The production of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans that opened on May 31 at Aftershock Theatre in Lawrenceville is clearly a labor of love for its cast and crew. The production, put on without an established theater company, was born from cast member Max Pavel’s desire to perform this play with this cast after auditioning for it in California. Funded by an Indiegogo campaign, and organized under an agreement allowing Equity members to participate in the show, Orphans tells the story of two brothers, the titular orphans, surviving in poverty in 1980s.
At its core, Orphans is a story about relationships. Director Ingrid Sonnichsen says that “Originally the play was about boys and fathers, but … for me, it was about the ability to accept and give love – and that was independent of gender or relationship.” The first half of the show grounds the audience in the relationship between the brothers – Treat, the tough and aggressive older brother who brings in the family’s income through mugging and pickpocketing, and Phillip, the isolated, possibly mentally handicapped younger. The second half examines how that bond changes when an outside factor is introduced. Victim-turned-mentor Harold offers something that each of the boys needs, but not always in a way they can accept.
The passion the cast brings shows in their performances. Pavel and Dylan Marquis Meyers, as Treat and Phillip, and Ken Bolden (who taught both of them in the acting program at the University of Pittsburgh) as Harold all bring an infectious energy to their roles. The direction from Sonnichsen and rehearsal support from active analysis coach Cotter Smith help each express this energy in a different way.
Active analysis is a rehearsal technique developed by Stanislavski in which actors focus on physical movement to understand the action and intentions in a scene before getting deep into the actual text of the play. You can read a deep dive on the process and its role in this production in Helen Meade’s pieces Part 1 and Part 2. Each character does, in fact, have a recognizable style of movement. One of the first things that strikes you in the play is Meyers’ physicality, leaping onto and over furniture, often crouched and ready to move. It’s no surprise that his shirt is dark with sweat by the time the intermission hits. (Also it is very hot in the theater. So that’s also a factor.) The reason for his tension becomes obvious when Pavel enters the scene as Treat, full of barely – or sometimes not at all – contained emotion. Usually anger. Bolden’s Harold is less overtly active, but projects confidence and a con-man charisma, seeming in control of the situation even when he’s tied to a chair.
All of the action of the play takes place in one room in Treat and Phillip’s dilapidated home. As a venue, Aftershock was perfect for this. The space itself is a work in progress, under renovation to convert from the old Slovenian social hall to a new art and performance space for the community. The set blends seamlessly into the rest of the theater and the rough, under-construction atmosphere helps immerse the audience in the scene. It is, like I said, really hot. Definitely keep that in mind when dressing for the show. One neat thing – the staircase at the back of the set is an actual staircase. I think it leads to the upstairs performance area currently hosting folkLAB’s Ironweed Tales. So when a character runs upstairs and knocks things over, you can actually hear it above you rather than just someone making thud sounds backstage. Also, the bar in the theater’s lobby had specialty cocktails named after things in the show, like the “Dead End Kid*.” I like that. Aftershock looks like it’s going to be a great addition to the Pittsburgh theater scene as it develops.
Orphans is a dark comedy – sometimes very dark. There are some very funny moments, but also plenty of intensity and real conflict. You won’t leave the show feeling uplifted necessarily, but if you’re looking for a well-written and acted production, you won’t go wrong here. I might even go again.
Orphans runs through June 23 at Aftershock Theatre. For tickets and information click here.
*Frequently referenced in the play, the Dead End Kids were a group of child stars from the late 1930s. You figure it out eventually from context, but at first, it seems like an oddly specific phrase to repeat. So now you’re going in forearmed with this knowledge.
Categories: Archived Reviews