A universal convention

Applied Mechanics presents Other Orbits

3 minute read
Tuomanen under a black-light that renders their spiky costume and long gloves in hot neon colors against a blue backdrop.
Worth seeing for the excellent design and performances: MK Tuomanen in ‘Other Orbits’ by Applied Mechanics. (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

In 2016, I joined many Philadelphia communications and social-media professionals who volunteered to staff the Democratic National Committee Convention. I learned just how much happens off-camera and out of the limelight at a convention like this. While the evening events were filled with celebrities and VIPS and broadcast to the masses, most of what happened during the day was small meetings where special issues were discussed and platforms were debated. And I mention all of this to introduce Applied Mechanics and the latest installment of its serialized Other Orbits performance piece, running through Saturday, July 22, at Standby Stages in Kensington.

Some organisms walk into a convention

It’s hard to explain Other Orbits. It starts off with an introduction of all of the delegates to a convention that is taking place on either another planet or on our own, but after, there are no more humans to occupy it. The delegates range from a sentient microphone (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) to a blackberry bramble (Brett Ashley Robinson) to a geode (Justin Jain) to a whale (Severin Blake), and more. They have come together to agree on a platform. Why? For what? It’s unclear.

There are rules established—the gestures and words for when a delegate agrees, disagrees, or is unsure. The instructions go by quickly, but it’s helpful if the audience internalizes them; there’s not a quiz later, per se, but it’s helpful to know what they mean to follow some of the action later.

There’s also a secondary area at the convention—an exhibition plaza, not dissimilar to an expo at a major convention—where there’s karaoke, dancing, and a selection of artifacts from the world of the play that the audience (and the in-world delegates) can explore. If the audience chooses, they can get a tour of it from a sentient streptococcus bacterium (MK Tuomanen). They can learn a dance from a mutant alien named Malroosh (Izzy Sazak), who is, as the program explains, part walrus and part mushroom. Or, they can choose to stay back in the council chambers and watch the convention platform being debated. This is also where Jain’s geode begins to experience an existential spiral before ceding the role of convention moderator to Mjälper (eppchez yo-sí yes): part elk, part pig, and all nervous energy.

Choose-your-own adventure

I bounced between the two rooms as the conventioneers splintered into different groups and factions, frequently trying to follow the action of two or more scenes happening simultaneously around me.

There are some beautiful moments in director Rebecca Wright's production. Some are downright brilliant—Tuomanen’s tour of the Exchange Plaza and Jain’s karaoke performance of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” with new lyrics tailored to the show, are especially memorable. The Applied Mechanics team includes some of the most accomplished theater artists in Philadelphia. But some of the chaos of Other Orbits also leads to confusion. One of the delegates dies, but I didn’t know why because I was following a different segment. A seemingly pivotal part of the platform is adopted, but because I missed the discussion leading up to the vote, I had no idea how high the stakes truly were.

Three visits?

I love immersive works of theater that allow you to follow your own path, but there’s just too much happening in Other Orbits. Maybe that’s why Applied Mechanics is selling a ticket three-pack, so the audience can go back and follow a different thread. Maybe after three performances, the story will be clearer. Or maybe what will be clearest of all is that it doesn’t have to be.

Other Orbits might be worth seeing for its excellent design (Deb O on set, Maria Shaplin on lighting and graphics, Elizabeth Atkinson on sound, and Nikki Delhomme on costumes) and for the cast’s performances. But it’s also hard to follow, and ultimately, I honestly couldn’t tell you if I enjoyed it. But maybe that’s the point: the confusing, chaotic, and perhaps unsatisfying experience of Other Orbits also makes it a whole lot like attending an actual convention.

What, When, Where

Other Orbits. By Applied Mechanics, directed by Rebecca Wright. $15-$50. Through July 22, 2023, at Standby Stages, 2033 E Silver Street, Philadelphia.


Standby Stages is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Masks are required during the performances.

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