Friday, April 24, 2015


Photo by Rupert Reid
Red Lines Productions presents ORPHANS, by Lyle Kessler, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St and Dowling St, Woolloomooloo, 14 April - 9 May 2015.

ORPHANS, is an American play by Lyle Kessler, written in 1983, and first presented in Los Angeles. The only reason, that I could  judge, to produce this text is centred around the opportunity to provide three roles for men with the potential for high testosterone acting. For, the content and the dramaturgy of the play, felt a little laborious to sit through otherwise, today.

Two brothers have grown up orphans in a run down house in the run down suburb of North Philadelphia, essentially bringing themselves up: Treat (Andrew Henry), the elder brother, the 'bread-winner', mostly, via petty crime, and Phillip (Aaron Glenane), the repressed and depressed younger brother, literally and psychologically imprisoned in the house, by his over-protective and loving  brother. One night Treat, who has a tendency to violence, returns to the house with an older, drunken man, Harold (Danny Adcock), with the intention of kidnaping and holding him for ransom. But Harold is not what he seems and the tables are turned, and he manoeuvres the situation like a magician, a Houdini, and comes to 'adopt' these two orphans, and prepares them for a new way of living - almost like a surrogate father. There is a 'shaggy dog' story element to the tale and it has a touch of menace, comedy, and maybe that kind of magic realism that you find in contemporary Irish writers' work, e.g. Tom Murphy (THE GIGLI CONCERT) or Colin McPherson (THE SEAFARER), where a mysterious figure arrives on the scene and changes everything. And not necessarily for the better.

As you may surmise I am not quite clear, in this production, about what or why what happens happens in the narrative of this story, or, even have a sure grasp of the tone of the playing of this text. Anthony Gooley, directing his second major production, (the first, last year being Rajiv Joseph's, GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES), stages the play well, but does not have a clear enough Director's hand on how to guide us to and through the narrative 'hooks' of the writing and so loses the thread of what Mr Kessler is narrating/telling us, and consequently, some of us, his audience. The play narrative becomes swamped with the chutzpa of the actors in a display of their craft for characterisation.

In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, given to Elissa Blake (The  Shortlist - April 17, 2015), Mr Gooley says, "I'd really like it if the audience is spending part of the time trying to work out what the hell it is they're watching." Be careful for what you wish for, for that is what does happen, but for more than "part of the time", maybe, for some of us, most of the time.

The New York Times has described the play as "part absurdest black comedy and part metaphysical melodrama" and "theatre for senses". This production in the small space of the Old Fitz Theatre, in Woolloomooloo, is an explosive pressure-cooker of a sensory threat to violence, so, much more the latter quote: "theatre for the senses" than the former. Andrew Henry discovered the play, he says, whilst studying at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago (2013) - incidentally, Steppenwolf Co. became the creator of a production in 1985, directed by Gary Sinese, which toured Off-Broadway, and then internationally. That production developed the reputation for the then, young Chicago company as a leading exponent of what became known as "rock'n'roll theatre". Interestingly, the play was produced on Broadway last year with Daniel Sullivan directing it, with a distinct shift into a gentler tone, less the violent heft and more the human comedy, and it failed to ignite an audience, playing for only 37 performances, although garnering two Tony nominations for two of the actors. Maybe, taking that lesson, this company's work is a demonstration of young(ish) actors bringing us "rock'n'roll" theatre.

Mr Henry in "falling in love" with this play or, rather, it seems with the acting opportunity of Treat, tends to invest himself too deeply in the playing of the role, indulging it, and, relatively, forgets to be our storyteller. We come to admire his performance as actor, but unfortunately, I feel, at the expense of the writer's narrative and needs. The penultimate scene, with his brother, Phillip, became a barely controlled exhibition of power-in-violence where shouting became the colouring-operative of the spoken words, communicating rage/hurt but none of the text, clearly, for us to understand why he was enraged/hurt - and, too,  made the ultimate moments with his brother, cradled in his arms, overtly sentimental. The actor knew the effect of the writing and played that with a disassociated manipulative control, playing the emotional card rather than the storytelling responsibility - not giving the audience leave to have the catharsis through the opportunity to endow the emotional states of the characters' plights, rather, having those states 'spoon-fed' to them.

Mr Glenane, as Phillip, as he did with his work in GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES, last year, plays creatively with a wonderful sense and control of 'characteristics' that reveal the inner life of his character, and becomes, thankfully, the agent, the touchstone, the ballast to keep the narrative, at least for Phillip apparent, in contrast to the distracting acting pyrotechnics going on about him.

Mr Adcock, playing in immaculate suit, brings a dandy and 'daddy' figure into the picture, and with an indeterminate, but it seems to me an appropriate dialect - anything from Irish to Chicago and some others - with the swagger and wise humour of a James Cagney-esque gangster from the Warner Brothers classics of days of yore. Mr Adcock's work is an engaging and eccentric playing and has, cumulatively, the charm of nostalgia, mystery, and in the end, a kind of grand pathos. Interestingly, Mr Kessler, references the Cagney era of film, having played out on the television in the living room, for Philllip to watch, DEAD END (1937) - which, of course introduces the famous Dead End kids from the Sidney Kingsley Broadway play (1935), i.e. kids without parents, or neglectful ones; and the Errol Flynn classic of 'brotherly' derring-do and sacrifice, in THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936).

The look of the show Designed by Anna Gardiner (with the structure of Lisa Mimmocchi's FREAK WINDS, set design) has the proper feel of poverty and desperation, lit with subtle but telling skill by Matt Cox, and a suitably sensitive mood Sound Design by David Stalley.

So, the energy of the playing certainly gives a respectable bang for your bucks at the Old Fitz and in the youthful tradition of "rock'n'roll theatre" (energy and noise), Red Line Productions ought to have a youthful audience clamouring with an excited awe. I would have loved the storytelling to be better balanced with the 'character' acting. For me, the play was tipped out of balance by the appetite of the actors enjoying the work-out of their acting opportunities. ORPHANS,  is, after all, considered "an actor's play" and in 2015, the reason to do it. I guess.

There is another play called ORPHANS, by Dennis Kelly, in case you find the title ringing little bells of recognition in your theatre knowledge.

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