Review: Random, The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later, Next to NormalCatch up ~ theatre notes

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Review: Random, The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later, Next to Normal

An apology and an explanation. As I said yesterday, I am in the lees of a foul cold: but the truth underneath is that, since the beginning of this year, my other lives have been more than usually demanding. (If you're wondering what those "other lives" are, my biography lists some of them.) I'm still not sure how to balance blogging and its associated activities, which could quite easily be a full-time occupation, with everything else. For the past few years, it's meant that I am living in a more-or-less constant energy deficit, the pointy end of being a 21st century multitasker. People quite often ask me how I "do it": the straight answer is, sometimes I can't.

This isn't a complaint - this frenetic activity is no one's fault but my own. It's simply a confession that every now and then my limitations loom large. I love being part of Melbourne's theatre community, and I love writing about performance. I don't want to stop blogging (which would be, let's face it, the sensible choice: if I had an ounce of wit, I would presently be a full-time novelist). More, it seems to me that the reasons I began TN in the first place haven't gone away. Coverage for the arts in the print media, never generous here, is still shrinking: the need for alternative discussions about theatre seems as urgent now as ever it was. And, maybe more than anything else, I feel an obligation to those who come here to read and argue with what I say.

This is why I feel bad when I can only come up with short reviews. There is always more to say, as my critics are apt to point out, and many shows deserve more generous attention than a few hundred words. One alternative would be to choose one show and write a long review, and not record the other shows I see: I've toyed with this idea, but it seems even less satisfactory. So shorter reviews, interspersed with longer meditations when possible, will be the shape of the blog for the meantime, as a possible via media between doing the impossible and not doing it at all. We'll see how it goes.

And that's quite enough about me.

Debbie Tucker Green is one of the bright new names in British theatre, and the 50-minute play Random - now showing as part of the MTC's Education Program - demonstrates why. She is a writer with an acute ear for the poetic hidden in vernacular language, tightening the apparently artless rhythms of speech into vivid play. Random, a simple narrative about a contemporary black British family, is a case in point: each voice, from the mother's Caribbean lilt to the daughter's slangy London sharpness, swiftly summons the complexities of its character through the textures of his or her speech.

The story takes place between sunrise and sunset on a single day. It begins with several interwoven monologues detailing a typical weekday morning. Brother and sister wake up and squabble as they ready for school and work, complain about burned porridge, sweep aside their mother's objections to their clothes and head off into their different days, at school and an office job. Dad, working night shift, wakes up and grumbles. Mum puts out the washing. And then this mundane routine is irrevocably transformed by a random knife crime.

Things shift when the daughter is called home by an urgent message from her mother. She knows how serious it is when she sees the police vans outside, and that the police are still wearing their boots in the formal front room: in this house, taking off shoes is mandatory. Now the rituals of life take on another significance. The familiar stink of an adolescent boy's untidy room - in the morning the source of complaints - becomes the unbearable signal of his absence. Public rituals of grief - the shrine at the place of death, the tabloid reporters looking for headlines about gangs, the social worker, the co-workers stumblingly offering their sympathies - reinforce the alienness of this new reality, how little the public shapes of grief chime with its inner experience.

The theatricality here is in the texture. Tucker Green deftly strokes in detail after detail that build a picture of four distinct individuals who are, nevertheless, emblematic of domestic suburban ordinariness. Letitcia Caceres's stripped down production wisely goes for simplicity: Tanja Beer's abstract set, constructed of girders, subtly sketches in an urban feel while focusing everything on the performer. All four characters are played by Zahra Newman, whose unsentimental, restrained performance creates a moving portrayal of a family at the point of devastation. Newman alone is worth the price of the ticket, for the sheer pleasure of seeing a highly skilled actor at the top of her form. The most wholly satisfying theatre I've seen at the MTC this year.

Last week Red Stitch opened its production of The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later, which is also well worth a look. As its title suggests, it is a coda to an earlier play, The Laramie Project (performed here in 2005 by Act-O-Matic). The first play was created when Mois├ęs Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project conducted a theatrical investigation of the town in which a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was horribly murdered in 1998. Like its successor, it's exemplary documentary theatre, its apparent simplicity underlaid by a great deal of careful thought. And it still makes gripping theatre. Both plays are explicitly political, but in the broadest sense, bringing human complexities to the surface of contemporary issues that are more usually glossed in polarised terms.

In 2008, Tectonic Theatre returned to Laramie and spoke to many of the same people they had interviewed a decade earlier. This time they wanted to see what had changed: whether there had been any progress in attitudes towards gay and lesbian people, how Matthew Shepard was remembered in the town now irrevocably linked to his murder.

This work wears its process up-front as an essential part of its ethics. Kaufman and his collaborators are keenly aware that the observer changes the field of observation, and so only dramatise their direct experience, creating the work out of the interviews that they conducted. Its performance by another company, with actors playing the original members of Tectonic, takes the theatrical alienation a step further.

The reality they're recreating for us is contingent and subjective: its complexity emerges from the unexpected juxtapositions and surprising insights that gleam in the collage. They discover that, unsurprisingly, a lot of townspeople resent their town's infamy, and that many believe it was nothing to do with homophobia (cue a short conversation with a folklorist, who describes the mechanisms of rumour); they find others who are still angry, still campaigning. And they speak to the men who are doing life sentences for Shepard's murder.

The result is a tapestry of contemporary attitudes towards homophobia that resonates beyond its locale. The Shepard murder became the impetus behind the extension of hate-crime legislation in the US to cover crimes motivated by gender or sexual orientation, which was finally signed into law in 2009, and part of the play follows the gradual progress of the legislation. And the various attitudes portrayed in the play - from those in the gay community who feel unsafe outside their home turf, to straight-out bigots - are recognisable enough here to give the show the immediacy it requires.

Gary Abrahams's production is a stylish realisation, drawing on the idea of dress-ups. Peter Mumford's ingenious set consists of a number of mobile hallstands that can be turned into walls, which the actors manipulate to change the shape of the stage. The nine versatile actors play 47 characters, signaled simply by swift changes in costume as well as performance, fluidly moving the action along with a true sense of ensemble. The final image, as the actors file off stage, is of all the costumes hanging emptily on hooks, testaments to an act of theatre that is now over.

Lastly, I saw the MTC's production of Next to Normal, the controversial winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (In summary, the Pulitzer Board overruled its drama committee and awarded the prize to this non-shortlisted musical over the three recommended plays, causing some ruffling of feathers.) The musical itself came with a flurry of pre-publicity emphasising its bravery in introducing a bleakly realistic theme - a story of mental illness - to the musical form.

I enjoyed the first half, despite my companion - who is rather more literate in music than I am - sitting next to me with steam coming out of his ears. The artifice of the form and the cheesy, generic music - a kind of whistle-stop tour of contemporary popular music - seemed a good fit for the double reality of the story, a shiny false surface with a dark undertow.

Like Random, this features a nuclear family - mother Diana Goodman (Kate Kendall), father Dan (Matt Hetherington), son Gabe (Gareth Keegan) and daughter Natalie (Christy Sullivan). Although they appear to be the generic happy family, they are coping with the bipolar illness of Diana. We learn early on that Gabe is a figment of Diana's illness, and in fact died as a baby. Natalie is a mixed-up teen, and through flashbacks and narration we learn that her romance with Henry (Benjamin Hoetjes) is a mirror of her parents' relationship, raising the possibility that she might end up as ill as her mother. Meanwhile, Diana visits psychiatrists, played by Bert LaBonte in scenes that are highlights of the show, and undergoes various treatments, from pills to shock therapy.

The immediate comparison is Alan Ayckbourn's Woman in Mind, another play that uses a popular form to explore mental illness. Ayckbourn's play is at once much bleaker and much funnier: what is missing in this one is Ayckbourn's dark irony, which permits tragedy to suffuse its comedy. For all its implicit criticism of psychiatry as an inexact science, Next to Normal never escapes the psychiatrist-hero syndrome that infects so much of the mythos around mental illness. More seriously, it ends up confusing grief with bipolar disorder. And as the narrative unfolds, it predictably falls into earnestness and homily.

Dean Bryant's production suffers from overdressing. Richard Roberts's set is a hyperactive house in which everything moves up and down and in and out, itself a clever simulacrum of Diana's instability but here overused: by the second hour I thought that if I saw the imaginary son descend a staircase again, I would scream. And there are some ill-judged projections which muddy the visuals still further.

I found the second half much harder going all round: aside from the final image when all illusions fall away, the staging merely repeated what we had already seen in the first, and the generic nature of the music began to grate. Perhaps the most egregious mistake is the electro-convulsive shock therapy scene, where we have dancing doctors shuffling a bed up and down the stage, applying shock to an unresponsive doll.

The performances are enjoyable, with some strong work from Christy Sullivan as the put-upon Natalie and a stand-out performance from Bert LaBonte. Maybe what is most telling is that, although it's often mentioned, I had little real sense of the grievous pain of mental illness itself: it came back to that old standby of acknowledging trauma in order to be, at last, released. If only life were that straightforward. But then, it is a musical.

Pictures: top: Zahra Newman in Random; bottom from left, Kate Kendall, Matt Hetherington, Christy Sullivan and Gareth Keegan in Next to Normal. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Random, by Debbie Tucker Green, directed by Letitia Caceres. Set and costumes by Tanja Beer, lighting by David Walters, composition and sound design by Pete Goodwin. MTC Education at the Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre, until May 13.

The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later, by Moises Kaufman and member of the Tectonic Theatre Project, directed by Gary Abrahams. Sets by Peter Mumford, lighting by Katie Sfetkidis, costimes by Yunuen Perez. With David Whiteley, Ella Caldwell, Kim Gyngell, Paul Ashcroft, Terry Camilleri, Hester Van Der Vyver, Rosie Traynor, Emily Thomas and Brett Ludeman. Red Stitch until May 28.

Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, directed by Dean Bryant, musical direction by Matthew Frank. Set by Richard Roberts, costumes by Paula Levis, lighting by Matt Scott, sounds design by Terry McKibbin, choreography by Andrew Hallsworth. With Kate Kendall, Gareth Keegan, Matt Hetherington, Christy Sullivan, Benjamin Hoetjes and Bert Labonte. Melbourne Theatre Company, Arts Centre Playhouse, until May 28.

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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Catch up

Those unfortunate souls who follow Ms TN on Twitter will be aware that this week she has been under the weather. "Crapulous" is the adjective that springs to mind: neither ill enough to hang up her boots by her sickbed (with attendant sympathies, flowers and Belgian chocolates) nor well enough to gird her loins and spring with a happy cry into life's melee. This is one of the most boring states on the planet, and I am well bored with myself.

Still, I've been attending theatre, even if in my bathchair, and will blog about Red Stitch's admirable production of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later and the MTC's Next to Normal as soon as I can think in paragraphs again. This week's pick is Debbie Tucker Green's Random, which is presently showing at the Lawler Studio as part of the MTC's Education Program. This production opened at the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane earlier this year and features an exemplary - nay, breath-taking - solo performance from Zahra Newman. Get thee hence, and at once: it closes at the end of next week.

In other news, US playwright Tony Kushner is in the headlines, following the last-minute withdrawal of an honorary degree from NY university CUNY. The decision follows accusations from CUNY trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld that Kushner, an outspoken critic of Israeli policy on Palestine, is an anti-Semite. George Hunka at Superfluities Redux has been tracking the scandal closely, with follow-ups here and here. The public outcry, which includes high-calibre names like Harold Bloom, has forced the trustees chair to reconvene another meeting next week to "reconsider" this decision.

Lastly, shifting to another hat: I'll be at Readings in Carlton at 6.30pm Monday night, with my poetry fascinator firmly affixed to my forehead. It's my first reading in Melbourne in two years, so I'm looking forward to it, and I'll be joined by new poets Chloe Wilson and Jessica Wilkinson. Gold coin donation. Details here.

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