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A slideshow of family photos primes us to start remembering. Start looking back, reminisce about the floral couch, or the moment your eyes blinked when the shot was taken. Remember your dad, or your childhood friend, or the ancestor you never knew, or knew only through letters they wrote to someone else. You may have looked in the attic, and found a hat, or a vintage vest, and it smelled like the history that runs in your blood, or the marrow of your bones. There’s a thread of connection, but they’re also just a character, the distance so great. The perspective comes swirling back to your own body here and now, the question looming of how to reconcile the vast nature of our collective being?

Photo by Sarah D. King

Orphans, Thieves, and Other Unlived Lives, by Jessica Jobaris and General Magic, celebrates the primal, desperate catharsis of living a life that carries the fantasy of lives past. It opens with the performers outside the building, acting out vignettes in the windows at Base: Experimental Arts & Space, with a fairy-tale narrator over the speakers. Thunder cracks, typical life scenarios illuminated with a flashlight, modern stories told in the style of dark ancient fables. But they’re revealed only for a couple moments, then gone, and the show moves forward as they enter the theater as if through a portal.

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1, change.” A performer speaks into a megaphone as the others quickly shift their costumes and pose every time. There isn’t enough time to take them in, the images are just too fleeting, flashes of portraits just quick enough to scan. And so it goes for the rest of Orphans: mere snapshots of great lives lived, or perhaps unlived, as the title of the work suggests? It’s hard to know, but fascinating to take in. Orphans takes a ride through the struggle that spans time and souls. It maniacally illustrates the melancholic catastrophe of how “the way we miss our lives is life,” as the performers quote in one section.

In a more aesthetically collected moment, each performer introduces themselves, and announces what role they’ll be playing. They confidently step forward from a line, project from their diaphragms, make eye contact. They’re surprisingly calm for announcing they’ll be playing characters like, “Richard, the strung out middle child,” “Gunawan, the polygamist baker,” or “Vernon Sanderson, the one who gambled the house away.” Jobaris’ impressive cast never play characters playing characters, and we’re left to wonder…did these people really exist? Where is their story exactly in this two hour long conglomeration of drama, trauma, and existential madness?

Photo by Sarah D. King

Frenzied performativity saturates both halves of the work, however even the most violently expressive moments have the efficiency of a well-rehearsed ballet. The cast shows their excruciating commitment to artistic and physical rigor in every scene. Jobaris’ creative choices, though they appear random, are crystal clear in intention, making them easier to take in. At one point, the performers gather in a fever of red hot rebellion, throwing metal chairs and running around to rock music, perhaps trying to process the confusion of playing their roles. Finally, the group forms a circle with the chairs and dance facing each other, grounding themselves with unison movement before everything sequentially unravels again. 

While we don’t get to fully grasp the nuts and bolts of each story, Jobaris hones the energy with solos. Hannah Rae does fast Irish footwork in a white, flowy dress, her expression solemn. Hendri Walujo builds sexual tension with a slightly uncomfortable, sultry dance. Carie Esquenazi does a stand-up routine without a punchline. While seemingly unrelated to each other, they unfold like memories. We can see past the bones of the stories and into the souls of the characters, finding universalism. Jobaris builds in points of connection like glue, whether through touch-and-go dialogue, awkward family photo poses, or props, they all inhabit the same world. Esquenazi threads a large rope across everyone else’s open palms. Suddenly, we know that even at their different vantage points in time and space, some supernatural lineage unites them. Standing paralyzed with eyes wide toward the audience, they collectively arch and groan, gasping for air.

Photo by Sarah D. King

While the anarchic disarray of the first half of Orphans might leave one feeling like Jobaris is too reliant on mayhem and absurdity, the second half proves she’s unafraid of confronting the dark nitty gritty of trauma. We wade deeper into the trenches of death, abuse, and unearthly ecstasy. The humor gets even darker when the show closes with Maia Veague performing a dramatic death dance, complete with parts of a skeleton thrown through the space. We’re reminded that each of our performances end, trauma lingering for generations, and it’s up to us to simultaneously hold and let go of “the mystery of our aliveness.”

Orphans, Thieves, and Other Unlived Lives plays at Base: Experimental Arts & Space November 6-17, 2019. More info and tickets here