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Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Orpheus Variations’

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In recent years I’ve seen quite a few shows, large and small, that incorporate onstage video feeds. Small digital videocameras stationed onstage or held by cast members project images of bits of live action onto large screens for a variety of enhancing effects – concentrative, parallel, interior/mental. But with the Deconstructive Theatre Project’s fascinating The Orpheus Variations theater has traveled as far as it perhaps ever can from the pre-electricity tradition of big costumes, exaggerated movement, and voice projection. The visual element of this show is told entirely through onstage video feed action.

Robert Kitchens & Amanda Dieli in 'The Orpheus Variations' - Photo by Mitch Dean

Robert Kitchens & Amanda Dieli in ‘The Orpheus Variations’ – Photo by Mitch Dean

The characters never speak, communicating with only their faces and bodies, their words and thoughts voiced by other members of the ensemble stationed off to the side. Other members of the ensemble scurry about the stage preparing a series of mini-sets on tabletops or the floor for the actors (usually, just their hands or feet or faces) to play against.

That’s all very interesting, but what about the content? As suggested by the title, The Orpheus Variations is a riff on the myth of Orpheus and Euridyce, this one exploring a high-concept version of their love and relationship rather than focusing on his attempt to retrieve her from Hades after her death, suggested only at the end. Orpheus’s artistic nature finds its muse and its parallel in this Euridyce.

“Everything about her was musical,” he says, marking down his collected sounds in a notebook as the live musicians play Ryan Homsey’s new-agey score. Director and company founder Adam J. Thompson’s script struck me at the start as a mite pretentious, but its poetry blossoms rapidly as we learn how to watch the show (because that takes a few minutes) and become absorbed in the story and the unconventional method.

'The Orpheus Variations' - Photo by Mitch Dean

‘The Orpheus Variations’ – Photo by Mitch Dean

Though there’s no singing, music suffuses everything. A telling moment occurred during a post-show talkback session when an ensemble member made a Freudian slip and referred to the lines in the script as “the lyrics.”

The talkback session also made it thoroughly clear what a large team is behind this brief show, a remarkable piece of theater at its most modern yet alive with ancient myth and the equally ancient yen to create an absorbing and memorable live-action theatrical experience, even if here the action we watch plays out mostly on a big screen. I say “mostly” because there’s no suggestion of the “magic” of theater here. The ensemble darts about creating the sets and scenes in full (if darkened) view at all times, holding cameras, shining lamps, positioning backdrops, reading the text, and playing musical instruments both conventional and not. In a way, it’s of a piece with those puppet shows like Avenue Q where the puppet operators are in full view. That curtain Toto pulled down exposing the Wizard of Oz as the charlatan he really was has never really gone back up, and this Orpheus takes full advantage of the view.

Thompson spoke of a desire to build on some of the scenes and expand the show, and it could well use another 20 minutes or so. But it is already a beautiful piece of art – a little one, but a big one at the same time. The Orpheus Variations is in a very brief run through June 30 at HERE.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.