Orpheus, the dauntless son of Thracian King Oeagrus and the muse Calliope, is one of history’s most renowed poet-musicians—real or invented. The god Apollo presented him with a lyre whose ethereal sounds had power to soothe savage beasts and cause rocks and trees to move. When his beloved wife Eurydice abruptly died from a venomous snake bite, Orpheus descended to Hades to rescue her—a first for a mortal.
That mythical journey has proved a rich and irresistible metaphor for artists. The hero Tamino of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) is based on Orpheus; centuries earlier Virgil, Ovid, Plato and Pindar reconfigured the myth to their own purposes. More recently, Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film Orphee, a mesmerizing experiment in surrealism, centered on a modern-day poet’s obsessive fascination with his own mortality; and in 1959, Marcel Camus’s Academy Award-winning French-Portuguese film Black Orpheus, set in Brazil during Mardi Gras, vividly retold the story of the ill-fated lovers yet again. In the latter film, Orpheus is a philandering streetcar conductor who must venture through a paper-saturated bureaucratic agency—and a sensuous swirl of holiday revelry—in his attempt to free Eurydice.
New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Company is exploring the oft-told tale with a sense of humor and merriment in its current production Black Orpheus: A Mythical, Musical Story, inspired by the much-loved Camus film. The first full production to be staged in the company’s new $4-million space in New Brunswick, Black Orpheus runs through Jan. 5.
“There are very few Afro-centric classics in the history of world cinema, and this is one of them,” says Crossroads artistic director Ricardo Khan. To do the stage adaptation, Khan chose OyamO, the author of such works as Let Me Live, a jarring prison drama presented last year by New York’s Working Theatre, because of the writer’s sense of rhythm and poetry.
OyamO created the character Sweet Mout’ Virgil to introduce the action and serve as resident philosopher and social commentator in the production’s play-within-a-play structure. The Orpheus story is told by Sweet Mout’s theatre troupe which sings and dances among the ruins of a Caribbean sugar plantation. Orpheus is an apprentice electrician and Eurydice is a young innocent who has run away from home, believing that Death is chasing her. She meets Orpheus through her uncle Apollo, the guitar maker, who (in an echo of the myth) builds Orpheus his instrument for the Carnival.
Khan, who has family roots in Trinidad, decided to place the fantasy story there, where striking natural beauty complements the tale of heroes and otherworldly happenings. Designer Daniel Troett’s set juxtaposes new life and decay; a backdrop of azure sky and emerald sea peek out from jagged cliffs, and lush foliage envelops steps leading up to the crumbling porticos of the plantation manor. In the plays second movement—Orpheus’s descent into the underworld—these steps magically split open to reveal the River Styx and Hades.
“There are lots of myths floating around in contemporary society—the myth of false history and the myth of racial superiority, to name just a few,” says OyamO, who suggests that his adaptation is essentially about “what happens when you confuse reality with myth.” Although the Campus film uses the orgasmic music and masses of sexy, undulating bodies of Rio’s Mardi Gras as a picturesque setting for a love story, the Crossroads variation aspires to incorporate Trinidad’s Carnival into the realm of mythology itself. The revelers of the Carnival, dressed in spectacular costumes as Pluto, Poseidon, Charon, the Sirens and other creatures of the underworld, actually become those characters in the Hades scene, in which Orpheus’s ideals and love for Eurydice are put to trial.
With its delineation of Carnival in the first half and the underworld in the second, Black Orpheus takes a keen look at various planes of reality—from the mundane world of the docks where Orpheus works, to the intense, Bacchanalian world of Carnival, to the hyperreal environs of the underworld.
“One of the production’s biggest challenges was fostering an organic fusion between the first and second movements,” says director Khan. In the Hades segment, music and lighting change and the mood becomes hushed, rushed and unstable, not unlike the nightmare-in-retrograde world of Cocteau’s Orphee, where shattered mirrors and underground winds represent the land of the dead.
Although the production concludes on a jubilant, life-affirming note, the final image of Orpheus is a tragic one—that of a disoriented young man summoning the sun to rise while cradling the drowned body of a beautiful girl, hoping against hope that the morning light will awaken her from a profound slumber.
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