"I would never use those words, but I don't object to them," says playwright Sarah Ruhl, referring to a pair of adjectives often applied, and not always admiringly, to her form-defying plays: "wacky" and "quirky." Though she claims not to read reviews, she has certainly heard these words directed her way, but, she insists, "I'd never hand you a script and say, 'Get a load of this wacky play!' "
New York theatregoers have lately been getting a full load of Ruhl's odd, inspired voice: Last fall's The Clean House
at Lincoln Center marked her Gotham debut, and currently Second Stage features Eurydice
, her off-kilter, quasi-contemporary reimagining of the Greek myth of Orpheus and his short-lived wife. Next January, Playwrights Horizons will present her dark comedy Dead Man's Cell Phone
(now running at Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth).
This relatively new profile comes after years of prizes, honors and regional productions. Ruhl has received the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for playwriting, the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award and more recently the MacArthur Fellowship--which brings up another word Ruhl would be loath to use about herself.
"I think if it were just called the MacArthur Fellowship and not the 'genius' award, I would have been spared many cruel words," says Ruhl, whose New York emergence has divided critics and audiences between ardent admirers (including The New York Times
' Charles Isherwood) who respond rapturously to Ruhl's mix of whimsy and weightiness, and dismissive skeptics (Time Out
's David Cote) who seem to be reacting to the Ruhl "hype" as much as to the plays themselves.
There is one term Ruhl is happy to use about her work, both as a description and a sort of pledge of allegiance.
"I like to use the word 'absurd,' " Ruhl says. "Fifty years ago, the absurdists came and did a whole dance on drama, and then it's like they were forgotten somehow. I like to think about Ionesco." It's fair to say that such theatrical subversives weren't forgotten by two of Ruhl's most important mentors: playwrights Paula Vogel and Mac Wellman, iconoclasts both of them. Vogel was more than just encouraging, says Ruhl, she was "completely permissive about finding your own voice and realizing your own eccentric visions. So I was a little shocked when I came out of Brown that there's a whole school of how a play should be written."
Not that Ruhl writes messy free-for-alls. In Eurydice
, Ruhl's version of the underworld invokes the Greeks (there's a chorus, a river to cross and a dog in the employ of the boss) and mixes in fantasy elements reminiscent of fairy tales, horror films, even Disneyland's Haunted House ride (the three members of the chorus are costumed as Victorian ghosts with severe expressions). And you've heard of snail mail? How about "worm mail"--the preferred delivery route for letters between the story's death-crossed lovers.
"I do think about the rules--I do set up rules," Ruhl says of the governing cosmology of the play. "A play is a little like a tennis game; there are rules and a net, and there would be no game if you had no limits. But on the other hand, you make the rules so you can break them. I always like Emerson on the subject of consistency--that it's the hobgoblin of little minds. And wouldn't there be inconsistencies in the afterlife?"
Ruhl, who was raised Catholic and says she still can't quite believe that "people just die when they die," envisions the afterlife as a "neutral place where you can't remember your life, so that you don't suffer, actually." Indeed, without memory or identity, you don't feel much of anything--which becomes a dilemma for both Eurydice and her late father, with whom she tentatively, and fleetingly, reunites in the underworld.
In the classic myth, of course, the nymph Eurydice comes from a tree, not a man. But Ruhl was inspired in part by the paucity of stories about Eurydice--there's a surfeit of literature about her squeeze, the demigod musician Orpheus--and by her own father's death when she was 20. "Some of the play is just a long poem to my father," Ruhl confesses.
Other elements of Ruhl's underworld are just as personal if not perhaps as weighty. It is governed, for instance, by a hoodie-wearing brat partial to pedaling a tricycle to the loud accompaniment of heavy metal.
"I made Hades an adolescent because if I were in Hell, it would be run by a 13-year-old who's Into Metallica," Ruhl says.
As for stagecraft itself, Ruhl moves as freely and confidently as she does with her characters and themes. Characters sing, dance, argue with props and address the audience when the mood strikes. This last choice comes naturally to Ruhl, whose mother, a Chicago-based actress, took her to rehearsals as a child.
"Almost all my plays have moments where characters talk to the audience," Ruhl concedes, adding, "I've never understood plays that don't admit there's an audience; it feels like you're all holding hands but pretending that you're not. I always feel like we're all in there together."
This is one reason we have artists--to make the strange seem familiar, and the familiar strange. Or, to put it another way, to transform wackiness into a thing of wonder.
Eurydice, which runs at Second Stage through July 21, can be found here.