Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Orange has a simple narrative, but is a complicated piece. The central character is Leela, a 17-year-old Indian girl who is on the autism spectrum. She is high functioningarticulate, observant, keenly adept at pursuing logical arguments. But her lack of affect or body language, literal understanding of everything she perceives, and inability to read social cues are all evidence of autism.
Leela is accompanying her mother on a trip from Calcutta to CaliforniaCounty, to be exactto attend a cousin's wedding. Leela's mother tells her that they are off to have a big adventure, but Leela is skeptical. Leela's father has been living in California for several months, ostensibly for business purposes, but it quickly becomes clear that he is, at best, ambivalent about returning to his home in India with his wife and daughter. It also is evident that he lacks empathy or patience for Leela's "uniqueness." Her mother intends to push the issue and come to an understanding about their future.
A bored cousin named Preeti, who is a year older, coaxes Leela to slip out of the wedding with her and go driving around Orange County through the night. Preeti is soon leaving for college, vowing never to return to Orange County, and wants to mark her exit by doing every outrageous thing that has crossed her mind. Also along for the ride is Gar, Preeti's best friend since childhood, who yearns to be her boyfriend but has never found a way to make that shift in their relationship. To Leela, this is the adventure her mother had promised her.
Their escapades include items on Preeti's wish listdrinking atop a billboard and digging up a time capsule she and Gar had planted years beforeand things definitely not planned, like an encounter with a homeless man spouting cryptic prophecies, and Leela's risky encounter with a couple of motorcycle gang members. Leela is fixated on an orange, guarding it perhaps as a talisman to keep her safe. She also appeals to the gods of the Hindu stories her mother has told her, waiting for them to swoop down and intervene when she feels in danger.
Through the entirety of Orange, Leela draws pictures of what she observes, her literal interpretation of scenes and events revealing the stark logic that rules her mind. These drawings are projected onto overhead screens above the stage, so that as the play's action unfolds, we see how things appear from Leela's perspective. As the night progresses, the level of detail and color in the drawings change in ways that reveal how her "adventure" is expanding Leela's view of the world.
Jack Reuler stages Orange on a runway set, cleverly designed by Joe Stanley, which bisects Mixed Blood's flexible auditorium. The audience is seated in rows on both sides of the runway. The sides of the runway, where it meets the walls, serve as various settings such as the billboard the adventurers summit, a hotel room, a wedding ballroom, a lifeguard tower at the beach, and the homeless man's encampment. With scenes played out from side to side, and in the middle, the play seems to be in constant motion, mirroring the energy of these three teens, Preeti on the verge of breaking ties with her youth, Gar desperate for a last chance with the girl he loves, and especially Leela, taking a giant leap from her protected shell to experience the adventure of life.
The cast of three bring Orange to spirited life. As Leela, Annelyse Ahmad portrays both her blunt intelligence and vulnerability. Her lack of affect brings out the raw honesty of her responses to everything she experiences, and she earns the affection of her self-absorbed cousin. All of the other female characters are played by Lipica Shah. She spends most of her time as Preeti, convincing as a somewhat bratty 18 year old (though the "valley girl" inflection is a shade too much), with an itch to leave home with a trail of defiance in her wake. Shah also makes a strong impression as Leela's mother, as well as a biker-chick and an obnoxious child who challenges Leela. Owais Ahmed plays all the male parts. As Gar, his reluctant assent to Preeti's outrageous agenda reveals both his insecurities and desires. Ahmed persuasively shifts from teenage Gar, to Leela's emotionally remote father, to the riddle-spouting homeless man, to the threatening biker.
The actors are aided greatly in their transitions among characters by Janet O'Neil's costumes. Leela remains in the same simple grey-toned dress and leggings throughout, an emblem of the absence of color in her external appearance that contrasts with the imaginative insights revealed by her journal. Wu Chen Khoo's lighting design effectively marks the passing of time from early evening to dark of night to dawn. Composer and sound designer Victor Zupanc adds aural details that perfectly match each scene. Especially apt is a muzak rendition of the 1974 soft rock hit "Dance with Me" providing jaunty background music in an all-night supermarket. Exactly right!
As I stated at the start of this review, Orange is both simple and complicated. It follows the well-worn motif of a momentous night of escapades that changes lives. Nothing is really different at the end of Leela's big adventure with Preeti and Gar, yet she is profoundly changed. Blended into this tale are the cross-cultural elements of Indian and Indian-American traditions and expectations; the moment of reckoning for a tortured marriage; and most visibly, a portrait of coming-of-age for a person on the autism spectrum, making visible both the challenges and insights that come with that condition.
It is interesting that at no point in the play is the word "autism" uttered. Leela's condition is alluded to with euphemisms and vague descriptors, but the clear diagnostic term is never used. Leela herself describes her condition at one point by saying "I don't make good choices." Maybe not, though one could argue that her choices are as sound as her daredevil cousin's. The omission of diagnostic language helps to make Leela a full person, a young woman with many qualities, and not simply an autistic girl. The play is about Leela, not about autism, and is all the richer for that distinction.
Aditi Brennan Kapil has written an insightful and entertaining play that captures the process of becoming adult through very unique lenses. It is a treat to be the first audience to see Orange, which will no doubt find acclaim on other stages. In March, it will be mounted by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, the company that commissioned Kapil to write the play. Mixed Blood's production serves as a terrific launch for this rewarding new dramatic work.
Orange continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through December 4, 2016. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $25 for tickets purchased in advance. Access Passes guarantee complimentary seating and transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities, and their companions. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door 30 minutes prior to performances. For advance tickets and Access Pass information call 612-338-6331 or go to www.mixedblood.com.
Writer: Aditi Brennan Kapil; Directed by: Jack Reuler; Set Design/Technical Director: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Janet O'Neil; Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo; Composer/Sound Design: Victor Zupanc; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Media Design/Illustrator: Megan Reilly; Dramaturg: Kimberly Colburn; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Robin MacGregor.
Cast: Annelyse Ahmad (Leela), Owais Ahmed (All the Men), Lipica Shah (All the Women)