Wednesday, November 11, 2020

378. THE ORPHAN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Marcia Jean Kurtz, Rae Allen, W.B. Brydon.

THE ORPHAN [Drama/Crime/Military/Period/War] A: David Rabe; SC: Aeschylus’ Oresteia; D: Jeff Bleckner; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Tharon Musser; M: Peter Link; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Florence S. Anspacher Theater (OB); 3/30/73-5/13/73 (53)

Rae Allen, John Harkins.

David Rabe had been highly successful with his first two plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Stick and Bones, both intense examinations of problems related to American military involvement in Vietnam. He completed his trilogy of Vietnam themes in The Orphan, a critical failure that was too obscure, symbolic, and cerebral to make a meaningful impact. One needed to read a lengthy program note for the complex strands of symbolism to make any sort of sense.

The Orestes story of Greek myth and drama was intertwined with anachronistic cross references to the Southeast Asian conflict and the My Lai slaughter, the murders committed by members of the Charles Manson “Family,” and American militarism and materialism. The drama's ultimate purpose was to examine man’s bloody nature over the course of history, albeit viewed from a time-space perspective in which the events occur simultaneously.

Staged with an imaginative panoply of bloody Grand Guignol effects, The Orphan was nevertheless unaffecting and seriously flawed. Its action was never made compellingly present or clear and the events seemed shapeless and without urgency. Many of Rabe’s concepts were disputed, but none so widely as his decision to depict the conflicting elements in Clytemnestra’s nature—the characters bore the names of their Greek originals—by casting two actresses, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Rae Allen, as Clytemnestra 1 and Clytemnestra 2, who represent warring facets of America itself.

Irrespective of the play’s occasionally interesting flashes of theatricality, Walter Kerr noted, “The fact remains that Mr. Rabe has worked out a purely intellectual exercise for his own quite private gratification.” “[H]is dramatic ideas outrun his dramatic language,” added Clive Barnes, while John Simon was shocked that so talented a playwright could produce such “a strained, pretentious, muddled, clumsy and almost completely flavorless piece of claptrap.”

Rabe later recalled, in Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp’s Free for All, that the play was flailing in rehearsal, that he considered it unfinished, and that Jeff Bleckner was uncertain he could direct it, when CBS decided to cancel its production of Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. That decision to censor his work “mobilized us, made us rally round the flag. We thought we were now obligated to slog on and do the play, to stand up and continue to make this statement.” However, he admits, “I couldn’t solve the writing, and we couldn’t get in any kind of sync about it.”

He also blames producer Joe Papp for rushing the process. And when Papp asked him to write a note to insert in the program, explaining the play, he felt he’d be blasted by the critics for not having fulfilled his commentary. As he predicted, the notes were sharply criticized by some. Simon, for example, that Rabe had been seduced by Papp into “spelling” out the play’s meanings “in a program note more clotted in its prose than the play itself.”

Cliff De Young, who played Orestes, was never happy about it, as he lacked the same confidence in the writing that Papp was expressing. At one point in the play, he had to climb up high and deliver what Bleckner describes in Free for All as a “free-flowing, imagistic speech, sort of hallucinatory and stream of consciousness, and . . . long.” When people began walking out at the same point in it every night, and Rabe refused to cut the speech, De Young grew so frustrated at one performance, he ad-libbed to the departing spectators, “Come on, gimme a break! I gotta stay here and say it, you might as well stay here and listen.”

Cast members included Jeanne Hepple as The Speaker, Carol Willard as Electra, Laurie Heineman as Iphegenia, W.B. Brydon as Agamemnon, John Harkins as Aegisthus, Richard Lynch as Apollo, Tom Aldredge as Calchas, and, among others, Peter Maloney as Pylades.