Sound design is one of those aspects of theater that usually slips by under the radar. It almost never makes or breaks a production. Instead, ideally, it should help make individual moments more complete, helping to fully immerse an audience into the world of a play.
The design in Custom Made Theatre Company's production of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice is a rare exception to this rule.
Because the play is a take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it's practically a given that music would be a crucial part of the show. Orpheus (David Naughton) is a gifted composer and musician. As the play opens, he and his fiancée Eurydice (Jessica Rudholm) are frolicking on the beach, but Eurydice can't get Orpheus to stop thinking about music, and Orpheus can't get Eurydice to help him remember the 12 parts of a symphony he has coursing through his brain. (She would rather talk about books and their "interesting arguments.") Words fail him more and more as the play progresses, so he must express himself in song.
This could be a sound designer's paradise, a chance to create not only atmosphere but also an expression of emotion as poignant as the human instrument itself could produce.
But already in the first scene, composer and designer Liz Ryder's sound isn't just distracting; it cheapens the proceedings onstage. To accompany the beach scene, a tender but already sad romantic moment, Ryder uses vague, flowy piano that sounds like what the pianists in Nordstrom play: soporific, steering you toward the sale rack.
And it never stops. Not just in this scene, but throughout the play. The mood and timbre of the music evolve depending on the scene, of course, but there is almost always music, as if director Katja Rivera didn't trust her actors to make moments emotionally resonant without sonic aid. Ryder even repeats certain tracks, creating the feel of a looped soundtrack on a DVD title menu that can't be muted, inducing cravings for silence as strong as a parched man's cravings for water.
This is a shame, as much else in Rivera's direction is strong. In Ruhl's play, the devil (Eric O'Kelly) preys on Eurydice at her wedding party, luring her away with promise of a letter from her long-dead father. Deceived by his treachery, she's flung into an underworld that, according to the stage directions, "should resemble the world of Alice in Wonderland more than it resembles Hades." Hell here is not scary but mildly unpleasant and at times downright cute, with squat little stones (Jeremy Parkin, Helen Pappas, and Stefin Collins), the devil's minions, repeatedly screeching his order to be more like a stone. In this place, Eurydice does reconnect with her father (Fred Pitts), but first she must forget how to live with the living and learn how to live with the dead.
Rivera deftly brings out the fairytale qualities in the story. Costumes (by Maxx Kurzunski) make lavish use of ruffles and stilts to firmly ground us in the realm of make-believe. Staging is as physical as dance. The opening scene is like a ballet, with Eurydice and Orpheus communicating each shift in their disquieted romance with twirls and swirls and tosses; they are graceful, but they can never keep their hands off each other. Eurydice's deception by the devil is another kind of dance. She is a willing partner no more, with the devil forcing her to move as if he controls her with invisible strings.
The most famous moment in the Greek myth is when Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living. The devil agrees to this, but on one condition: that Orpheus cannot look at Eurydice until they escape together.
Ruhl's version of the story, however, focuses on another relationship, that of Eurydice and her father as they reconnect and build a life together in these unlikely environs. Ruhl, who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has received a slew of other awards, is sometimes criticized as twee. In this play, some lines veer in that direction, as when Orpheus tells Eurydice, "I'm going to make each strand of your hair into an instrument. Your hair will stand on end as it plays my music and become a hair orchestra. It will fly you up into the sky." But the characters of Eurydice and her father have the sincere, unsentimental ring of true loss and regret; Ruhl herself lost her father at a young age.
In this production, unfortunately, some of the play's most poignant moments are drowned out.
Eurydice has been extended through Apr. 28 at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St. S.F. Admission is $25-$30.