Review: Aviary ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Aviary

Aviary at La Mama is an elegant showcase for three young writers: Anna Barnes, Dan Giovannoni and Ming-Zhu Hii. It stems from an intriguing premise, which in its way is exemplary: director Melanie Beddie commissioned these short works using Darryl Cordell's striking design as the creative stimulus. This immediately throws the focus onto the space, demanding that the writers think in three dimensions.

And the design does open a lot of possibility. La Mama has been transformed - the famous staircase is hidden by a wall, and the kitchen area is covered by another staircase, which leads up to a flat upper level surmounted by a television. The set is dominated by a Beckett-esque tree, with space beneath the stairs that can be used in different ways, as concealment or as extra rooms.

Unsurprisingly, it's prompted very different responses - although they loosely revolve around common themes about intimate moments and relationships (and, as the title suggests, images of birds), these works demonstrate a variety of approaches to writing and theatrical aesthetics. Performed by three actors, Chloe Gordon, HaiHa Le and Carl-Nilsson Polias (I'm beginning to see a pattern here), the whole evening has a nicely disciplined sense of formal shape. However, the writing itself is a bit of a mixed bag.

It opens promisingly with Anna Barnes' Revelation or Bust, which is the most interesting writing of the evening. This is a poetic piece voiced by three characters which pulls on contemporary apocalyptic terrors, both religious millennial fantasies and more concrete anxieties about climate change. Barnes brings the vocabulary of the MySpace generation to bear on ancient fears about the end of the world, crafting a work which shifts elliptically, like neurotic subterranean thoughts, around personal and universal death.

The central obsessions are two events which took place last summer: the deadly Victorian bushfires, and the terrible incident where a man threw his four-year-old daughter to her death off the West Gate Bridge. I have to register my discomfort with the second: although the metaphor is gracefully used and not in the least offensive, I found myself worrying yet again about the ethics of so directly exploiting real human suffering for the purposes of art.

Despite this reservation, the writing marries a very contemporary diction, the notion of evolution and Blakean images of flight and freedom to pull off what is a rather beautiful work. This play is light without being slight, and demonstrates Barnes's sure control of her chosen form. As her ideas deepen and extend, as I am sure they will, she be a writer to watch.

Edmund and Grace by Don Giovannoni and Ming-Zhu Hii's Small Movements for Three Actors are not so successful, although they are equally ambitious. Giovannoni's play is about two brothers (played without attention to gender by Carl Nilsson-Polias and Chloe Gordon). They narrate a dark fairytale while playing Pinteresque games of power, one scrambling over the other for dominance and each stealing the other's identity, as a shadowy older man lurks sinisterly in the background. The gender-play here is potentially interesting: the weaker brother is always the one with the feminine name. But not much is really made of this idea.

The primary problem with this script, aside from a great deal of repetition that adds little to its complexity but a lot to its running time, is that it doesn't make much emotional sense. For a surreal narration like this to catch attention, the movements of feeling beneath the words must be mercilessly clear: here the action seems to emerge randomly, with the sense that the characters are illustrating some kind of thesis rather than emerging from any real emotional place. Despite the heroic efforts of the actors, Edmund and Grace end up being confusingly obscure rather than, say, mysteriously compelling.

Small Movements for Three Actors is basically baffling. A series of fragmentary dialogues between a couple, there is a Beckettian touch in the third performer who sits on top of the staircase echoing parts of the dialogue and at various times swapping roles with the other performers. The performance has touches that end up feeling superfluous - actors running from one end of the set to the other and slamming into walls, the television images of vegetation - simply because you can't work out why they are there. A monologue by Nilsson-Polias about caring for a parent with dementia begins to generate some dramatic interest, but this then dissolves back into the flux, leaving the impression that another play has wandered in by mistake.

I'm assuming this text is meant to make us attend to each moment, with little eddies of emotional clarity emerging from the Heraclitan chaos of living; but if that is the intention, it calls for a paradoxically steely discipline in the writing that is lacking here. The play feels like a collection of half-thought ideas randomly jumbled together, and never seems to quite decide what it wants to be. Perhaps it's simply that writing like this is in fact very difficult to pull off, and - as with free verse as opposed to rhyme - its successful execution requires a command of the traditional techniques.

For all that, I was impressed with the production and the performances. Melanie Beddie's direction is inventive and clean, and gives these texts a lively attention, employing an attractive lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle and a various, evocative soundscape by Natasha Anderson. It's certainly gorgeous to look at.

Aviary: New Writing for the Near Future, directed by Melanie Beddie. By Anna Barnes, Dan Giovannoni and Ming-Zhu Hii. Design by Darryl Cordell, lighting design by Bronwyn Pringle and music by Natasha Anderson. With Chloe Gordon, HaiHa Le and Carl Nilsson-Polias. La Mama Theatre until August 2.

1 comment:

Aramis said...

You're even more 'bohemian' than the plays.