The Orchestra Review - What Did I Just Watch?

 

Akvavit Theatre presents the U.S. premiere of The Orchestra, the story of a group of aging rock stars hoping for one final chance at fame, written by Finnish playwright Okko Leo. At times completely predictable and at times totally bizarre, this hodgepodge story makes for a performance that is both confusing and dull.

 

(left to right) Tony St. Clair, Jim Poole, Steven Herson, Josiah Kumpost and Ryan David Heywood in Akvavit Theatre’s U.S. premiere of THE ORCHESTRA by Okko Leo, directed by Brad Akin. Photo by Sooz Main

 

The top of the play shows some promise; the dynamic between mentally slow but very sincere Halla and practical but Zen-obsessed Rane produces some moments of genuine interest as they discuss cell phone minutes, guns, and lead singer Jase’s constant lateness. Even the introduction of young, newbie drummer Timi, whose cockiness after gaining admission into a prestigious music conservatory annoys the more experienced players, while predictable, is not irredeemably awful. It is only after Jase enters that the play begins to go downhill.

 

When Timi asks if he can have the hundred euros’ pay he is owed from their last gig, Jase begins a diatribe about what it means to be a band, expounding on how the things they create together are worth far more than money and so on. The speech seems to revel in its own pretentious affectations, and the band’s symbolic placing of thirty-five euros each into a “kitty,” or communal coin purse, rings more hollow than true.

 

(left to right) Steven Herson, Tony St. Clair, Ryan David Heywood, Jim Poole and Josiah Kumpost in Akvavit Theatre’s U.S. premiere of THE ORCHESTRA by Okko Leo, directed by Brad Akin. Photo by Sooz Main

 

Indeed, for a play that subtitles itself “a study in solidarity,” the first act is consumed mostly with predictable arguments and division among the group. Particularly bizarre is the treatment of the character Hannu, who appears to be the group’s saxophone player. Not only is he silent and completely unacknowledged by the other characters, but the bulk of the director’s note in the program is dedicated to informing the audience that the role really doesn’t add much to the story and warning that while actor Ryan David Heywood is very talented and hardworking, they might have to pull him at a moment’s notice because of budget concerns. Possibly this is someone’s idea of a joke, but why it was necessary to include it in the program is beyond me. Charming and slightly bewildered by the events onstage, Heywood’s silent reactions at times become a source of relief from the rambling speeches of other characters.

 

(left to right) Josiah Kumpost, Jim Poole, Ryan David Heywood, Steven Herson and Tony St. Clair in Akvavit Theatre’s U.S. premiere of THE ORCHESTRA by Okko Leo, directed by Brad Akin. Photo by Sooz Main

 

In act two the story becomes entirely bizarre. Earlier in the show, Jase informed his bandmates that he had secured them a gig with famous pop star and “Idols” TV show winner Simone (who also happens to be Halla’s stepsister), which will rocket them to unprecedented fame and glory. When Simone finally arrives at the top of the second act, we learn that no such gig exists and that Jase has actually tricked Simone into coming to the wedding they're playing. He then manipulates her using a fake story about a plane crash to get her to sympathize with the band and agree to perform one song with them.

 

(left to right) Steven Herson, Bergen Anderson and Jim Poole in Akvavit Theatre’s U.S. premiere of THE ORCHESTRA by Okko Leo, directed by Brad Akin. Photo by Sooz Main

 

Things turn sour, however, when the wedding party’s Karelian hot pot (a kind of Finnish stew) goes missing and the band is blamed. The ensuing argument uses the phrase “Karelian hot pot” so many times that I will never be able to sample the dish, since I will forever associate it with being annoyed. Simone, laughing cruelly, finally reveals that she poured the stew into the bushes just because she could, and for a brief moment she transforms from an ethereal Taylor Swift to power-hungry psychopath as she assaults Timi and then screams through the door that she’s being raped and tortured. Actress Bergen Anderson handles these moments with skill and intensity, but unfortunately they don’t last long. In the ensuing chaos, Halla fires Rane’s gun and the situation takes a bizarre turn as the band barricades themselves inside their room and police are called to negotiate what has now become a hostage situation.

 

(left to right) Jim Poole, Steven Herson and Tony St. Clair in Akvavit Theatre’s U.S. premiere of THE ORCHESTRA by Okko Leo, directed by Brad Akin. Photo by Sooz Main

 

For some inexplicable reason, the band decides that this is a good thing and that now they can all come together as one, as each of them chooses a “wish” to have granted by the police in exchange for not harming Simone. Some of the wishes seem far-fetched, including Halla’s desire to understand why the “bride with the little tits” from their last gig kept asking the guests if they loved her. Even more far-fetched is Simone’s wish to join their band and finally be a part of something bigger than herself, a saccharine proclamation that is celebrated joyously by the band, who have all apparently forgotten Simone’s cruel and manipulative behavior from earlier.

 

(left to right) Josiah Kumpost, Ryan David Heywood, Steven Herson, Jim Poole, Tony St. Clair and Bergen Anderson in Akvavit Theatre’s U.S. premiere of THE ORCHESTRA by Okko Leo, directed by Brad Akin. Photo by Sooz Main

 

The play ends with a text message from the police announcing that all of the band’s wishes have been fulfilled. They walk joyously offstage, Rane with his gun in hand.

 

If the lesson we are supposed to take from this play is that it’s a grand idea to commit a crime so that your dreams can come true and you can learn true solidarity, then I’m not sure why anyone would think it a good idea to produce it. If the lesson is something else, then it’s wholly unclear what that something is. The entire play is a mishmash of the mundane and the absurd that left me confused and unsatisfied. It’s a shame, especially since the Akvavit seems to have gathered some good acting and design talent; however, it is impossible to appreciate that work in the context of something so bizarre. I’m not sure what this theatre company drawing “inspiration [from] the striking landscapes of the five Nordic countries” is hoping to achieve here, but what they’ve presented is incohesive and unengaging.

 

Ticket Information

LocationRivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago

Dates: Thursday, December 12, 2015 – Sunday, January 10, 2016

Curtain Times:  Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. 

Please note: there will not be performances on Thursday, December 24 (Christmas Eve) and Friday, December 25 (Christmas Day). 

Tickets: $20. Students/seniors $15. Tickets are currently available here.

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