The Redmoon Theater-sponsored in-the-park spectacle titled "Twilight Orchard" invites audiences of all ages to explore "an evening of spectacle poetry, massive pageantry, and interactive performances as the natural environment unfolds into a mysterious and arresting garden of the imagination."
I found myself harkening back to this statement, wondering if its elusiveness was key to the event. I was looking for the bigger picture in a frame that held a human-sized wicker bird nest and jack-o-lantern shaped ivory globes embossed with crop-duster silhouettes, when I should have taken it for what it was: a truly unique meditation on the macabre.
"Twilight Orchard" at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. through Oct. 9 is a spectacular tour-de-force of set direction and costume design. It conjoins several sets designed by the artists themselves throughout the park.
Most sets are a cross between 17th-century English Renaissance and 19th-century Impressionism. Music and visuals combine to conjure images both mysterious and foreboding. There is a definite feeling of menace in many of the works, with candles illuminating most of them, reminding one of a prayer vigil and ominous ambient harmonies, creating the feeling that whatever is happening at the moment could be both horrifying and delightful, bringing a sense of reality to a garden of the fictive.
Along with the various elaborate sets, that make wonderful use of the park's trees, gullies and bushes with bird's nests in which visitors can leave written or typed comments to dangle like ornaments for the organizers to read. There are also 14-foot moveable walls, which continually transform into different rooms with various characters inside, and "sound pods" traveling throughout the park, the aural equivalent of bats gathering around a haunted Transylvania mansion. But when the butler comes to the door, he isn't dressed in a tuxedo; he's wearing fish gills over his ears and a bright teal jump suit.
Carol McCurdy's "Cure for Scurvy," which is directly at the base of the lagoon, is an example of the way dread can be created virtually out of thin air. In this piece, McCurdy is holding a lantern preparing to take to the waters in a boat made of a bathtub and a kitchen curtain. She looks as though she's suffering from dementia, eyes darting between the crowd and her boat as if deciding whether to stay or go. It is brilliant in its ability to tell enough and not enough, leaving the audience to connect the pieces.
Another standout is "Violet Furnace" by Valerie Taglieri, which surrounds its protagonist with baskets of purple fruit, some overturned and others lined together. Violet lights dangle from tree limbs, which Taglieri looks at with, at times bewilderment, at other times joy, as well as enchantment and fear. It is a masterpiece of minimalist ambiance, taking a simple item, a light, and elevating it to a thing that is both awe-inducing and fearful. The violet spheres have become both a prison for her and a refuge. She feels safe but also wants to break free of the chains of her environment. Taglieri's acting makes the pieces work. Her facial expressions are something to behold.
"Canary Chamber" is odder and less meditative, but no less effective. It depicts artist Marisa Heilman, dressed like Pippi Longstocking, with the twin upturned pigtails to match, whistling on a tree swing while trying to lure canaries into traps that are cleverly disguised as books. The set is whimsical and odd, creating questions that the viewer will not have definite answers for but will be compelled to consider anyway.
Not every piece is as successful as the aforementioned. Steven Teichelman's "Cosmic Pagoda" finds its protagonist dressed presumably as a giant squid, manually ringing a bell to symbolize a telephone, answering a telephone, and exchanging words with whoever is on the receiving end, using phrases like "This is He"/"April"/"The lemons are in the nests"/"I'll be right there!" He then slams the phone down and begins again. It's one of the few scenes that actually features spoken dialogue, which makes it unique on one level but also forces the viewers' attention away from the art direction as they try to decipher its message from his words. Teichelman ends up upstaging his own piece.
Judy Radovsky's "Orange Hour" depicts two engaged chess players, both dressed as medieval court jesters standing over a board contemplating their next move as grandfather clock chimes sound in the distance. The jazz music playing concurrently creates disorientation that actually aids the overall effect, but because the piece is not as visually arresting or unusual as the others, and since it is only two people playing chess, it fails to leave a strong impression.
Another problem I had was the layout of the map. When patrons enter the spectacle, they are handed a map pinpointing the coordinates of each performance; however, even with maps in tow the pieces were hard to identify. A few title cards at the base of each exhibit would have worked wonders.
Redmoon Theater traditionally holds very inventive park performances and have done so again this time. Tickets are $10. Kids 12 and under get in free. The show is also free for all in the adjacent neighborhoods including Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Oak Park, but you have to call for reservations.