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The Orpheus Variations: Deconstructing Memory Through Myth

A reimaging of a beloved myth as an exploration of memory + the past, The Orpheus Variations is the perfect marriage of form + content to create a wholly unique + engaging theater-going experience. The piece—collaboratively created by the Deconstructive Theatre Project—tells the story of a man confronting his present reality in the wake of his wife’s disappearance, innovatively interspersing a series of vignettes spanning Orpheus and Eurydice’s shared past. Perfectly encapsulating the semi-deluded state many of us enter when overcome with grief, Orpheus’s idyllic memories become inextricably intertwined with his present reality as the audience is transported into a quasi-dream state.

Robert Kitchens [Orpheus] in The Orpheus Variations. Photo by Mitch Dean.

The Orpheus Variations succeeds beautifully in conveying the tragedy of this tale by artfully mimicking how the brain synthesizes the infinite raw sensory stimuli of everyday experience to construct our own personal versions of reality. In keeping with the company’s name, the cast members deconstruct moments from Orpheus and Eurydice’s time together into their constituent sensory elements. In a rather remarkable technological achievement, sound, lighting, and live action are seamlessly stitched together in real time to create a stunning filmic narrative projected above the ensemble members as they carefully construct, enact, and film each scene below. The chaotic on-stage action is counterbalanced by an overarching voice narration–a sort of lyrical inner monologue–underscored by evocative live music, which, together with the live-fed film, mirror the brain’s imposed narrative on experience. Thus, the audience member is at once invited to use their own brains to patch together the fragments that make up the characters’ past, and to watch Orpheus + Eurydice’s own cohesive interpretations of those very same moments played out on film, illuminating what these characters have subconsciously chosen to compose their own versions of reality given all of the same sensory information.

By creating a piece that is reflective of the brain’s inner workings, the DTP has provided the viewer with the unique opportunity to create their own journey within the overarching theatrical journey unfurling on stage. The piece reveals how truly subjective our own experiences are—how reality is merely an imperfectly generated construct, often vulnerable to our own personal expectations + narratives. As I observed [and was subjected to] how experience + memory are constructed, I became viscerally aware of my own brain’s inherent deceit + trickery. With this frame of mind, the real tragedy of the story [at least for me] became all the more deeply felt—that while desperately in love with each other, these two characters inhabited two distinct yet intimately interwoven realities, which ultimately drove them apart.

Robert Kitchens [Orpheus] & Amanda Dieli [Eurydice] in The Orpheus Variations. Photo by Mitch Dean.

The form of the piece has the added effect of bending space-time, as the audience witnesses past, present, and future unfolding on stage all at once until they are virtually indistinguishable. This time-bending effect is jarringly reminiscent of the inconsequence of time during periods of mourning—how in times of desperation and intense grief we can slip into a world of revised // idealized memory, clinging to the hope that it can somehow become our own present + perfect version of reality. The Orpheus Variations thus reveals the ultimate corruption that comes with such motivated recollection.

All of the above said, I now must disclaim that what I find most exciting about The Orpheus Variations—both in watching the performance and from my earlier conversation with writer + director Adam J. Thompson—is that it is quite literally impossible for any two audience members to experience the piece in the same way. By design, each performance contains an infinite number of possible journeys–from film to construction of film to individual actors and back again–creating an intentionally subjective, wholly viewer-dependent theater-going experience. Once the curtains went down, I sat down with Adam and the DTP team to moderate a talkback in which several of the audience members shared their own personal journeys through the piece, each differing from the next by varying degrees. Given the same inputs—the same film, actors, sound, lighting, narration—every one of us in the theater followed a completely different trajectory to take away a deeply personal experience in a rather elegant reinforcement of formal theme.

By simultaneously deconstructing both the mind’s interpretation of reality and the theater-making process, The Orpheus Variations has masterfully reinvented what live theater can mean for the individual, while illuminating the utter complexity + subjectivity of our own consciousness.

Performed at HERE Arts Center, The Orpheus Variations was conceived and directed by Adam J. Thompson and developed collaboratively by the members of the Deconstructive Theatre Project. For more information about the company please visit their website + Like them on Facebook.