… so that’s what it’s like down in Hades …

I thought Rinde Eckert’s two-person play, And God Created the Great Whales, was one of the greatest pieces of theater I’d ever seen so I was keen to see Orpheus X, a multi-media performance piece with drama, singing, instrumental music, and video, that recounts the ancient myth in contemporary terms.  It has touches of genius, and is also somewhat tiresome, darn it!

Passing through the understructure in the small theater, you see through steel beams on the other side a pale, lovely looking naked woman with red hair, concentrating fiercely as she scribbles with chalk on glass set in the floor.  It’s surprising, intriguing and seems of compelling importance.  Inside, a video plays of the woman scribbling, seen from below the glass so everything’s reversed including a few intelligible Greek characters.  The sound of scratching is its own music.  I focused on every scribble, every shift of style and pace, feeling surely I’d learn something essential if only I concentrated hard enough.  Rinde Eckert’s a genius! I thought.  This fascinating segment, however, occurs before the play begins.

All the parts are sung as well as spoken, and Eckert’s Orpheus is a contemporary rock star whose lover, Eurydice, has been killed by a taxi in which Orpheus was riding in a no-fault sad accident.  The play takes place largely where he lives but also in his studio, since the four-piece band is always on stage playing Eckert’s meditative music.  Eckert grieves for Eurydice so that, like Achilles in his tent, he curls up in a corner and refuses to make music and bring joy to his fans, in spite of blandishments from his manager, the charismatic performer John Kelly.  Eventually, as in the ancient myth, Orpheus makes it to Hades to bring his Eurydice back.  Ultimately, like the ancient Orpheus but for a different, perverse reason, Orpheus loses Eurydice forever because while leading her out of Hades but before they’ve reached the land of the living, he sets eyes on her.

It’s always fun — as in Aristophanes’  Frogs — to get a look at Hades!  Here the underworld is represented largely by John Kelly now playing an androgynous Persephone — Pluto, Cerberus, the river Lethe are referred to but not seen.  Persephone’s song as Queen of Hades as sung by Kelly is an outstanding moment.  We come to understand Eurydice’s chalk:  on earth she’d been a poet, but Hades is where nothing lasts, including memory, so instead of her pens, here for writing she has only ephemeral chalk.

With all this good material of the myth — that’s been a narrative success through the centuries — and with Eckert’s multi-faceted talent, and three fine performers, why isn’t this play more compelling?  Why, in fact, short as it is, near the end, in a quiet moment came a loud yawn (I actually found myself checking my watch) though also at the end I heard behind me “he’s a genius”?

The most important reason is that Orpheus and Eurydice’s love doesn’t come across as real.  They have no chemistry, and I never believed he missed her.  This Orpheus mopes, but doesn’t yearn.  Eckert seems more interested in acting, poetry, song, instrumental music, lighting and video than in Eurydice.  Suzan Hanson, the pale skinned red-haired Eurydice has a nice operatic voice and an alluring figure but after a time one got tired of seeing her, again and again, naked and more naked, on the repetitive video.

It doesn’t help that while some of the poetry is interesting, the dialog is flat.  “Do you love me?”  “She’ll be back later.”  “I love having breakfast with you.”  Context doesn’t bring life to lines like that.  It also doesn’t help that the singers are miked which tended to make their voices abrasive, particularly Eckert’s.  Why, and in a small theater of all places, would professional performers use microphones?

Above all, though, it’s about characters and what happens to them.  In Orpheus X, the powerful and evidently eternal theme of love and loss is a scaffold for multi-media.

Orpheus X plays at The Duke on 42nd Street, Theater for a New Audience, West of Broadway in Manhattan, through December 20th.

Rinde Eckert, John Kellly and Suzan Hanson in Orpheus X, Photo Courtesy of Production

Rinde Eckert, John Kellly and Suzan Hanson in Orpheus X, Photo Courtesy of Production