Letters from Astoria: The Orpheus Variations at HERE

The Undermain is delighted to announce a new  series for our blog, Letters from Astoria, written by our New York-based writer Meredith Domalakes.

One of the goals of our blog here at Undermain is to not only shine some light on the day-to-day happenings at the theatre, but also to open up some of our artistic thinking to bring our readers into closer engagement with our work.  Undermain is deeply embedded into the Dallas artistic community, but also draws inspiration from around the globe, not the least of which is the New York off-off-Broadway scene.  The Letters from Astoria series is designed to give you a glimpse of some of the New York City experimental theatre scene that we at Undermain are always engaged with and responding to.

Our first series of posts will focus on work presented at HERE.  “HERE supports multidisciplinary work that does not fit into a conventional programming agenda. Our aesthetic represents the independent, the innovative, and the experimental”.  Undermain friends such as Young Jean Lee and Taylor Mac have developed work at HERE, and through programs such as HARP (HERE Artist Residency Program) and SubletSeries@HERE, the Tribeca-based organization has garnered an acclaimed and well-deserved reputation for being at the forefront of innovative hybrid live performance.

Exterior of HERE Arts Center, Carl Skutsch

We’re hoping to foster some conversation about these performances, so we’ll be posting some of our own responses to some of these shows as well.  Feel free to join in. And without further ado, enjoy our first entry on a recent piece from The Deconstructive Theatre Project.

~Dylan Key, Artistic Associate

The Orpheus Variations

New Forms of Theatre Tell an Ancient Story

The Orpheus Variations is a great piece to open a blog that links the theatre scenes of Dallas and New York City. It’s a performance that struck me as connecting different worlds: technology with live theatre, the modern imagination with an ancient story, even the world of the living with the memories of the dead.

THE ORPHEUS VARIATIONS at HERE June 2013 Photo Credit: Mitch Dean http://www.deconstructivetheatreproject.org — with Sarah Isaacson, Robert Kitchens and Amanda Dieli at HERE Arts Center.

The Deconstructed Theatre Company weaves together film and theatre in their original work The Orpheus Variations.  Conceived and directed by Adam J. Thompson, the 50-minute multi-media show ran for five performances at HERE, a venue dedicated to hybrid performance art.  Based loosely on the ancient Greek myth of lost love, nine performers and musicians deconstruct the elements of the storytelling process on stage and reassemble them in film, something I have never seen done in theatre before.

Upon entering the theatre space to take my seat, I watch the performers prepare a dimly lit stage. A massive projector screen displays a ticking metronome. The performers, some in black, some in costumes suggestive of the 1930s, chat softly with each other as they set up several “stations”. An antique armchair, a dollhouse, a kitchen table, a large worktable piled with a hodgepodge of items, a rack of costumes and a model train set are placed around the stage. Three performers take their places at a large, stage right table on which are set scripts and microphones. The small orchestra tunes their instruments. A costumed actor sprays water on a piece of Plexiglas then seats himself in a chair while holding the sheet of plastic. Several performers produce hand held cameras and one begins to film the seated actor.

In an instant, each of these seemingly random elements forms a cohesive story. The camera’s image fills the upstage projector screen. The actor becomes Orpheus, leaning his head on a rain-streaked train window. Actors use items from the assortment on the worktable – now revealed to be a sound effects table – to mimic rain pattering against the window and the train hurrying along its tracks. The orchestra sets the tone with a haunting, original score.

Through a series of filmed scenes and voice over monologues, provided by actors reading from the script table, we learn that Orpheus is returning to the home he shared with his beloved wife Eurydice, who has disappeared. He finds the house full of memories. We watch as Orpheus relives his past: the moment he met Eurydice, an afternoon spent cloud gazing and finally, the day Eurydice walks into the sea. His memories are created on-stage in multiple parts then coalesce on screen to form one experience.

The performers’ carefully choreographed movements create a mesmerizing dance as they move seamlessly from one station to the next. While one group of performers film a scene at the armchair, another group quietly prepares for the next shot around the kitchen table.  They use simple yet clever techniques to create a backyard on a sunny day, a neglected living room, even filming underwater on a sandy shore, all in full view of the audience.

I feel a little guilty revealing their tricks, a tribute to the show’s atmosphere of mystery, but their methods are too clever to keep to myself. Take the underwater shot for instance. A large clear plastic container is placed downstage and filled with sand and water. Eurydice simply steps into the container and walks in place, while the cameraman films through the side of the container. After adding sounds of waves crashing, the result on screen is a completely believable shot of a woman knee deep in the surf.  Eurydices’ feet suddenly appear out of the murky water, her white dress swirling around her ankles, as she wades deeper and deeper into the sea.

There are many events happening simultaneously, which allowed me to choose what piece of the story to watch: the readers giving voice to Orpheus and Eurydice’s poetic stream of consciousness, a performer creating sound effects using everyday items, and actors physically bringing a scene to life. Sometimes I followed the journey of a particular performer throughout the show, as he changed from an actor to a cameraman to a reader and back again.

The Orpheus Variations allowed me to be privy to the creation of each element of the story-telling process, each a fascinating performance in its own right.

~Meredith Domalakes

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Hi Meredith,

I’m so happy to hear about your night at HERE. I haven’t seen anything that sounds quite like what The Deconstructive Theatre Project did with The Orpheus Variations. Of course, I had to go and look up the company, and was intrigued by their variety of work. In their six years, the Project  has done retellings of Greek mythology (they also did a production of Antigone), as well as shows on Brecht, Oscar Wilde and Vaudeville. Based on the facebook photos from Antigone in which performers dangled from aerial silks,  their productions can be highly physical, but The Orpheus Variations stands out in its strong integration of technology on stage.

I’m really intrigued by new uses of technology onstage, a pretty hot topic these days as we discover the full capabilities of the devices that have become ubiquitous in our lives. We’re changing the way we look at everything from reporting to relationships, so it’s no surprise that theater is adapting as well. At the TCG conference, I heard about an international Skype play produced by Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco and was just reading about Platonov, a “live cinema adaptation of Chekhov’s first full-length play” that will première at La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival this fall.

The more I look into high tech productions,  the nostalgic part of me starts to freak out a little bit. That part of me worries that maybe the lines between film and theater are getting too blurred, that live performance will become engulfed in cinema, that people will lose interest in watching real people to do real things right in front of them.

But then I take a step back and get excited again.

Since movies were invented, they’ve been doing things that live theater can’t. A film can tell all the same stories you see in a traditional theater—and they can tell impossibly huge-scale, epic stories with a realism that could never exist in a theater. Sure, any theater lover could go on and on about the distinct value of live performance—myself included. I believe the emotional experience of being in the same room as living, breathing performers is reason enough to cherish live theater. But it doesn’t have to be the only reason. Because contemporary experimentation with form—whether it involves creating site-specific, immersive pieces or finding creative ways to integrate technology into a performance—allows artists to tell a story that could never be captured on film alone. While movies can never be live, theater can chose to be both live and cinematic.

From your description of The Orpheus Variations, that sounds like something The Deconstructed Theatre Project accomplished with this production. It almost sounds like watching a live “making of” documentary while simultaneously seeing the corresponding film, experiencing two narratives (maybe complementary, maybe conflicting) of the same core story. Or perhaps more accurately, it sounds like looking at photographs from your past and comparing them to memories you have created independently of documentation.

On their website, The Deconstructed Theatre Project quotes the philosopher Jacques Derrida, saying “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of…structure…, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently-solid ground is no rock, but thin air.” It’s fascinating to imagine people not merely deconstructing a pre-existing story, but also using new methods of performance to tell a story with such visibly delicate seams.

~Colleen Ahern

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