Orphans – Magic realism and the hyper-surreal father. (Theatre Review)



Red Line Productions

The Old Fitz Theatre, 14 April to 9 May – You can grab tickets here.

Photos – Rupert Reid

One can’t question Orphans pedigree. Though it appears quaintly old-fashioned these days – perhaps even more so to a contemporary 2015 Sydney indie audience who may be more savvy than their American counterparts (I’m just sayin’) – there is no doubt that pre-pop uber-cool royalty like Lou Reed, Tom Waits and Gary Sinise giving it the giant thumbs up hefts the play some cred, even on our intellectually cynical shores. This is one that turns the heads of the boys for whom (to be fair the thing was written in 1985) a strong relationship with parents and the idea one needs relationships at all, is an astoundingly fresh idea – something the ladies have been wrestling with since … well… Adam and Eve – but still props where props is due, Orphans is a theatrical piece that one can’t deny tugs at the heart-strings and forces even the most macho anti-deconstructionist dudes to get a little teary. No wonder Al Pacino forced his way to a reading with Jesse Eisenberg in 2005. Talk about a father figure!

So with the kiss of Steppenwolf, Orphans is a creative cap feather for any fine dramatic chap, no one more deserving than our own Andrew Henry, who treats us to a Treat like none before him, accompanied by the very accomplished Aaron Glenane as the second of the familially barren brothers. Anthony Gooley directs the pair in a more contemporary version of the iconic play, though Gooley might have missed some of the more essential magic realism of the original, something he would have been better to play up rather than sublimate, as the theatrical experience does much better as a hyper-real slice of imagination rather than the real life infusion Gooley imposes on the script. To be fair, its tricky to play hyper-real Philadelphia accents in Sydney, as the affect can be too easily presumed accidental, but the naturalism works against the narrative, almost making it seem Kessler was projecting a version of “real life.” He isn’t – the absolute power of Orphans is in its imaginative altered reality, as if it were making a statement, not only on the importance of familial ties, but a mini-mockery of the never fully achieved macho state itself. Andrew Henry gets this, and it does him credit.  It isn’t always clear that Anthony Gooley does, but that is understandable. This is a very subtle piece of theatre and that sort of nuance is tricky to translate.

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The fourth “boy” in this production is Danny Adcock, who also plays strongly to the Magic Realism of his role, creating a character so hyper-real one can’t even be sure if he ever existed by the end of the play. This is a superb performance (but all three blokes are great in this) by a very experienced actor who plays his father figure to ridiculous, comedic levels. The brilliance of Kessler’s play lies in the gently reassuring relationship via horrific violence that Harold brings. Kessler’s point is not (of course) that boys need family no matter how violent, but that masculinity is a surreal state, inherent with its own contradictions and falsities, exemplified by Treats longing for his mother at the plays climax. Adcock plays a disjointed Harold, a Harold that the audience waits, with trepidation, to transform into the enemy at any moment. This is the surreal role of the father archetype, both instructor and dictator whose only possible future is to be overthrown – unless of course he’s eliminated by an unseen family enemy first. Harold is like a hypnagogic Godfather, creating an enemy when there isn’t one, if only to justify his position with the boys he all too gleefully and strangely adopts.

However Orphans is only the play it is if Treat is played by an actor willing to be putty in the hands of Kessler, and in Andrew Henry we find such a respondent. Henry is both skillfully present and distant as Treat, a surreal manifestation of a certain kind of vision men have of themselves, and a horrifyingly real man/child using “dare me” as an emblem of power. Treat is a beautifully written character, and Henry takes full advantage of the opportunity. Fearsome not in might, but in a worrying excess designed to convince himself of his own truth, Henry plays Treat not as an out of control testosterone infused imbecile, but as a seething volcanic mass, bubbling under a surface, desperate to impress. Henry’s Treat will beat you senseless just to curry favour with the unimpressed, such is the length and breadth of his strange sort of innocence and childishness. Kessler is right on the money using Magic Realism to describe a character like Treat, and Andrew Henry understands the deeper subtleties of the writing.

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A simpler role (perhaps) because it is a more likeable role, is Aaron Glenane as Phillip, the stranger and yet intuitively wiser of the two brothers. Kessler writes Phillip’s quirks on the surface, so we naturally connect with the offbeat younger brother, the put upon brother, the easiest to understand brother. No spoilers, but it is the surface childishness of Glenane and the subterranean childishness of Henry that give the final scene its profundity and strength.

All this happening on the delightfully repurposed set of Freak Winds (actually it works better here than in the original) Orphans is by far the best offering from Red Line Productions of their 2015 season so far.

Don’t miss it.

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