Death, and the human experience of it, is the most universal of all themes in literature, theater and life. Sarah Ruhl’s retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice had its world premiere in 2003, and has been performed on and off Broadway and across the country over the last decade.

In the original myth, Eurydice dies on their wedding day. Orpheus journeys to the Underworld and charms the gods with his music, who allow him to take her back but warn that he must not turn around and look at her as she follows him. He does, and she must remain forever in the land of death. Here she is characterized as nothing more than a possession twice lost.

But in Ruhl’s version, she is the central figure, and her story is layered with deep truths about love, loss, memory, pain and the resilience of the human spirit.

In UCSB Department of Theater and Dance’s production of Eurydice, the luminous Megan Caniglia is Eurydice, a smart young woman with a passion for books and ideas, and as much as she loves Orpheus, played with quiet intensity by Julian Remulla, she doesn’t always understand him and his music. She is surely not the first woman to be confounded by romance with a musician.

The play opens with the happy couple frolicking at the seaside, where he pops the question before they leap into the waves — a very real leap off the back edge of the set, an arresting effect. Then, during their wedding party, she is tempted away by a charming but sinister figure proffering a letter from her dead father. Christopher Costanzo is satisfyingly creepy here, electrifyingly so when he turns up again as a petulant boy-god on a tricycle, ruler of the Underworld. She cannot resist and follows him to his high-rise apartment, where after a lecherous struggle she falls to her death.

When Eurydice reaches the Underworld by way of a chain-link elevator in which it rains, she finds a chorus of nattily-dressed white-faced figures who call themselves Stones. Ian Elliott, Alice Trew and Madelyn Robinson do a fantastic job in these roles, often speaking in unison with great precision, providing another layer of surreality to the proceedings.

She also encounters her father, played by Michael Morgan with great tenderness. She doesn’t recognize him at first, as memory doesn’t work the same in such a place. But eventually he is able to gently help her reconnect the circuits, and they are quite happily reunited. Eventually Orpheus comes for her, and she faces the choice between comfortable forgetting and the pain of remembering.

Director Jeff Mills has extensive background and experience in turning fable and myth into theater — locally, notably, with Boxtales Theatre Company. He guides this production with a sure hand and the result is a delight. The use of circus arts is another of his hallmarks, and there is a lovely aerial silks interlude, choreographed by Christina McCarthy, as Eurydice unsuccessfully attempts to climb back to the land of the living, as well as Costanzo appearing later on stilts, as god of the Underworld.

Though modern in relation to the ancient Greek myth, the play’s aesthetic is not modern-day, but instead is anchored firmly in the 1930s, with its period costumes by Ann Bruice, incidental songs and moments of free-spirited dancing.

Nayna Ramey’s set, however, with its asymmetrical tilting steps, dizzyingly high platform and artful chain link is timeless and darkly whimsical. There is a channel down one side of the stage with running water, representing the river in the Underworld where characters must step in to cleanse themselves of memories.

Topping it all off are a live string quartet, directed by Jim Connolly, and hauntingly beautiful vocals by soloist Christine Buccelli.

Kudos to all involved in this artful, soulful production, and may we see many more of this caliber from the fine folks at UCSB.

— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.