The chair where she isn’t sitting. The second cup of tea untouched. The postcard she wrote, back when you could still smell her, that simply reads: “Come find me.” The Memorabilia of Mourning.
At the 14th Street Y, The Deconstructive Theatre Project presents The Orpheus Variations: a multimedia meditation on memory, loss and moving on. Inspired by the Greek myth “Orpheus and Eurydice” about a musician who, in losing his young bride, goes to seek her in the Underworld, “The Orpheus Variations” transforms that quest into the search within one’s own mind to regain—or forget—the snippets of time they had together.
What makes this project so especially inventive is that the young company has created a type of theatre that actually mimics the neuroscience of the brain. As Adam J. Thompson, director and devisor explained, “When you store memory, each sense is catalogued in a different part of the brain: sight apart from sound, touch apart from taste, et cetera. But when you remember, your mind reconstructs those disparate impressions to re-create a memory.”
The experience begins almost immediately upon walking in: the ensemble—a collection of actors, Foley sound artists, musicians, and camera crew mill about the stage, setting up seemingly random props. A dollhouse sits center stage. Two shelves full of bric-a-brac, some chairs, bits of wallpaper on sheets of wood — and above a metronome projected on a screen.
The lights dim and a man sprays water on a sheet of glass, before sitting down before it, lit only by a desk lamp. To one side, artists create a haunting whistle’s hum. An actress swings a light back and forth, while an actor lends his voice to the silent Orpheus’ mind. Music plays — an urgent Phillip Glassean film score. And although all these elements are clearly visible, the eye is drawn time and time again to the screen where light and sound and speech combine and you believe that this man who sits on a chair before you is actually on a train.
Indeed, as Thompson explains, “The part of the mind that governs memory, also governs imagination. The more often a memory is recalled, the more unreliable and corrupted by imagination it becomes. In essence, then: to remember is to forget.”
The journey of Orpheus into remembering — or forgetting—is beautiful, like an extended prayer. And the optical illusions used to create this journey are all too good to spoil here. Nor can any one person’s experience mimic another: since one audience member may be drawn to the music, another keep their eyes firmly on the screen, while yet another may find meaning in watching the shadows where the second team of artists assembles the following shot.
Some questions about the storytelling linger, of course. Eurydice’s motivations to disappear are explained but not fully realized; the chronology and final moment are purposely ambiguous. However the ambition, scope, beauty and thoughtfulness of the project — running now through Valentine’s day — are well worth making a few memories.
The Orpheus Variations plays at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, New York, NY 10003 Wednesdays through Saturdays until February 14th.
Emily C. A. Snyder is an published and internationally produced playwright, as well as the Artistic Director of Turn to Flesh Productions. Her original five-act iambic pentameter play, Cupid and Psyche, premiered at The Barrow Group Theatre for Valentine's 2014.