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Up from the underworld

'Orpheus X,' ART's haunting take on the myth of a musician's trip to Hades, is stark and striking

CAMBRIDGE -- The subtitle for Rinde Eckert's latest musical-theater creation, ''Orpheus X," could be ''The world is too much with us." And in this retelling of the myth, Orpheus and Eurydice are both artists who say, ''Stop the world, I want to get off."

In the classic myth, Orpheus is the world's greatest musician, who ventures to Hades after his wife, Eurydice, dies, and tries to bring her back to the world of the living. Here Orpheus is a rock star, played by Eckert. A cab he's riding in strikes Eurydice, a stranger, as she absent-mindedly steps off a curb, and she dies in his arms. He becomes obsessed with her and retreats behind closed doors, depriving the world of his music.

If ''Orpheus X" isn't as viscerally powerful as ''Highway Ulysses," Eckert's last collaboration with director Robert Woodruff at the American Repertory Theatre, its resonances are nevertheless lovely, disturbing, and haunting. While Orpheus tries to stop time through his refusal to perform his music publicly until his muse is restored to him, Eurydice does it through her poetry, which is constantly reborn in Hades. And Eckert himself, through this multilayered reinvention, succeeds in doing it by mixing classic forms of opera and storytelling with striking video imagery and rocklike music.

When the play opens, Orpheus is mired in grief. As he sings out a kind of beat poetry over a blend of polyrhythmic jazz and cacophonous art-rock, it's as if he knows that Eurydice's poetry, even though few people read it, was in touch with something far deeper than he can get to, and he needs her back to help him find his artistic grail.

Suzan Hanson's Eurydice is lost in her own world, or underworld. As you enter Zero Arrow Theatre, she's under the stairs, naked, scrawling out poetry. Eventually she and Persephone (John Kelly, who also plays Orpheus's manager) enter into a musical dialogue about leaving the world behind and settling into a bath of forgetfulness. Her nudity, which is projected at times onto a variety of screens and beams via Denise Marika's video contributions, recalls a baroque version of an innocent Eve. Eckert gives Hanson and Kelly's Persephone equally baroque music in the underworld, and they are both gorgeous to listen to.

The stage is fairly stark. Woodruff, having created some of the ART's most memorably panoramic productions on the Loeb Stage, seems to be enjoying the narrower acreage at Zero Arrow.

Speaking of narrow confines, Eurydice's distrust of what Orpheus has to offer -- a return to the world -- is at the heart of the play. She's the one with whom our sympathies lie throughout. Eckert makes it clear that Orpheus's world is more hellish than Hades.

Orpheus is the more complex figure. Is his determination to bring her back a form of heroism or selfishness? Is his withdrawal from the world an admirable attempt to lift his art, a form of rock-star poutiness, or the kind of emotional reaction anyone consumed by grief might have?

In his own way Eckert is every bit as powerful a singer as Hanson and Kelly. For the most part his voice is a straight-ahead folk-rockish tenor similar to Tim or Jeff Buckley's, but he's capable of much more. His song to reclaim Eurydice starts out as a pretty ballad and ends up raising the roof (along with the hairs on your neck). As a composer, Eckert gives the four-piece band a blend of the melodious and dissonant, and they give back everything he asks of them.

Eckert the actor is more problematic. At first, there seems to be little emotional connection to the part, which causes the production to get off to a slow start.

Fortunately, in the theater it's how you finish rather than how you begin that counts. And it's at the finish line, when Orpheus arrives in the underworld, that all of Eckert's poetry, music, singing, and social critique come together to create a work of art that stops time for the audience as well as for Orpheus and Eurydice.

Eckert has said that he likes going back to myths such as those of Orpheus and Ulysses because it allows him to escape from contemporary time and free his imagination to follow different rhythms and more poetic pathways.

Once again, he and his collaborators have made it a pleasure to go with him.

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