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More than merely a play, ‘ORBS!’ is a happening


Ghostbird Theatre Company’s ORBS! is more than merely a play. It’s a happening in the tradition first established by Allan Kaprow way back in 1957 following a picnic at Pop Art painter/sculptor George Segal’s New Jersey chicken farm. The venue for ORBS! has far greater cachet than that. It takes place after dark at the Koreshan Historical Site in Estero, and walking the dimly lighted footpaths denoted solely by flameless votive candles is an exercise in the exploration of negative space in much the same way that Kaprow’s mentor, John Cage, explored silence.

To truly appreciate what Ghostbird is doing at Koreshan, it’s preferable for individual audience members to give themselves over to the atmosphere the theatre company meticulously crafts. They pay the same attention to detail as Disney’s Imagineers devoted to the planning and installation of their Haunted Mansion. To be sure, you’ll get chills and thrills in the lead-up to the actual performance even if you’re busy chatting with your friends or texting with someone off-site. But tune out real world distractions, and you begin to sense the spirits of the long-dead Calusa and Koreshans who still inhabit this swath of old earth.

The buildings and landscaping out there emit an otherwordly energy that’s palpable if you just take the time to absorb it (kind of the way you can sense a person’s energy cloud or aura by tuning up your peripheral vision). In Kaprow’s formulation, a happening emphasizes the interaction between the performers and the audience. Ghostbird does Kaprow and progeny (think Robert Whitman, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg) one better. They employ actors to prompt a deep and meaningful interaction between the audience and the site.

In their effort to deftly dial up the electricity and magnetism of the Koreshan compound, they leave nothing to chance. Masked actors loom from the gloom along the pathway from the parking lot to the front steps of Koreshan Art Hall, where another has stationed herself on a rocker outside the main door. On stage, three actors (Teed, Angel and Achi) sit expectantly, listening intently to Victor Ballo play the piano with the skill and emotion of a Maurizio Pollini. Each note exudes unmistakable anticipation, tension and, more, foreboding.

And all this before the performance even starts!

But the site remains a character in ORBS! until the play’s climatic denouement, with the audience parading down shell paths, under sausage trees and alongside a Monkey Puzzle Tree illuminated by the light pulsing from French Ultramarine Blue orbs held aloft like fluorescent torches. In spite of the action unfolding at various stops and points of interest along the way, the site never loses its mystique or innate fecundity.

Superficially, ORBS! postulates Cyrus Reed Teed’s final fevered vision of a clean electric world for a new Adam and Eve – one to replace the utopia he’d hoped to establish at and through the Koreshan Unity Community.

Dig deeper, and the story of Angel’s affection for Teed emerges. She calls him “Crazy Old Man,” and psychotic he truly is. Portrayed brilliantly by Jim Brock, the Teed who traipses across the Art Hall stage and through the grounds is the epitome of megalomania. He doesn’t just possess an inflated sense of self-esteem, delusions of grandeur and denial of his own mortality. He is determined to remake the world in accordance with his own wishes and fantasies – a clean electric world devoid of, and insulated from, the filth of both human and animal procreation.

But for all his apparent faults, Angel clearly cares for this man. This character is tenderly portrayed by Katelyn Gravel, whose thespian talent expands exponentially with each successive production in which she appears. Angel is a study in contradiction. She has an unflappable soft spot for her “Crazy Old Man,” but her devotion is not without limitation or clarity. More a caregiver than lover, she seems more devoted to the memory of the omnipotent leader he once was than to the deranged potentate he has clearly become.

Dig even deeper, and what evolves is a scathing indictment – not just of Teed, but of the inflexible dichotomy espoused by virtually every organized religion between our pure, clean spiritual nature and our dirty, filthy (read, sexual) animal nature. In ORBS!, Teed wants to expunge all traces of animal filth (procreation) from the world. The metaphor has application to a wide variety of religious and political contexts. Your own particular takeaway will be influenced by your unique upbringing and experiences. And this is precisely what Cavin and Ghostbird want each audience member to realize and contemplate – as is wont of happenings furthering the Kaprow-Oldenburg-Rauschenberg legacy.

The most powerful character in ORBS! is played by Stella Ruiz. Her name in Mo’a, which begs a reference to Sheikah Monk Mo’a Keet from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild video game. There, Mo’a Keet confers a Spirit Orb on those who accept and complete the trial he offers. In ORBS!, Mo’a is the spirit of truth, authenticity and correlation. In ORBS!, it is Mo’a’s place to set and keep the record straight; to untangle for the audience the web of deceit and delusion that Teed spins like a lower order arachnid; to ensure in the best tradition of happenings that the audience develops a close relationship with the actors and the site. It’s another role tailor-made for Ruiz, who has a penchant for breathing life into volatile and seemingly incomprehensible characters few others could successfully pull off. (Just witness what she did with the intertwined roles of medium Pearl Curran and Patience Worth, the 17th Century Puritan woman she channeled in Barry Cavin’s last offering, Writing Shadows, which Ghostbird performed in the Langford-Kingston Home earlier this season.)

As Mo’a, Ruiz’s sinews convulse and contort with disquieting disembodiment. Her voice quivers and quakes as she delivers her ethereal messages. The combination is astonishingly effective to underscore Mo’a’s true nature. A supernatural being, she is discarnate, spectral, but very much real.

Kudos are also in order for Kaleena Rivera, Dan Cancio, Kate Dirrigl, Hanny Zuniga and Linda Farmer. They make wonderful panthers, bears, deer, alligators and owls. Artist Linda Hall is to be complimented and commended for the puppets and masks she has contributed to the production. And not only did Victor Ballo make a statement with his pre-play piano recital, he preserves the mood from the play’s beginning to its very end through the minstrel music he contributes along the processional and with the overpoweringly eerie Teed movie he’s created for projection against the side of one of the Koreshan site old clapboard buildings.

ORBS! is a smart, sophisticated piece of theater all the way through. It’s a happening concerned with fantasies, archetypal symbolic associations, and audience involvement. But Ghostbird doesn’t just break down the normally-sacrosanct wall between performers and audience. It pulverizes it into jagged little shards of crumbled rock by immersing the audience in the action and the historic site. Yes, ORBS! is participatory art media at its finest.

Southwest Florida is lucky to have a Ghostbird among our midst.

If you’re not taking in their productions, what are you waiting for?

February 10, 2018.


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