Descent into the Underworld: Drama at Philly Fringe

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has lasted over the millennia for the simple reason that love and loss are part of our common experience of life and the finality of death. Orpheus and Eurydice are young lovers who get married only to be torn apart when Eurydice is bitten by a snake. Distraught about the untimely death of his beloved, Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring her back. It’s a classic story about undying love and the great lengths to which one might go to save someone. Orpheus’ incredible willingness to go to the underworld and back for Eurydice is made all the more poignant by his ultimate failure despite his heroic attempt.

Orpheus is an impressive musician, and on his way to the underworld, he sings so sadly that Charon (the boatman who allows souls to travel from life into death) lets him pass by even though he is not dead. Likewise, when he sings to Persephone (queen of the underworld) she is moved to give him a chance to bring Eurydice back to life. However, her condition is that Orpheus must not turn to look at Eurydice until they are both out of the underworld. He has to trust that she is following him. In the classic tale, Orpheus leads Eurydice almost all the way back above ground when he has a moment of doubt and has to turn to see if she is there. So he turns, only to see her slip away.

Stories like this stick with us, and are performed again and again despite having been first penned (chiseled, carved, engraved) more than 2,000 years ago. But the price for this longevity must be paid, and so the stories change, adapt, and lose some of their accuracy, though they gain immortality in return. This past September, “Orpheus and Eurydice” was performed as a part of the Philly Fringe Festival, a music and arts festival that takes place in Philadelphia every fall. In this production, current Villanova students Michael Kane Libonati and Tara McKiernan played Orpheus and Eurydice. However, director Melissa Nally made the interesting and effective artistic choice to also cast McKiernan in the roles of Charon and Persephone.

Over the course of Orpheus’ journey through the underworld, he is stopped at every turn by various characters, all played by McKiernan. Her characters never want to let him through to find Eurydice, who is of course, another character she plays. Seeing McKiernan as Charon tell Orpheus that Eurydice is dead, and that he can’t go after her without dying himself, is emotional because of the content of their conversation, and it is even more strikingly so because Charon shares Eurydice’s voice and looks. Eurydice’s actions separate her from Orpheus when she is bitten by the snake, and then she herself tries to prevent him from finding her.

McKiernan also plays Persephone, the queen of the underworld, and the most important person to whom Orpheus speaks. He must convince Persephone to allow him to take Eurydice back to the land of the living, and here again it is intensely dramatic to see McKiernan try to keep Orpheus from Eurydice. Persephone will allow Orpheus to take Eurydice but he must not look to see if Eurydice is following him as he leads her out of the underworld. If he looks, Eurydice will return to the underworld forever, and he will not be able to search for her again. Persephone makes it difficult for Orpheus to succeed in his task, and this has additional significance and poignancy because the queen and her prisoner are played by the same person.

Eurydice, then, in all her varied characters, bars her own way back to life. When Orpheus finds her, she follows him, but she does not understand why he will not look at her. She pleads with him and is so distressed that it would have been cruel for Orpheus not to turn to reassure her. And so he turns, and thus it was Eurydice herself who prevented Orpheus from being able to save her.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has paid the price for immortality and has had to change and be reinvented to keep its place in storytelling to this day. It is fitting that this story has lasted so long and been told in so many ways.  And perhaps the price that is paid is even more significant in this tale because of the price that Orpheus and Eurydice pay to try and cheat death.

By Abigail Demke

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