It’s those Fenix moments that make the summer theater at Deering Oaks in Portland so much fun. Like the time when an actor grabbed a little kid from the audience and held him (or her) up as a shield during a fight sequence. Or when another joined a picnic, dipping someone’s carrot and munching it down between lines.
They’re the unscripted, spontaneous and risky moments that make the summer shows by Fenix Theatre Company fun, playful and interactive. Beginning Friday, Fenix breaks from its 11-year tradition of Shakespeare and classics and presents a contemporary play by Sarah Ruhl, “Eurydice.” It’s at least based on a classic. The play recasts the Greek myth of Orpheus from the perspective of his wife, Eurydice (yur-rid-i-si). In Ruhl’s play, Eurydice must weigh returning to earth with Orpheus or staying in the underworld with her father.
Fenix presents the show at the Deering Oaks reflecting pool at 6:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday through July 29. The only exception: On July 28, the performance is at Congress Square. Admission is free, and picnics are encouraged.
Hannah Cordes, educator director at Portland Stage, brought the idea of “Eurydice” to Fenix artistic director Rob Cameron, advocating for the play’s whimsy, musicality and poetic lyricism. She appreciated the play’s female protagonist choosing life over death and lightness over dark.
Those seemed like good choices for our times, she said.
Cordes directs a cast of seven: Erica Murphy is the lead, Nolan Ellsworth is her husband, Orpheus, Sean Ramey is Father, Hannah Daly is Little Stone, Ella Mock is Big Stone, Casey Turner is Loud Stone and Khalil LeSaldo plays the Nasty Interesting Man and Lord of the Underworld.
When he reviewed it in the New York Times in 2007, Charles Isherwood called the play “weird and wonderful” and a “tender-hearted comedy” that focuses on Eurydice’s lessons about love, loss and the pleasures and pains of memory. The Times recently named it one of the 25 best American plays in the last 25 years since Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
Cameron worried a little bit, but not for too long, about staging a contemporary play. Fenix began as a platform for Shakespeare in the park, and the company has diverted from Shakespeare in recent years, staging Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in 2011 and Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” last year.
Cameron called Ruhl’s play a “modern classic.” It won the 2008 Drama Desk and Drama League awards for new play. He figures Fenix’s reputation for making good plays that are funny and witty and lively has earned the company the latitude to take risks and do a show that’s less well known, though widely lauded.
The Fenix crowd is a big mix, much more diverse than a traditional theater crowd. It’s a great crowd to take risks with, Cameron said, because its members have non-traditional expectations and desires.
Cordes is staging the play in and around the reflecting pool, wading pool and the knolls and trees of Deering Oaks. With water available, Cordes makes the element a cornerstone, or touchstone, in the play.
For the first time, Fenix is equipping its cast with body microphones, a concession to consistent complaints about the plays being hard to hear. This one is more musical than others, as well. Eurydice plays the violin in the play, and Cordes is using the play’s inherent musicality to construct an alt-folk soundtrack of mostly female voices.
The park allows room for the actors to move freely – creating opportunities for those Fenix moments.
It will feel pastoral and will “lend itself to wine and cheese,” Cameron said.
Indeed, bring a blanket and something to eat and drink. You never know when an actor might share a snack.
WHERE: Reflecting pool at Deering Oaks park, except the performance on July 28, which will be at Congress Square Park
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday, through July 29
HOW MUCH: Free, and a bucket will be passed
RAIN: Assume the performance will happen, unless there’s a downpour or dangerous weather. Call (207) 400-6223 for weather cancellations.