Heaviness in Mirrorbox Theatre’s ‘Orange Julius’ lightened by absurdity and human connection

Mirrorbox Theatre Presents: Orange Julius

CSPS Legion Arts — through Nov. 16

Dennis Barnett (L) and Ellie Desautels in the Iowa premiere of ‘Orange Julius.’ — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

There is much to wade through in Basil Kreimendahl’s Orange Julius, which had its Iowa premiere this week at Mirrorbox Theatre (it runs through Saturday, Nov. 16; tickets are $15). It’s not a traditional family drama. It’s not a traditional play, for that matter. Many shows are fairly linear and logical in their progression — the story and action build up to a climax and then have a denouement clarifying the resolution and final thoughts. But this one feels pretty cemented in “dream logic.”

The audience has to work more than normal to digest and transform what is seen on the stage into a unique experience for each individual viewing it. It doesn’t speak to good ole dependable logic. It speaks to the unconscious, to feelings, to dreams, to memories. It speaks to the things we don’t normally give voice to.

In telling the story of a child desperate to connect with their father in his final days, Nut, played by Ellie Desautels, vacillates between straight-up storytelling and full immersion into a memory, or an imagined reality in the past. Desautels smoothly transitions from a memorial place of telling versus showing to an incredibly active alternate past where Nut imagines being in Vietnam during the war alongside their father.

Desautels lights up in these scenes in particular. The three soldiers discuss being a “man,” fear and the repression of it: things Nut has been wrestling with themself. The script, however, doesn’t seem to offer a clear reason for this exercise on the page, and it became confusing whether Nut was representing their father, with Dennis Barnett, who plays Nut’s father Julius, portraying an embodiment of Nut’s feelings of exclusion and otherness in these scenes; or whether Nut was playing the role of a man they’d seen in a photo with their father, who was never identified; or if Nut is inserting themself into these memories simply to feel closer to their father — imagining what it may have been like to befriend him and fight beside him and care for him in ways Nut wasn’t able to growing up.

(L-R) Omarr Hatcher, Ellie Desautels and Dennis Barnett in the Iowa premiere of ‘Orange Julius.’ — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

The script is unclear, and the vision of this production doesn’t seem to come down entirely in any one camp. It’s up to us, the audience, to choose (or not).

Julius is as demanding role as Nut (like father/like child, I guess). The physical demands and the timing of transitions require expert attention and Barnett does his all to provide it. As we hop around in time, so must he. He is a scared young man in Vietnam, a healthy father and a dying and pathetic man at various times. Whereas Desautels came alive in Vietnam, Barnett excelled as a father not knowing how to connect with his child, unaware that soon his body would be riddled by cancer and his ability to think and communicate would be beyond repair.

There was a particular scene closer in the second half where Barnett was so real, I felt as though I saw my own father. He filled every second of those few minutes, tender with the moment at hand, like a father hoping to connect with the child he feels so far away from.

Though there is a heaviness to the experience of this play, there are also some lovely moments within the absurdity of the family dynamic (family existing by blood, and family created through the intense shared experience of war). At times, Nut straddles the fourth wall, talking to the audience while also keeping a few toes in the water of the memory they describe while the audience watches it play out — in these moments, the energy rests in their family’s actions.

Marcia Hughes’ France — Nut’s mother — is full to the brim of love and care for her family, but also allows the frustration and confusion to seep in as her role as wife turns into caregiver, watching her husband erode and being unable to stop it.

Ellie Desautels (L) and Marcia Hughes in the Iowa premiere of ‘Orange Julius.’ — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

Hannah Spina’s Crimp is beautifully honest. It takes a lot of work, loyalty and love to make slipping on a character’s shoes seem effortless and Spina is a master of just this — she approaches Crimp with a fearlessness, openness and honesty that make it difficult to imagine anyone else capable of rising to her level in this role.

Speaking of fearlessness; Omarr Hatcher, though having just been introduced to the stage within the past year, already attacks his roles with a deep respect and willingness to play that is laborious for some of the most seasoned actors to achieve. We feel his deep love of the character he portrays, the love he has for the characters sharing that world and the love he has for the stage itself. His generosity makes him simply buoyant and joyous to behold.

The limitations of the space that Mirrorbox plays in are always an interesting hurdle to overcome. It’s a small space with very limited entrances/exits and technical capability. Doug Anderson’s seemingly simple set was dynamic, though a bit cumbersome at times, and had the ability to shift and change as the actors repositioned parts of it to suit the needs of the scene. Jim Vogt’s lighting was at times hopeful with color, and other times bleak, tinged with a stagnant fluorescent feeling. He was even able to incorporate some “trippy” elements, directly assisting in the mood and action performed.

The sound design varied. There were ambient sounds for memory and storytelling, but then suddenly had the feel of Vietnam War movies from the ’80s as very recognizable tunes were used that felt a bit obvious and pulled me out at times. Additionally, having two different sound stories for three different types of place/time blurred the lines that were already fairly blurry on the page to begin with.

Mirrobox’s mission is a worthy one. Bringing contemporary new works to Iowa (showing us more of the world outside our little midwestern oasis) is incredibly important and seldom attempted. Mirrorbox also operates on a more truncated rehearsal timeline, and I am often left wondering what more this play could have achieved with just a few more rehearsals for the actors and director(s) to grow and finetune the relationships and reactions on the stage. A lack of rehearsal can sometimes allow for moments of indulgence to seep in and emotional discoveries not quite earned — this production was susceptible to that at times.

Though not perfect, this play is still important for many reasons. In exploring these topics — trans identity, PTSD, caregiving, self-exclusion, grief, guilt, the importance of learning how to eat crow sometimes — we learn we have a lot in common, and we find ourselves suddenly relating more than we realized. Because these things aren’t spoken enough.

Kreimendahl, a University of Iowa playwrights workshop graduate, showed courage in creating this piece. That courage, the bravery of the cast and crew who breathed life into it and what we as audience do in witness to that life are perhaps what this show is about. Our neglected emotional wounds can bleed forever if we let them — or we can recognize them in all their gory glory and begin a process of healing. And yes, it takes a lot of work. And there is always a scar left behind: a beautiful reminder that neither our flaws nor our advantages alone make up the sum of our whole. It is the moments of catalyst they create that propel our growth and bring us closer to the persons we hope to become.

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