Review: Yellow Moon, Jerker ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review: Yellow Moon, Jerker

We're all a bit shellshocked here in Victoria, as the death toll from the weekend's bushfires keeps spiralling up. Saturday was a terrible day. Even in the city, where we were safe from fire, the heat was apocalyptic: there were leaves in our backyard burned black, as if they had been blistered by a blow-torch. We found little geckos that were vainly trying to escape the heat completely dried out on the concrete, and the birds were absolutely silent all day, which was spooky. But the fires were deadlier than anyone imagined.

All the same, the shows went on. It's good to see that the Malthouse - presently staging Woyzeck - donated its entire Saturday night's takings of $11,872.38 to the Myer Bushfire Appeal. Meanwhile, I managed to get to two plays last weekend, and neither was cancelled (which happened across the board last week when the city infrastructure imploded in the heatwave - I guess this is theatre in the age of climate change).

David Greig's Yellow Moon, the opening play of Red Stitch's 2009 season, was first cab off the rank on Friday night. Greig is an intelligently contemporary (and frighteningly prolific) Scots playwright. Yellow Moon (subtitled The Ballad of Leila and Lee) was commissioned by a company that specialises in the theatre for young people, and there are certainly shades of young adult fiction in this play, with its story of two damaged urban teens from the tiny Scottish town of Inverkeithing.

Stag Lee (Martin Sharpe) is an alienated 15-year-old who spends most of his time fantasising about how he will make his fortune from a life of crime. His mother is seriously depressed, his father left when he was five, and he fights with his stepfather, Billy (Dion Mills). Silent Leila (Erin Dewar), on the other hand, is a well-behaved, studious Muslim girl whose vices are reading celebrity magazine and self-harming. For all his difficulties, Lee is quite certain that he exists, swaggering about "as if he owns the place", but Leila (Erin Dewar) - who has given up talking because she believes that people only hear what they want to - suspects that she doesn't. The only time she feels real is when she cuts her arms.

So begins an unlikely saga where these two children meet by chance, and are together in a cemetary when Lee sem-accidentally murders his stepfather. They flee to a hunting estate in the Highlands, where Lee believes he will find his errant father. Bizarrely enough, they find their way to the lodge, and meet its keeper, Drunk Frank (Dion Mills again) where, through a kind of purgatory of hard labour, they claim their identities, rediscover their innocence and fall awkwardly fall in love. Leila also meets an actual celebrity Holly (Ella Caldwell), before a melodramatic finale.

Director Alex Menglet emphasises the play's artifice with a gorgeous red curtain, spotlights and some spectacular actorly playing. There is the odd bum note: when Leila first appears, she is full chadoor, which seems at once inaccurate (most good Western Muslim girls go for the hijab, if they bother at all) and gratuitous. What kept me paying attention were the sharply detailed, virtuosic performances: Martin Sharpe and Erin Dewar in the central roles generate an appealing and unsaccharine innocence, which moves between comic and poignant without a trace of manneredness, something that has sometimes bothered me in Sharpe's previous performances. Dion Mills gives a physically electrifying performance in his various roles as narrator, Billy and Frank, and Ella Caldwell is fun in her role as the vacuous celebrity Holly.

The writing depends heavily on narration, with Dewar, Sharpe and Mills slipping constantly between story telling and direct enactment. It's all very epic in that Brechtian sense, and the alienating effect of the narration works brilliantly for one quarter of the play. Once the action headed into the highlands, I found myself more often puzzled than not, and it began to feel as if the play was trapped in its devices. Narrative devices were ingeniously exploited, but eventually they seemed to run out of steam, which is perhaps why it had to explode into sensationalist melodrama. I guess...

This is in fact a deeply strange play: it might look like a classic coming-of-age tale of teen angst and the emptiness of celebrity consumerist culture, but at the same time, it is redolent with pagan imagery. Deer, especially stags, feature heavily, and I wondered if, what with the gruesome stuff about deer being gutted, pulsing hearts, cleansing rings of fire and so on, there was some subtext of the Corn God, with the father sacrificed to the fertility of the ensuing generation. Or was it something about Scottish identity, the true heart of the Highlands and all that? Whatever it was, I missed it.

Of course, my imagination might have been a bit hysterical with the heat. All the same, I kept feeling that there was some dimension of this play that I just wasn't getting. For all the appealing performances and inventive direction, it ended up just being a road movie, with not much going on aside from the plot.

On Saturday - the hottest day since records began 150 years ago - I ended up in a sweaty little theatre in South Melbourne at the last night of a play about gay men masturbating to phone sex. This could have been one of those evenings that make you regret that first insouciant moment when you thought that theatre criticism sounded like a dandy way to pass the time. But it wasn't.

What attracted me to Jerker in the first place was the production team. (Call me a geek if you like, but I'll follow production people as closely as performers and directors). The show is designed by Adam Gardnir, who has worked with everyone from Stuck Pigs Squealing to the STC, with lighting by Danny Pettingill, who among many other things designed the lights for Hayloft's spectacularly beautiful production of Platonov. And Kelly Ryall, the sound designer, is one of the justly lauded theatre composers-around-town. My nose led me right: this production is a little gem.

Jerker, by San Francisco theatre critic and playwright Robert Chesley, is one of the signature plays to come out of the AIDS epidemic. Consisting entirely of phone dialogues between two men, JR (Gary Abrahams) and Bert (Russ Pirie), it records the arc of a relationship which begins with phone sex and evolves to some surprisingly tender moments without their ever meeting in the flesh, foreshadowing the curious intimacy of cyber relationships in the 21st century.

It was originally aired in 1986 as a radio play and its frank sexual language stirred up considerable controversy, culminating in the Federal Communications Commission rewriting its rules. Yet for all its history as hot political potato, this is a play with a light touch, deftly and often comically humane, shamelessly erotic and, ultimately, deeply moving. It survives its genre as AIDS play and its age surprisingly well: although Gary Abrahams wisely directs it as a period piece, with dial telephones and so on, it almost wholly escapes a feeling of datedness.

This is partly because its rigorously limited form means that it hasn't a lot of time for polemic. It's there, of course, in a scene that might be the hinge of the play, when we find out that JR is a Vietnam vet who says, impassionedly, that he has seen what evil is, and that it's definitely not the hedonistic gay promiscuity of the '70s. Chesley's frank defence on sexual libertarianism - an insistence that put him heavily at odds with Larry Kramer during the AIDS crisis - is passionately argued throughout the play. It's an argument that is still confronting, although the way AIDS was parsed as a moral punishment for gay men makes Chesley's anger understandable. But mostly we are focused on the fragmentary intimacy of the phone conversations, the obscenity and surprisingly tender innocence of the relationship between these two men.

As you might expect, production values are low on budget and high on sophistication. The keyword is simplicity. The design is a small raised stage on which stands a double bed split down the middle to represent the two bedrooms. As JR and Bert become more intimate, their relationship begins to generate its own reality, and the borders between the spaces, at first rigorously observed, become permeable; they lounge across each other's beds, even touch each other. It's gorgeously, intimately lit, with effective blackouts between each scene.

As Bert, Russ Pirie, whom I last saw in Little Death's brilliant production of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur, gives a remarkable performance: this is a beautifully nuanced portrayal, superbly cadenced in its shifts from ironic restraint to full-blooded sexual ecstasy to grief, and Gary Abrahams as JR is an able foil. Certainly, the rising heat in the theatre that night wasn't just about the weather.

Picture: (L-R) Dion Mills, Martin Sharpe and Erin Dewar in the Red Stitch production of Yellow Moon. Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson

Yellow Moon by David Greig, directed by Alex Menglet. Set design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis. With Ella Caldwell, Erin Dewar, Dion Mills and Martin Sharpe. Red Stitch Actors Theatre until March 7.

Jerker by Robert Chesley, directed by Gary Abrahams. Set design by Adam Gardnir, costume design by Micka Agosta, lighting design by Danny Pettingill, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With Gary Abrahams and Russ Pirie. Milky Way @ Gasworks Arts Park, Midsumma Festival. Closed.


Statler said...

Interesting to see how far this play has travelled since I saw its initial run in Glasgow in 2006. While I loved the narrative style and drive of the play some of the 'issues' seemed dropped in without any real sense of them being meaningfully addressed. Of course maybe I'm just a little older than the intended audience...

naive theatre goer said...

While I liked "Yellow Moon" a good deal, I came away thinking that it could be much more effective as a movie. So much of the play was spent describing the scenes (all-night superstore, cemetary, mountain, mountain cabin, sumptous house, cold stream, etc.) and telling us what they were doing in those scenes (two women jumping into the cold stream, inspecting the remarkable interior of the house, engaged in a car chase down the road, etc.). In a movie they could actually be in those places and actually be doing those things and you could dispense with the lengthy accounts that tell the theatre audience where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. Of course maybe the "point" was supposed to be that narration of those things rather than actually seeing them was supposed to have some impact but for me, the effect was just to think that the impact would be greater if I could actually have seen the actions unfold in the actual settings.

Anonymous said...

great review of Jerker Alison and i do agree. It is interesting to note that it is not only Russ pirie but also the Design team that were all on Mercury Fur that you comment so highly on.