A woman wakes alone, on a pile of trash, in the middle of the ocean. That might sound like the beginning of a Beckett play — the seabound woman an inheritor to sand-buried Winnie in Happy Days. But unlike Winnie, who at least has her husband, in Glass Half Full Theatre’s second full-length production, The Orchid Flotilla, the nameless protagonist is quite alone — nobody to talk with, nobody to hold close at night, nobody to ignore.
Conceived by Glass Half Full Artistic Director Caroline Reck (Austin puppetry fans will recognize her from many Trouble Puppet productions), who plays the woman, The Orchid Flotilla is a wordless, confined, beautiful exploration of loneliness and survival.
Here, the main stage at Salvage Vanguard is transformed into the surface of the ocean, far from shore, using just a few scenic elements, lights, and a subtle soundtrack of slapping waves, gusts of wind and an occasional bird cry to convey the setting’s isolation. Spending the entire piece tethered to her home — a tricked-out shopping carriage atop an island of trash — the woman goes about her day, washing up, eating food and plundering other floating garbage islands for useful or aesthetically pleasing junk.
At the outset, she may well be the saddest woman in the world, emotional exhaustion in her every gesture. But there are many moments of humor, especially as the audience recognizes her modified implements.
At the outset, she may well be the saddest woman in the world, emotional exhaustion in her every gesture. But there are many moments of humor, especially as the audience recognizes her modified implements: a multi-pronged tool for a hairbrush, kitchen items rigged up as a makeshift shower, improvised hair decorations.
And then there are the orchids. The piece is divided into several distinct episodes, intercut with shadow puppets on projections (by Erin Meyer) and a voiceover that recalls a video in high school science class. The interludes set up the next day in the woman’s life, describing an orchid behavior that is echoed in the onstage action. There’s potential for confusion in the link between plant behavior and the woman the audience connects with on stage, but the metaphor holds up, through the action and through a few hardy orchids surviving on the woman’s rig.
As I think about The Orchid Flotilla, I don’t want to call it theatre, at least not in the naturalistic sense. The performance felt more meditative performance art than a traditional play. Yet there is a narrative line, and its use of episodic chapters isn’t unfamiliar. Characters interact, though sometimes they’re a pair of pecking gulls formed out of Reck’s own feet as nobody in the play speaks aloud.
Most importantly, the loneliness on stage is moving. It’s palpable, in Reck’s forlorn face, as she replies to a passing gull, and even in moments of humor, like when she finds a stone-faced castaway to connect with.
There is, eventually, a second performer onstage, Gricelda Silva (I suspect she makes an appearance long before the audience can actually see her). She and Reck make a lovely contrast: Reck is tall, with long hair, long legs, and a long face (literally and, in this piece, idiomatically), while Silva is tiny, younger looking than Reck, with short, wavy hair and a compact body that lets her fit in places the other inhabitant of the flotilla can’t.
Appropriately dressed for their castaway state, Silva wears a loose romper made of bunchy red plastic, knotted at the neck, halter style, while Reck wears a coarser-looking yellow plastic bikini. But is the first woman there to nurture the second, or to be replaced by her?
The nature of their relationship becomes clearer, and by play’s end, the flotilla has basically returned to its original state. With its strange, isolated setting and playful performances, The Orchid Flotilla is a genuinely unique production. Check it out, and bring a life vest or a friend to keep you from floating off with the flotilla.