Los Angeles Theater Review: ORPHEUS (Four Larks Theatre in Downtown L.A.’s Fashion District)

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by Mia Bonadonna on March 29, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Melbourne-based Four Larks is performing their ghostly junkyard opera, Orpheus, in a secret space on the outskirts of the Fashion District. Workshopped at Getty Villa Theater Lab, Four Larks narrates the mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice, navigating the Grecian hero through an ancient underworld as he attempts to resurrect his wife from the dead. Orpheus struggles with the technical challenges of a nontraditional performance space, but overall the work is a fulsome manifestation of aural whimsy and aesthetic curiosity.

Zachary Carlisle in Four Larks' production of ORPHEUS. Photo by Stephanie Butterworth.Under the direction of Mat Sweeny and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro (who is also responsible for the set design), Orpheus comes to life as an almost eerie, sepia-hued tone poem. The work is both chic and homey as the ensemble gracefully snakes around a sandpit stage, using both body and found objects to foster a Dust Bowl remembrance of breathy music, earthy palettes, and magnetic motion. Orpheus is a contemporary take on ancient mythology, but it evokes a distinctly American down-trodden Depression Era longing for the glamourless beauty that history has neatly hidden (and forgotten) behind glitzy Busby Berkeley façades.

Max Baumgarten, Cassandra B Ward, Mark Skeens, Zachary Carlisle, Reuben Liversidge and Caitlyn Conlin in Four Larks' production of ORPHEUS. Photo by Stephanie Butterworth.Led by Zachary Sanders as Orpheus, the cast—Max Baumgarten, Caitlyn Conlin, Reuben Liversidge, Lisa Salvo, Mark Skeens, and Cassandra Ward—works in tandem as a subtle morphing entity, each donning multiple human, beast, and inanimate roles to marry structuralist and absurdist sensibilities through mythology. Sanders plays Orpheus more as a sentimental everyman than a music-driven superhero. The approach feels emotively realistic, but a bit unfulfilling. Ward and Skeens are cast standouts as Persephone and Hades. Ward gives an utterly sirenic performance that creates a bright, warming pinnacle on Orpheus’ journey, while Skeens is a consistent grounding force for the entire production through his careful timing and poignant disposition.

Mark Skeens, Cassandra B Ward and Zachary Carlisle in Four Larks' production of ORPHEUS. Photo by Eugene Lee.The Orpheus score by Sweeny and Ellen Warkentine is enchanting enough to be a stand-alone work—falling somewhere within the unlikely midst of Nino Rota, slow-treaded traditional Child Ballads, and the quirky Icelandic band amiina. Orchestrated for violin, cello, harp, percussion, and voice, the music twinkles delightfully like carnival music for the ethereally deranged. The musicians—Danny Echevarria, Prudence Rees-Lee, Genevieve Fry, Esala Liyanage, Kristen Rasmussen—are not technically pristine, but their imperfect, woody, sweltering sound is well-suited to the production.

Cassandra B Ward, Prue Rees-Lee, Reuben Liversidge, Danny Echevarria, Mark Skeens, Genevieve Fry, Lisa Salvo, Kristian Rasmussen, Zachary Carlisle and Max Baumgarten in Four Larks' production of ORPHEUS. Photo by Stephanie Butterworth.Orpheus is lovely in so many ways, but makes a couple of major missteps: Four Larks forged a sand-based performance space out of a tucked-away corner in a disused garment factory. The combination of rickety floors, concrete walls, freeway-laced room tone, and huge reams of dirty fabric forting the stage make a blanketing acoustic challenge that the verbal company members only occasionally overcome. With the venue’s limitations and a cast that rarely projects, it is easy to hear the music but impossible to make out most of Orpheus’ lyrics. The fashion district building makes for a unique experience, especially coupled with the organically charged found object sculptures by Regan Baumgarten, but most definitely and unfortunately at the cost of much of the dialog, narrative, and plot.

Cassandra B Ward and Zachary Carlisle in Four Larks' production of ORPHEUS. Photo by Eugene Lee.Attempts at romantic lighting also frequently fail as the stage is periodically too dark to discern blocking; moreover, there are occasions when the character of Orpheus holds a clever bucket lamp to light other actors but also shoots painfully piercing beams directly into the dark-adjusted eyes of the audience. Orpheus is enjoyable despite these issues, but they do make the 75-minute presentation feel overlong, and you should brush up on your mythology before attending this play so you can follow along.

Zachary Carlisle in Four Larks' production of ORPHEUS. Photo by Eugene Lee.Orpheus is a bit of theatrical zeitgeist—at least for artists—in many ways which are becoming hallmarks of up-and-coming performers who are turning limitations into assets: non-traditional casting that marks a move away from stereotypical notions of attractiveness; DIY modalities that answer a sad call for leaner arts budgeting; environmental awareness enacted through found objects and recycled materials; and genre blurring. All of these show the active evolution of creativity in the midst of a changing theatrical landscape. It’s also an all-encompassing spectacle that caters to a demanding, attention-splintered contemporary audience. Despite its flaws, Orpheus is a sign of the times and Los Angeles is lucky that Four Larks has come to share such a prettily nuanced theatrical gesture with us. This reviewer looks forward to seeing more of their uniquely wrought work should they decide to stick around for a while.

photos by Stephanie Butterworth and Eugene Lee

Four Larks
Fashion District in downtown L.A.
secret location revealed upon ticket purchase
scheduled to end on April 6, 2014
for tickets, call 310 993 2329 or email tickets@fourlarks.com

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