Folger: Orestes

I finally made it this weekend to see Orestes: A Tragic Romp at the Folger Theatre, directed by Aaron Posner. My two blogging compatriots saw it much earlier in the run and gave it glowing reviews, which you can find here:

I saw the production, thought it was great, and agree with everything thing they two said. So I won’t use my post to review the production, per se. Instead I’m going to talk about theatrical magic. And hopefully I won’t get in trouble for giving away any insider knowledge that I’ve happened to stumble across.

If there is anyone who deserves the Helen Hayes award for Sound Design next year, it is this production (though I’m not sure who it would actually go to, since I would imagine that both the official sound designer Matthew M. Nielson and the composer James Sugg had a hand in what we hear over that 100 minutes).

But does such an impressive technical element come to life fully formed? Of course not. There is lots of experimenting, trial and error, and happy accidents. One of the best things about this production is the noise the rocks make whenever anyone steps in them. In case you were wondering, no, in fact, that sound is not amplified. The rocks are actually that loud. Which the team at the Folger didn’t realize until the day the rocks were put on stage. Another director might have freaked out. But Aaron Posner turned this “problem” into one of the most memorable aspects of his production.

Knowing this, even further kudos must be given to movement director Patty Gallagher and the five chorus members, Lauren Culpepper, Rebecca Hart, Marissa Molnar, Margo Seibert, and Rachel Zampelli. Every step in the rocks was perfectly choreographed. And because of the noise, if an actress was standing on the rocks and there was no intended noise, she could not move. The rocks were so loud, these five actresses could not even shift their weight without it being heard. You try standing still without even shifting your weight.

This production is the premiere of this script by Anne Washburn, so many elements were developed over the rehearsal process and she was present to clarify text. Once the five chorus women were cast, Sugg was able to compose music specifically for their talents and considerable vocal range.

Another aspect that had to be developed during the rehearsal process was (SPOILER ALERT) the ending, the deus ex machina, the arrival of Apollo who sorts everything out and gives us our ?happy? ending. How do you stage Apollo’s entrance? Who plays Apollo? The staging here went through many possibilities. A seven-year-old boy could play Apollo. One of the understudies could sit in the audience as a plant and stand up to play Apollo. A cell phone could ring in the audience, and then those rings could grow and grow into a cacophonous symphony. There could be a blackout and then a phone could appear onstage that Menelaus picks up in order to speak to Apollo. Etc. These ideas were discarded or didn’t work for various reasons. The final staging has a sort of electrical meltdown, world breaking apart, the lights go dark, then the stage is suffused with brightness. There is no physical manifestation of Apollo. We hear only a voice… a female voice… a British female voice… could it be? Why yes, that’s a cameo by the one and only Lynn Redgrave. How fun!

I love knowing about how a piece changes and grows during a rehearsal process, since we only get one snapshot of it as audience members. Orestes is playing for one more week at the Folger, then it heads up to New Jersey and spends a month at the Two Rivers Theatre Company.


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