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Why did Orpheus look back when Hades told him he would lose his beloved Eurydice if he did? The simple answer is he had to be sure she was following. Less simple answers dwell on issues of fate and mortality, love and commitment, artist and muse. Like all great questions, it gives rise to other questions, which may be why since Orpheus’ first mention in sixth century BC, he has been the subject of countless artistic endeavors ranging from paintings and operas to pop songs and movies to the latest in Los Angeles, staged inside a run-down downtown warehouse.
“Our production really takes the perspective of what does Orpheus see when he looks back through history and hears all of the versions of the songs and all of the attempts to defy our own mortality by creating something beautiful,” Mat Sweeney tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Sweeney’s “junkyard opera” version of Orpheus has been lighting up the night in an abandoned warehouse on the edge of downtown L.A. since March 21, and will close this weekend. Tickets can only be purchased on the website, where the time and location of the performance are revealed.
In some ways the show has already begun as ticket buyers immediately wonder about the secret location. Arriving at an old fabric warehouse, they ascend a graffiti-tagged stairwell past a makeshift gallery of street art. On the second floor they’re admitted to a dimly lit alley of suspended muslin, finally arriving at a sand pit overstrung with little gold lights and the Dust Bowl setting of the stage, a six-piece orchestra seated in the shadows.
Zachary Sanders as Orpheus leads the cast including Reuben Liversidge, Caitlyn Conlin, Max Baumgarten, Mark Skeens, Lisa Salvo and Cassandra Ward. Sweeney and production designer Sebastian Peters-Lozaro co-direct from a score by Sweeney and Ellen Warkentine. The libretto was aggregated from sources as disparate as Ovid, Freud and Rilke by Sweeney, Peters-Lozaro and Jesse Rasmussen, founders of Four Larks, the iconoclastic experimental opera company based in Melbourne, Australia.
“Junkyard opera refers mostly to our visual aesthetic,” says Sweeney describing a set that includes a large wooden spool, age-worn trunks and wooden crates — found objects in a found space where found words are spoken. “The text that we’re working with is compiled from various sources and sort of collaged together to create something new.”
Uprooted from Melbourne when the three Americans found themselves “at the end of their visa line,” these guys are new to L.A., although Sweeney and Peters-Lozaro studied at UCLA for a couple of years. The trio arrived in Australia in 2007 for a one-off performance and found it so accommodating to their particular style, they decided to stay. There they staged several junkyard performances including an adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, The Temptation of St. Anthony and this site-specific production of Orpheus, which was trailed by excellent reviews to L.A where Four Larks hit the ground running just two months ago.
“The work that we love to make is so much based around an element of surprise in the experience, in finding new spots to work and really messing with people’s expectation about where they’ll find a performance and what kind of work they’re going to see,” explains Sweeney.
To do that takes a ton of work, setting up in a found area for a few performances, then tearing down and moving on. So why go through all that fuss instead of just signing a contract with one of the city’s many venues?
According to Sweeney they tried performing in theaters and it just didn’t feel right. “It’s really hard to replicate that energy in a proper theater space, really break them out of the box of the rules that come with attending the theater and challenge their expectations and set up a really magical space for a really special ritual to happen between the audience and the performer.”
So far they’re finding their new home in L.A. pretty accommodating. Orpheus was developed at the Getty Villa Theater Lab amid one of the largest collections of antiquities in North America numbering 44,000 pieces. Orphic Prayer Sheets on display found their way into the libretto, and company members was watched over by the sculpture The Poet as Orpheus With Two Sirens, which they passed on their way in and out of the villa every day.
As for the rest of Four Larks’ season, it’s anybody’s guess. They had a whole slate lined up in Melbourne before the visa problems, but for now it’s limbo in L.A. “It’s sort of been a blessing in disguise,” said Sweeney about the visa issues. “We’ve gotten such an incredible response here in L.A., so maybe this is all happening for a reason and this is where we’re meant to be.”
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