On stage: ‘The Orchids’ stages rebellion at The Shea

For The Recorder
Thursday, September 22, 2016

When The Shea Theater Arts Center submitted its proposal to assume management of the Shea in 2014, it said it would open the theater to smaller companies doing less traditional work. In booking the Connecticut River Valley Poets Theater (CRVPT) to perform Ish Klein’s darkly hilarious new play “The Orchids,” they have made good on their promise.

I hope you’ll read on, but I don’t want you to read further without hearing my main point: Do not miss this play. It’s at the Shea for only one night — Friday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 — and it offers an incredibly rich intellectual and aesthetic experience that reminded me of the performances I used to see at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in New York.

For me, Klein’s play is more satisfying than any of those performances, however, which always seemed to equate “experimental” with “confounding” and “shocking.” “The Orchids,” although it deals creatively with heavy themes and uncomfortable realities, has a sense of realizable purpose with personal and cultural relevance. I would guess that if members of the audience leave the Shea that night feeling a little shaken, they will also feel oddly emboldened and buoyant.

The play depicts the age-old problem of the abuse of the weak by the powerful and the ways the human heart as site of that struggle becomes an entangled “Gordian knot,” too dense to allow those feelings that might be our natural birthright — ease, trust, joy and self-love. The landscape of this play is largely psychological.

In the opening scene, Iris (Stella Corso) wakes up confused and frightened, informed by the “System Voice” (Ish Klein) that she now works in a “Sextaurant.” When she asks for clarification on what she’s supposed to do there, the System Voice informs her, “Be like the peach awaiting the knife with fear and delight. And do it while serving food.”

Iris’ real job, however, is to try to figure out how to dismantle the control others have over her, thwarted by the Man/Doctor (John Sieracki) and the Waitress/Nurse (Sarah Beth Aspen McAlpine) and helped by Leif (David Feinstein). Corso brings to the role of Iris a delicate, “Girl-from-Ipanema” quality that makes the audience register her vulnerability on a visceral level. It can be painful to sit by and watch spring’s pretty blossoms trampled.

All the actors do an amazing job in this play, although being foremost writers and poets, they tend to downplay their acting somewhat. David Feinstein’s acting experience comes from being a preschool teacher, for example, storytelling and directing his students in shows for their parents. As Leif, he has an earnest, raw resistance to authority that reminds me of one of those schoolboys. “I can say what I want inside my mind,” he yells at the Doctor at one point. Leif’s diagnosis is Oppositional-Defiance Disorder, but his spirited rebellion against the inane authority of the Doctor and Nurse begs the question, why is there no Overzealous Authority Disorder on the DSM-IV books? Surely more of the world’s problems stem from this, no?

Symptomatic of this disorder, if it existed, would be believing you are entitled to things that very obviously belong to other people and not to you. The Man/Doctor suffers from this delusion in a hilarious way, and thank goodness the play also allows us to see the absurd presumption of attitudes of dominance. Imagine a world in which it makes complete sense to say, as Leif does, “Believe it or not, that ball in the mouth of your inflatable dummy is my testicle. Do you think I can have it back?”

Actors as writers, writers as actors

I’ve probably quoted enough from “The Orchids” to make plain Klein’s dexterous and considerable talent as a playwright. All the company members I spoke to mentioned that what makes CRVPT different is that they are all writers. Sieracki explained the “poets” to “theater” ratio this way:

“The words of the script take precedence over everything else — props, effects, other theatrical aspects, etc. I think we all derive a great deal of pleasure and mind expansion from close reading. Every rehearsal is a kind of group reading. It’s really all about helping my writer friends realize their visions.”

Aspen McAlpine remarked on this, as well. “We have a lot of fun, and because we’re acting, we’re free to be really silly and try weird things. I think every CRVPT member has a strong weird streak, and we get to let it all out together. It’s a very caring and accepting community.”

Creating and experimenting within a “compassionate and supportive and talented” group, as Klein described it, renders wonderful results. Because they are all committed to one another as friends, colleagues and writers, everyone pitches in what they can — making props and costumes, promoting, organizing, acting and directing — to realize the full potential of every script produced by members of CRVPT. Sieracki reasonably observes, “This kind of cooperative model should be used more for other purposes.”

Klein says that the entertainment value of her work is crucial, and that theater “brings people together and afterwards gives them something to talk about.”

She described a puppet theater she saw in the “Art of Oceania” section of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, an animal something like a frog with teeth. According to the culture that crafted this puppet theater, she explained, “If the play was about something people were talking about, then the stage was in the mouth. If the play was about something that people couldn’t talk about, then the play was in the stomach.”

Her “super smart, funny, weird and important” plays, as Corso describes them, would be performed in the stomach of those puppet theaters, representing themes and experiences that are difficult to discuss, that create an “uneasy feeling in the guts.” Klein explained how useful writing is to her in making sense of those feelings. They are likely feelings that many of us have, and plays such as “The Orchids” provides a context for us to pause in our individual wrangling with them and share the experience collectively.

In “The Orchids,” the System Voice seems at first to be an instrument of power, a handy tool for The Man/Doctor in his agenda of oppression. Over time, however, we realize that the System Voice is a neutral entity, and subject to change. The system that Iris is trapped within is not the enemy, and it is in her power to change the system and its scripts. She cannot do it alone, however, as strong and resilient as she might be. She needs help undoing the knot that connects her to the abusive Man/Doctor.

With child-like wisdom, Leif offers his opinion for what Iris should do with her knotted-up heart: “Open it wide.”

In his ground-breaking “Theater of the Oppressed,” Augusto Boal wrote, “The theater itself is not revolutionary: it is rehearsal for the revolution.” I highly recommend going to see this particular rehearsal for the revolution. The real revolution, of course, would happen if we all followed Leif’s advice.

“The Orchids” by Ish Klein is playing on Friday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A in Turners Falls. Admission is $15. Buy tickets at the door or at: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2593262

This play is intended for adults and depicts scenes of sexual violence.

Learn more about CRVPT at: crvpt.wordpress.com

Jenny Abeles is a writer and educator living in Greenfield. You can search her work online by including her middle name, Terpsichore.