Platonic Kitsch

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is often told as a tragic tale of romance. Orpheus is the plaintive lover whose melodious lamentations for his lost love give him power over beasts and stones. Eventually, his songs gain him admittance to Hades, where he seeks to bring Eurydice back from the dead. Warned that if he looks back at her he will lose her forever, Orpheus cannot help himself. He looks, and she vanishes instantly from his gaze. Plato, however, interpreted the myth of Orpheus as an allegory of image and reality (as Plato was wont to do). In Plato's version, in his Symposium, Orpheus's desire to bring back Eurydice and himself alive from Hades is a sign that he is not willing to heroically die for love. Orpheus is merely a musician, a poet—and, thus, for Plato "shows no spirit." Because he seeks only the fleeting apparition of his love, Orpheus is "sent empty away."

The Medicine Show's revival of V.R. Lang's 1952 play in free verse, Fire Exit: Vaudeville for Eurydice, uses this passage from Plato as an epigraph—our first hint that this is going to be a strange, self-condemning anti-romance and not what it may seem on the surface: a feel-good burlesque with witty references to Greek myths.

Playing off Plato, Lang portrays Orpheus as the successful but essentially empty antihero and Eurydice as the naïve young girl who, having become bitter with cruel experience, is seduced into selling out at tawdry burlesque shows, where men go to ogle skin instead of contemplating high ideas. The mythic characters get updated to 1930's America, and the plot is filled out with a supporting cast.

Orpheus is a hot opera composer and librettist whose career is rapidly taking off; he is surrounded by an avaricious gaggle of gay agents and producers who look as if they're from 1930's Berlin cafe society with their foppish hats and silk cravats. Eurydice, on the other hand, is the simple, homespun nursing-school student whose silly aunts and tacky uncles are aging vaudeville types trying to hook her up with a big break or a bachelor.

Problem is, the play's form wants to revel in the lyrical impulse its theme condemns—high poetry and low show tunes alike. This contradiction irks one not just "theoretically" but in terms of the characters' motivations and the entire play's through line.

We can't quite figure out who Orpheus is or why Eurydice falls for him so hard. Moreover, why—if Orpheus is so empty of true love—does he bother to search for Eurydice for many years when he has plenty of screaming teenybopper fans? And, by the way, is it believable that teenyboppers are ardent opera buffs, or does this represent a descent into opera buffa?

Worse yet, Jon Crefeld, who resembles a more vapid version of Nick Lachey (if that's imaginable), acted as empty and lost as Plato describes his character of Orpheus. Whether his character was supposed to be stiff was difficult to discern—but if so, then why is Orpheus so feted in the play? Crefeld's interpretation of Orpheus exemplified a dim bulb more than the megawatts of genuine star power.

The play's condemnation of pinchbeck theatricality reaches its most absurd level when Eurydice's trio of aging, failed vaudevillian aunts belt out an off-key show tune. The acting and singing is an amateur representation of amateurishness. Again, I became genuinely confused as to whether their songs' grating wheeze was parody or dreadfully unaware self-parody.

The play contained a few entertaining bits, however, such as a scene where the fey producers devour a phallic baguette and dribble spurts of Champagne on themselves. Their drunken frenzy litters the stage with crumbs and suds until they're finally dragged into the wings.

Ironically, Uta Bekaia's costumes—that element of pure theatrical appearance—were unusually apropos in their sheer tackiness. For example, Eurydice's uncles "slap-schticked" their way in plaid suits, white wingtips, baseball caps, and truly horrendous dime-store ties. Eurydice herself cavorted in a stripper's faux-nurse outfit by the end.

These bright points, though, can't keep the piece from collapsing in on its self-contradictions. Lang's attempt at a "free verse" play ultimately fails: we cannot hear the rhythm, which is essentially a prose rhythm, except when the lines become jangly with clichéd rhymes. Moreover, the idea of using poetry and vaudeville to tell a story that casts aspersions on both leaves one little to believe in.

The contempt the play expresses for the tackiness and essential falseness of theater is, oddly, both reinforced and undermined by the production's cheap exuberance. The audience begins to sense there is something disingenuous about the production's sincerity of self-contempt, which lacks both irony and, like Plato's Orpheus, "true spirit."

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post