Devised theater may be one of the hottest trends in the field, but it’s tricky business to create and build an ensemble show from scratch. When such attempts falter, as they are wont to do, an audience member may start to cringe — the same feeling you get when watching a drunken relative embarrass himself at a party with strangers.
But when these efforts succeed, the result can be incredibly engaging, not least because they hook us so deeply in our imaginations.
“Emilie/Eurydice,” which premiered over the weekend at Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, is much of the latter. Conceived and directed by Isabel Nelson and crafted by her company, Transatlantic Love Affair, “Emilie” is a tender show that grabs your emotions and, even though the grip is soft, never lets go.
The production, whose propulsion and emotional punch are aided by the live scoring of cellist Emily Dantuma, is inspired by real-life events. After being hit by a truck in New York, student Emilie Gossiaux was not expected to emerge from her coma but she miraculously recovered.
The narrative in “Emilie” is similar and gets mashed up with a reference to the Greek myth of Eurydice. The title character, played by Heather Bunch, lives in the city with her partner (Joy Dolo). The show begins with the pair at home, and their affectionate morning of coffee and flirtation. Emilie later meets her dad (Eric Marinus) at a museum and upon leaving, she meets with her accident.
Michael Wangen’s lighting design regulates the mood of Nelson’s staging, which takes place on the bare Illusion stage. Ensemble performers create all the props with their bodies, whether a door, a mirror or the straphangers of public transportation. When Emilie has her accident, the line of pedestrians on the sidewalk move their necks slowly and in unison as the lighting changes from light hues to deep red. It’s a beautiful sequence that Bunch, who moves with a dancer’s litheness, nails.
The honesty and openness of Bunch and Dolo allow us to fall deeply into the production. Bunch is an open canvas, full of innocence and wonder. Dolo bears the weight of the world in her face and movements. Hers is a no-nonsense character, but she begins to crack under the thought of losing her lover, particularly since the relationship is in the infatuation phase.
Marinus, as the father, has both a Delphic quality and innocence about him as a performer, so that you’re not able to clearly read his emotions. Or maybe it’s just a male thing. Whatever, he eventually lets us into his heart.
Perhaps the best scene in the show involves Dolo, miming playing the cello as Dantuma plays, to bring Emilie back to life. It’s as beautiful as it is breathtaking.