Philadelphia freedom for something different

Orphans

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 7 – May 6

“Orphans” begins to the strains of Springsteen’s ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ in establishment of the play’s location for those who may not be familiar with the little known, but critically successful, work by Philadelphia-born playwright Lyle Kessler. Shortly thereafter, its opening sweary dialogue sets its tone as big brother Treat (Matthew Hamlin) returns home with the ill-gotten jewellery gains of his typical day of petty thievery.

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The dynamic of Treat’s relationship with his also grown orphan brother Philip (Stef Gimanez) is similarly quickly apparent; Treat is not only physically domineering, but psychologically torments his brother, who is ill-equipped to be of equal match. With Philip forcibly isolated, both physically and emotionally, it is clear that this is their existence rather than life. Treat’s sneakers are gaffer-taped together and Philip’s attire is of frayed fabric and they live on tinned tuna and mayonnaise in somewhat squalid surroundings.

Treat may have a violent temper but he is soon exposed as a rank amateur criminal when he attempts to kidnap for ransom Harold (Jon Darbro), a gangster in fancy silk suit and crocodile shoes, drunkenly mumbling about his sentiment towards fellow orphans and ‘dead end kids’ in reference to the street urchins of Depression-era movies. And as he transforms from the co-dependent brothers’ hostage into their mentor and eventual employer, a power shift is seen on stage.

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When Act Two opens some weeks later, staging and costumes show how things have changed with regards to the boys’ success, making Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ lead-in an unnecessary, overt signpost. Staging of the production is simple, though not entirely sturdy, but choreography within the space is considered to make maximum use of its possibilities to add interest to a lengthy narrative (two and a half hours plus, including interval) of repetitive dialogue. This three-hander, however, is all about its performances and in this regard, everyone delivers.

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Gimanez is tremendous as the beat-down and understandably nervous Philip, in need of a supportive shoulder squeeze. He not only captures the innocence and enthusiasm of his simple faith, but shows a versatile range, appreciated after a very funny re-enactment scene in Act Two. And Darbro, in particular, brings a commanding presence to the role of Harold, bringing welcome humour to the dark, emotional story, most notably when as hostage gagged and tied to a chair.

“Orphans” may be set in a certain time of LPs and daytime tv of Errol Flynn films (the play was written in 1983), but its moral ambiguity and themes of power, self and identity are universal and thus appealing. It is the something different that represents everything that Brisbane Arts Theatre does so well in its diverse program curation because as was overhead from among the departing post-show opening night crowd, ‘it’s good to see something I don’t know much about’.

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