‘Orphans’ was disconcerting.
For a quiet Sunday in Brisbane, it was pleasing to see the Arts Theatre almost full for the opening night of Lyle Kessler’s 1983 classic, ‘Orphans’ – an absurd tragedy, often bitingly funny covered with a sandpapered veneer of realism.
Admittedly, ‘Orphans’ was an experience that left several audience members sitting quietly in the theatre after the house lights had come up; breathing deeply and trying to absorb what they had just witnessed. Not because it was in any way unfamiliar, but perhaps because it felt as if we had seen it before – peeking behind a neighbour’s curtain, or over our own backyard fence. Yet somehow this comfortable, familiar environment was skewed and wrong. Like seeing your own face walking the streets, not safely in a mirror as it should be.
While director Aaron Evans had his work cut out for him, taking on such a difficult production, he held a tight rein on the style of the show. The blocking felt natural and fluid for the most part, stepping sideways into moments of curious over-staged absurdism that jarred and pulled the audience back into their seats.
Evans’ production of ‘Orphans’ was a darkly funny, brooding portrayal of loneliness, brotherly love, terror, and healing. Often a slow boiling and uncomfortable watch, the production still paid rich dividends to its audience as the milieu unfolded. Evans guided his cast through the harrowing story of orphaned brothers; one trying to hold their worlds together by imposing his “discipline” on the household, desperately burying his fear and goodness behind a painfully needed aggression; the other trapped, forbidden to learn to read or write, watching old reruns on tv, force-fed the lie that if he left the house he will choke and die; and the strangely kind gangster who is dragged unceremoniously into their lives for better and for worse.
The set design by Matthew Vo played into this idea of familiarity, a small suburban house drenched in a forlorn buttercup yellow, and yet devoid of any actual detail. It was strikingly illustrative of the lives the characters lived out. A particularly nice point was the beaten old television in the corner. Discarded, it played black and white reruns and was defeatingly antiquated. It felt like a character all on its own. The television also allowed lighting designer Daniel Benefield to explore the space creatively. When he pulled the lighting out of the scene to front light the ancient TV it highlighted escapism as a major theme of the play.
Costuming by Chantelle Norton was equally well done. Actors wore clothes that could have been seen in any home, from the 1920s to now. This gave a timeless energy to the space, again highlighting a familial energy with a brooding sense of unease.
As the sickly shut-in Phillip, Stef Gimanez was towering in his portrayal. Everything from his cowering stance to his constant uncertain whine was masterful. Gimanez carefully brokered the line between man-child and man with his own emerging agency. Somehow, he felt so much a part of the house, that the scenes where he was absent felt empty and wrong. A neat trick, as the audience spends so much time rooting for Phillip to escape the clutches of his brother, Treat.
Matthew Hamlin as Treat brought a raw, youthful, and furious energy that exploded dangerously every time he entered. While his accent work was not necessarily as polished or consistent as that of the rest of the cast, he still maintained the Chicago drawl admirably, and his stage presence more than made up for this. His final moments, as he lowered his walls and desperately sought some human connection were heartwrenching to witness.
With a charm and charisma and a barely contained rage, Jon Darbro’s Harold was part revivalist healer, part conman and part fun uncle. He commanded the stage and every time he moved he drew the eye of the audience. In his simply cut grey suit and quiet authority, he believably turned from mentor to disapproving and dangerous mobster. Embodying the adage that a lion never needs to say he is a lion, and thus standing apart from Hamlin’s Treat.
‘Orphans’ was a gritty, confronting mishmash of realism and absurdism with a dash of Shakespearean tragedy thrown in for good measure. The performance was confronting and off-kilter with pin drop silence at the final curtain. It was a night at the theatre that did not answer or ask questions. Rather, it was a voyeuristic glimpse into a tragic, simple, and breathlessly tense series of relationships. This was definitely the type of theatre we should be seeing more of in Brisbane.
‘Orphans’ is on stage at the Brisbane Arts Theatre until Sunday, 5 May 2019 as part of their Early Week program. Tickets are available at https://www.artstheatre.com.au.