Orange Lemon Egg Canary—the title of a play written by Rinne Groff—describes an enchanting magic trick: An orange is peeled to reveal a lemon within, and when the lemon is peeled, an egg is discovered inside. The egg is cracked and a canary is released to the appreciative 'oohs and aaahs' of the audience.
Peel back the layers of Groff's play—which features actual magic performed onstage— and you'll discover a complex examination of truth vs. illusion.
Orange Lemon Egg Canary is the story of 'Great,' a renegade magician and his relationship with his sexy new assistant, 'Trilby,' who manages to convince the magician to reveal the secrets behind some of his tricks. 'China,' Great's previous assistant and former lover, was harmed performing the climatic trick of their act, in which she appeared to be impaled on a spike. 'China,' who claims her name is actually 'Egypt,' seems to be plotting revenge against the magician, who, despite his name, is apparently not that great when it comes to personal relationships.
Dennis Watkins, an openly gay actor and magician, breathes life into the role of Great for Uma Productions. Watkins, 28, grew up in a family of magicians, with his grandfather as his teacher—just like in the play!
Windy City Times: Talk about art-imitating-life for you in this production and how this has informed your interpretation of Great?
Dennis Watkins: There is a real emotional connection between a lot of what Great says and my personal experience. It's really nice to be able to tap into the character's history so immediately. Certainly, there is a lot about Great that is very different from me. However, the things that are similar are like candy for me. Rinnie Groff writes about magic very well. The information about magic—about how it works, about its fundamental qualities and theories—is great. Her research was very strong and it informs the play quite a bit. There are sections of the text that talk about magic in ways that are remarkably similar to lessons I learned from my grandfather. There are moments in the play when Great is talking about magic, or when Henrietta is talking about magic, that I can almost hear my grandfather's voice. It's wonderful.
WCT: There are times when mainstream entertainment outlets will jokingly refer to the 'special powers' that they associate with gay men, whether it's their sparkling wit, their incomparable sense of style, or even their ability to suss out other gay men ( gaydar ) . Within that context, how has being a professional magician impacted your identity as a gay man and as an actor?
DW: I'm not sure how magic has impacted my identity as a gay man. It's much easier for me to relate magic directly to my work as an actor and an artist. Certainly, all of it—being an actor, an artist, a magician, etc.—is a big part of my identity. However, I really feel that being gay is a very small part of who I am. I am struck by questions like this because the answer seems simple. Being a magician has very little to do with how I have sex or who I do it with.
WCT: How is this character unlike any other character you've played before?
DW: I feel like I'm right in the middle of figuring the character out. He's bull-headed, he's a bit crass, he's hurt and trying desperately to recover. Great is a really guarded person who doesn't let people know him. Every love he's had has ended in disaster and he's terrified of hurting himself and hates how he has hurt other people in the past.
I think I've played a lot of characters with some of these traits, but Great definitely feels more raw than a lot of those others. His wounds are fresher, and they're pretty deep. He blames himself so strongly that he's nearly incapable of really connecting to people emotionally.
Playing someone who is so emotionally closed off has its challenges. A lot of those challenges are rooted in the fact that I simply don't operate that way in my daily life. I'm a pretty open guy and I don't really hide what I'm feeling. Also, I like people and I like having a real connection with people, which is precisely what Great is afraid of.
There have definitely been dark times in my life, most of which I don't want to talk about. However, there are similarities in experiences with alcohol or unhealthy relationships. Those similarities are helpful to me in working on Great.
WCT: You are conducting 'magic workshops' with the cast— teaching them various tricks and illusions for the play. Do actors make good magic apprentices?
DW: So far, the magic workshops have been great. I performed a little magic for the company, then showed them specifically what they would be performing. Then we began work on contextualizing the magic in the play. Once that was done we started tackling the technical aspects of performing the magic. We worked on the fundamentals and the theory of what the 'magicians' would be doing.
We've also spent a lot of time talking about misdirection and angles and all the fun things that make magic work—I've really enjoyed it.
And we've talked about secrets, of course. Secrets [ lie ] at the heart of the magician's craft. As I explained to the cast, though, the secrets are not kept because we magicians want to horde them for ourselves. The secrets are kept to protect the audience.
WCT: Two of the play's characters are lesbians who hatch a plot of revenge against Great by trying to reveal his secrets. Someone described the play to me as being very 'Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.' Do you agree?
It doesn't really feel very [ much like ] Basic Instinct to me, although I see where that comment comes from. There's definitely a dark plot to the play and it has strong sexual undertones AND overtones.
However, it's really about love. And while two of the female characters are in a lesbian relationship, both have loved or currently love Great. For that reason, I would say there's more of a bisexual subplot than a lesbian subplot.
These women fall in love with a man, and they fall in love with each other. In the end, the play shows us that the power of love is very strong and it manifests itself in a lot of different ways for all of us.
WCT: What message or character in Orange Lemmon Egg Canary do you think will resonate most with the audience?
DW: Well—at its essence I think the play is a love story. It's about people who have screwed up, though. They're not open with each other. They're not honest. They keep secrets from each other and refuse to be truly vulnerable.
Orange Lemon Egg Canary is at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, through May 18. See www.umaproductions.org or call 773-347-1375.