Day of Dead theme lends color to darkly comic ‘Orpheus’

October 10, 2012 | Arts, UToday
By Angela Riddel

Orpheus (Jeffrey Burden II) mourns his dead lover, Eurydice (Keely-Rain Battle) and makes an impossible deal with Death to bring her back to life.

When The University of Toledo Department of Theatre and Film presents the opening night of Jean Cocteau’s darkly comic play “Orpheus” Friday, Oct. 12, it will do so in surprisingly brilliant color.

Director Jessica Bonenfant and costume designer Erica Frank have chosen to use a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) aesthetic to represent the incursion of the dead into the world of the living.

“Orpheus” is Cocteau’s surrealist reworking of the classical myth. Orpheus, a poet, makes an impossible deal with Death to rescue his love, Eurydice, from the underworld: He promises never to look upon her again. A mirror serves as a portal between life and death, and movement between the realms is represented by shifts in color, costume and atmosphere. Cocteau also explores contact with the spirit world by adding a table-rapping horse to the mix.

“The play takes place in the liminal space between magic and reality, where anything can happen,” said Bonenfant, creative director of Lola Lola Dance Theatre in New York, who is the guest director for the UT production of “Orpheus.”

Both Bonenfant and Frank were intrigued by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo de Rivera, known for her self-portraits and her colorful clothing. Her style as well as traditional Day-of-the-Dead celebrations have served as a kind of muse for the costume design. Flowers, elaborate grave decorations, lavish costumes, food and festivities traditionally mark the Mexican Day of the Dead, similar to All Souls Day, meant to honor loved ones who died during the year.

In the play, Death — a young woman adorned with pink flowers, ribbons and paint — visits the living world.

“The costuming, skeletons and funeral flowers associated with Day of the Dead are the perfect way for her to fit into and hide out in our world while also being very ethereal,” said Frank, a costume designer of theater, film, TV and videos.

Bonenfant added that Frank’s design reflects the fact that “Cocteau’s work uses surrealism to alter the audience’s perceptions of time and reality, yet maintains a narrative that is easy to follow.”

Costume designer Erica Frank, left, and guest director Jessica Bonenfant discussed materials and costume designs in the Costume Shop in the Center for Performing Arts.

Bonenfant has been the creative director of the Lola Lola Dance Theatre since 2003. Her work, a blend of movement, text and striking imagery, has been seen across the country in a variety of traditional and site-specific spaces, as well as on film.

She has created five evening-length works for her company, and is developing the sixth, a performance-as-research project presented in installments at Brooklyn’s Micro Museum ShapeShifter Lab and the Itinerant Performance Art Festival at Grace Exhibition Space. Last spring, the project received a stipend and space grant from the National Endowment for the Arts via Chashama’s Windows Program, which supported a five-day storefront performance installation in New York City’s Garment District.

This year, Bonenfant also has choreographed a music video and stage show for singer Charlene Kaye and her band The Brilliant Eyes.

Frank most recently was the designer on the feature film “The Firstling” and assistant designer on the movie “The Watch.” Additionally, she was specialty costume crafter for “Revolution,” a new television series on NBC, and was the tailor/set costumer on the film “The Hunger Games.”

UT students featured in the production are Jeffrey Burden II as Orpheus, Keely-Rain Battle as Eurydice, Emily Werner as Horse, Ahmad Atallah as Heurtebise, Chellsea Cutino as Death, Aleta Scott as Azrael, Andrea Harris as Raphael, Davion Brown as the commissioner and Tim Fox as the clerk.

The play will be presented in the Center for Performing Arts Center Theatre Friday through Sunday, Oct. 12-14, and Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 17-21. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. except for Sunday shows, which will begin at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $12 for general admission; $10 for faculty, staff, alumni and seniors; and $7 for students. They can be purchased online at, by calling 419.530.2375, or by visiting the Center for Performing Arts Box Office.

Student members of fraternities or sororities who wear their letters or show their membership card at the box office can get a “Go Greek” discount of $2 off their ticket.

A season ticket or a season flex pass is 15 percent off the price of four individual tickets purchased separately. A season ticket provides one seat to the opening night performance of each of the four plays. The opening night seat can be exchanged for another performance of the play if the box office is notified in advance.

A season flex pass provides four tickets that can be used in any combination throughout the season.

The season tickets are available through Friday, Oct. 12, and flex passes are available all season.

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