The Orpheus Variations

There is no denying the impressive and seductive visual mise en scène The Deconstructive Theatre Project utilizes for its current production at HERE, The Orpheus Variations. Marrying handheld video cameras, a trio of musicians (keyboard, guitar, and violin), a pair of Foley artists, a work table with microphones and scripts akin to a radio broadcast station, rolling racks with ‘40s-era clothing, and abundant projections, this show is one of the coolest to look at to be found in NYC at the moment. By having actors manipulate cameras, props, pieces of wall board and the like, director Adam J. Thompson allows us to watch both the creation of the artificial setting and, simultaneously, the scene taking place within it, via tightly framed video. It’s a canny and fascinating set-up, though not without its challenges.

Chief among those challenges is that the story being told – a 20th century-set look at part of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice – is, in this exploration, redundant. We get that Orpheus is terribly sad, and we see flashes of his marriage to Eurydice, and…that’s the sum and substance. No writer is credited; rather, the show was created collaboratively by the company. While the vision is clearly focused, it is also extremely limited. The text being used (which consists largely of voiceover performed live while actors who are not speaking are being filmed) is a massive impediment to the proceedings. Wildly precious, sappy (rather than sentimental), and on occasion gramatically bereft, everything said aloud is a humorless expression of A Single Mood. It sounds like nothing so much as the self-important, badly executed poetry of a teenager. And so this forty-five minute show ends up feeling longer, because it suffers mightily from a lack of variety. The score by Ryan Homsey, played throughout by gifted musicians Homsey, Randy Conrado, and Adrianna Mateo, is lush, beautifully played. But it, too, for all its loveliness, goes no place. All the invention of the evening is visual, and without characters or a story for an audience to invest in, the invention of the visuals ends up feeling like cleverness for cleverness’s sake, calling attention to itself.

The use of tightly framed shots, extreme close-ups, is a smart way to explore memory and the ways we hold onto tiny fragments of any whole picture; we’re more apt to remember detail, the show tells us, than context, and this notion feels true. And, again, the look of The Orpheus Variations is beyond nifty, executed to a fare-thee-well. Here’s hoping The Deconstructive Theatre Project invests more in the stories they seek to tell; they have technical expertise in spades.