There was a point in The Orpheus Variations’s short 45-minute progress where I thought to myself, I should really just drop everything and join an experimental theater company. It’s so exciting to see a production whose mission is so purposeful and whose work is not only unique, but also innovatively reflective on the future of the performing arts.
Orpheus is not so much a story as a conglomeration of reflections on love, relationships, loss, and memory. While the title does invoke the Greek myth of Orpheus, the famed musician who travels to the Underworld after his wife Eurydice dies on the day of their wedding, the myth’s presence in the play is at most symbolic. The script, which is more like a two-person lyrical ballad/ narrative voiceover, is recited stage left by ensemble members while ‘Orpheus’ and ‘Eurydice’ act out their fragmented roles without speech.
While this is happening, two other ensemble members each film the actors with hand-held video recorders. This live video feed is controlled by a feed technician and is projected onto a screen behind the actors so that the audience watches the film as it being produced. What is most striking about the simultaneous live performance/video capture is the sharp dissonances between the two. The first dissonance is that fact that inherent in the two different mediums is the concept of time. In film, we take for granted that what is being filmed HAS been filmed. The performances in the film are in the past and have been reproduced so that we can watch them at our convenience. Film’s time is also cognitively different for the film’s cast and crew. They may do scenes out of order; they may have repetitive takes that can them be edited on or edited out; they may take as much time needed to set up a costume or a location. The sequence and length of scenes in a film has no relationship to the actual time taken to produce. (I just watched an interview with Gene Wilder– my new old Hollywood crush– where he states that he felt much more liberated on a film set than on a stage precisely because he could be free to experiment in each take with the knowledge that it could be re-done, edited out, or re-scripted). Stage work, on the other hand, produces a real-time representation of the work needed to create a story. We know that in a two-hour play, the cast and crew will be working for those two hours in sequence, even if the plot’s events constitute more than a two-hour span. What you see is what you get.
In Orpheus, what you see is what you get… and then some. The Deconstructive Theatre Project, the aforementioned theater troupe I’d impulsively join, makes deconstruction about WAY more than the transparency of process (in the Brechtian vein of breaking the fourth wall, making sets and costumes look fabricated and unrealistic, etc.). Here, we actually see the lie that the process produces– the film projected behind us. This is another dissonance of the process. We see the actors using makeshift tools (a piece of wallpaper, a miniature house, a train set, a spray can, a branch, a clear container of sand, etc.) to produce a very pretty realistic film. Even though we see that ‘Eurydice’ only has her feet in a fishtank, the film shows her clearly drowning. Even though we see the hands of an Orpheus double preparing tea while the real Orpheus prepares for his next scene, the film makes the transition seamless.
The ensemble’s energetic, yet quite mechanical, live production of a film is all for the sake of process mirroring content. Here’s where things get a bit trippy. Artistic Director Adam Thompson explained in the company talk back how his interest in the neuroscience of memory was integrated into the structure of the play. For one thing, the part of the brain that recalls memories is the same part of the brain used in our imaginative thinking. As has been shown time and again in psychological studies, memories are incredibly fickle things, easily-influenced by our emotional states, our biases, our environments, our imaginations, etc. Memory is likewise a construction of different sensory intake, all located in different parts of the brain.
For the DTP, the film projection is Orpheus’s constructed memory. Meanwhile, the audience is privy to the simultaneous construction of the memory through the actors live performance. We can see exactly how the symbolic memory effectively misrepresents the actual process. It lies to us. The company’s busy efforts to set up the scenes for these memories mimic the way that we, both biologically and emotionally, busily struggle to reproduce (and also reconstruct) our memories.
Awesome stuff, huh?
Now, getting back to the lovers, I definitely think that the play can continue to develop its themes through the couple’s relationship as the company intends to extend it. While the relationship between lying and memory is extraordinarily effective in the process of the play, do we have any reason to doubt Orpheus’s recollections? Might the content and form become even more unified had there been planted in the audience’s mind certain seeds of doubt as to how reliable our narrators’ accounts are? It doesn’t need to be overt– the script’s nuanced, poetic language is a perfect accompaniment to the business of the stage. It makes a completed piece that resonates both on an emotional and intellectual level. I’m very interested to see how DTP continues to work in its multimedia approach and where they decide to take both Orpheus and their mission.
The Orpheus Variations is being presented this weekend only (through June 30) at the HERE Arts Center by the Deconstructive Theatre Project.