I’m not in the habit of compiling “10 best” lists each year – it’s not in my DNA to have “favorites” of anything (makes choosing online security questions a challenge!). But if I were to be compiling such a list for 2018, right now the marvelous production of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans (an Actors’ Equity Association Members Project, playing at a new venue, Aftershock Theater) would be at the very top of my list.
Ingrid Sonnichsen directs this play, with assistance from actor (and former head of acting at the New School for Drama) Cotter Smith, who trained the stellar ensemble in Stanislavski’s “Active Analysis,” a technique relatively new to the United States, and from fight director Randy Kovitz. Their teamwork has paid off in a production that is dynamic, mesmerizing, and moving.
The play centers, as its title suggests, on a set of orphans. Max Pavel plays older brother Treat, a street thief who has a hair-trigger temper and little compunction about using violence to enforce his will, including against his younger brother, Phillip, played by Dylan Marquis Meyers. Phillip seems, at first, to be a simpleton – he spends his days watching TV or shut in a dark closet, and his speech is peppered with slogans from commercials and brand names. Unable to perform the simplest of life tasks – he can’t read or tie his own shoes, and doesn’t go outside for fear of allergy attacks – Phillip is wholly dependent on his older brother for support and protection. Treat keeps them afloat by mugging people for their wallets and jewelry. When, at a bar one evening, he meets Harold (Ken Bolden), a particularly promising mark, Treat decides to bring him back to their house and hold him for ransom. But in Harold – an orphan himself – Treat and Phillip get much more than they bargained for.
I’m not going to go much further into the plot of the play, because I don’t want to spoil its unexpected turns. In any case, while the play is very good, what makes this production worth seeing is the electrifying work of the three actors. Pavel plays Treat as a tightly coiled spring, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation, and while in the play’s beginning he seems tough and invulnerable, as it evolves we come to see that his lashing out is that of a wounded and cornered animal. Ken Bolden makes precise and compelling choices in his depiction of the mysterious Harold, whose back story and motivations are only hinted at in the course of the play. This is the kind of character writing that could feel infuriating (I’m often suspicious of writers who create enigmatic characters for the sake of building suspense), but in Bolden’s hands Harold becomes a character whose unusual mixture of dark secrets, magnanimous generosity, and effete aestheticism combine into a believable whole. As Phillip, Meyers gives a performance that is downright thrilling. He physicalizes Phillip’s stunted development with shoulders hunched and slanted and arms akimbo, bouncing off the walls, furniture, and stairs of the house like a caged primate, and his vocal work brings the history of his character into relief as well: his cadence and accent take their cues from the old black-and-white gangster and mobster movies Phillip watches incessantly on TV (one of which plays in the background of a late scene in the play, to underscore the point (sound design by Shannon Knapp)). Meyers’ emotional reserves are deep, and he brings poignancy and depth to Phillip’s awakening to the wider world and his eventual crushing realization that his brother has essentially imprisoned him in ignorance.
The production is housed in a new venue, a former Slovenian social hall in Lawrenceville that is currently being renovated by Aftershock Theater as an arts/culture space. Set designer Hank Bullington has taken advantage of the fact that the building itself is still under renovation and used the features of the space – which include a stairway on the upstage wall to the upper level of the building, visible through open framing – to form the architecture of the Philadelphia house in which the two brothers live. Crumbling wallpapered plaster and exposed lathe – which are so well integrated into the space that they appear to be part of the ongoing renovation! – give the impression of a home that has deteriorated over time; Bullington has filled that home with a scattering of old furniture that might once have had value or been purchased by a parent with taste. Lighting designer Paige Borak creates a surprising range of moods and looks, given the severe constraints imposed by the lack of infrastructure in the space. The costume design, by Rikkilee Rose, is subtle and sophisticated, with good attention to the kinds of small details that help sell a scene – for example, between the first and second act, not only the quality but also the fit of Treat’s clothing gets finer, signaling his change in self-awareness as well as his change in status.
I’d like to write more about this wonderful production, but I have to hit the road for Philadelphia, where I’m going to see Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, so I’m posting in a bit of a rush this morning. Orphans plays through June 23 – put it on your list.