Review: Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise ~ theatre notes

Friday, March 12, 2010

Review: Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise

If you haven't heard of Harry Kondoleon, as I hadn't before seeing this play, let me fill you in on my googling. Kondoleon blazed briefly over Manhattan in the 1980s, before he died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 39. As a playwright, he is often compared to Christopher Durang, John Guare and Joe Orton, though he has a formalist edge that have led critics to call in Pirandello. In the decade before his death, he published a volume of poetry and wrote a few novels, produced several plays and mounted an exhibition of paintings, along the way winning a swag of awards.

Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise was the first of his plays to be produced in New York City. It's a bizarre comedy of manners, kind of like Seinfeld on acid. Although what it mostly reminded me of was the melancholy menace excavated by the anonymous genius behind the webite Unhappy Hipsters, with the neurotic subtext of these utopian visions of urban life brought to its full insane efflorescence.

The plot, such as it is, involves a writer, Carl (Mick Lo Monaco), who declares his love for Bethany (Kristina Brew) to her husband, Alvin (Josh Price), at a dinner party. After Carl - literally - carries Bethany off, Carl's wife Adele (Marissa Bennett), who has recently attempted suicide over her husband's infidelity, arrives at Alvin's apartment. She intends to kill Carl or, at the very least, to write a roman de clef exposing him for the tool he is.

It's one of those plays that attacks the mode of naturalism it lightly adopts, puncturing its surface with hysteric extremity and poetic segues in which the various characters pursue the non sequiturs of their inner lives. I think it's mightily over-written, but it has an attractive charge and power which explains why Ben Pfeiffer and his colleagues at Artisan Collective chose to perform it. This is a very classy production of a difficult play: Pfeiffer meets the play's attack on form with a stylised energy that opens a new take on the possibility of language in the theatre.

It's performed in traverse, with the minimal design suggesting an urban, contemporary domestic interior (vase of dead twigs, metallic underlit tables). The performances literalise the manic emotional twists of the script with an over-the-top physicalisation that twists this production towards movement theatre. The actors take each gesture to an extreme, so behaviour becomes an exaggerated language of Tourettian tics that emphasises the lack of communication between each character.

They are all essentially solitary: their lives are sterile, self-referential and self-consuming, and the deepest drive in each of them is a fear of being alone. Carl is (as he intones several times) a Writer, and thus doomed to a life of witnessing rather than participating. He is the cliche of the literary predator who exploits the women in his life for his work, as subject matter and office dogsbodies. Alvin lives in a fog of goodness that means he has no connection with reality at all: in his city garden and his domesticity he attempts to find the fertility and plenty that is missing from his life. The two women are creatively barren, a lack which finds its outlet in their neuroticism. Adele munches Valium as she tries to escape the house that is trying to kill her, and Beth, who blames Alvin for losing her inner poetic self, thinks the earth beneath her feet is moving. Which, as Alvin points out, it is.

This goes beyond satire to some other kind of enactment: its world is so hermetic it is in danger of bearing no relation to us, either. But it makes fascinating and engrossing theatre. Like the writing, I thought the production ever-so-slightly overdressed, but it's performed and directed so well, with such accuracy, skill and commitment, that it's well worth a look. It's a brilliant exercise in style, if mostly notable for the possibilities it opens. Keep an eye out for this company.

Picture: Kristina Brew and Marissa Bennet in Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise.

Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, by Harry Kondoleon, directed and designed by Ben Pfeiffer. With Marissa Bennett, Kristina Brew, Mick Lo Monaco and Josh Price. Artisan Collective, Guildford Lane Arts Gallery, Guildford Lane CBD, until March 13. Bookings: 0420 513 588.


Ken said...

Harry Kondoleon was a teacher of mine at New York University back in the late 1980s. His wit was razor-sharp and desert-dry, and he was unfailingly encouraging. He is missed.

Karen said...

I love this play, I played Adelle in 1998. Funny quirky brilliant piece of theatre. I'm sad to realize the author died so young.