forbidden, too prone to prompt a person's memory bank to reboot.  Orpheus defies the musical conventions of the Underworld and enlists the locals - Daphne (Shavunda Horsley), Patch (Devin Hueffed), and Hippolyta (Danika Ragnhild) to be part of his band.  The music allows them to overpower Persephone and tie her to a chair.  Her own memories flooding back keep Persephone docile.

"Those eyes so dark, like holes in his head."

However, Persephone has had the foresight to get Eurydice out of sight before Orpheus arrives, entrusting her to the care of Hipster E (Laura Robards).  It is through music that Eurydice and Orpheus find their way back to one another.  But then things take a turn.

"You don't want to mess with memories."

I can understand the inclination to dig into Greek and Roman mythology and give it a modern feminist twist (I've been guilty of indulging that instinct myself).  Women are constantly getting screwed, both literally and metaphorically, in these ancient tales.  The gods and man are repeatedly shown treating women like sex puppets or property or worse.  The problem here is, Orpheus and Eurydice is not one of the better known examples of this.  Medea, Helen of Troy, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, the Trojan Women, sure, sign me up, I'm with you.  The list goes on for days.  But Eurydice?

"Everyone rejoices as he pushes them around."

Eurydice died on her wedding day, and Orpheus was so heartbroken that he followed her into the afterlife.  He charmed the rulers of the Underworld with his music and they let him take his bride back with him to the land of the living - on one condition.  Orpheus would not be allowed to see Eurydice following him as they made their way back.  He would have to trust that she was there.  If he looked behind him before their journey was done, Eurydice would be pulled back into the Underworld, and he would never see her again.  Of course, the poor guy lost his nerve just before they reached the other side, and Eurydice was lost to him a second time.

"Final stop on the Hades line.  There's only one way to ride the train."

Some have argued that Eurydice in this story is little more than a cypher, something men bargain over.  Some have argued that if Orpheus really loved Eurydice, he would either have trusted that she was back there without looking, or he would have just killed himself outright in order to be with her in the afterlife.

"You're hard to shake."

This is the first instance I've seen in which the story is rewritten to cast Orpheus as an abusive boyfriend who pushes Eurydice down a flight of stairs to her death, and then follows her into the afterlife in order to keep manhandling her.  This Eurydice is well within her rights to tell Orpheus off, turn the others against him, and ship him back where he came from.  This Eurydice is better off dead than saddled with a violent loser boyfriend.

"You're not my man anymore.  I'm dead."

Which, OK, that's a valid story, but… I can see Jason as the bad guy to Medea. I can see Agamemnon as the bad guy to all the women in his life - wife, lover, daughters, you name it.  Oedipus doesn't do his mom or daughter/sisters any good.  Pick any god or soldier who forced himself on a woman for pleasure or procreation against her will, I'm right there with you in taking the shine off his hero credentials.

"What's the worst that could happen? It can't kill you."

But why kick the stuffing out of Orpheus?  I'm all for giving Eurydice her own power and voice, but does it have to come at Orpheus' expense?

Here, in Elysium Blues, the answer is yes.  It's a credit to the power of the music, and the musicality of the cast, and staging of the director, that the story works for me, and rates this highly, despite my dramaturgical misgivings.  Elysium Blues is an unusual new take on an old story, and one well worth seeing.

4-1/2 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance, tonight, Tuesday, 8/6 at 10pm
See their Fringe show page for more information

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