Robyn Orlin

at the Blue Rider Theatre, May 8 and 9

Every little thing pays off in Upsy-Daisy!, Robyn Orlin’s new work: the bright red lip prints, the sparkly black pumps, the dozen or so multicolored bathing caps, the little windup duckies, the fishbowl, the sealed baggies full of water, even the two with the live goldfish in them.

Orlin, a South African artist known in her native country for her choreography, has been performing her remarkably visual work in Chicago for the last year. In the context of our town’s text-oriented performance community, Orlin immediately stands out: not a word is spoken during her show. But her athletic, richly layered work speaks in an intuitive, familiar language.

The version of Upsy-Daisy! performed at the Blue Rider takes place on an L-shaped platform, one leg of which is up against the wall (at the School of the Art Institute, where Orlin presented the piece for her master’s thesis, the platform hugged two walls, allowing more movement and creativity). Eric Leonardson of the Experimental Sound Studio sits underneath it and serves as a combination techie and gofer. He tinkers with the sound board, hands props to Orlin, puts things away, and at one point even acts as a kind of silent cheerleader. Although Leonardson is mostly buried under the platform, his presence is neither wholly pragmatic nor inconsequential. His deadpan expression and automatic gestures match Orlin’s, confirming, in a weird way, the piece’s invented reality.

That reality is both stark and playful. In Upsy-Daisy! Orlin toys with the notion of glamour and female Hollywood archtypes. Beneath this concept she layers a yearning for space in which to be truly vulnerable, truly real.

The figures Orlin evokes are Greta Garbo, Esther Williams (the most easily identifiable), and Louise Brooks (the toughest). Each takes a turn on the stage, with Orlin embodying each persona, examining its nooks and crannies, occasionaly inverting it, more often reveling in it. The irony here is more subtle than we might expect; the compassion is substantial. (When I spoke with Orlin after the show, she explained that ultimately hers is a third-world view of Hollywood, and I suspect that may be the source of her great empathy. Mysteriously, Hollywood seems to have a stronger hold the farther you get from it.

In Orlin’s universe, Garbo (who comes off a bit more like Marlene Dietrich than I think Orlin intended) rejects the paper kisses of her admirers for much-needed solitude. The price, however, is a surplus of loneliness. In Orlin’s hands, Brooks is trapped between expectations of what she should do and what she wants to do. A frustrated dancer, Orlin’s Brooks uses shoes in a most miraculous, erotic fashion: they make love to her, comfort her, torture her a little.

Orlin’s Williams risks becoming a caricature in order to promote what’s important to her: a new sport, a new view of women as capable and strong, her own financial independence. The Williams section is easily the most developed, the most complete and concrete of the three, and the one with perhaps the most relevance to contemporary women’s issues. It also ends the show with a deep sense of wonder, a terrific human connection.

Throughout the program, Orlin’s impeccable. Her timing’s sure and confident, her movements are supple and nuanced. She’s a master of the deadpan, an expert on transitions. Her skill at performing makes the otherworldly visuals accessible; you never notice what a strange place she’s led you to, just its magic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Claudia Vera.