Thursday, September 30, 2010

THEATER: Orange, Hat & Grace

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Orange, Hat & Grace begins abruptly, as the elderly and prim Orange (Stephanie Roth Haberie) walks over a path of mushy wood chips to sit on an eroded antique chair. From the dirt rises a young girl, Grace (Reyna de Courcy), who calls out from the "black black black black night," asking, with an air of the supernatural about her, to be let in. If playwright Gregory S. Moss were to linger in this moment, we might mistake this for a theatrical version of Let the Right One In, but this is a show about a different sort of likable monster--the human kind--which is why the action abruptly cuts, lights on full, to reveal Hat (Matthew Maher), a bearded, slovenly beast of a man, chopping away at Orange's roof. Over the next hour, we largely forget about Grace--though she can be seen sitting motionlessly on a stage-right bench--and focus instead on the wonderfully odd courtship between these two . . . not realizing, until the very end, how much this new relationship informs the unspoken one with Grace.

It's a tricky choice, but Sarah Benson makes it look easy, as is to be expected of this clear and intensely physical director. As she did with Blasted and That Face, Benson plays each moment to the fullest--for what it is--rather than trying to telegraph or explain the text. This doesn't meant that the aesthetics are ignored--Rachel Hauck's roughly hewn set is both a claustrophobia-inducing hovel and a snug love-nest--but rather an acknowledgment that the answers are all in the text. To be fair, Moss has already filled his play with striking actions--a finger-suckling orgasm and a close shave that is both tender and harsh--but it's Benson and her cast who make even the eerier moments seem entirely natural.

For some, the ending of Orange, Hat & Grace will come as a shock--and it is, perhaps, too symbolically staged to turn Hat into a literal scarecrow, a totem for a lonely and narcissistic woman. But much of the play is about language--particularly in the way it delineates between the deliberate choices of Orange and the careless neologism "Hep" that Hat grunts as both a "Yes" and a "No." And the last ten minutes do not negate the first hour, particularly the comic gold of Maher and Haberie's chemistry. There's something awfully romantic about the way Orange can't help but smile at Hat's crude decisions ("I am pitching woo") and his rash actions (despite being warned, he attempts to drink piping hot coffee and then scalding eggs), and more important, something brokenly maternal in that, too. And Hat's attempts to impress Orange--"When I chop your wood, do I look strong to you?" he asks, frozen in a strongman pose--always get a chuckle, especially given Maher's all-innocent, moon-faced deliveries.

But Orange, Hat & Grace goes a lot deeper than that odd romance, hence that opening scene with Grace, not to mention the educational FEED series that accompanies select performances. Ultimately, Moss wants to know what makes us human, and the more that Orange civilizes Hat, the more we wonder about her actions toward Grace, the sickly baby she abandoned in the woods. The implication seems to be that words aren't as important as emotions, for while Orange can name every leaf that Hat gathers--and does, in an effective, Meisner-ish scene of call-and-response--she cannot connect to them the way that Hat can. When he carves her a baby made out of wood, she rejects it; when he attempts to talk about sex with her, she explains that "There are some things you do, and later you pretend they don't exist." And it is the aptly named Grace who has the last word: "When someone's done something bad to you but. Then. You do something good for them. In return.... [T]here must be a word for it there's a word for everything."

Words take you only so far; but there's more than enough embedded in Orange, Hat & Grace and in the talents of the cast and crew to go the rest of the way, and then some.

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