As fruit goes, oranges are pretty uninspiring. They don’t have a unique shape or an exotic flavor. They’re not used in any elaborate desserts. They’re not seasonal – they’re pretty much always around. They’re not really anyone’s favorite fruit. They’re ordinary. They’re plain. They’re unimportant. And they just may be the key to changing everything.
on the serenity of oranges is the latest encounter by Candle House Collective and their very first to utilize video. Running approximately forty minutes in length, on the serenity of oranges is a part of the help! collection – an assortment of standalone experiences in which the audience member takes on the role of a helpline volunteer. Occurring entirely over Google Meet, on the serenity of oranges is created by Evan Neiden and Stefan Schallack and directed by John Ertman. The experience is highly interactive and customized for each participant, however, agency over the story and where things are going seems to be pretty limited. While on the serenity of oranges deals with a variety of themes, it’s all built on one straightforward, yet enticing, question: What do you want to escape?
It’s the perfect question for this moment in time, and as a result, it’s also ingeniously leading. What I want to escape right now is very likely the same thing you, your friends and family and just about anyone else would like to escape if they could – our current reality. If there were a way to walk out the door and leave this global pandemic, sociopolitical strife and worsening recession behind, wouldn’t you gladly take it? Remarkably, the young man at the heart of on the serenity of oranges claims he can help you do just that.
That man is Mada, an effervescent home-cooked guru of sorts who’s played by the show’s co-creator Schallack. Mada claims that the key to escaping moments like our current one that are full of important, frightening things is to go in the exact opposite direction and become completely unimportant. Important things, like us, get caught up and trapped in other important things, like the present. Therefore, escaping depends on us becoming unimportant, like an orange.
Mada is an appealing, highly engaging character, and as a result, I found buying into what he’s selling to be remarkably easy. You don’t necessarily believe that it’s possible to turn yourself into an orange – either figuratively or literally – but Mada clearly does. He’s fully committed to it, and you’re likely to find yourself going along for the ride just to see where this is all going to end up…and in perfect Candle House Collective fashion, the answer is nowhere near where you’re anticipating.
Absurdity is something in which Neiden and Candle House Collective excel, and on the serenity of oranges is plenty absurd. At one point, a claim by Mada that you could make breathing unimportant if it wasn’t something that keeps us alive results in us furiously attempting to breathe through our fingers, ears and other parts of our body. Yet, there’s far more at work here than just absurdity. In fact, as on the serenity of oranges unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s one of the most painfully human stories that Candle House Collective has yet told. The self-help movement that Mada’s spiel is clearly sending up is hardly a new target for satire, yet like all good satire, it’s built around truth – the reason self-help gurus are successful is because there’s something about ourselves or our lives that we’re desperate to change.
What that thing is in Mada’s case is gradually made clear, and once it is, everything that you’ve been put through prior to then takes on new context (it also finally becomes clear why Mada is calling your helpline, something that’s easy to lose sight of over the course of the show). The discovery greatly alters the tone of the show, which slowly progresses from the fun and whimsy of the first half into something that’s at first concerning, then frightening and ultimately, heartbreaking.
Everyone wants to escape from their life on occasion, whether it’s by taking a vacation, reading a book or engaging with a piece of immersive theater. It’s rejuvenating, allows you to reset and it’s fun. However, these escapes are meant to be temporary. Eventually, we all have to come back to reality. It’s not even a matter of choice. Eventually, real life will assert itself, and if you’ve been resisting it, that realization is bound to be pretty harsh. Yet, it’s in acknowledging this that on the serenity of oranges ultimately makes its most reassuring – and cheekily ironic – point. While becoming unimportant and unnoticed, like an orange, may seem like a great method of escaping the difficulties of our lives, it’s the very people that we are important to and that do notice us that help us get through those difficult times and cope with the things we want to escape. In other words, it’s about embracing our importance to the people around us rather than running from it.
As Mada, Schallack offers a vibrant, unwavering performance that runs the emotional spectrum. Buying into Mada’s pretty ridiculous pitch hinges on the character quickly endearing himself to you, and Schallack pulls it off by blending both charisma and relatability that keeps you engaged with the performance even as Mada slowly and dramatically spirals out of control. Near the end, when the painful truth is revealed, the torment Schallack channels will likely stay with you for quite some time.
Ertman has directed much of Candle House Collective’s work, and he adapts nicely to the visual medium here, making clever use of video’s quirks and limitations and pushing audience expectations when it comes to remote immersive theater. There are moments where the screen is left empty for periods of time, but every one of them has a reason and audiences who heed Candle House’s warning not to end the call themselves will ultimately be rewarded.
on the serenity of oranges takes an absurd proposition and spins it into a heartfelt, all-too-human tale of pain and acceptance. Its journey is a highly emotional one that drives us from the heights of playfulness all the way to the lows of despair and heartbreak. An experience very much born of our time, on the serenity of oranges makes it clear that our need and desire to escape from the things that frighten us is natural and understandable, while also reminding us that we’d be much better off facing those things and finding strength in each other. While it’s easy to feel alone and isolated right now, just like it is in all difficult moments, on the serenity of oranges reminds us that strength comes from realizing what we’ve been saying since the start of this particular challenge – we really are all in this together.