Language, Logs & Love

The first production of Soho’ Rep’s 2010-11 season, Orange, Hat & Grace, written by Gregory Moss and directed by Sarah Benson, was originally developed during the organization’s own Writer/Director lab. This world premiere is an excellent rendering of an original new play, and will make for an engaging evening for fans of experimental plays and those who are looking for an alternative to conventional realism. Set in a rural cabin in the woods, Orange, Hat & Grace describes the courtship of Orange by Hat, a younger man, and charts the progression of their relationship. Orange is haunted by Grace, the daughter she abandoned as an infant years earlier.

However, the life of the play does not lie in its plot or characters, but in the language that they speak and the world they construct from it on a moment by moment basis. The characters share and teach each other words as they build the relationships that bind them together. Hat’s favorite word, “hep,” acquires meaning as he “woos” Orange, who gradually becomes accustomed to it as she does to him. Orange teaches Hat the words for various types of trees and their leaves, and tries to teach him to stop using curse words. Eventually, Hat teaches new words to Grace, an activity that in itself generates conflict between him and Orange. The script’s wordplay and rhythms are mesmerizing, and the best way to enjoy the play is to focus on each new line as it emerges, as the characters do.

The only part of Moss’ script that doesn’t really work is the ending, which forces the question of the nature of Grace’s reality (“real” person, ghost, figment of imagination?) into stark focus. This question isn’t relevant in a world that associates itself into existence on a moment by moment basis, and feels like an attempt to impose closure on a work that would have been better left to evolve in a more unexpected direction.

Stephanie Roth Haberle is captivating as Orange, and her nuanced performance as this complex, contradictory character anchors the production. Mathew Maher is similarly excellent as Hat, presenting him as aggressive and vulnerable in turn. The lead characters’ intense need for each other is evident from their first meeting, and the high stakes the actors bring lend their verbal exchanges great energy, and often humor. Grace’s motivations are never clear, but Reyna de Courcy does a credible job portraying the damaged, spectral figure.

The set design, by Rachel Hauck, reads like an elaborate and minutely rendered joke that only becomes funnier as the show progresses. As the characters constantly announce their locations and actions and describe their surroundings, the script’s actual need for a high-budget set is nonexistant. “Whatchu doing? Orange asks in one early scene. “Break off a piece a wood,” Hat responds, as he does so. Or,“Chop chop chop. Wonder what I look like chopping wood,” Hat says later, swinging a highly realistic ax into an almost excessively detailed, large log. Yet, the audience is presented with Orange’s entire one-room cabin, featuring suitably weathered wooden furniture and even a cast-iron stove.

The props, designed by Michelle Davis, are in a vein similar to that of the set, and successful for the same reasons. The costumes, by David Hyman, are simple, yet effectively place the characters in a dreamlike version of pioneer days, complete with buttoned-up long undewear. Matt Frey’s lighting design includes bare bulbs that assist in conveying scene changes as well as atmosphere. Sarah Benson’s staging makes excellent use of the range of playing spaces and possibilities opened by the script and set.

Adventurous theatergoers will enjoy Orange, Hat & Grace, and the unusual opportunity of seeing such a polished production of such an offbeat and entertaining script.

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