DISCLAIMER: I am on the Advisory Board for Cohesion Theater Company. My task for this is merely in planning and decision making. Oh, and I read a fuck ton of books and plays and then try to get other people to read the ones that are good. I was not a part of the rehearsal process at all and had no idea what I was walking into with either play. But, hey, I thought you should know.
Ambition? Check. Artistic Over-achievers? Check. Trying something new and taking on two, two-hour plays in rep? Check. Damn, Cohesion, we see you. This season is the most daunting yet, with more shows then they’ve done in the past, and a rather ambitious undertaking of doing two rather chunky plays in rep. When shoes are in repertoire, they often have reciprocal themes, and these are loosely connected, forcing the audience to ask themselves what threads tie them together.
In Orphan Sea, a modern deconstructed version of Homer’s Odyssey, there are three “choruses.” The Penelope Chorus, the Odysseus Chorus, and the City Chorus. Each chorus consists of three people who tell the tale through poetry as opposed to straight prose. Their tales in the first half are of Penelope waiting for Odysseus’ return- but instead of suitors there are grumpy neighbors. When he arrives home, each member of the trio pairs off and explicates a different type of relationship after a ten-year absence.
In the beginning of the story, the trios are cohesive in their attire. Each chorus has a distinct look and element that bind them and separate them from the other six characters. For the Penelope chorus, red with black scarves and tulle are their defining feature. For the Odysseus chorus, military with fishing nets and small lanterns are in order. And for the City Chorus, a modern attire is in order but with light up scarves. The costumes are attributed to Elizabeth Ung and I appreciate the details in particularly the Penelope costumes to make each different but the same. I kept, throughout the evening though, getting more and more slips of costume from several characters. The Odysseus Chorus in particular has two female members who needed a bit more coverage and support. I don’t think it was intentional as I watched one member put herself back together in between scenes.
Let’s talk for a moment about the set and lighting. The lighting design by Helen Garcia-Alton is absolutely gorgeous. The blues and the painted windows up above with underwater looking slant of light is fabulous beyond measure. The tone, the mood, the feeling of being above and below the water all at once, remarkable, fantastical, divine. The set is still the same space for La Llorona (set design by Jess Raspp and scenic artist Allison Bloechl), with the gates of heaven to your left, but it feels new with the additional playing space of the stage and upper deck with ladders. The lighting again makes it feel like a different place all together and this other-worldly identity really substantiates the play.
The acting is hard to discuss because no one has a name. Each trio is comprised to represent different facets of a single character. Everyone is so in sync and unison though that it is hard sometimes to differentiate the trio from one another even though they look completely different. The most compelling to me was the pairs in Act Two. Laura Malkus as Penelope chorus and Christian Gonzalez as Odysseus chorus has amazing chemistry. At a few points it got quite steamy and I had to avert my glance to catch my breath. Their relationship is rooted in the long lost lover ideal. They are so together when he returns, they almost cannot part. But that space can also be stifling as seen when she begins dancing with the City Chorus and he melts into himself and breaks the merriment with a line that sent shivers down my back, “sometimes they contemplate suicide.”
Jonathon Jacobs as Penelope chorus and Chara Bauer as Odysseus had the task of telling the tale with a swapped gender identity. They depicted the more divisive side of a distance relationship, when back together they never fully mesh the way they did before. They beautifully float in and out of an awkward space leaving breathing room and pregnant pauses for furtive glances. And last but not least is Natanya Washer as Penelope chorus and Mani Yangilmau as Odysseus chorus. Natanya’s character is so flighty, artistic, head in the clouds and her counterpart, Mani is so deeply entrenched in the grounded war, especially with a physical ailment. They seem distantly connected, like two opposite souls who have coincided and fit together but with a few rough edges.
The city chorus is made up of Emily Sucher, Mia Ybarra, and Mika Nakano. Their modern metaphors, glib reactions, and unison clapping and stomping plant them squarely in the chorus of chorus- a modern and old group of townspeople watching the action unfold. Their most comical moment might have been the hapless retelling of the Odyssey with hecklers interrupting their every movement and announcement.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go see this achingly, hauntingly beautiful tale that has a base in Homer’s Odyssey but transcends into so much more. As a piece of art it is almost too gorgeous to look at, as a play it is almost too lofty to take in at one sitting. I think you need to see La Llorona as well, and my sage advice is to see La Llorona first, and Orphan Sea second. They build into a heart-wrenching crescendo that will leave you in the clouds for days. As far as beauty and art go, this is the pinnacle. (I)
Running in rep with La Llorona at Cohesion Theatre Company through April 15th. Check the website before going for start time (some are 8, some are 8:30) and dates for specific performances.