Friday, March 26, 2004

Feeding the hungry: Theatergoers find tough love

Published in the Portland Phoenix

"Orphans are always hungry," says grown-up orphan Harold (Mike Genovese) in Orphans, at the Public Theatre in Lewiston. They’re not just starving for food — though on a diet consisting solely of tuna fish they can’t be well-nourished — but also for love, guidance, help, and attention.

Philip (Righteous Jolly — can that be his real name?) and Treat (Evan Mueller) are grown orphan brothers who have managed to evade capture by social-services agents and somehow still appear to pay rent on a two-story apartment in north Philadelphia.

They have a Lost Boys-type life, playing and cavorting in their pleasantly disarranged home. Mueller is excellent as the subtly menacing Treat, providing for and caring for his brother and yet keeping him subservient, illiterate, and afraid to go outdoors.

Jolly is, well, jolly in his innocent portrayal of Philip, a mentally underdeveloped boy who learns to dream by watching TV. He is manically silly and has a great time with little-kid toys and big-boy strength, racing and crashing around the living room, handling dinosaurs that attack rubber balls and then slam-dunking them into a wastebasket atop a cabinet. Jolly also renders well Philip’s meeker side, complete with fake bravado, and needy I-want-you-to-love-me tenderness.

One night after a bender, Treat brings home an older businessman, Harold, who has apparently come willingly, though his briefcase carries his worldly treasures. Genovese is a great drunk, blustering around the place alternately comforting Philip with a tough-love approach the boy thrives on and calling Treat’s bluffs with a disciplinarian attitude.

Playwright Lyle Kessler’s characters are fascinatingly complex, combining elements of various archetypes into very realistic people on stage. There are elements of the Lord of the Flies, as well as Bloom County, The Wizard of Oz, and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Philip is a curious-but-scared boy whose personality is best suited by the color pale yellow, he and Harold decide. He needs protection from someone, and his courage is only borrowed.

Treat mirrors what he sees, whether it’s passive aggression, outright opposition, or affection. He has an attitude, which barely contains his rage against a world he can’t control. New ideas are dangerous, and Harold can impose order on nearly any amount of chaos, it appears, whether it’s a kitchen full of food, a bus, or an apartment inhabited by kids who have never really had a parent.

Harold is more, though. He’s on the run from unnamed "enemies" from Chicago, and has drunkenly stumbled — literally — onto an easy safe house in Philadelphia. He pays the boys "salaries" to "work for" him, and runs a tight ship.

His main difference from the other adults the boys have dealt with is that Harold’s raised hand signals loving encouragement, not a threat.

It is an engaging play, working the audience’s brain as much as its heart, and never offering a simple solution, except perhaps that love and luck play together to make life interesting and exciting.

Director Christopher Schario has found the moments in this play that keep it moving, and has worked them all very well, empowering Philip with a passionate speech declaring his independence just moments after a riotous lesson in social norms and how to deal with people who take up too much room on the bus.

The experience is fraught with questions, and more arise after the show ends. They’re not just plot-level musings about the characters’ uncertain futures. Instead, the larger questions loom. What happens to orphans in our society, which is short of foster homes? Who cares for the kids who manage to escape the system? And how do people without parents handle losing the only parental figures they know?

Orphans
Written by Lyle Kessler. Directed by Christopher Schario. With Mike Genovese, Evan Mueller, and Righteous Jolly. At the Public Theatre, through March 28. Call (207) 782-3200.

Backstage

• Meetings, Part 1: Artists’ Collaborative Theatre Of New England (ACT ONE) will host an informal gathering in the meeting room at the Lane Library in Hampton, NH, on Wednesday, March 31, from 7 to 8 p.m. The theater’s organizers want to know what the wider community wants from its theater elements. They’re also taking email suggestions at rlnuge@aol.com

• Meetings, Part 2: Mike Levine is the "point man" for a group forming to develop a shared rehearsal/office/small performance space for individual artists and small performing groups. Levine is inviting interested people to join him at 10 Mayo Street, Portland (A Company of Girls’ space), on Wednesday, March 31, from 6 to 8 p.m. He’s also taking email inquiries at info@acorn-productions.org

• If you want to know what the next generation of theater folks are up to, check out what USM’s Student Performing Artists company can do with under $1000 and Neil LaBute’s script The Shape of Things. They’re putting it on at the Russell Hall Lab Theater on the Gorham campus from April 1 through April 6. Call (207) 780-5151 for times and tickets.

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