Daniel Tobias is happy to be onstage. He is energetic, buoyant even, which takes the audience somewhat by surprise. “Isn’t this an autobiographical show about testicular cancer?” They think. “Shouldn’t things be a little more solemn? Why is he holding a guitar?”
Tobias is holding a guitar because the Orchid and the Crow, his one man Malthouse sponsored show, is less grim theatre recount and more cabaret celebration. Music is integral to the way Tobias shares his story. With the help of Clare Bartholomew, John Thorn, Jherek Bischoff and Casey Bennetto, Tobias has written playful songs to complement his storytelling. The performance begins with a musical prologue, the story of Tobias’ parents and their romance. The songs skip through genres, from rock and roll to show business to opera and back again, making full use of the talents of the writing team. Rather than disjointed, these shifts feel inclusive, mirroring Tobias’ personality and experiences.
Confessional seems the best descriptor of the show overall. The play is staged in the Tower Theatre, up several winding metal stair cases, through a glass corridor and atop more stairs; it is one of the Malthouse’s smaller spaces, seating perhaps 50 to 100 people. The stage itself is slightly raised and bordered by a line of lights. The dressing is sparse – some hospital curtains, small boxes and Tobias’ guitar make for a quiet, personal set. Tobias is comes on in street clothes, and the more he talks and sings, the more the space feels like a corner of his mind you’ve been invited to explore. Sarah Beetson and Darcy McFall’s illustration and animation skills are particularly engaging, and Lisa Mibus’ lighting design underscores the tone of each scene and song perfectly.
The Orchid and the Crow deals with young Tobias’ diagnosis of stage three testicular cancer, the impact of cultural Judaism on secular families, and the difficulties with idolising cyclist Lance Armstrong. On the surface, these are specific topics that inform Tobias’ life and identity, but underneath the personal story are universal reflections on the roles of just about everything. The centrality of faith in the production is less religious and more human, a kind of self mocking but ultimately affirming discussion rather than an utterly cynical and gloomy one. For all his close encounters with god and death, Tobias manages to keep himself, the audience and the show positive.
The Orchid and the Crow may not cause a life changing epiphany, but it does succeed in being both comforting and reflective theatre. Don’t forget to take along an extra few dollars for tasty post show snack.
The Orchid and the Crow is on at the Malthouse from February 13 to the 22nd. It runs for 75 minutes with no interval and contains mature themes. Tickets are $32 or $22 concession and are available from the Malthouse website.