Orange, Hat and Grace
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
September 21, 2010
"I wish I knew what to call them," says Hat one moment late into Orange, Hat and Grace, as he laments each dead bird he's found. Nature is dying, and he's at a loss for words.
Words—the power they promise, the devastation of their loss—shape the landscape of Orange, Hat and Grace as much as its eerie backwoods setting. "The characters speak in varying degrees of decayed English. Their words are natural objects—dull rock, wet mud, green weeds—and should be spoken clearly and quickly," writes Gregory S. Moss in his author's note prefacing the published play text.
Moss's use of language is startling. Words ebb and flow with unpredictable—and, in places, deliberately contradictory—eloquence. Yes, each character speaks varying degrees of decayed English, but sometimes, each one speaks with jarring lucidity. "Is it possible for you to feel loved by me and for me to feel nothing?" wonders Orange as she stares at her much younger lover. She's a lonely woman, "nearly old," who's taken Hat, a burly wanderer "just past the end of his youth" into her bed and under her wing.
Though Orange has the most extensive vocabulary in the play, she can't—or won't—explain Grace, the mysterious girl who haunts the woods outside her cabin. The mystery of Grace's identity drives the play forward as much as Orange and Hat's diffident relationship. Like Prospero schooling Caliban, Orange gives Hat language and sets limits on its use. She tells him the names of trees and encourages his fanciful stories but forbids him from swearing at the breakfast table. Hat, in turn, teaches Grace, though we never actually see these lessons. We only understand them from Hat's perspective, as he describes them to a livid Orange. While Grace seems to draw strength from Hat's words, Orange wanes. And then the world begins to fall apart. Trees wither. Crops fail. Birds fall out of the sky.
It all has the quality of a dark, surreal, Shakespearean, and, in places, weirdly funny nightmare, with the aura of medieval legend grafted onto a backwoods tale. Scenes melt into one another as if in a fervid dream. There are deliberate, disarming gaps and contradictions. One minute we're on the roof of Orange's cabin, then, in a magic instant, we're inside. One moment Hat waxes eloquent on beauty, then Orange teases him about the size of his penis. By day, Orange doesn't let Hat swear at the table, but she'll happily bed him there at night.
Orange's draining power over the man and the world she once held sway deliberately recalls Prospero in The Tempest (the play's dedication quotes Caliban and Ariel's rebuffs to their master) while evoking the Fisher King, the wounded king whose realm decays as he declines. But Orange, Hat and Grace doesn't simply reimagine these motifs, or tie easily into an allegorical bow—it strives to create a new theatrical language. Like Sarah Kane or Young Jean Lee, two other playwrights whose work has been seen at Soho Rep, Gregory S. Moss deconstructs old tropes, reshaping them into something new. He shares these writers' visceral ability to create a strange, post-apocalyptic dreamscape on stage, and he has a beautiful, playful way with language. It's easy to see why director Sarah Benson, who made a sensation with Kane's Blasted, was drawn to this piece.
Benson, as ever, directs with visceral intelligence. Every moment bristles with tension, and every character is precisely defined. The performances are remarkable. Stephanie Roth Haberle makes Orange a no-nonsense spinster who festers with longing and self-doubt, while Matthew Maher plays Hat as a wry buffoon capable of surprising compassion. Reyna de Courcy is feral and enigmatic as the mysterious Grace who lingers in the dark.
Rachel Hauck's set, dominated by splintered wood and mulch, ingeniously evokes the eerie backwoods. Its sudden transformation from rooftop to cabin interior is a vivid bit of "rough magic" worthy of Prospero. Matt Frey's moody lighting helps propel the dreamlike scene transitions, as does Matt Tierney's suitably scratchy, disorienting sound design. David Hyman's costumes—a long blue dress and then a white shift for Orange, frayed workclothes for Hat, a dirty shift for Grace—suggest the distant time and the characters' decay.
Orange, Hat and Grace is primal yet refined, scary yet funny, real yet artificial. It's not perfect—Grace's part in the overall story still feels underdeveloped—but it's fascinating. Like all great theatre, it has the peculiar ability to stop time. Watching it, I felt transported to another world, and yet this world was never so self-absorbed as to be unaware of its own absurdity. In the end, like Hat, I only wish I knew what to call it. Words can't capture it fully...and maybe that's the point.