Nearly drowning in ‘Orphan Sea’

Caridad Svich’s new play is so deep and reaching that you might find it hard to keep your head above water.

Toward the end of the play, a female actor yelled out to the half-empty crowd, “Take a drink!”

A couple of stiff Manhattans may be needed to sit through this play — and a few more were necessary to write this review.

With that in mind, let’s take a dip into Caridad Svich’s world premiere of “The Orphan Sea,” which opened last week in the Rhynsburger Theatre at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Lacking a linear plot, the “Orphan Sea’s” episodic nature is something you would expect to find in an academic setting, and lifejackets are not provided to audience members looking for a more traditional performance. The play’s setting rapidly changes from ancient Greece in one scene to modern day Columbia, Missouri in another with, perhaps, more settings than all the rooms on the Titanic combined. Although aptly described as a drama, “Orphan Sea” does include some singing and dancing.

The murkiness around naming the genre also extends to the play’s plot, which is as hard to describe as the feeling of being set adrift in the middle of the ocean, praying to the heavens for dry land (see the Kevin Brown’s “Director’s Notes” in the program. Even he found troubling describing what “Oprhan Sea” is). In more abstract terms, “Orphan Sea” deals with human responses to a range of emotions and events, and the “free-flow” narrative is something one might expect to find in a Svich play. The basis of the play mainly revolves around characters of Odysseus and Penelope who experience struggle while separated from each other.

Okay, if your compass is steering you away from this play (or from reading this review), I don’t blame you. “Orphan Sea” will make some audience members want to walk the plank instead of wading through its two, shark-infested acts. But the play’s design elements are as pretty as a crimson sunset over the sea.

Similar to Svich’s “Jarman,” this play blends both video and live-action scenes that richly enhance the viewing experience. Assembled in a horseshoe-fashion, projectors and screens surround the audience’s sight range like an IMAX theater (albeit on a much less impressive scale). Bold images of nature like mountain ranges (designed by Ian Matthew Sobule) and sounds of rushing water (designed by Jeffrey Simpson) make the “Oprhan Sea” as visually interesting as scuba diving in a coral reef. The tempo of these scenes moves fast, and Brown changes visuals quickly so as to keep the play lively.

In contrast, the actors move about a stage (designed by Brad M. Carlson) that is often bare. At one point, the Odysseus Chorus (Michael Bayler, Alex Givens, Randy Hussey) use a small towel to mimic drinking from a bottle. Similarly, the Penelope Chorus (Dani Mann, Lynett Vallejo, Courtney F. Wagner) stretch out softly on a blank stage floor to mimic reclining in a garden.

Acting in the “Oprhan Sea” is hard to describe individually as three characters attempt to play one character at the same time. In a scene about philosophy, the Odysseus chorus strongly conveys knowledge of the topics discussed and engages audience members with their deep voices and reflections on Plato. Although the Penelope chorus uses a more feminine, higher voice, they too interest the audience while talking about such topics as social media.

Brown attempts to distinguish the individual members of each character through staging. When one actor has something to say, he or she might stand higher than the others. In a scene about life lessons, for example, all the actors join in center stage and each takes a turn standing or acting out in front of all the others. This type of staging helps the audience focus on more specific actions, which is needed in a play as non-linear as “Orphan Sea.”

In all, the juxtaposition of so many unfamiliar settings — from Jesse Hall to of Stonehenge — and topics can make this play at times frustrating to follow. The acting and visual elements, though, were impressive and beautiful throughout. If you do decide to venture out of portside bar and see this play, a fair warning: Beware ye all who enter “The Orphan Sea.”

Other Desert Cities

A family explores issues of politic, a revealing book and other matters in the Columbia Entertainment Company’s production of “Other Desert Cities.” Set during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2004, the Wyeth family meets up in their parent’s home in the California desert. Written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Meg Phillips Crespy, “Other Desert Cities” takes place almost entirely in the family home during Christmas Eve.

There wasn’t much room for acting “Other Desert Cities” dialogue-heavy script. Silda Grauman (Maggie Henson) plays the aunt and uses as gravely voice to make herself sound old. Grauman’s constant need to move around and her open mouth and wandering eyes reveal a good connection to the character who talks taking prescription medication for her mental disability. Grauman’s sister, Polly Wyeth (Christine Bay), seems much younger looking than Grauman, but maybe there is a significant age difference in the script that’s not mentioned to the audience. Although one can’t expect Crespy to find a Polly who looks similar to Silda in the Columbia area, Polly should have at least sounded and acted like Silda. Polly’s relatively monotone voice and little movement on stage stand in stark contrast to her eccentric sister Silda. The two interact like strangers at times in the play as well. In a scene where Polly accuses Silda of helping out with Brooke’s book, both actors hardly look at each other and Polly’s stable voice suggests that the serious act is just a mild transgression.

Crespy’s staging seemed confusing at times and interesting during others. When the Wyeth family comes home following a tennis match, Brooke (Monica Palmer) and Trip (Aaron Scully) move to one side of the room and play cards. Trip then touches Brooke with his legs several times under the table and is put at an intimidate proximity to Brooke while they speak. Later, Trip lays out on the couch like a bikini model and looks at Brooke. The two are siblings but the staging at times confused the audience into thinking they were actually a non-related married couple. Crespy’s choice to use different levels in Act 2 is very interesting, though. After reading Brooke’s manuscript, Polly and Lyman (Jim Malinee) stand at the top level and look down at Brooke. They hurl dissatisfactory statements about her new book like nay-saying fans from the bleachers, adding to the emotion in the scene.

The casting choices seemed a bit hit or miss as well in “Other Desert Cities.” Brooke did not look like someone who played tennis regularly, but with a strong build and white hair, Lyman looked like the stereotypical conservative father. Trip’s boyish smile and rounded face fit well with the character’s younger nature. Overall, the members of the cast were also relatively age appropriate as Polly, Lyman and Silda looked older than Brooke and Trip.

Part 2

Director Meg Phillips Crespy attempts to weave humor and tension in the Columbia Entertainment Company’s “Other Desert Cities.” In a diverse and argumentative family like the Wyeth’s, humor drips from the script like melting ice cream from a cone. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that Crespy’s cast can’t match the wind-up, jack-in-a-box humor of Trip (Aaron Scully). Diagnosed with ADD, Tripp constantly slides around the set in his socks, gets to close to other characters and sits on the couch Indian-style, drawing attention and grabbing laughs from the audience. His sugar-infused acting pale in comparison to the stiffness scene in the other actors who move around like booze-dependent robots from the bar table to back toward the living room. In Sunday’s show, the audience laughed more at Trip more than any other actor, despite each actor having humorous lines and room for comedic acting.

Tension-wise, Crespy staged characters along elevated platforms to show emotion. In a scene where Brooke’s (Monica Palmer) parents tear apart the draft of her book, Polly (Christine Bay) and Lyman (Jim Malinee) tower over her and fire remarks like jeering fans in the Roman coliseum. After the tension in the play is resolved, Brooke is seen elevated above everyone else in a nicely staged tactic that shows her transformation as a character.

The How and the Why

Written by Sarah Treem, “The How and the Why,” explores the reunion of a mother and daughter after over 25 years of separation. The two meet while the daughter is beginning her career as an evolutionary biologist and the mother is ending her career as an evolutionary biologist. While the mother and daughter interact, both women are challenged to overcome the awkwardness of meeting each other along with issues of science, generation and love.

Rachel Hardeman (Gina Drapela) is the daughter in “The How and the Why.” When she first meets her mother, Hardeman acts defensively, not shedding her coat right away and placing furniture or other objects between her and her mother while talking. After a particularly difficult moment of conversation in the office, Hardeman pauses, lights up a cigarette and puffs, putting up a wall of smoke to separate her from her mother and to block the difficult subject of science. Hardeman also acts apprehensively at times toward meeting her mother, often looking at her mother from the side of her own body instead of facing her mother directly. Hardeman talks in a more childish way than her mother, using a higher pitch and speaking quickly. While explaining her hypothesis, Hardeman rapidly spits out words to her mother, showing a rare moment of excitement and enthusiasm when the two first meet.

Zelda Kahn (Cheryl Black) is the mother in “The How and the Why.” Her first encounter is stiff and professional, extending her hand to her daughter when they first meet and offering a smile like it’s a job interview. Kahn stands upright and speaks slowly and deeply towards her daughter, explaining her “Grandmother Hypothesis” At first, Kahn sits in her desk when her daughter speaks about her life and tries to catch up on their more than 25 lost years, which seems to give Kahn a queenly feel. Kahn, though, softens up to Hardeman throughout the play. At the bar, for example, Hardeman puts her head down and sobs following a panic attack. Kahn, although tentatively at first, places her hand on her daughter’s head and slowly strokes her hair. Before the two leave, Kahn opens her arms wide open to her daughter and the two promptly embrace.

Part 2

Between the two acts, both mother and daughter demonstrated an understanding of their characters and the deepening of a relationship between them. In the first act, Zelda Kahn (Cheryl Black) coldly extended her hand toward Rachel Hardeman (Gina Drapela), her daughter that she hadn’t seen in almost three decades. Kahn treated the meeting like a job interview, smiling without authenticity and standing rigidly while speaking to her daughter. Hardeman attempts to understand her mother from a distance, moving all about the room and using furniture to block any deeper questions from her mother. The mother and daughter, though, finally come together in a deeper relationship in the second act. After Hardeman breaks down in front of her mother, Kahn transitions from acting like meeting her daughter is a job interview to treating her like her daughter. Kahn hesitantly moves her hand toward her daughter’s hair and strokes it, with each stroke becoming easier than the last. Hardeman’s heaving shows her opening up to her mother and later her eye contact shows that she is no longer uncomfortable with her mother’s presence.

Road Show

The Rhynsburger Theatre started its 2014-2015 season with “Road Show,” a musical written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Based on a true story, the musical explores the lives of two brothers who look to find their fortune through business ventures around the world.

Designed by Jon Drtina, the set is supposed to resemble movement and material goods. Stacks of what look like white boxes stretch into the fly, and each box contains what looks like assorted household items, including candles and wheels. Actors interact around these two large set pieces showing that there is a constant drive for wealth and progress. A moveable bed is wheeled out for poignant moments in the musical like when Mama Mizner (Dani Mann) dies and when Wilson Mizner (Zack Huels) and Addison Mizner (Connor Relyea) launch into an argument involving a knife. Outside of a few chairs and other props, the set is noticeably bare so as to focus the audience’s attention to the stories around the actors themselves.

Like the set, the costumes, designed by James M. Miller, are mostly neutral in color while specific actors change color in a single piece of clothing to draw the audience’s attention to reflect a particular detail in the actor’s story. For most of the play, the ensemble dons white or neutral colored costumes which allows the audience to differentiate between them and the more colorful main cast members. In the first half of the play, Addison and Wilson do not look too much different, save for a different colored bow tie. Nellie Houlihan (Tori Stepanek) wears red feathers, pearls and gloves during the “What’s Your Rush” song, revealing her promiscuous nature. The lives of Addison and Wilson change as the musical goes along, with Addison discovering his wealth down in Boca Raton and Willie showing up broke at his brother’s doorstep. Following the change in fortune, Addison wears a purple vest underneath his muted jacket while Addison shows up disheveled and un-ironed, holding his jacket, popping his color and showing his pant legs askew. Addison’s choice of purple reflects his higher standing in society since wearing the color purple is historically a symbol of wealth.

With a relatively simple set and neutral colored costumes, lighting largely reflected the feeling throughout the musical. When Papa Mizner (Jeffrey Burgess) dies early on in the play, lighting designer R. Dean Packard covers the stage in blue lighting and adds a full moon on the blue backdrop in between the set pieces. The moon often lights up during poignant moments in the show, like when Addison and Wilson fight around their mother’s corpse. A yellow filter light spins toward the front of the stage when the brothers enter Alaska, signifying a dizzying pursuit of golden nuggets. During a moment of passion between Addison and Hollis Bessemer (Keaton Kruser), a red light shines on them while they embrace multiple times.

Part 2

Lighting seemed to be the only color the show actually had and was easily the strongest and most interesting element in “Road Show.” Designed by R. Dean Packard, licking flames and swaying palm tree lights delighted audience members who laughed at the lighting’s creative usage. Spinning yellow filtered light and glowing red light complimented each other during a bar scene in Alaska, showing off the lust that Wilson Mizner (Zack Huels) felt for gold. Sickly green lights fell on the set when Mama Mizner (Dani Mann) died in her bed without the presence of her son, Wilson, giving the moment a stomach-twisting feel. The set and costume design could have benefited from color, but the choices seem to be intentional to prove a point that the audience may have found unclear.

She Kills Monsters

The Macklanburg Playhouse at Stephen’s College last Saturday performed the one-act play “She Kills Monsters,” written by Qui Nguyen. Set in an Ohio suburb in the 1990s, the play centers on a woman who tries to understand her recently-deceased high school-age sister through the fantasy role-playing game “Dungeons and Dragons.” Characters in the game are based on people in the real world of the play, and the play switches between these two realities to further develop the characters in the game and the people in the suburban Ohio town.

Although there weren’t any overtly 90’s outfit choices, costume designer Cheyenne E. Smith made sure that characters in “She Kills Monsters” looked what the qualities they represented in both the real world and the fantasy world of “Dungeons and Dragons.” Agnes Evans, played by Emily Chatterson, wore an argyle sweater in the real world to show her normalness, a trait that was applied to her at the beginning of the play by the narrator. When she’s playing “Dungeons and Dragons,” Agnes begins to develop into a more authentic player, adding black gloves and a sword. She still wears her argyle sweater, though, showing she is still a relatively naïve game player. For example, despite her costume changes, she falls prey to most of the enemies in the game, including the cute bears that a normal player can easily defeat. Her deceased sister Tilly Evans, played by Lydia Miller, wore completely “Dungeons and Dragons” garb, donning a Zelda-esq cape that flowed behind her as freely as the game she imagined. Her brown boots and shining sword reflected her dedication to her fantasies, which allowed her to experience life fully and escape from the evils of the real world. Chuck, played by Austin Smith, wore a plaid button-down unbuttoned, revealing a “Nirvana” T-shirt, along with a cape. His outfit revealed his dorky nature and the cape was worn during the scenes when he assisted Agnes in playing “Dungeons and Dragons” and helped the audience understand when the world changed.

Lighting in “She Kills Monsters,” designed by Sean Glass, helped give meaning to the events in the play. The play begins with a drop-down projection of a movie as the narrator details the lives of Agnes and Tilly. Without seeing the actors, the audience might assume the short movie is actually purchased with the script, but Stephen’s College, it seems, actually created the film. The smooth cuts, clear narration and clean, white background make the short movie seem professional, and introduces the characters in an exciting and hilarious way. Laughs come naturally with cuts to 90’s cultural references and jokes about the characters. After the video, light also plays a role when Agnes is seen underneath blue lighting as she sorts through Tilly’s belongings in her deceased-sister’s room. The blue light shows the sadness in the scene and reveals the almost hopeless feeling Agnes has after realizing she never really knew her sister. Earlier, the film makes evident that Agnes didn’t really know Tilly, which helps the audience understand her pain and her desire to find out more about her sister. In arguably the best use of lighting in the play, the stage lights shut off and a blue light saber-type weapon flashes on in the hands of Agnes. Twisting the sword back and forth, Agnes duels with orange and green monsters that emit flaming balls in the ending fight scene. The entire scene looks like it was created in a children’s lazer tag fun zone and the bright colors excites the audience throughout the fight.

Fight scenes play out on what first appears to be an oddly symmetrical looking set, designed by Ann-Elise Noens. A raised set of blocks is not an odd choice, considering that the entire play revolves around a game. The block-tile floor makes the play feel like a game the entire time, even during scenes outside “Dungeons and Dragons,” which focuses the play on the game. Two giant different-shaped dice sit on top of each other like a totem pole in the background of the set, giving the feeling that the game “Dungeons and Dragons” is some sort of almighty deity to be respected. Other set pieces are moved in near the wings for situations happening in the real world of the play while the scenes in “Dungeons and Dragons” take center focus. The business where Chuck works, for example, is slid in on a smaller wooden set piece, allowing for quick transitions on and off stage.

Scenic designer Ann-Elise Noens put together an uncluttered yet practical set to help focus the audience on the game, “Dungeons and Dragons.” The entire floor and raised level of the set is marked off with tiles and remains mostly empty throughout the play, similar to a Monopoly board with game pieces. With a raised level toward the back of the set, Noens’ allowed the actors to stage dramatic fight scenes along the tiles of the board. Two giant columns of assorted dice sit on top of each other towards the back of the set, giving the game parts of the play a Roman Coliseum-esq feel. In the scenes set in Ohio in “She Kills Monsters,” Noens slips smaller set pieces in through the wings and on to the sides of the stage, while the scenes in “Dungeons and Dragons” take center stage. Mostly the set pieces are simple like in the scene when Tilly and Agnes happen upon Orcus, played by Kyle Patrick Delaney. Orcus’ “room” is essentially a couch, TV and bong, but these set pieces deliver the point that Orcus is fairly apathetic. Chuck’s room is a bit more detailed to reflect his dorkiness with stacks of books and a twisty lamp. But the set piece was small and slid in from the wings, which left the rest of the stage open to “Dungeons and Dragons” fight scenes that he helped orchestrate.

Sleeping with Hitler

The 12th annual Life and Literature Performance Series started on Sept. 17 with several one-act plays, including “Sleeping with Hitler.” The play is centered around three kids near a pond in present day southern Missouri who are motivated by love and a desire to fish.

Working within confines of the Corner Playhouse, “Sleeping with Hitler” operated a small set, designed by Jon Drtina, behind a nondescript blue background where almost every piece within the set was used. Three kids hung out in near an imagined pond, sitting on overturned fishing buckets in front of some brush and a giant tire. Inside the tire, Buster Wheatley, played by Jacob Estes, pulled out a baseball bat, which was used later in a dramatic fight scene with Randy, played by Aaron Scully. Fishing poles were pulled taut offstage and Buster’s was jerked when he landed a big fish, presumed to be Hitler. Even a cooler, which hadn’t caught the audience’s immediate attention, was instrumental in the climax of the play when Buster and Will Stone, played by Matt Ingram, helped drown Randy.

The costume choices, concocted by Mary Frances Hodson, reflected a high degree of verisimilitude to southern Missouri. Will, for example, donned a wrestling cutoff and camouflaged hat, which reflected his qualities as a strong protector and country boy. Sarah Clark, played by Jamie Berry, wore a heart necklace, revealing her loving and nurturing nature. After stripping off his first layer, Randy’s white tank top T-shirt obviously reflected his hostility and crudeness.

There wasn’t much in the way of lighting design, set up by David Schneider, in the play “Sleeping with Hitler.” The audience, which could be interpreted as representing the pond, was blacked out throughout the play, perhaps symbolizing the mysterious nature of the body of water. General stage lighting lit up the entire set, revealing a daytime setting. Perhaps the lack of lighting reflected the overall normalness of the world of the play as excessive lighting techniques might have distracted from the acting and plot.

Costume designer Mary Frances Hodson reflected a high degree of verisimilitude in her choice of garb. The costumes worn seemed like the costumes kids and adults would wear in southern Missouri, particularly Will Stone’s outfit, which was a cutoff wrestling T-shirt and a camouflaged hat, accurately portraying his protective, outdoor-loving nature. Randy’s sweaty tank top instantly gave off a threatening vibe, a judgment which later turned out to be an understatement. Some questions were raised towards Buster’s costume. Although the Kansas City Chiefs T-shirt would be accurate for the geographic setting, the choice of costume does not reflect anything about his genteel nature. Overall, though, the costumes chosen seemed very accurate for the setting and mostly revealed details about the characters themselves.

Avenue Q

The Columbia Entertainment Company performed its last showing of “Avenue Q” on Sept. 14. “Avenue Q” is a play centered around recent college graduate Princeton who lives in an outer-borough of New York City and attempts to find his purpose in life.

“Avenue Q” relies on a set that resembles a row of two-story houses, each with moveable windows and doors that characters use throughout the show to help create laughs. Set designer Arron Pauley put together a set where characters could pop in and out of windows and doors to sing like when Trekkie Monster, played by Mitch Thompson, sung his song about Internet pornography. Trekkie Monster delighted the audience as he popped his hairy body out of windows at specific beats during the song. The set was also versatile and a balcony on Avenue Q was re-used for a balcony on the Empire State Building. Despite being only a story up from the ground, Kate Monster, played by Michele Curry, tossed an imaginary coin from the Empire State Building, striking Lucy the Slut, played by Lena Ajans, and sending her to the hospital. The distance juxtaposition of suspending belief that Kate Monster was on top of the Empire State Building added humor to the scene.

Lighting was also used to highlight periods of intense emotion during the show. Lighting designer Molly Fiegel used beating red lights to show passion during a sex scene between Princeton, played by Derek Shoults, and Kate Monster. A rapidly firing strobe light was used to reveal Princeton’s pained thoughts about a potential marriage between him and Kate Monster. Outside traditional stage lighting, a moveable window revealed a projection with short video clips that helped move the story along. For example, the set would go dark and a clip about “commitment” helped reveal the thought processes of Princeton and Kate Monster.

Both puppets and actors wore costumes in “Avenue Q” to help give meaning to the characters and their surroundings. Costume designer Allyssa Huskey dressed Lucy the Slut puppet in very revealing clothing while the actor herself wore a short black dress to give the entire Lucy the Slut character a very burlesque feel. Brian, played by Nathan O’Neil, donned the “average white guy” look with white tennis shoes, white socks and a button-down plaid shirt. The puppets themselves went through costume changes throughout the show. Princeton and Kate Monster, for example, put on different clothes when they went out one night to watch Lucy the Slut perform, which added verisimilitude to the setting.

For the first play of its 36th season, the Columbia Entertainment Company performed “Avenue Q” at the Community Theater. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx set the music and lyrics in “Avenue Q” to Jeff Whitty’s book. Stephen Oremus created the orchestrations and arrangements. “Avenue Q” is a musical comedy set in an outer-borough of New York City in a not-so-well-off neighborhood. Despite some shaky vocals, a trip down “Avenue Q” was enjoyable at the Columbia Entertainment Company.


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