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Orange Girls, R.I.P.

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theat_orange-girls_sm.gifBye, Orange Girls. I'll miss your smarts and your theater magic and your gestalt superpowers.








Don't fall in love with a comic book store, book shop, video-rental joint, art gallery or theater company, I've had to learn. They won't be around forever. Our ever-more corporate world means the slow death of the mom-and-pop store, and a rougher road for your favorite low-budget, artsy concern, too.

Still, love blooms where it will, out of our control. And so I was dumbfounded to learn that the beloved Orange Girls would be going on indefinite hiatus after the troupe's current production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World. The Orange Girls? Really? How can they be folding??

I gather that the triumvirate of O.G. founders Brooke Edwards, Michelle Hand and Meghan Maguire are not closing up shop because the money tree has withered, however. Rather, they feel other demands (family, jobs, miscellaneous life adventures) pulling them away from their group. So, "nothing gold can stay," "all things must pass" and other clichés. I refuse to let them fade away without a proper eulogy, though.

Like many, I was kinda shocked by the Orange Girls' production of Going to See the Elephant back in 2005. I had read the script to see if I wanted to preview or review it in the local press, and I was impressed, but not overwhelmed. It was the solid tale of a group of pioneers dealing with disease, Native Americans, and other frontier issues in the Old West. It reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, with—thankfully—a bit less schmaltz. It had potential.

Seeing the show, though, turned out to be the perfect exemplar of why you go to see shows. The actors were subtle in their roles. Their interactions were fresh. They embraced the script just the way it seemed to want to be embraced. And who was this Brooke Edwards? In the role of a stubborn, overgrown tomboy-woman, she was tough but transparently vulnerable, and a revelation in her every scene.

There was a complete suspension of disbelief. As the action rose, the actors rose to the challenge. I was not alone that night in feeling transported, utterly and magnificently. This was a group of actors and director actually capable of elevating a good script into a completely immersive, empathic, flawless experience. They took something good, and made it spectacular. I've seen that happen in St. Louis theater less than a half dozen times in ten years.

Going to See the Elephant won three Kevin Kline Awards (the St. Louis version of the Tony). People were quietly dumbstruck. The award, in its first year of existence, was already a big deal around these parts. This theater company, in its first year of existence (for only a partial season yet), was (outwardly) small potatoes. Who? Huh? How?

This was a case where the judges got it absolutely right, though. If you saw it, you had to be not merely charmed by this particular little production, but bowled over. It was as if a collection of gifted musicians had found one another, gelled and unleashed their music onto an audience hungry for real rock. Hell, yes.

The other O.G. production that reminded me what this group could do when firing on all cylinders was 2007's Playhouse Creatures. The drama about 17th-century women finally being allowed to act onstage offers a history lesson on the real "Orange Girls," who went from selling fruit outside the theater to finally treading the boards.

The production turned out to be the reason for the "best ensemble" category at awards presentations. There were so many spot-on performances clicking together with such honesty you understood that this was a play that was seemingly written for the Orange Girls, as a showcase for both female virtuosity and solidarity. Playhouse Creatures, more so than any other play could, defined what the Orange Girls were—by, of and for women. They would not bore you or insult your intelligence. With the right script, they could made enchantment out of thin air.

Part of the Playhouse Creatures experience, too, was the renewed opportunity to witness the mettle of actresses Hand and Maguire and frequent Orange Girls players Nancy Lewis and Magan Wiles. There is no cause for concern when you go to see a drama with any one of these actresses (or Edwards, called out earlier in this piece) in the playbill. If the experience suffers, it is never for their performances. They have a way of going deep with their characters, consistently. It's so satisfying.

Lest you think this a gust of hot air, art lovers understand that all things lie on a continuum. We only have so many people in St. Louis, and only so many artists and actors and theater companies. Surely some company will step forward eventually to fill this void (and the void in the swanky black-box theater at COCA), but how will the caliber of the acting and the shows hold up? And to many local actresses, the real question is how will we make up for the loss of a group founded by women, dedicated to staging plays with strong, lead roles for women?

Still, this theater company's heyday was waaaaay too short. The quality of life in our burg just dipped a notch.

Bye, Orange Girls. I'll miss your smarts and your theater magic and your gestalt superpowers—the whole was definitely bigger than the sum of its parts. | Byron Kerman

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