Peeling Apart A Blood Orange

In Shellscrape Theatre Company’s recent production of A Blood Orange, which played from September 28-30, the setting was lusciously weird. They utilized the balcony theater at the Center at West Park, which features a hollow proscenium arch that looks out on an enormous sanctuary hall below, complete with Tiffany glass mosaic flanked by huge organ pipes, and stained glass windows on all sides. Though the balcony theater only seats about 75 people, you can feel the cavernous space hovering just behind the small stage. On the stage there are cans of preserved fruit—pineapples, peaches, oranges—and paintings of oranges, floating eyeballs, kiwis cut down the middle. A formally dressed woman sits facing us: she has a desk lamp and several stringed and electronic instruments on a table, and she looks ready to be a guide of sorts on our behalf.

As the lights dim, a woman in a dress appears onstage, spotlit by a series of supersaturated colors. Each time a color appears, she says the word for a different color: in red light she says, “Orange”; blue, “Yellow”; green, “Purple,” and so on. The woman audience left is playing music, and as the woman onstage disappears we learn the musician is Mrs. (played by Aston Hollins McClanahan). In addition to providing musical accompaniment, Mrs. is a sort of Brechtian narrator, there to walk us through the mysterious undercurrent of this show; the “fascination with control and fluid truth” that director Elaine Rava claims to be at the heart of this piece. Mrs. gives us cryptic and intriguing images – she’s here to help us “wade through the fog” that has clouded the mirror; she tells us that one thing is certain: “Someone is dead, died, or dying.” And that this person or people either “are, have been, [or] will be – maybe.” Mrs. describes her personal practice of creative visualization; imagining different sorts of highly specific murder scenarios – you know, to make it personal.

In what began as an adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids, writer Cody Joness has broken apart much of that work to stumble upon one main resemblance: a dysfunctional relationship between two women. Clarissa (played by Gabriela Barretto) and Teresa (played by Sally Kingsford) are a pair of codependent sisters, living in a remote, isolated home in the woods. Their bond is puzzling: Teresa hides in the laundry while Clarissa yells for her all over the house, Clarissa has an obsession with an old-fashioned radio that seems to trouble Teresa deeply, and they seem highly agoraphobic and afraid of any guests or visitors.

This is made apparent in the first when Mrs. visits, looking suspicious and asking questions. Teresa answers the door, pretending to live alone and visibly afraid of Mrs. “We’re going to do the best we can to protect you,” Mrs. says, but Teresa is not reassured. What’s worse, Clarissa reveals herself when she sings “It’s My Party” before wandering onstage. She is thrilled at the appearance of a guest, giving Mrs. a wave from under her chin that’s just odd enough to solidify our concern that Clarissa is… not quite right.

When Mrs. exits, Clarissa and Teresa fight, culminating in a moment of physical brutality. After the blackout, Clarissa has a puzzling dream or vision, in which two women pop out from behind her: “Molly,” she says. “Ava.” Blackout.

Next scene, two women with such names visit. Their appearance seems suspicious and once again, Teresa is not a fan. Clarissa is pleased; she offers them a meal which consists of single Ritz crackers on a plate, which they clink as though they’re glasses of champagne. Molly (played by Athena Torres) and Ava (played by Ruby Donahoe) follow suit: they clearly find the behavior odd, but they are here on a mission—to steal Clarissa and Teresa’s citizenship papers. Ava is not a citizen, and they are on the run from “The Authority.” This menacing figure is mentioned several times, never explained, but every time it comes up the characters cower.

“The Authority” seems perhaps an analog for Madame, the character in The Maids who consumes sisters Solange and Claire’s imaginations as they resentfully clean her parlor. Both “The Authority” and Madame are figures of power who destructively consume the imaginations of those they dominate, even or especially when they are not present. Clarissa and Teresa do not elaborately roleplay like Solange and Claire, but they do gesture at a mysterious fantasy world that they both cohabitate—Clarissa almost always, Teresa just occasionally.

As the show continued, I grew curious and hungry for it all to come to a head: what will this sort-of society of all women do to each other? Surely nothing good. Unfortunately, I felt this play did not push quite far enough into this question, and so the play fell a bit flat for me. My hunch is that James wanted to make both a surreal, dream-like exploration of power, fear, domination, insanity, sisterhood, and a classically structured play like Genet’s with a beginning, middle, and end. The result was that it felt like neither was accomplished or explored fully. One example: they played with a motif of tableaux with Clarissa, Molly, and Ava. These images piqued my curiosity throughout the show, but seemed somewhat tangential to what most of the play was doing and so felt out of place.

A Blood Orange traffics in confusion, doubles, echoes and muffled voices. What is real and what is not emerges early on: Clarissa refers to their home as a sanctuary, which hit a nice resonance with the cavernous space behind her. She and Teresa have created a world of strange beauty within their small and secret world, but because of external forces—whether real or imagined—it cannot sustain itself forever. Barretto and Kingsford find a sickly chemistry that permeates the play with a satisfying weirdness. And while I found the crux of the play a bit too confusing to pack a punch in the end, I still left the theater with a pleasingly icky feeling in my gut from watching this claustrophobic drama play out.

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