DARK AND DELIGHTFUL
A liberatingly surreal and exquisitely poetic masterwork, Fernando Arrabal’s Garden of Delights is a sinister fairytale that concerns itself with the inner struggles of Lais, a famous actress living in a secluded castle with only her sheep and a small, grotesque, ape-like halfwit she mostly keeps locked in a cage. Ildiko Nemeth, in helming New Stage Theater Company’s current production of the work, infuses it with a warmth and groundedness that brilliantly compliment its absurd, intellectual elements; her insightful and precise direction elicit from the actors dynamic and nuanced performances.
The play can be read as calling for Lais to be, at times, ridiculously theatrical, egotistical and callous – an eccentric ruler of her psychic domain – alternately coddling her sheep (played by beautiful, half-naked women in adorable sheep costumes) and lording over her little Neanderthalian pet Zenon (the delightfully uninhibited Chris Tanner). Kaylin Lee Clinton plays Lais instead with a lovely subtlety, interpreting her character as a sort-of failed narcissist, as if Lais is trying to be frivolous and aloof but cannot – her soul is too gentle to let her indulge in such freedoms completely. Her eccentricity seems weighed down by her exhaustion, from her inner turmoil, her self-imposed isolation, from the demands of the present and her memories of the past.
Brandon Olson is wonderfully ambiguous as Telco, a mysterious man whom Lais, as a young girl, meets in the forest after escaping from an orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Telco seems to exist in twilight, in those moments between dream and wakefulness. At times he’s a guide, at others he acts like a predator, his sexuality is fluid, he is kind, then he’s cruel, then apathetic; he has stairs in his chest and his soul in a jam jar. Mr. Olson’s performance, exciting and truthful throughout, creates a presence on stage at once seductive, dangerous and mystical. Belle Caplis delivers an energized and convincing rendering of Miharca, Lais’s friend from the orphanage who aspires to be her lover.
With sparse but perfect set decorations by Ms. Nemeth, many of the time/space transformations are accomplished with the aid of video images projected onto several flats set up on the stage (projection design, video-art and animations by Laia Cabrera and Isabelle Duverger). It’s an interesting concept that mostly works, creating multi-layered, colorful worlds. However, I would have liked for the visuals to have a bit more focus, in the sense that when they play the eye wanders; it’s a little distracting. The goal might well be to disorient and confuse, to cause anxiety, but I’m not certain that distracting visuals accomplish this. Also, the amount of Federico Restrepo’s light on the stage often makes the video images fainter than it seems they’re intended to be. (In the photographs accompanying this article we see how the projected images seemed to have been intended to look. Unfortunately in real life they are softer and more diluted.)
Something else I wasn’t completely sold on was that the action doesn’t seem to quite fill the stage. I can see a reason for this being the desire to show Lais’s empty isolation. But somehow looking at those big bare patches of black floor, marked up with dents, scratches and tape, it doesn’t feel quite right.
There are a few minor technical problems: personal microphones faltering on occasion when the actors lie on the floor or press against one another, and a couple of sound cues were a little off (sound engineers: Gideon Grossman and Paul Radelat; sound operator: Kumi Ishizawa). Overall, however, the shortcomings of this production are relatively insignificant and do little to detract from the power of the show. My suspicion, taking into account all the excellent elements on view, is that Ms. Nemeth’s vision might have been a bit too ambitious for her budget. But in a case like this, where the director isn’t merely well-intentioned but fully capable of creating the remarkable world on display in Garden, I find myself very forgiving of minor issues, especially when most of them could have been solved by simply writing a check.
The wonderfully evocative original music is by Jon Gilbert Leavitt, and the choreography is by Catherine Correa and Ms. Nemeth—in collaboration with the actors, who are Geraldine Dulex, Gideon Grossman, Denice Kondik, Valerie Miller, Florencia Minniti, Devin Nelson, Fabiyan Pemble-Belkin, Emma Pettersson, Alexandra Pike, Juliana Silva, and Jeanne Lauren Smith.