Stage Door Review

Orphan Song

Monday, April 4, 2022

✭✭

by Sean Dixon, directed by Richard Rose

Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Mainspace, Toronto

April 1-24, 2022

Mo: “Louse not meat”

Orphan Song by Sean Dixon was originally meant to have its world premiere in April 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic, of course, effectively closed the theatres in Ontario, postponing the play’s world premiere to April this year. Unlike other pandemic-delayed plays, Orphan Song is not a play worth waiting for. In fact, not to mince words, Orphan Song is one of the worst plays ever staged by the Tarragon. To be clear, “worst” refers only to Dixon’s text itself. The physical production is wonderfully imaginative and the acting is as good as it could be given Dixon’s mind-numbingly dull dialogue.

The Tarragon’s blurb for the plays states: “40,027 BCE (a time when the average human could only count to five), a grief-stricken Homo sapiens couple adopts a Neanderthal child. But language separates parents and child only to then separate mother and father - how do we love when we can't communicate?”

The period in which the action is set alone sets off warning signals. Just ask yourself how many successful plays, films or novels have ever been set in prehistory? For plays, there are none. For novels, there are only two – William Golding’s The Inheritors (1955) and Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” hexalogy starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). For films, dominated  by comic animation or schlocky live-action movies where humans and dinosaurs coexist, only one, Quest for Fire (1981) has a recommendable Metacritic score of 79. Why, if Dixon’s point is the universal question “How do we love when we can't communicate”, does he set his story in a period about which we know so little?

It would seem that Dixon is attempting to get to the essence of his question by going back in time as far as he can. Yet, depressingly enough, he is not the only one to have tried this. Golding’s novel ends with a group of Homo sapiens kidnapping a Neanderthal child whom they love and fear (much as is the child in Dixon’s play). Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear begins with a Neanderthal group who adopt a Homo sapiens child after she has been orphaned by an earthquake –  a parallel situation to Dixon’s with the two species of hominids reversed. Both novels explore the relations between the two species of human beings to look at the inevitable question of why Homo sapiens survived and Homo neanderthalensis did not.

Though Dixon’s date for the action is an absurdly precise 40,027 BCE (or 41,977 BP in scientific terms), he likely has chosen it because circa 40,000 BCE is when scientists place the start of the decline of the Neanderthals. Scientists have proposed at least seven different reasons for their decline, including unfavourable competition with Homo sapiens (which is Golding’s focus), but Dixon chooses a different cause, death by disease. The play begins with a troop of Neanderthals coughing, collapsing and dying on stage, including the Neanderthal child’s mother, leaving the child a the only remnant of her species in the vicinity.

As it happens, Dixon’s Homo sapiens couple Gorse (Beau Dixon) and Mo (Sophie Goulet), still grieving the death of their first child, come upon the scene and are drawn to adopt the orphaned Neanderthal (Kaitlin Morrow manipulating and speaking for a child-sized puppet), whom they name Chicky. How likely this is given that Chicky is not only from another species but from one that is clearly diseased is highly doubtful. Dixon offers no explanation why Chicky is somehow free of the disease.

As per the Tarragon blurb, Dixon’s main question is “How do we love when we can't communicate?” Director Richard Rose has therefore had Juliet Palmer, composer of such inventive operas a Voice-Box (2010), create a beautiful language for the Neanderthals full of bird-like sounds.

For the Homo sapiens, however, Dixon has made the terrible decision to have them speak in an English devoid of articles, prepositions, cases and any form of the verb “to be”. Preceded as it is by the Land Acknowledgement, Dixon’s language for the humans, as in “I make long walk big water”, sounds embarrassingly similar to the broken English that writers used to put in the mouths of Native people in Hollywood westerns. Two hours of this faux-prehistoric speech not only makes us cringe but makes us bored since it prevents the characters from expressing anything other than comments about their immediate physical environment.

There are three possible solutions to Dixon’s language problem. In the film Quest for Fire, director Jean-Jacques Annaud had famed writer Anthony Burgess invent a complete language for the characters, thus requiring subtitles to be understood. Golding and Auel choose a much simpler method. If the action is set in prehistory, we already accept that the English language did not exist and that we are hearing a translation. Why, therefore, represent prehistoric language as a deficient form of modern English? Golding has his Neanderthal character say, “I did not move the log to make the people laugh. It has gone” which in Dixon would be “I not move log make people laugh. It go”. Auel has her Home sapiens child say, “Why didn’t you come when I called you?” which in Dixon would be “Why you not come when I call you?” As Golding and Auel realize, the language the prehistoric figures speak is not “broken” to them, so why make it appear broken to us?

It is the same with Dixon’s fixation with early man being unable to count past five. Gorse attempts to build a fire and each time he has Gorse count each stick he puts in place. When he reaches the sixth stick he struggles with what to call it. Dixon must think this is extremely funny or else he would not repeat this scene five times. First, where did Dixon get this notion that “the average human could only count to five”? The few hunter-gatherer people that still remain count to only three or four before calling the next next highest number “many”. Showing Gorse perplexed by this is nonsense. Hunter-gatherers’ counting is not deficient. They had virtually no possessions and counted only has high as they needed to. And besides, who counts how many sticks they use to make a fire anyway? The situtaion is artificial.

As if repeating this scene were not tedious enough, Dixon also has Chicky every time kick over Gorse’s cone of sticks. Neanderthals had fire, so why is Dixon portraying Chicky as so malicious? And why does he have her do this five times in exactly the same way?

The answer is that Dixon’s play is repetitive without being enlightening. It’s like some drama school exercise that goes on about eight times longer than it should. If Dixon wants to answer the question “How do we love when we can't communicate”, he does not develop an answer in a convincing way. From when Gorse and Mo first “adopt” Chicky, she rebels against them literally biting and scratching so much that we really can’t understand why the couple keeps her. Then, suddenly in Act 2, Chicky cuts Gorse with a sharp stone, sees blood and is reminded of the time Gorse saved her from drowning. From then on the two get along.

As for Mo, it is only when Mo goes off alone and Chicky misses her that she gets along with Mo on Mo’s return. It never seems to occur to either Gorse or Mo to learn Chicky’s language until near the end of the play. Chicky, although always with Gorse and Mo, never picks up the words they use as any other child would. That’s how they learn languages. The problem between the Gorse and Mo and Chicky is thus highly artificial and draws only our indifference.

Beau Dixon, Sophie Goulet and Terry Tweed as Gorse’s mother Gran do as well as they can to make the broken English of Sean Dixon’s text sound natural. They mostly deliver their lines with an earnestness that helps to counteract their awkwardness. Yet, sometimes they allow the prehistoric character a sarcastic or dismissive tone that sounds too contemporary and comically clashes with the setting.

While the the play’s text and concept may be irredeemable flawed, its production is delightful. Kaitlin Morrow, who plays Chicky, gives the most consistent performance of the evening even though it is entirely in Palmer’s invented musical language. It makes us wonder whether director Richard Rose should have had Palmer invent a language for the Homo sapiens. too. What the characters say is not as important as their feelings and the actors could have communicated just as much through mime and the intonations of the invented tongues as with broken English. 

Morrow (they/them) is listed in the programme as “Puppet Master”. Normally, this would mean that they taught the crew of six other cast members how to manipulate their puppets. In this case, Morrow also designed the puppets of various types of soft cloth. The Neanderthals are all puppets including Chicky and they give the puppets such a wide variety of looks and expressions that as manipulated by the crew the puppets are often more affecting than the human actors. The small mammals the Homo sapiens hunt – hedgehogs, rabbits and frogs – are almost too cute, but her hyenas are genuinely threatening.

Most impressive is the giant bird they create that requires three puppeteers to manipulate. The mammoth they create using the middle portion of Graeme S. Thomson’s hanging fabric set and two tusks, makes a great conclusion to Act 1, but Rose uses it to set up the false impression that it will appear in Act 2. It does not.

In a play that is already bizarre, Sean Dixon has added a scene that is totally mystifying. In it Mo has a conversation with the Moon (Kaitlyn Riordan), who somehow speaks in standard modern English. The Moon haughtily informs Mo that the Neanderthals are inferior beings and should be treated with disdain. Mo argues against these overtly racist, in fact, speciesist, remarks, but we have no clue where or why this scene is happening. Is Mo having some inner struggle with herself to overcome a prejudice, which she has never previously displayed? And, even if that is the case, why is Dixon portraying the Moon, “who sees everything”, as the epitome of prejudice?

The Tarragon Theatre commissioned this play from Sean Dixon and thus felt obliged to stage it. Is there no one there who can look objectively at a commissioned work and say, “Sorry, this just isn’t good enough”? As a result a troupe of fine actors will have suffer through speaking his incredibly awkward prose for four weeks and audiences will have to see a visually intriguing but dramatically impoverished play that may well make them wish they were streaming something interesting at home.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Beau Dixon as Gorse, Sophie Goulet as Mo, Terry Tweed as Gran and Kaitlin Morrow as Chicky; Terry Tweed as Gran, Kaitlin Morrow as Chicky and Beau Dixon as Gorse with the ensemble as Neanderthals; Kaitlin Morrow as Chicky. © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets visit www.tarragontheatre.com.