14 March 2014

Mini review: Orphanage of the Animals

Orphanage of the Animals
La Mama
9 March 2014
La Mama Theatre
to 16 March


I found Orphanage of the Animals an alienating experience and I know that my reaction is far from what the creators intended.

It started because I don't read programs before seeing a show. If a show needs to explain itself to its audience, it's not working on the stage. Orphanage is an exploration of style that's more emotional dreamscape than narrative, and it made more sense after I read the program.

It's about child abuse in different forms and uses older adult actors to play the ghosts of the abused children who jump from scene to scene, from memory to memory, and retreat into animal personas when the memories are too intense and painful.

The writer/director, Karen Corbett (co-directed by Catherine Samsury), says that she combined "Australian Expressionism and political Magic Realist theatre of Latin America" and is inspired by the Holocaust research of Bracha Ettinger. I don't know about Ettinger's work (Google tells me she's a visual artists concerned with gender and psychoanalysis) and can see the influence of Magic Realism and Expression (Australian or not) but, as a whole, it remains a work 'influenced by' rather than something of its own.

There are moments of fascinating beauty – especially those with the onstage chorus of three, music composed by Nela Trifkovic, who control the mood and tension – and all the performances (Corbett, Jasper Bagg, Susan Bracewell, Russell Walsh and Francesca Waters) are heartfelt and honest, but it felt so concerned with creating a style that it didn't fully consider what the work feels like from the outside looking in.

I love shows where the audience have to work to find their own meaning and resonance, but we need clues. Audiences first look for story, for connections and relationships, and how all the pieces on the stage fit together to make a whole. Orphanage of the Animals makes complete sense to its creators, but the rules of the world aren't shared with the audience, which leaves it a frustrating experience if you don't know what's going on before the going into the theatre.

If you're seeing it this weekend, read the program and don't try to find a bigger story for the five people on the stage; knowing this might make it a very different experience from mine.

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