Arts Listings

The Theater; Virago Theatre Brings Kessler’s ‘Orphans’ to Alameda

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday March 16, 2007

Phillip and Treat are orphans, abandoned by their father when little, bereaved by their mother’s more recent death. But they still constitute a kind of nuclear family, however abbreviated and dysfunctional: Treat’s the breadwinner, a petty criminal who watches out for his little brother by keeping the allergic couchpotato Phillip indoors in their North Philadelphia tenement row house, with windows shut, subsisting mostly on tuna sandwiches (Phillip’s a gourmand of mayonnaise).  

One night, Treat brings home a middle-aged drunk, an attache-case-wielding businessman, apparently quite a character, who sees in Treat a new edition of The Dead End Kids that Harold (the drunk) used to watch in movie matinees as a kid in Chicago. Finding a wad of stock certificates in the case, Treat decides to keep Harold on the premises and ransom him through his associates. But the morning after proves more than a hangover: it turns out that Treat’s abducted a King Orphan, more streetwise—and just wise, in every sense—than the feral Philly boy. The tables are turned, and Harold sets about making an orphans’ home out of his seeming prison and captors, part of his project to orphanize the world. 

That’s the set-up to Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, which Robert Lundy-Paine has directed for Virago Theatre Co. at BridgeHead Studio, right off the Park Street Bridge in Alameda—a funny, perceptive, eerily engrossing chamber play. 

The claustrophobic little utopia that develops is a true Platonic republic, but standing on its head, kind of Sociology 101 upside down. Many are the lessons and the rewards the brothers are subject to—including Pierre Cardin suits (“Peer Card-In,” in Treatspeak), pale yellow loafers, bouillabaise (“I speak the French language now,” avers Phillip) and, more homey, “a slice” of corned beef, suitable for a Dead End Kid, Harold’s model citizen. 

But there are tests and trials as well. Treat’s violent streak casts a shadow over developments, and Harold runs him through the wringer to squeeze his sense of injured pride and thwarted justice out of him, so he can attain the poise necessary to be a businessman in Harold’s shadowy dealings. 

Robert Hamm, a familiar face on East Bay stages, is just the guy for the role of Harold: the kind of actor who consistently brings unusual, divided characters to life. He maintains Harold’s strange incognito best in moments of reminiscence, of openness and professed identity with the clueless boys who hold him—whom he holds. There are wry moments, half tender, half absurd, as when Harold teaches shut-in Phillip what a shoehorn is. 

Alec Mathieson plays Phillip with the naturalness of a kid who has only known the unnatural, only knowing of the world through late night TV. An eighth grader in Alameda, he already has a background in opera and musical theater, undoubtedly a reason why his portrayal of Phillip beginning to discover what’s outside the row house is such a mature one, capturing the precocious young man who’s as inexperienced as a little boy. 

As Treat, Kenneth Sears is intense, menacing—and terribly funny, making his character at times into an almost slapstick crook from those old serials Harold keeps recalling. His emotional outburst, a first for Treat, at the conclusion, is prolonged nicely, bringing the play back to reality yet skirting the sentimentality the script approaches at that crucial point. 

Virago specializes in making a sort of site-specific production; last year’s revival of The Threepenny Opera, gained much of its offbeat charm from the toe-to-toe audience contact and the archival oddity of the old upstairs fraternal hall (also in Alameda) it was played in. Orphans capitalizes on its location, too; spectators feel they’re somewhere just out of town, in the rundown fringe, a nearby but half-forgotten world.  



Presented by the Virago Theatre at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 31 at Bridgehead Studio, 2516 Blanding Ave., Alameda. $10-$15.  

(415) 439-2456.