Review: Oh the Humanity, A Commercial Farce ~ theatre notes

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Oh the Humanity, A Commercial Farce

Feeling, real feeling, is the hardest thing to recreate in art. Too crudely represented, and it is coarsened to sentimentality, a victim of the limited vocabularies we have for emotional nuances and extremes; too refined, and we miss the point altogether, in a maze of cerebrations that elide its visceral genesis. The phenomenon of feeling encompasses everything that makes human beings such contradictory creatures: feeling is our consciousness of emotion, a heightened and subtle state of being that, on the other hand, is driven by a little almond-shaped piece of porridge, the amygdala, which is lodged in the primitive reptilian part of our brain.

Language is one of our primary ways of expressing feeling, but it is also one of the best ways of repressing it. This is, of course, why poetry was invented. Poetry is the art of creating fractures in language through which feeling can emerge. Language - especially official, legislative or bureaucratic language but also, less obviously, the social codes through which we organise our most mundane social interactions - orders our realities in recognisable chunks, which at their crudest become clichés that determine our responses. Poetry attempts to smash the cliché in order to release the feeling beneath it.

In this sense, Will Eno is certainly a poet of the stage. Eno is one of the most interesting writers to emerge in the US in the past few years. He is best known for his theatrical monologue Thom Paine (Based on Nothing), which premiered here in an elegant production starring Neil Pigot at the MTC a couple of years ago. Oh the Humanity (and other exclamations), which has just closed after its Australian premiere at La Mama, is a series of attacks on language that attempts precisely to discover the feeling beneath the shells of words, the hidden universe of the self that aches for expression.

Oh the Humanity is a recent play that consists of five short, unrelated playlets that in different ways directly address the audience. In each piece, Eno sets up a recognisable situation and then collides public speech with interior musing. There's the football coach at a press conference explaining his team's failure ("The phrase, of course, you are familiar with. It was a ‘building year,’ this last year was. We suffered some losses...") There's the two people recording a self-advertisement for an online dating service, and the airline PR woman who is speaking to grief-stricken relatives after an air tragedy.

In these three works, the expected is invaded by the unexpected, as inappropriate privacies are made public. The coach suddnely reveals his inability to love and the crises of his life. "I found myself standing in the unforgivable light of a grocery store, staring at my reflection in a freezer, and realising: 'You’re not having a bad day — this is just what you look like, now. This is who the years are making you'." (Shades here of the American poet Randall Jarrell - "if just living can do this to you/ living is terrible").

The two lonely hearts describe themselves in unlikely ways and reveal fragile fantasies of connection, almost visions, in which they are simply recognised or heard. The PR woman attempts to speak about her own grief in a context in which it is simply unacceptable to do so, revealing the lies she tells herself about death to comfort herself. But spoken to a roomful of devastated families, these understandable self-deceptions become monstrous. They open out as an anaesthetisation against reality, a fantasy of empathy which reveals itself as a kind of callousness.

The final two pieces intensify the ambiguities Eno has set in play. The Bully Composition features two photographers recreating a historical photograph from the Spanish-American War (with the audience as models), in which the desire to recapture the reality of a past trauma becomes frankly predatory, a kind of ghastly pursuit of authenticity that betrays the emptiness of those who seek it. But even this is fractured by a brief, vivid vision of the reality behind the photograph, a flash of imaginative insight. And the final piece, Oh the Humanity, is a dialogue about mortality between a couple, apparently on the way to some event (either a funeral or a christening) in a car. Here Eno smashes the pretence of theatre. Their car - represented by two chairs - won't start. Pier Carthew, playing the husband, carefully mimes opening a door and stepping out of a car. He circles behind it, staring hard. What's wrong? demands his wife (Emma Officer). "It's just two chairs," he says.

The constant slippages of meaning and register that characterise Eno's writing make these pieces a difficult ask, and neither Eno's writing nor the production escape the odd moment of easy sentiment. That is, of course, the risk of so directly asserting the place of feeling, although it must be said that the script is intelligent enough to avoid bathos. Director Laurence Strangio gives the production an appropriately minimal theatrical frame, with the actors changing and setting up new scenes in full view of the audience, but the suppleness of Eno's linguistic shifts are sometimes dealt with a little crudely: for example, when the football coach segues into a poem, it's signalled with lighting and sound changes that paradoxically made it less effectively strange. Carthew and Officer give focused performances that nicely articulate the script's ironies and delicacies, although I felt there was more to exploit.

When Dion Mills made an appearance at the end as "the beauty of things, the majesty of — I don’t know — the world? The universe?", his sure actorly presence gave that brief role just enough ironic spin to get away with the audacious metaphysical abstraction of his role. He generated the poetic suspension between belief and disbelief, irony and sincerity, that the other actors couldn't quite attain. But it's a near miss. I liked this show a lot.

As a writer, Peter Houghton could do with some of Eno's dramaturgical poetic. He is by no means an elegant playwright, and his new show, A Commercial Farce, has a lot of visible joins and is still a little over-written. But these quibbles are erased by the sheer bravura of its execution and by Houghton's gift for devastatingly witty one-liners. This sets out to be a very funny show, and it is. Like Eno, Houghton is interested in cliché, but his treatment is more violent: he simply pumps it up until it explodes.

Houghton is a fine actor – he recently played James Joyce in the STC’s glittering production of Travesties, and last year gave us a memorable Hamm in a brilliant Melbourne Festival production of Endgame, produced by Eleventh Hour. He specialises in a particular kind of backstage comedy that he performs himself. Collaborating with his wife, Anne Browning, he’s written and produced a trilogy of monologues, beginning with the hit show The Pitch, a perilously funny satire of the film industry, and culminating in The Colours, which opens this August as part of the MTC’s new Lawler Studio season.

In A Commercial Farce, directed at the Malthouse by Aidan Fennessy, Houghton turns his laser wit onto commercial theatre. It’s as much homage as satire: Houghton has his cake and eats it too. It’s funny for all the reasons that Alan Ayckbourn or Michael Frayn are funny, with added meta-text. It takes all the hoariest jokes of farce - symbolised by the banana-skin and the nose-flattening rake, both awaiting the unwitting foot - and delivers them up crooked. Some of the best jokes involve Ben Grant's sound design, and Anna Cordingley's ingenious double-level set is basically a comic booby-trap.

The set-up, as with all farce, is simple, with the necessary spice of panic. Middle-aged director Bill (Houghton) has poured all his money into a production of a farce by popular playwright Dylan Crackbourn, which opens the following night. It’s Bill’s 20th wedding anniversary, it’s nearing midnight, and he’s fighting with his aggrieved wife on his mobile. Instead of popping the champers with Bianca, he’s having one last desperate rehearsal with Jules (Luke Ryan), a television star with no experience of the technical demands of comedy.

Jules is a Generation Y opportunist with an undertow of violence whose every second exclamation is “awesome!” And he simply doesn’t see why he has to slip on the banana-skin or step on the rake. What, he wants to know, is the theme of the play? As he gulps down the sponsor’s wine, Bill despairingly explains the mechanics of farce and its relationship to the tragic absurdity of living. And this in turn lifts the stakes higher: having exposed the bones of comedy, how do you subvert the form enough to make it, well, funny?

The answer lies in two bravura performances that mercilessly expose the close relationship between farce and tragedy. Both performers bring a luminous physical ebulliance to their roles and invest what could be empty stereotype with unexpected flourishes that flesh out their complexities. Ryan is a brilliant fool, but it becomes clear that this youthful scion of Howard's Australia is not nearly as stupid as he looks. Houghton's performance brings a genuine pathos to his role: he plays resigned hangdog with a painful verisimilitude, generating the anxiety that gives this comedy teeth. As Bill’s mid-life crisis takes florid flight, it demonstrates the unpalatable truth that nothing is as funny as another person’s pain.

Pictures: (Top) Emma Officer in Oh The Humanity. Photo: Daisy Noyes. (Bottom) Peter Houghton (above) and Luke Ryan in A Commercial Farce. Photo: Jeff Busby

Oh, the Humanity (and other exclamations) by Will Eno, directed by Laurence Strangio. Sound design and composition by Neddwellyn Jones, lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist, designed by Laurence Strangio and cast. Performed by Pier Carthew and Emma Officer. La Mama @ the Courthouse Theatre, closed.

A Commercial Farce by Peter Houghton, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, sound design by Ben Grant, lighting by Matt Scott. With Peter Houghton and Luke Ryann. Malthouse Theatre @ the Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until June 27.

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