2004. This is an image from ORPHEUS, a music theatre show that I directed a few years ago. ORPHEUS was a true hybrid collaboration of music, text, dance, and media. It was co-conceived by myself, the set designer and lighting designer. Once we created the concept and outline, we invited the other collaborators into a consensus-based process (writer, composer, video artist and costume designer). I really felt like we were able to achieve a rich and beautiful visual and auditory world through this team effort. I’m still haunted by the image of the denizens of the underworld singing to Orpheus “don’t look back,” and yet he does.
Pictured here is Taylor Mac as Orpheus and Katy Cunningham, Arie Thompson and Nina Mankin as the Sirens of the Underworld.
ORPHEUS looks at grief and how difficult it can be to overcome. We started making this project in NYC soon after 9/11 because we wanted to find a visceral way to explore unresolved grief for our community. We found our way in through music and by stretching the boundaries of music-theatre. We hit on setting it in an underground nightclub for the recently departed with strict entry policies and rules. We positioned the audience as recent arrivals – instead of a ticket, each was issued a honey cake and coin to get past the bouncer Charon – and were served drinks from the rivers of the underworld to ease their passage into forgetfulness. Scattered about the club at tables, banquettes and chairs, the audience was surrounded by the Shades, memory-troubled dead whom our hostess Persephone (backed by her trio of burlesque siren-enforcers) soothes by erasing painful memories of the lives they have left behind (these memories are represented as video sequences projected onto the Shades’ bodies). We defined the charismatic Orpheus as a famous pop singer who has broken the rules (by entering the club still alive) and his newly departed bride Eurydice as a birdwatcher. In our version of the myth, Orpheus is forced to choose between his art and his love. His grief at Eurydice’s death gives him new expression and artistry in his music, which he knows he will lose if she comes back to life. When Orpheus looks back at the end, it is an articulation of the struggle between these two competing desires.
Audiences responded enthusiastically to the show and I received numerous comments on how the images and songs stayed with them and sparked new ideas about grief. Despite the favorable response, we felt that we didn’t quite realize the piece’s full potential and have recently decided to revisit the text and music. I keep planning to revisit this rich material with this amazing group, but haven’t done so yet.