Renee Gagner’s production of Orphans tells a tale of loneliness, and what it does to a person who is thrust into it at a young age. The actors had the audience held in a solemn silence one moment and bursting into laughter the next. Gagner and her creative team managed to find the perfect balance of light and dark in this inherently heavy play.
We start with a dark stage. Two figures rush from the wings, across the stage, up the aisle, and out the door. A lone guitarist (Steven Robertson) sits in the center of the stage and starts to play. Illuminated by a single light, he begins to sing. His raspy yet soothing voice set the tone for the rest of the show. Soon the room darkens once again and the musician moves off to the side, where he will stay for most of the show, seamlessly providing an ambiance that ranges from soothing to chaotic and back again.
The next thing we see is Phillip (Cameron Bell), dressed in tattered and ripped clothing complete with untied shoe laces, running full force across the stage. He leaps about animalistically on all fours, before finally plopping down on the couch with a newspaper and a jar of mayo, which he eats by the spoonful. It’s strangely difficult to tell how old he’s supposed to be. His extreme energy and wide eyed gaze are that of a child’s, although his brother Treat (Charlie McElveen) later refers to him as a “grown man hiding in a closet.”
Treat, equally as disheveled as his younger brother, soon makes his first appearance by storming into the house, which sends Phillip into a frenzy before he disappears offstage, slamming into walls and furniture all the while. Treat calls out for his brother and when Phillip does reluctantly emerge the two engage in an extremely aggressive game of tag which leads to them both falling to the floor with a thud. This strange relationship, which bounces between abuse and a desperate dependency, only becomes more apparent as the show plays on. Treat’s overbearing and sociopathic changes in temperament as well as Phillip’s fearful innocence, portrayed beautifully by both actors, bring about a powerful energy that made me wonder whether or not they would both survive the show.
It’s apparent from the start that something is very wrong in this home. The backdrop is made of slats of yellow and black, allowing the audience to catch glimpses of actors as they run backstage. There is a couch with a small coffee table in front of it in center stage. A sleeping bag and a tv lay on the floor of house left. To house right, a kitchen table, littered with cans of tuna, with three mismatched chairs and a smaller collapsable table holding a single bottle of booze. Though the room is dressed slightly differently later on, this room is the only location we see, with the exception of the pathway leading up to the house which is cleverly displayed by changes in lighting and a single sliver of wood reaching up to a doorknob that represents the front entrance.
It’s not long before Harold (KC Clyde), a seemingly regular businessman with an extremely dark side, comes into the home and lives of these brothers. While sitting in their living room, Harold drunkenly recounts the tales of his own orphaned past, sadness and panic growing in him until unconsciousness finally takes a hold of him. Clyde’s raw emotions paired with McElveen’s rage add to the weight of this already heavy scene.
This weight is immediately lifted after the blackout, however, with the comedic sight of Harold, now sober, waking up to find a young man skipping about the room, listing his allergies.
We soon see what a smooth talker he is as he makes various grand promises to Phillip, in stark contrast with his drunken sobs of the previous night. Phillip is torn between his need for fatherly affection and his fear of disobeying his brother’s orders to not engage, which Bell portrays perfectly. This comedic scene, which abruptly changes to serious following a sudden shift in power, may be my favorite scene of the show. The mix of confidence, hopelessness, energy, anger, and playfulness provided by the actors couldn’t be better.
Strong acting is vitally important to any theatre show, but that rings even more true in a production with such a small cast. Any weak link would send this production spiraling but Clyde, McElveen, and Bell do not disappoint. Each has a strong personality that plays off of the other two perfectly. Clyde skillfully shows us the difficult mix of manipulation and caring, McElveen expertly jumps between a light hearted calm and an explosive rage before making way for a desperate fear of solitude, and Bell gives a youthful portrayal of ignorance, fear, and desire for love that rages a constant war within him. The actors draw us into the dark themes then suddenly pull us back with sudden bursts of humor.
All three actors commit themselves fully to the physical comedy of the show, but none more so than Bell, who throws himself from wall to wall, across furniture, and down to the floor in the no-holds-barred manner reminiscent of a young Dick Van Dyke.
The combination of the intimate black box theatre, the simplistic set design, and the skill of the actors, who managed to make me feel sympathy for even the most immoral character, made Orphans a pleasure to watch. I highly recommend going to see this production while you still can.
You can catch Orphans this Saturday 1/26 and Sunday evening 1/27 at 8 PM at the Access Theater.
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All photos by Dion Lamar Mills