Orphan Song by Sean Morley Dixon
World Premiere at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre
Cylla von Tiedemann
This ‘Orphan Song’ resonates, but I had to play close attention to this challenging production.
Please don’t misunderstand when I say the opening night performance of Sean Dixon’s ‘Orphan Song’ is a challenging one. Challenging how and what we think are good and necessary, and we need to be challenged constantly all the time regarding discussion of worthy artistic endeavours.
‘Orphan Song’ is truly worthy of sound, intellectual discussion and Tarragon will hold talkbacks following certain performances. I would strongly encourage future audience members to partake in those talks and to read the theatre Resource Guide and programme available. I wished I could have listened for a few minutes to a talkback following the play.
The synopsis: In 40, 027 BCE, a grief-stricken Homo-sapiens couple Gorse and Mo (Beau Dixon and Sophie Goulet) adopts a Neanderthal child called Chicky (Kaitlin Morrow). Language separates the parents from the child, only then to separate mother and father. In other words, how does one love when it is difficult to communicate?
Communication using what kind of language since the play is set BCE? Will it be standard English?
Two challenges for me.
In the Programme Playwright’s Note, Dixon states ‘Orphan Song’: “is an exploration of what it means to take responsibility for a child at all costs in a dangerous world.” He and his wife in 2014 adopted a girl and recall the struggle of forging attachment to her but don’t say how long this struggle occurred. His daughter is now 9. Since I’ve never raised my own children, here’s where I knew I would pay close attention to the story.
The other challenge?
Oral language takes on an entirely new meaning in ‘Orphan Song’ and that’s where I found the provided Resource Guide invaluable. Briefly, the English spoken in the play is derived from a list of 200 words considered basic to every language known as the Swadesh List. So, I really had to pay close attention to the dialogue and words spoken as it would be very easy to get lost if attention span wandered. And this is where I can make a personal connection since I was a Core French as a Second Language teacher at the beginning of my teaching career over thirty-five years ago in utilising a list of 200 words and phrases basic to a conversational understanding of the language.
What makes ‘Orphan Song’ so deserving of a post discussion is the way director Richard Rose and this singular cast melded Dixon’s script together to explain how does one love an adopted child when there are difficulties in communication.
Did it work for me, though? Was the play worth doing? These were the two questions I pondered on the GO train ride home.
Yes, ‘Orphan Song’ did work soundly for me. I probably would have arrived at that decision earlier if there was a talkback to help guide some of my thinking.
Graeme S. Thomson’s set, Jareth Li’s lighting and Juliet Palmer’s sound designs immaculately recreated the suggestion of eras and eras long ago. Upon entering the auditorium, I really liked hearing the sound effects of the gulls and birds. The hanging burlap fabric of meticulously and carefully painted Cro Magnon and Neanderthal rock was sharp. The dimly soft focused lighting thankfully did not pierce my eyes. Tree branches and sticks lined across the front of the stage which also nicely evoked a strong sense of the era. Charlotte Dean’s costume designs appropriately captured what I had envisioned from seeing pictures about the outfits worn from this specific era.
Once the performance began, I was fascinated with the marvelous eye-opening introduction of the ensemble called Pipers who incorporated music and fantastic use of puppet mastery. I would really like to acknowledge Kaitlin Morrow’s work here in the latter. I found myself mesmerized in watching how the strong ensemble manipulated the puppets while blending, at times, unusually high-pitched trilling sounds which affectionately grew on me after awhile. There is further puppetry in the production as well from tiny, adorable hedgehogs to large, winged attacking and ferociously looking pterodactyl like birds. Absolutely breathtaking to watch this tight knit ensemble incorporate gigantic and subtle body and head movements.
I can’t even begin to imagine the initial rehearsal process with the cast, Rose, Dixon, and the oral language issues because there must have been some obstacles which had to be overcome. It did take several minutes to accustom my ear to listening, hearing and then processing the message delivered, but I got used to it and was able to understand most of what was being said. There are two moments where standard English is used to help with plot delineation.
Richard Rose is a gifted director and his clear vision of focusing on the universal and emotional elements of adoption remained solidly intact. Juliet Palmer’s musical direction and incorporation of melodic sounds subtly underscored tension and interest thanks to some terrific ensemble work of individuals whom I will name at the end of the article.
Beau Dixon offers a towering patriarchal presence as Gorse. (Spoiler alert) Sophie Goulet’s matriarchal Mo tugged at my heart strings in the second act when she plans to leave the family and the others desperately search for her. (End of spoiler alert). The grandmotherly Gran’s Terry Tweed becomes that wise and sage figure for whom we all search in times of desperation and change.
Kaitlin Morrow’s work as Chicky was one of the performance highlights for me. When the audience first meets them, there is an adorable, playful quality sound which emanates from Morrow in their trilling as they strive to communicate with the others. That sense of feeling that Chicky belongs through attachment which breaks and then re-forms and breaks again did play at my heart.
Final Comments: At this moment in time, we now live in a world where listening and hearing one another becomes of extreme importance in relationship building.
Through a visually captivating production to the eye and to the ear, ‘Orphan Song’ required me to pay close attention, to listen and to hear what others are trying to tell me about family, about communication and about love.
There’s so much going on in the use of the language that perhaps I may have to pay a second visit.
In any case, come listen to this song. Worth a visit to Tarragon.
Production runs approximately two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.
Covid Protocols in effect.
ORPHAN SONG by Sean Morley Dixon (World Premiere)
Directed by Richard Rose
Set design by Graeme S. Thomson
Lighting consultation by Jareth Li
Costume design by Charlotte Dean
Musical direction and Sound design by Juliet Palmer - voiced and created collaboratively by the cast and composer.
Puppet mastery by Kaitlin Morrow
Stage management by Sandy Plunkett
Apprentice Stage Management by Alysse Szatkowski
Performers: Heather Marie Annis, Beau Dixon, Sophie Goulet), Phoebe Hu, Germaine Konji, Ahmed Moneka, Kaitlin Morrow, Kaitlyn Riordan, Terry Tweed, Daniel Williston
Production runs to April 24, 2022, at the Mainspace, Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, visit www.tarragontheatre.com or call 1-416-531-1827.