Sean Dixon’s new play, Orphan Song, is based on a personal experience that spawned a fascinating imaginary journey into the primeval past when Homo Sapiens, our ancestors, evolved and encountered the more primitive Neanderthals. The personal experience was the adoption by Dixon and his wife of a little girl and entering the wonderful and at times harrowing world of child rearing.
In the play, Dixon imagines a couple, living 40,000 years ago, whose child has died. The distraught parents encounter a group of Neanderthals who quickly perish but a child remains alive. The couple, Gorse and his wife Mo, save the child’s life and decide to keep it. The child is unable to speak and is wild but it does take to Gran, Gorse’s mother.
How do you represent the new breed of humans, the Neanderthals, the creatures and sounds of their world?
The humans wear clothes, carry a spear and use crooked walking sticks the way one may imagine them from paintings and movies. They look primitive and they have just started communicating using words or speech. They can count to five and have a limited vocabulary. They supplement their pidgin English with the use of grunts, noises and gestures that are often incomprehensible. On a couple of occasions Gorse and Mo speak directly to the audience in modern English.
The Neanderthals are represented by puppets carried by actors. The actors wear black and the puppets have plastic faces but are made of cloth that is worn by their carriers. They do not have the gift of speech but they make a wide variety of sounds. In fact, we hear sundry sounds of nature and see various animals represented by the puppets including a bear, hyenas, carrion birds and a mastodon. (the program says it’s a mammoth but it looks more like a mastodon).
Gorse, Mo and Gran try to befriend the Neanderthal child which they name Chicky. It is wild, it bites, kicks, wrecks things and, be it a human or Neanderthal child, it is a nightmare. The family moves away from its camp and Mo walks away from them. I could not figure out why she left them but I gather she did so in keeping with some primitive custom of going off to die when you feel that you are a burden to the group. Mo feels that she cannot relate to Chicky.
She encounters wild animals as does the rest of the family that is looking for her. They meet Neanderthals again who “speak” to Chicky and there is a final resolution.
It is a tough play to do. Dixon has set an almost impossible task to represent what is certainly unknown and perhaps unknowable. We are grateful for the attempt and one should not be surprised if it is not entirely successful. Beau Dixon as Gorse, Sophie Goulet as Mo and Terry Tweed as Gran must speak a form of primitive English that includes incomprehensible words and grunts. It looks like a mammoth job to master and deliver all of it and they deserve a lot of credit for that. At the same time, one must note the negative aspect: the dialogue is not easy to bear for two hours. The puppets are masterly creations and Kaitlin Morrow deserves huge praise as the Puppet Master and the handler of Chicky. She has to produce an array of sounds as the little girl in an astounding performance.
Recognition and high praise are deserved by the puppeteers who are the following: Phoebe Hu, Germaine Konji, Ahmed Moneka, Kaitlyn Riordan, Daniel Williston.
The set by Graeme S. Thomson shows three large canvases that look like Stone Age cave paintings. One of the canvases is brilliantly folded up to represent a mastodon or a mammoth.
Director Richard Rose has orchestrated a production that makes huge demands. The language, the sound effects, the puppets in their myriad of shapes and the puppeteers receive directorial attention of the first order.
One can give credit for the work done and unfortunately also note that the total of all the parts was not as enjoyable as one would have wished.
Orphan Song by Sean Dixon opened on April 1 and will continues until April 24, 2022, at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com