ORCHIDELIRIUM by Dave Carley, directed by Sue Miner, with Patrick Galligan, Joel Hechter, Tanja Jacobs and Anne Page. Presented by Pea Green and Theatre Voce at the Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). Previews tonight (Thursday, February 20), opens Friday (February 21) and runs to March 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $19-$25, Sunday pwyc. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
Orchids are turning into a major creative obsession. They're the centrepiece of Spike Jonze's fascinating film Adaptation, and now they're the focus of a striking new play.
Orchidelirium is the result of a collaboration between playwright Dave Carley, Pea Green's Sue Miner and Mark Brownell and Theatre Voce's Anne Page and Joel Hechter.
In Carley's entertaining tale, intrepid explorers, determined scientists and high-minded heiresses share a fascination with orchids, those most exotic of blooms.
Two of Orchidelirium's four obsessed characters are in the present, two in the 1890s. The tales are linked by the two women, one the orchid-loving daughter of a wealthy stove manufacturer in 1895 Pittsburgh and the other her great-great-niece, an ethnobotanist -- in the same greenhouse -- fighting the incursion of a pharmaceutical giant into her university work.
The men, who in some way revolve around these strong-willed women, are a British orchid expert and a Mormon missionary seeking a lost species for the scientist. Each man is more mobile than his female counterpart; the women are greenhouse-bound because of a family motion sickness.
The allure of orchids isn't restricted to the play's characters.
"The people we've been meeting in our research and visits to orchid shows are fascinating themselves," says director Miner. "Their passion is clear in both the time and money they devote to the flowers.
"It's as if each bloom speaks to the grower after a while. There's that odd sexual quality to orchids -- they're like man and woman rolled into one little beastie -- and that's certainly part of their appeal.
"The size and colour of the flowers are seemingly infinitely varied. And then there are the smells. Some are like cinnamon or coffee, or occasionally," Miner wrinkles her nose at the memory, "carrion."
I saw a tantalizing workshop of Orchidelirium that Miner directed last season with Page as Alice, the rich Victorian orchid fancier who wants to improve the lot of the working class. Part of her well-intentioned plan is to import to America, for the spiritual edification of her father's workers, all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. That idea might sound farcical, but it's based -- and had an unexpectedly tragic outcome -- in historical fact.
"Alice is resolved to live with her loneliness," explains Page, who first made an impression in the 94 Fringe with Clockface. "The orchids soak up her sexual energy and imagination. Because she can't travel, she ends up fearing the world and connecting with it only through a group made up of similarly wealthy women."
The life of Frances, her modern-day, counterpart, is focused on the same greenhouse, which is now owned by the local university. In fact, each woman is rather like a hothouse bloom unable to acclimatize to the outside world. Frances works in the greenhouse on the sufferance of the school, which is being wooed by a pharmaceutical conglomerate that aims to swallow her orchid work and turf her out.
Carley's clever plays -- among them Taking Liberties, Into and Writing With Our Feet -- often weave a subtle political or social message into the dryly humorous interaction between characters. Here university politics and money-hungry multinationals take some satiric hits.
"But I also love the fact that his plays often have their own magic rules that set up a world where certain conventions exist," says Miner, who's directed Carley's After You, in which magic realism allows two women to talk to their younger selves.
"In Orchidelirium's first act, the four characters are all in different geographic locales, and it all makes dramatic sense. Dave plays with conceits about bending the space-time continuum, making up the rules about how best to tell his story. Then the audience comes along for the ride."Adding yet another dimension, the two couples producing the play offer a parallel to the pairs of characters. Both twosomes bring their own strengths to the production.