Eurydice; Live Arts, in the Upstage Theater; Through June 27

Eurydice; Live Arts, in the Upstage Theater; Through June 27

Don’t look back—that’s all he has to do. Not turn around. But he does. And so he loses her—again.

He is Orpheus. She is Eurydice. In the Greek myth, his music can soothe savage beasts and charm rocks and trees. On their wedding day, a serpent’s bite strikes Eurydice dead. Grief-stricken, Orpheus goes to the Underworld, where Hades allows him to take Eurydice back to the realm of the living—on one condition. On the way up, he must not look back. But he does.

Sara Eshleman and Ray Nedzel shine in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Eurydice at Live Arts.

Why? As Sarah Ruhl observes in her modern retelling of the ancient myth, directed with affection by Bree Luck at Live Arts, the answer to “Why?” is often: “Just because.”

In the myth, the moment when Orpheus turns around is the high dramatic climax. But in Ruhl’s play, high tragedy gives way to petty quarreling. Orpheus complains that Eurydice always had a lousy sense of rhythm. Despite—or perhaps because of—this deflation into the ordinary, the moment is oddly affecting.

In Eurydice, Ruhl—a Pulitzer Prize nominee for The Clean House (staged at Live Arts in 2007) and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant—mixes the mythic and mundane, the lyrical and the colloquial. In her language, startlingly original metaphors jostle against deliberately banal clichés.

Ruhl bends the myth away from its original focus on Orpheus’ loss. As the title suggests, she is interested in Eurydice, who, in effect, dies twice. In the Underworld, Eurydice meets her dead father. By introducing the father, Ruhl pushes the myth away from romantic love and turns the play into a quirky, and often funny, meditation on memory and forgetting, love and loss.

As the initially flighty Eurydice, Sara Eshleman reveals a touching capacity for tragic depth after her character’s “second death.” Bill LeSueur enacts her father with quiet dignity, while Eamon Hyland brings youthful ardor to the role of Orpheus. Ray Nedzel is perfectly cast as the Lord of the Underworld, comic and creepy.

Grady Smith’s set copes admirably with the limits of the Upstage space, especially in the ingeniously constructed entrance to the Underworld. The sound and light designers help advance the fanciful symbolic motifs in Ruhl’s script (which calls, for example, for an elevator in which rain is falling).

Ruhl’s Eurydice plays with and subverts your expectations. The show leaves you thinking, wondering, and glad you went.