Friday, November 18, 2016

Orange Lights up Mixed Blood

Screaming fresh. 


Screaming fresh is the only word I can think to describe the last couple of seasons at Mixed Blood Theatre, which has been producing some truly modern, new stories. It's exciting to see theater describing our contemporary experience, feeling it's way through our increasingly diverse society and holding a mirror up to let us know who we really are. 

Orange, Mixed Blood's latest offering, fits nicely into this pattern. Orange follows an autistic woman named Leela as she travels with her mother from India to Los Angeles to see her father and attend a cousin's wedding. Her parents are estranged, and it is clear upon arrival that Leela's father is not prepared to care for or engage with her. At a wedding party that evening, Leela's cousin "abducts" her to have a reason to escape the family festivities. Leela travels around Los Angeles with this cousin and her boyfriend, acquainting herself with Los Angeles as they visit a series of places Leela's cousin experienced growing up. Leela tends to be ignored or talked down to due to people's assumptions about her autism, but this changes throughout the story as people realize Leela is a complex, thoughtful, caring and self sufficient person who is not afraid to defend herself. 

I'm afraid the above summary doesn't catch the nuance of Orange. This is a show that lingers with you, and although I've thought about it constantly since viewing I still can't quite capture its essence. Orange is a truly thoughtful exploration of life through an "other's" eyes - in fact, Leela is an "other" twice, because of her autism and her status as a foreigner. Seeing America through this lens is striking, and definitely challenges some of our cultural mores - for example, the "coolness" of getting drunk at a beach party, or chasing after a man who is dangerous for you, or staying in a relationship even though you're unhappy. Leela provides us with a defined perspective shift, and I really enjoyed stepping outside of my usual filter and into her world for a while. 

Annelyse Ahmad is wonderful as Leela, giving her what I can only describe as a flat delivery, but with a lot of warmth and nuance. Leela could seem very strange or unlikable but Ahmad helps us see her brilliance and rare qualities. It's a really lovely, subtle performance, and I hope to see Ahmad in more shows. Owais Ahmed (playing all of the show's male characters) and Lipica Shah (playing all of the show's female characters) are also awesome. Their performances bring to mind Tatiana Maslany's incredible work in Orphan Black; each transitions quickly and effortlessly between different characters. This would be a feat in itself, but they also help tease out the range of Leela's emotions and demonstrate how special she is. They are amazing co-performers and really drive the show, unafraid to play un-likeable characters to the enth degree. They have great chemistry and are a good reason to see this show. 

The staging of this show is really unique. The stage is the biggest set piece, flipping up/down/in/out into airplanes, beaches, tide pools, billboards, and more. It's utilitarian, quick between transitions, and still totally imaginative. There aren't many props to speak of and costumes are pretty basic, but that's okay - it keeps the focus on the performers. There are also screens showing all of the dialogue as well as the sketches Leela makes in her notebook as she goes on her L.A. adventure. The sketches are key in helping us see the world through Leela's eyes, and although simple they add a lot to the staging and are key to our understanding of her. 

Orange is a truly unique piece of work about an often underrepresented portion of the population (in theater/arts anyway); people with autism or other mental disabilities, particularly when they are represented in a compassionate, un-condescending way. This world premiere play does a great job of helping us empathize with the "other," putting us in Leela's shoes and showing us the world through fresh eyes. Similar stories like The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime (coming soon to the Orpheum Theater!) are becoming nationwide hits; it is likely we'll see more and more characters like Leela, and that's a good thing. Diagnoses of autism and other disorders are rising every year, and it behooves us to learn a little more about what the world is like for those who live with it. Orange is a beautiful little show that gives us empathy and perspective, two things we desperately need these days - please check it out. Orange is 90 minutes with no intermission and runs at Mixed Blood Theatre through December 4. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.