by Lynn on April 4, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont. Until April 24, 2022.

Written by Sean Dixon

Directed by Richard Rose

Set by Graeme S. Thomson

Costumes by Charlotte Dean

Music direction and sound design by Juliet Palmer

Puppet master and puppet designer, Kaitlin Morrow

Cast: Heather Marie Annis

Beau Dixon

Philippa Domville

Sophie Goulet

Phoebe Hu

Germaine Konji

Ahmed Moneka

Kaitlin Morrow

Kaitlyn Riordan

Terry Tweed

Daniel Williston

From the program information: “40,027 BCE (when the average human could count to five), a grief-stricken Homo-Sapien couple adopts a Neanderthal child. But language separates parents and child only to then separate mother and father – how do we love when we can’t communicate?

With that, a mythic journey of danger and sacrifice ensues to connect to the Neanderthals and to protect the child at all costs.

A heroic tale of clashing cultures and how the bonds of family are truly formed.”

Gorse (Beau Dixon) and his wife Mo (Sophie Goulet) have just lost their infant child and are naturally grieving. But Mo more than Gorse is feeling the pangs of losing the child. She wants and needs to be a mother. They find themselves in strange territory and witness a group of Neanderthals, that they refer to as “Pipers”, on their last legs. They seem to be dying in a group. The Pipers communicate in bird sounds of chirping, tweeting and other sounds. That is their language.

One of the Pipers is holding the hand of a young child (a girl I believe) and as the Piper dies, Gorse and Mo speak in a spare, rudimentary English and struggle to communicate with the child that they want to take her with them as their own. Gorse names the child ‘Chicky.’ Communication is difficult until they return home and Gorse’s mother, Gran (Terry Tweed), meets Chicky (Kaitlin Morrow) and immediately bonds with her and even seems to understand her sounds.

Communication for Gorse and Mo with Chicky is difficult. While Mo is maternal and eager to embrace and comfort Chicky, Chicky is wary and fearful. Gorse is just frustrated but so wants to do right by the child and be a good father. Gorse finds a challenging solution on what to do and in a bold move a kind of communication is created/discovered between differing groups to support, care for and love Chicky.

 Playwright Sean Dixon does not shy away from a challenge in his playwright. He has written about relationships and trees in The Orange Dot; carrying a painting over the Alps in A God In Need of Help; and a play about Jumbo the Elephant and his fraught life in Jumbo just to name three. But with Orphan Song he has created a herculean task of writing about adoption and parenting, communication when a common language is absent and co-operation between different peoples,  by setting it in pre-historic times and creating two separate languages. One language is nothing but sounds, noises, and what sounds like singing and chirping. The other language is rudimentary English and comes from an ancient set of just 200 words.  

From an essay written by playwright Sean Dixon for Intermission Magazine regarding Orphan Song: “I conceived of an idea for a play about adoption that would be set in prehistory, where the child was a Neanderthal and the parents were Early Modern Humans. I wanted to illustrate the challenge presented by the need to foster attachment, and then raise the stakes in a hostile environment. I then wanted to compound the problem by having my separate human species not share a common language, or even a language type. So I was giving myself the problem of creating two separate language types, whatever that meant. I wanted my humans to be easily understood by the audience, which meant using a form of English, but I wanted it to feel basic and ancient and elemental. I wanted them to be people of few words.”

While Dixon’s intentions are honourable in his setting himself such difficult challenges, I couldn’t help but wish that rather than dive so deeply into the language and communication of the characters, he also considered how the audience would perceive and contend withsuch a rudimentary language and not just be able to understand it.

Gorse and Mo and Gran are certainly people of few words. And while they are speaking rudimentary English and are easy to understand, their ‘sentence’ structure often seems a stilted jumble to our ears. While Dixon wanted this form of English to “feel basic, ancient and elemental,” one can’t ignore that often in popular culture English spoken by one whose native tongue is not English often makes them sound stilted and unfortunately objects of ridicule. And with only 200 words to work with, ideas and ‘thoughts’ become repetitive.

The cast performers with conviction and integrity. There is fierce passion and truth in the performances of Beau Dixon as Gorse, Sophie Goulet as Mo and Terry Tweed as Ma. The urgency in trying to communicate with Chicky, the frustration in not being able to and the tenacity to continue trying is so clear in these performances. The Neanderthal  (Piper) characters are created by life-sized white puppets attached to the actors manipulating them, either by tying them around their waists or attaching their feet to the feet of the actor. Kaitlin Morrow is the ‘Puppet Master and the designer for these brilliant puppets. And as Chicky, Kaitlin Morrow ‘played’ and manipulated the puppet with clarity and presence.

Richard Rose has directed this production certainly with a creative eye in establishing the simplicity of that time but also a time with a huge emotional sweep. Graeme S. Thomson’s set of three light brown cloth panels says everything about a desolate place. The creation of the mammoth at the end of Act I is inspired. Charlotte Dean’s costumes are functional suggesting that an animal was killed for its skin for warmth and protection. Juliet Palmer’s music/sound scape also established that danger could be in every corner.

A play about adoption, communication when language fails, and eventual co-operation for the care of a child set in pre-history times is certainly intriguing. I just wish that the whole thorny issue of how to communicate these deep ideas was not mired in ‘language’ that seemed to defeat the enterprise.  

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Runs until April 24, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission.

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