The Blue Orphan
by Jonathan Christenson and Joey Tremblay
The Playhouse, March 2004
There are probably people who would react to seeing the currently touring Catalyst Theatre production of The Blue Orphan by sighing and saying, oh, yes, another extravagant sound and light show, but where's the beef?
I'm not one of them. Not quite. For one thing, the sound and light show that the Catalyst people have put together is, not to put too fine a point on it, stunning. Working with a set composed entirely of a set of hanging translucent fabric panels and the lighting and sound resources of the Playhouse, the company creates a visual display that is gorgeous, flexible, and occasionally mesmerizing. From the opening, in which the cast, in costumes, move spookily back and forth, behind and between the gorgeously lit panels, carrying stylized lanterns, to the "storm" at the show's climax, the visual panorama is unremittingly lovely. The visual is supported with a wash of original music, mostly pre-recorded but supported by onstage singers -- especially the powerful, haunting soprano of Sheri Somerville as Papillon, as a kind of engaged chorus, commenting on the action, sometimes participating. Had the show actually had no plot or characters, I suspect most members of the audience would have been content to sit back and watch and listen to the shifting colors and the lush, bass-heavy music and the lovely, pure soprano, the way one might just float through a son et lumiere on a summer night at the Acropolis.
There are, however, characters as well: the nine members of the cast, costumed and made up in clownlike exaggeration, brought before us a series of conversations and relationships, in a kind of adult fairy tale portrait of a doomed village in some never-never-land. Our narrator, Jonah (think a cross between the Stage Manager in Our Town and a town crier), calling Crooked Creek "a tired old paper mill town," invokes the action and the characters right before our eyes, introducing them by saying, for instance, "perhaps her name is . . . ," or "perhaps I should begin with . . . " As he does, characters appear from behind the hanging panels, or loom mysteriously behind them; as new events take shape, the lighting shifts and changes gorgeously across the panels. The characters are all fairy-tale exaggerations, clown-like caricatures, whom we learn about in fragmentary glimpses as they move out from behind the brilliant panels, or are uncovered as one whisks up into the flies.
Henrietta Sinclair, an old woman, remembers one moment in her life, in Brazil, when a blue butterfly fluttered around her head, and love almost happened. Another, Jim, gathers scraps of paper and tries to sell them, as a sort of parody of the paper industry that once supported the town. Sister Parnel, who runs the town orphanage, is presented as a huge, imposing figure in black with a gigantic cross, the sort of terrifying nun that children remember looming over them. Barefoot Claire appears first with gauzy wings, and next with ruined, tattered wings, complaining in a kind of childish viciousness that people are "just a bunch of wreckers." Repeatedly, she recalls, in her movements and in her ambivalent bid for sympathy, the pathetic but still feisty clowning of a Charlie Chaplin. Hortense sells blue paper butterflies on street corners and plaintively assures us that "the world is a fine, kind place," though Claire has just shown us it's not. And, of course, Hortense and Jim, who gathers paper that she can make butterflies of, become a kind of clownlike faux-innocent couple, except that his desperate need scares her off. Ormand the Brute, who taught her to make butterflies and exploited and perhaps abused her, holds his violin that he can't seem to tune or play. Harold, identified as "the young man in the window," as an orphan receives his box of butterfly pupae at the hands of the uncomprehending Sister Parnel, and worries yet again that some tiny, insignificant action of his might "start a chain reaction of events that may or may not lead to catastrophe" -- and, of course, winds up at the very end walking off hand in hand with Hortense.
I haven't identified the actors in these roles because in some fundamental way the show isn't about them, or, really, about acting in the traditional sense at all: these characters would, we feel, be pretty much exactly the same no matter what competent actor -- and, indeed, they are all clearly at least that -- took that particular part in this tightly-orchestrated dream, this Emmett Kelly fairy tale for adults. The show is much more centrally about the idea of gigantic consequences from trivial events; about the ineffable beauty of that one blue butterfly which, according to a legend related to us, retained its song after the others had lost theirs due to complaints from the birds; about the storm which destroys the village and which may have been triggered by the trivial movement of the butterfly's wing. Even more, it's about a cluster of related images and ideas: the Blue Orphan butterfly, orphans in general, hanging on to compassion in the face of a loss of civility (what happens in that poor old mill town when the mill closes down and the orphans are left on the street at the mercy of whoever happens to find them -- a predatory, protective nun, an exploitive paper-butterfly entrepreneur, or far worse?) And, of course, it's about the phoenixlike rising of the solitary Blue Orphan butterfly which, along with Harold and Hortense, survives the storm, emerges from its pupa, and "vanishes into the clear blue sky." It's about a poem.
And whether you find that it moves or engages you depends entirely on your being engaged by those ideas, whether you agree that they're a whole, and fit together with the presentation itself, the gossamer, shimmering beauty of the light on those panels and the song of the butterfly. Is it drama? I'm not at all sure. Is it theatre? Without doubt.
If, as the moving lanterns being carried back and forth behind the gauzy panels signal the end of the experience, one wonders if there's not a good deal less here than meets the ear and eye; if one wonders whether one was supposed to feel devastated at the destruction of the village by the storm; if one wonders whether the destruction should have seemed so, well, theoretical . . . one can't doubt that Christenson, Tremblay and their company have taken their idea as far along the road as it can go, and brought us a good deal of the way with them. Where's the beef? Perhaps there isn't any. Perhaps we should be content with the sizzle.