This week as part of the Yale School of Drama’s studio series, director Devin Brain DRA ’11 and dramaturge Tanya Dean DRA ’11 present their innovative take on one of revered French playwright Jean Anouilh’s most famous works, “Eurydice.” The production is a retelling of the classic myth in which the title nymph falls in love, dies and must be rescued from the underworld. It runs through Saturday at the Iseman Theater.
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The play, translated from the French by Peter Meyer, is typical Anouilh, an adaptation of Greek tragedy marked by his signature use of allegory, antithesis and irony. In this case the tale is set in 1930s France and attempts to present opposing poles of existence — life and death, realism and idealism, hope and despair — together in the same space.
WEEKEND sat down with the director on Tuesday to pick his Brain before the show’s premiere.
Q. This production is your thesis project for the Masters in Directing from the Drama School. Why “Eurydice”?
A. I don’t understand the play! And I didn’t when I read it. But I had a really visceral response to it because it plays with these ideas of beauty, and then it twists them. In rehearsal, we talked a lot about the fact that Anouilh sets up two extremes and makes you think that there must be a third idea that he never mentions. In other words, he creates a dichotomy where death is equaled with purity and life equals rot. Any human being understands that these are the two choices we have, but you can’t accept that, because then life is miserable and pointless.
Q. What challenges did you encounter in putting on the show?
A. It’s a challenge to try to create a production that sets those extremes in a way that the audience then has to think up a third idea for themselves, or at least has to struggle with how they can balance these two ideas. It’s what theater is about, making the audience ask themselves these big questions.
Q. This particular play is very complex. What genre would you say that this play falls under?
A. What genre? French? (laughs.)
Q. It is very French …
A. I mean, Anouilh wrote the play in the 1940s, right in a period when people were confronting a lot of different problems. I compare Anouilh to a tame, pop-culture version of Jean Genet. Genet’s plays are wildly sexual, very funny and incredibly violent and aggressive. This play’s structure is much more mainstream — it’s a Greek tragedy to a large extent — and yet Anouilh jumps through genres in much the same way that Genet does. So if I had to ascribe it a genre, I would call it a very humanitarian tragedy, but ultimately it is well written enough that it defies a genre classification.
Q. Anouilh’s text is complicated, lyrical and filled with thematic, linguistic and literary countercurrents. Did performing this sort of text pose any sort of challenge to the actors? How did they have to adapt to this very different, very “French” language?
A. The biggest challenge in the play is definitely the language. Neither performers nor audiences today are trained to listen to language that way anymore. The challenge is to find ways to help the audience listen to Anouilh’s language, without illustrating it. There’s a tendency for actors to illustrate language — particularly in long passages — through gestures, for instance, to try to liven up the language. But the language already does that for you, so it requires a very particular kind of focus on the performers’ part, while part of my job as a director is to keep the audience still and listening.
Q. With the exception of the two lovers, everyone in the ensemble wears white makeup that makes their faces look like clown masks. What went into this unusual decision, and what was the intent behind it?
A. That’s what I saw when I read the play. I got this image of a grotesque, almost cartoonish world of figures with these two beautiful lovers at the center of it all. At the beginning of the play, I wanted to make it very clear who the audience should like and who they should laugh at. However, over the course of the play, the lovers become more extreme, while the clowns become more human. By the end, at some level, the lovers are in a place apart from all of us. They’ve become aristocratic heroes while we, the audience, are all part of “the mediocre,” as Anouilh might say. We compromise our ideals little by little, but we do so because we choose to live, while the two lovers choose to refute compromise, and, in doing so, become slightly inhuman. In the end, the core of the play is about seeing the beauty in what is human.