Other Orbits (Applied Mechanics): A Space Fantasia That Falls Short
Having the opportunity to be immersed in a space for a theatrical experience can be wonderful. It can also be awkward, messy, and uncomfortable as the audience has no barrier between them and the play. Other Orbits, the new show by theatre collective Applied Mechanics, is somehow both and neither at the same time. While there are imaginative design and technical aspects on display, the meat and heart of the play seem to be missing, extremely convoluted, or missed due to dispersed presentation.
Is There Sentient Life Out There?
Upon entering the theatrical space, the audience is transported to the planet Dthlorp. Then come rushing in our eleven aliens who we will be spending the evening with, who explain that this is their planetary council meeting, it will be taking place in two separate rooms. The audience is free to explore and follow characters as they please, and then the show gets going. The eleven aliens on display represent the various species on the planet Dthlorp, and there is a sparse meeting agenda to let the audience know roughly what might happen.
What works well are the technical aspects. The space at Standby Stages is wonderfully transformed to feel trippy and alien-esque. Kudos to Set Designer Deb O and Associate Set Designer JBroc for their work with recyclable materials to make the majority of the set piece. The intricacies of the wall designs in both rooms are really fantastic, and engaging to look at. Costume designer Nikki Delhomme also does wonderful work balancing the alien creature designs that make them both look whimsical and otherworldly. The use of light within most of the costumes was also a wonderful addition and really helped connect them to the world around them.
The most impressive technical aspects were the three characters who were made up of inanimate objects and brought to life by audio acting alone. The craft of their designs, as well as the way they were executed via light cues and voice recordings/ audio magic was really special.
Is this the Final Frontier?
Devised and experimental theatre holds an important place in the world of theatre as a whole. These styles of theatre, usually paired along with absurdism, aim to process large grand ideas through explorartive thinking and world building. Sometimes they are successful in getting the ideas across, however Other Orbits is not able to stick the landing of its own existence. The main crux of the show is the inter-species relationships and how they continue to survive. It is established early on that they all coexist and work together in harmony, and this is tested when one of the species states that they are being killed off by one of the other species mere existence. While this would be a fine enough focal point for the show, it sadly dilutes any intended message through its' dispersed presentation, with multiple important scenes (and even a character death) potentially missed by audience members distracted by the belting of Heart's "Alone" in the next room (that is not a joke, there are some pop songs sung throughout).
The show then betrays its' own message by asking the audience to pick and choose a storyline, when some seemed to meander; thus, it never answers the question of personal responsibility within these aliens relationships, instead settling on a kumbaya-esque response that we all still need to work together. Death and evolution are briefly acknowledged, but then the show continues on with barely any true acknowledgement of the philosophical questions at its' core. Instead, it seems more invested in moving to the next piece of silliness, or a joke about Susan Thompson (the planet's deity who has a regular human name...and yes, this bit will stay well past its' welcome). There can be actual answers in the whimsy and absurd, but they need a sense of clarity that is lacking here.
C'mon Teletubbies, teleport us to Mars!
Theatre is, of course, subjective, and what I feel didn't work, you might obsess over. The artists at Applied Mechanics are wildly creative, but this particular piece seems to lack a focus and finesse of storytelling that would make this a one of a kind theatrical experience. This show could use more incubation time, or maybe a planetary transplant to make it what it wants to be, instead of the uncertain, silly feeling it leaves behind.
Other Orbits is playing at Standby Stages, 2033 E. Silver St. from now until July 22, 2023.