Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano by Lally Katz, directed by Chris Kohn. Design by Adam Gardnir, lighting by Richard Vabre, sound by Jethro Woodward, video by Chris Kohn. With Christopher Brown, Margaret Cameron, Tony Johnson, Brian Lipson, Luke Mullins, Jenny Priest and Gavan O'Leary. Music performed by Chris Kohn and Jethro Woodward. Stuck Pigs Squealing @ Theatreworks, St Kilda, until June 18.

Lally Katz's universe points me irresistibly to Wittgenstein's remark in Tractatus: "What the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language...mean the limits of my world.... I am my world".

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano might have been written to illustrate this statement. The most ambitious of her collaborations with Chris Kohn and Stuck Pigs Squealing, it generates a theatre of potent beauty, shot with the sinister clarity of nightmare.

The play makes the idiolect of an individual mind theatrically manifest in a way that I can only compare (hoping not to be misleading) with Sarah Kane. The theatrical poetics of Kane begin from literalising on stage the metaphoric workings of the psyche: as she says in 4:48 Psychosis, "the defining quality of metaphor is that it is real".

In the work of both these playwrights, this process unearths terror, despair, myriad cruelties and strange beauties, unanswerable longings and, ultimately, a sense of astringent, even desolate, liberation. Like Kane, Katz is haunted by the possibility of death, and questions what meaning life can hold if it can be reasonlessly snuffed out at any moment. And also like Kane, she is deeply concerned with, and perplexed by, the question of love.

There the resemblances end. Lally Katz is not quite like any playwright I know of. Her work emerges from a theatrical universe that includes artists like Arrabal, Ionesco, Cocteau and Jodorowsky, but unlike these artists, her world situates itself squarely in middle-class suburbia.

I'm beginning to wonder if this avant garde theatre of suburbia is a uniquely local phenomenon. Sweet Staccato Rising, A View of Concrete, Headlock, Lally Katz's Eisteddfod and even The Black Swan of Trespass all have this suburban consciousness in common, perhaps in the same way that street art - one of Melbourne's hidden or, at least, seldom acknowledged treasures - surges as a vital, anarchic energy from the "relaxed and comfortable" order of suburban sprawl.

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano is a concatenation of oneiric realities that, like Eisteddfod, circles obsessively around the terrors and desires of childhood. Again the author, as unstable an invention as any of the characters in the play, intrudes into her invention: as Mr Lally Katz, world-famous detective (Luke Mullins), or as Miss Lally Katz, child of an oppressively loving family (Luke Mullins), and even as her alter ego, Wendy (Margaret Cameron), who surely bears some familial relationship to the Wendy of Peter Pan or even, perhaps, Peter Pan himself. (To make it more confusing, playwright Lally Katz (Lally Katz) is taking the tickets at the door.)

The plot, if it can be called that, concerns Mr Lally Katz's commission, with his sidekick Lion (Brian Lipson) to investigate the mystery of a volcano that is on the verge of eruption and thus to save an alternative-universe Canberra, now a tropical island, from its destruction. Mr Katz has made, in a murderously childish game of hide and seek, a "deal" with Wendy: he will save himself from the panther that wishes to eat him by sacrificing her. Wendy then disappears...

In another, later, time, Greg (Christopher Brown) is abject with priapic lust for Wendy: no matter what he tries to fuck - and he tries to fuck everything in sight, including theatre lights, poles, a dinosaur, a kangaroo, a prostitute "with burned out eyes" and a doll - he cannot orgasm. He has to find Wendy, and he and Lion, who hopes to save Detective Lally Katz from a terrible mistake he made earlier, head off on a gruelling trek to the volcano. Greg's orgasm, it seems, will "open the universe" and cause the volcano to erupt.

Meanwhile, the urbane detective and Lion catch the boat to Canberra, where they are initiated into a sinister Wendy fan club run by a mysterious South American, Sanchez (Christopher Brown). They are helped in their investigations by Miss Marple (Tony Johnson), who has her own obsession with quilts and manchester, and meet her crooning fiance (Gavan O'Leary) and Lally Katz falls shatteringly in love with Sanchez' sister (Jenny Priest)...

There are many more loops and whorls in this far from linear script, but that's probably enough of cack-handedly attempting to explain a narrative which moves by a system of metaphorical association and transformation, building up its own idiosyncratic theatrical language as the show progresses. But it gives some idea of the surrealist complexity of the world created here, and also hints at the sexual trauma that lies at the core of its dissociations and fractures.

Staging a text that constantly threatens to disintegrate under its own impulses presents challenges which ought to be self-evident. That Chris Kohn realises it with such sureness is a tribute to the intelligence of his direction as much as the imagination of his design crew and the commitment of his first-class cast.

Like Katz's text, Adam Gardnir's design both exploits and destroys the illusions of theatricality. At the beginning of the show, the audience waits before a huge red curtain that stretches the entire width of the theatre. The curtains pull back to reveal a stage space defined by floor-to-ceiling lengths of fabric, broken diagonally by white goal posts.

With the help of mini-sets unobstrusively swept on and off the stage and Richard Vabre's inventive lighting design, Kohn exploits seemingly every possibility of the space. There are constant shifts of perspective and focus, from intimate scenes surrounded by threatening darknesses to bleak, impossible distances, and text or graphics projected onto the back of the stage provide further dislocations. The effect is disconcertingly like being inside someone else's dream. The emotional intensities are heightened by Jethro Woodward's brooding soundscape, and by selectively miking the actor's voices.

A production as multilayered as this requires performers with a sure sense of theatricality, capable of creating extreme emotional realities without the safety harnesses of "character" or sequential narrative. Kohn has a remarkable cast which includes some of the most distinguished artists in the business, and there's no point where you don't believe them. No one is less than excellent, but the performances of Luke Mullins, Brian Lipson and Margaret Cameron stand out for their authoritative playfulness, their ability to generate naked feeling from even the most absurd of theatrical masks.

Something slumps in about the third quarter: it is as if the metaphorical underpinnings of the production, which up to then I hadn't questioned, loosen their moorings. I can't identify why; it might be only an effect of the performance I saw, though I suspect at that point the writing flies just a little too wide of itself; it is perceptible when the energy comes back. Theatre like this walks a perilously thin line: working with such displaced realities, it has to be utterly focused in every moment.

However, this by no means reduces the achievement of the show. Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano is remarkably accomplished theatre that plucks chords deep in the subconscious. It's a hauntingly sad, mysterious work, braced by the vulgarity that marks truly original theatre. In pushing their aesthetic to this pitch without losing their nerve, Stuck Pigs Squealing has truly come of age. It will be fascinating to see where they go next.

Picture: Clockwise from front-centre: Anthony Johnson, Jennifer Priest, Margaret Cameron, Brian Lipson, Luke Mullins. Photograph: Vivian Cooper Smith

Stuck Pigs Squealing
Ontological-Hysteric Theater
Mac Wellman


George Hunka said...

Happily, Alison, they are going next to New York, where their "Untitled Intentional Exercise # 1," created in collaboration with Mac Wellman et al., will open as part of the Ontological-Hysteric's Incubator series on 26 July. (There is also word of a "Webstream of Development," due to begin on 17 July.)

And tickets are free. More info at

Anonymous said...

Alison, I have to say I agree with all you have said about Lally katz and the terrible mysteries of the volcano.I had a thoroughly entertaining night at the theatre, and walked away with lots to ponder. My only critisism is the set that I feel in the first half was fighting against kohns direction. However my main reason for writing is to commend the stage manager of the production Martina Murray (behind every great man is a great woman), as looking at the size of the production and with the ease that it runs, not to mention that it appears there is little other show crew, I would say there is one very busy woman who deserves the attention and praise as much as those listed in your review. Well done piggy's! Cant wait for the next one!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks George - I was fascinated to see those connections myself. I wonder if there are plans for the Mac Wellman collaboration to come here?

And yes Anon, the stage manager and crew certainly deserve a lot of credit here. You're right, it's a very complex show that runs very smoothly and that's about a lot of hard work off stage. I guess I should mention production staff in my credits up top as well as the creative team - I don't because usually they're already so long. But that's probably a mistake, and probably a snobby mistake at that. I'll ponder this.

Chris Kohn said...


Thank you for your fascinating response to our show.

This is off the point of LKATTMOTV, but to answer your question, there certainly are plans to bring the NYC collaboration here, either late in 2007 or early in 2008.

There are five Stuck Pigs going to NYC; me, Lally Katz, Jethro Woodward, Christopher Brown and Luke Mullins. Lally and Mac Wellman are co-writing, and we are being joined in NYC by actor Lucy Taylor (now based there), Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe from theatre company Banana, Bag and Bodice and director Oliver Butler. We are being hosted by Ontological and PS-122.

We will be workshopping for three weeks, with support from Arts Victoria and the Australia Council, presenting work-in-progress showings at Ontological, and webstreaming some rehearsals at

To find out more about Mac Wellman, you can visit his website at He has posted a few of his recent play texts there. I am very excited about this collaboration as he has for a long time been one of my favourite playwrights and has influenced a generation of experimental writers in NYC and beyond. There is currently a productin of his play 7 Blowjobs on at downstairs Belvoir St, directed by Lee Lewis. Banana Bag and Bodice can be found at

On a final note, yes, Martina Murray is a great stage manager and deserves special mention. Perhaps organisations like the Green Room Awards might consider adding stage management as a category for recognition?

Chris Kohn

Alison Croggon said...

Chris, my pleasure indeed. One can only write interesting reviews if there's something interesting to think about.

I've only recently discovered Mac Wellman (mea culpa) - his work is a knockout. (I'll put a live link under the review). That's some collaboration you've got going there...and I'm very glad to hear there are plans to bring it here. Good to hear too that Lee Lewis is doing Wellman's work at Belvoir, she does some interesting texts.

As for the suggestion of adding stage management to the Green Room awards - an excellent idea, but how would they manage it? It's done on a voting system, isn't it? Perhaps it's something theatre companies themselves could nominate, since it's work that's not so easy to see as an audience member.

Anonymous said...

Yes I too would like to add praise for Martina Murray ... she really should get the "Plough the Fucking Field Award" for best stage management 2006


best regards