Four Larks, the Australian-American theater company that has been producing "junkyard operas" mainly in Melbourne and San Francisco since 2008, made their Los Angeles debut this past week with a beautifully melancholy Orpheus, a one act suffused with love and mourning, the tenuousness of life and the capriciousness of where life's meaning lies.
It was staged in a secret downtown location - revealed only after tickets had been purchased - in a disused warehouse near to a 10 freeway off-ramp and far from the maddening crowd, so just trying to find the theater served as a prologue of sorts, inducing a vaguely netherworld feeling.
For Orpheus (Zachary Carlisle) was the mythical Greek who descended into the underworld to retrieve his bride Eurydice (Lisa Salvo), felled by snake bite on their wedding day. A gifted musician, he could soothe savage beasts and outperform the Sirens with his song, and that's ultimately how he convinces Hades to let him lead Eurydice back to the land of the living, according to legend. Here, this talent is what paves his way past a comically officious Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell who guards the gate, one example of how the work's gentle humor found clever expression in its musical sophistication.
But poor Orpheus' quest to find Eurydice has barely begun, and so while prowling through the realm of the dead, he continues on to plumb the depths, meeting along the way a host of sinners: Tantalus (Caitlyn Conlin), starving for eternity as a cluster of grapes dangle just out of his reach; Sisyphus (Max Baumgarten), condemned to forever push a boulder up a hill; and a bratty trio of Danaids (Reuben Liversidge, Cassandra Ward and Mark Skeens), three sisters who as punishment for killing their husbands must fill a water bucket using only a sieve, before finally happening upon the lair of Hades (Mark Skeens), indifferent to the sorrows of mortals and overwhelmed by his filing system.
It's a story capably rendered by a troupe of graceful physical performers, all well-utilized by director/choreographers Mat Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro's facility for storytelling through poetic tableaux. Clad in fawn-colored costumes designed by Amanda Wing Yee-Lee that at different times evoked shrouds and shades and Depression-era hobos, the cast moved seamlessly through the multiple worlds conjured by the low-fi alchemy of Sebastian Peters-Lazaro's set design, which consisted largely of vintage suitcases, whiskey barrels and buckets and buckets of sand.
It's unfortunate that the acoustics of an old warehouse are not ideal, and the production was also hampered a bit by the fact that not every voice was powerful enough to support its part. Yet the eclectic, at times modernist-inflected score, which made room for percussively tribal elements, recitatives, lovely ethereal passages and even Broadway-esquee love songs, ensured things remained consistently interesting. Especially of note was Reuben Liversidge's world weary Charon, and how Cassandra Ward and Caitlyn Conlin in particular both shone as an achingly gorgeous Persephone and an over-the-top Tantalus, respectively.
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Four Larks, Downtown; Closed April 6. Fourlarks.com.
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