Friday, November 18, 2016

"Orange" at Mixed Blood Theatre

Being 17 is hard enough, but for a young woman on the Autism spectrum raised in India and returning to the strange land of her birth - Orange County, California - it's even more challenging. Mixed Blood Theatre's Playwright in Residence Aditi Brennan Kapil premieres her 7th new work there, the funny, poignant, imaginative story of the unusual but perfect Leela in Orange. In just 90 minutes with no intermission (a morning person's dream), the excellent three-person cast takes us on Leela's one-night adventure and, aided by a really cool set, makes us feel like we're right there with her as she begins to grow up and gain her independence.

The story begins on an airplane as Leela and her mother fly from Calcutta to Orange County to attend a family wedding. Leela's father, who lives there separate from the family and doesn't know how to deal with his autistic daughter, is not happy to see them. He tells Leela to just be quiet and unseen at the wedding. Leela meets her older cousin Priti who wants to have one last fun night in Orange County before leaving home for college, and brings Leela along on her adventure with her on-again-off-again boyfriend Gar. From the beach to a grocery store to an encounter with a homeless man, Leela learns about herself and her world, and discovers that she can be alone, and that she will be OK, even if no gods appear to help. Leela's touchstone throughout this adventure is the orange - she naturally assumes that she would see many oranges in a place called Orange County. They come to provide a sense of security for her in this strange world.

Mixed Blood's black box theater has been in the same set-up for what feels like forever, but has really only been 6 months or so. Still, one of the advantages of this space in an old firehouse is the ability to move the stage and audience around to suit the piece, and they've done that quite effectively here. The corridor stage places the audience on two sides of the action, with the long central corridor allowing us to feel the movement of Leela's journey. Joseph Stanley's ingenious set has props and set pieces popping out of doors like a surprising advent calendar, operated quickly and efficiently by a stagehand between scenes. Another cool feature of the design of the show is that Leela's drawings (she's constantly documenting her adventure in her journal) are projected onto screens on either side of the stage, which gives us a bit more insight into Leela's mind as we see the world through her eyes (illustrations by Megan Reilly).

Owais Ahmed, Annelyse Ahmad, and Lipica Shah
(photo by Rich Ryan)
This terrific cast is made up of two Chicago based actors and one non-local but familiar actor; the versatile Lipica Shah has appeared at Mixed Blood before. She and Owais Ahmed play all of the characters in Leela's world, from her parents to her teenage adventure buddies, and manage to make each character distinct and interesting (aided by Janet O'Neill's costumes that quickly help to define the characters). Annelyse Ahmad is our Leela, and subtly shows us that there's much more going on beneath the seemingly emotionless surface.

The funny and poignant coming of age adventure Orange continues at Mixed Blood Theatre through December 4. Advance reservations are $25, or just show up and take advantage of their Radical Hospitality program, in which tickets are free beginning two hours prior to showtime.