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How does one navigate their sense of belonging, family, and home in the world? How do these notions play a part in adult life and how far will one go to preserve and protect these quintessential notions of kinship? These are the compelling and resonant questions put forward in Lyle Kessler’s hauntingly captivating play ORPHANS, directed by Stella Reid, and performed this year at BATS Theatre.
ORPHANS is a highly acclaimed play, nominated for the Tony Award. It is successful in all aspects: from its intriguing characters Phillip, Treat, and Harold and their dynamic relationship, to the captivating narrative, complete with twists and turns, surprises and familiarities, that keeps the audience on edge. However this review isn’t about how well written ORPHANS is, but how well it was brought to life by the eyes and hands of Wellington theatre practitioners—as this was New Zealand’s premiere of the production.
Treat and Phillip are the yin-yang orphaned brothers who live together-alone in their tired, cluttered household. Treat, the hot-tempered and hyper-masculine older brother, is extremely protective of his younger brother Phillip. Phillip, the careful and sensitive listener of the pair, discovers where he is in the world by watching 1930s films and the strangers who walk past his living room window. It is never explicitly stated when their parents disappeared, but we do know that Phillip treasures his parents’ wardrobe as a place for hiding and spying on visitors.
One particular visitor marks the turning point in the boys’ lives. Harold, an old, rich businessman with a dodgy history, first appears when Treat drags drunk Harold back to their home, in an attempt to rob him. Phillip finds in Harold a newfound father figure and Harold hires Treat as his bodyguard, utilising Treat’s intimidating and “violent nature,” but only momentarily is he satisfied with this. Slowly but surely Treat becomes overly suspicious of Harold’s paternal antics, and the older brother staggers into a downward spiral of paranoia and torment. In the end, the tables between the brothers are turned and we discover that it is Treat that relies more on Phillip.
The cast sustained a high level of energy throughout the 90 minute performance. Each actor portrayed a uniquely charismatic and daring interpretation of their character. K. C. Kelly enriched Harold as the charming and undeniably slippery adoptee father, Andrew Patterson was the boisterous yet troubled Treat, and Jimmy O’Donovan gave an irresistibly idiosyncratic characterisation of lovable, quirky Phillip.
The set design work as the audience gets to see each character move about the small home, and as the story reveals itself, so too do the intricacies of the home. Clarke-Edwards’ set is so meticulously detailed, that we get a palpable sense of ‘living’: from the full tuna cans, to the mess of videotapes, the flickering of the TV screen onto the walls of the house, and Treat’s careless flicking of mandarin skins. You can almost smell the house, taste it. The home was a character in and of itself. By the end of the play I wanted to go and inspect the hundreds of personal items left awash on the stage.
The world of ORPHANS, in Reid’s words, is an “altered state, a place halfway between magical realism and statement.” I heartily commend the ambitious staging, and for the most part this intention was effectively realised. However the lighting and sound design could have been made clearer through a more progressive introduction into the magical-realist world. While the off-skew bursts of lighting and sound helped to create a sense of danger, oddity, and surrealism, at times they detracted from the drama onstage.
Reid’s team of designers, actors, and production staff did an astounding job in presenting a play both funny and thrilling. When I chatted to the team members, I was dumbfounded to know that they put this production together in just four weeks! ORPHANS felt so full and resounding. To hear that each member of cast and crew worked their asses off to create something with such dramaturgical flow, that complemented and supported the performance, made me excited about experiencing and making theatre again.