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


Ian said...

Thanks for doing what you do, Alison — we're all the better for it.

I'm going to Random tonight — really looking forward to it — and would also like to respond with my thoughts on Next to Normal at some point. It's interesting how you and Chris Boyd both feel the musical conflates grief and bipolar; I'm not entirely sure I agree, but it may be naïve on my part. Still thinking about it, though.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ian - I hope so! I'm sure you'll enjoy Random. Looking forward to your thoughts on N2N - I think the conflation with grief happens when the storyline starts focusing on Diana's loss as the source of her illness.

Anonymous said...

Alison - thanks for your reviews. As N to N is a musical I'd be fascinated to know what your companion didn't like - was it the music, or the musical performances, or both or something else?

Vikki said...

Perhaps I have not yet been exposed to enough cheesy music in musicals, because I loved the music (or maybe it’s because I don’t listen to the radio). For your more seasoned ears it may have been a ‘whistle-stop tour of contemporary pop’ (neat phrase), but I love a feel-good-feel-sad song nown’ then.

I enjoyed the second half much more than the first, largely because I found Kate Kendall’s depressed acting much easier to take than her ‘mania’ scenes, which I found distracting. I am not sure what can really be done to ‘act’ mania in a way that does not seem over the top-- but I felt that her performance at times bordered on caricature.

I can’t help but feel I might’ve enjoyed the whole thing more had someone stronger been cast in that role. I thought the others were excellent, and particularly enjoyed the performances by Matt Hetherington and Christy Sullivan.

The best part about the set was the way it went away in the final number. I don’t know if it would have had the same effect if it had been left bare throughout the entire play, but after seeing it whizz to and fro for 2 hours, I kind of wish it had been.

Agree with you on the electro-convulsive scene. Was cringing throughout. Hadn't thought about N2N confusing grief with bipolar --will be watching this space for any discussion on that matter!

James Andrew Cook said...

Thank you for doing what you do, Alison!
I'm looking forward to seeing Random this week, I think Zhara is one of the most talented and exciting young actors working in Melbourne at the moment.
My advice to those wanting to see Laramie is to book soon, as it is nearly sold out.
Would love to see Next to Normal, but as usual, when the MTC doesn't need to work too hard to fill the house, the $30 tickets miraculously disappear.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - The boy objected to the music itself, which he said reminded him strongly of some YouTube musicals he's been patronising. Certainly my ears began to tire after an hour or so: I think part of my problem after interval, aside from the over-heavy plotting, was simply that it began to get threadbare on repetition. Nothing like the liveliness of pastiche in something like Hairspray. Fair to say though that many in the audience clearly loved it.

Thanks Vikki for your comments. The problem with mania is that it is, by definition, over the top! It has occurred to me, on the occasions when I've witnessed it myself, that if it were put on stage no one would believe it. If anything, the performance could have gone further.

Hi James: I'm sure you'll love Random. And really? No $30 tickets?

Cameron Woodhead said...

Hope you didn't catch your cold from me. It's pure evil ... though performances like Ms Newman's in Random make it bearable.

James Andrew Cook said...

As far as I'm aware, the MTC scrap the $30 tickets for shows like Next to Normal, The Drowsy Chaperone, Hamlet and The Importance of Being Ernest.
Once they don't need us poor students to fill their empty seats.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - I see you've been soldiering on notwithstanding. Without causing me mega-distress, it's one of those ills that hangs around and hangs around and hangs around ad nauseam. Melbourne! Winter!

Thanks James. I checked the website and youth tickets for N2M are advertised at $65 (full $99). I wonder if they do student rush tix? But yes, definitely steep.

Troubador said...

I was planning to see Next to Normal but changed my mind after seeing a number of excerpts on You Tube. (Methinks the boy is right.)

James Andrew Cook said...

Not even we lowly VCA kids can get cheapies!

Clare said...

There's always day seats which are $18...

daniel clarke said...

My understanding is that there are day seats (which are cheaper) for Next to Normal...

J-Lo said...

I had to give up my ticket to Red Stitch's Laramie, so both [a] appreciate your best efforts within life's limits and [b] am disappointed to be missing what your teaser reports is a good show!

Richard Pettifer said...

wrote a whole bloody thing and tried to send it but "unexpected error" grrr...

Basically what I want to pick up on r.e Laramie is your comment "takes the theatrical alienation a step further". I think the word that dominated my disappointment with this play was 'removal'; just too much of it 1) Not the original cast, 2)not the original time of the first performance, 3) it's a sequal which has its own removal, 4) we're in melbourne and not America and there's more I'm sure.

Totally willing to forgive this normally but wow for a piece of verbatim that relies so heavily on truth this is a long long way from home Dorothy.

One interesting offshoot of this was that I disconnected with it so much that I began to sympathise waaay too much with the evil characters who committed the crime, I mean those two guys were the only characters in it for me really despite impressive verbal gymnastics from the cast. I think this problem was scriptual because they really built those moments of meeting the killers up Silence of the Lambs style rather than presenting them as connected to any of the rest of the town, I mean this is a bit of an issue right, dudes in the country going off their nana, it happens here as well, I guess there must be something in the water surely? Or maybe people just go insane, I don't know.

But any connection I might have had to my own experience was quashed by the epic politics of the end, which was some sort of American Politics movement thing. I had no idea by the end where the sympathies of the interviewers lay, they had not made themselves clear at all, and so it felt like an unfair indightment on the guys who did it and a kind-of-interesting-but-not-really-criticised holding aloft of this idea of Matthew Shepard in order to provoke political change, which I also had a little bit of a problem with.

I felt sorry for the kids in the room because I don't reckon there was much genuine critique going on of events from anyone at all cast, prod team, Tectonic, the townsfolk etc so not sure how you're supposed to take your lead from that and think critically, I think their essays are more likely to conclude with "and that is why we need to have more rights for homosexuals" which is totally fair enough but I'm not sure its a great thing to take away from the theatre or if the kid will actually be convinced that what he/she's writing is true or if they'll just be trying to get good marks...

Anyone can say anything said...

'Some sort of American Politics movement thing'. By which you mean the Federal Hate Crimes Legislation passed in the US in 2009 - and also the fight to recognise gay people in same sex marriages? Both issues that affect people outside the US and neither of which, incidentally, we have legislation for in Australia.

Geoffrey said...

Perhaps this will make it a little easier for you 4 Coffins:

... and particularly the section titled "Hate crime legislation".

Richard Pettifer said...

I have been too callous - I put it down to my initial comment being declined and my subsequent abbreviated version.

I didn't intend to trivialise the issue A.c.s.a, I understand the importance of the legislation, and something of the politics surrounding it, though I am not gay. I only meant to question its presentation as theatre, not the reality of its subject matter.

Geoffrey I actually read the Wiki when I got home but I had another browse just now at your prompting. It appears that a lot of politics has surrounded Matthew's death. I am still not sure the play I saw helps this situation, but perhaps that is not your point?

To elaborate, I think the main problems the play runs into are that of lack of alienation and didacticism, both of which provided thorough distraction from me getting 'truth' from it as a piece of documentary theatre and led to me rejecting the play. If anything the play made things much more cloudy for me on the events.

Again, sincere apologies if I have offended anyone - this was not my intention, but perhaps I have also committed a bigger crime of not providing good criticism...

Alison Croggon said...

(Blogger is really being a pain at the moment! Sorry peeps. Even I am losing comments...)

Tectonic Theatre's original script takes care to foreground its artifice as theatre (which is what I mean by "alienation" - bad translation of Brecht's term, really). Which is to say, instead of unthinkingly empathising, the audience is asked to think about the empathies they might feel, to be aware of the ways in which they might be manipulated, not only by the inevitably partial view of a two hour long work. So it's those unexpected reported details that fill things out (the police officer, say, the strangely sad interviews with the killers). Worked for me. I don't think the play "helps" the situation, but that the company considered itself part of it, by reporting in this way, filling out something of the complex reality in their investigation. It's Brechtian theatre through and through, drawing from Brecht's idea of Epic. Hence the shifting from close-up character sketches to wider views about legislation, say: it's attempt to sketch a situation. At the very least, an interesting examination, in this case, of the personal effects and politics of homophobia, which is hardly off the radar here. I like the clarity and suppleness of its intent, and I didn't feel lectured.

Geoffrey said...

I don't have opinions one way or the other about the plays 4Cs. I have seen neither of them in any of their incarnations, and doubt I ever will. In many ways, I believe the murder of Matthew Shepard is actually theatre-defying – in precisely the same way as the events of September 11 are cinema-defying. That is not to dismiss the intentions of the theatre-makers, but rather a personal inclination of mine not to wish to engage. I sincerely doubt that any act of theatre-making can have hoped to transport us to the moment(s) before, during and after his murder – whatever the motivation. As a homosexual man, it horrifies me – to this day. The description in the court case (and in the Wikipedia link) about the only skin on Matthew's face not covered by blood being the skin washed clean of blood by his tears is a statement enough for me about the horror of the event.

I am also a great believer in the powers of restorative justice, which I imagine is the essence of this sequel. I don't feel compelled to see it to find out if I am right or wrong.

In another life, as it were, I have had cause to communicate with Judy Shepard. I wanted to publish a speech of hers in one of my newspapers. The political movement that was truly inspired by this boy's murder is far more interesting to me than anything theatre-makers could ever hope to achieve. The progression of the Hate Crime legislation through the US Government has been an extraordinary thing to watch. It's success into law under the Obama administration has been one of the signature events of his Presidency as far as I am concerned.

So I will now clamber down from my soapbox and say that I was only annoyed by your seemingly cavalier dismissal of something historically significant in the timeline of equality for the gay community in the US that really came out of this incredible tragedy. That's a good deal more significant to me anyway than whether or not you liked the play.

(Sorry Alison.)

Alison Croggon said...

I think you might have found this interesting, Geoffrey, precisely because its focus was that political movement (and the play was in fact part of it). It certainly wasn't seeking to sensationalise - an important part of both plays was a disassembling of simplistic media narratives. But quite, no play is going to be the same as real events, and neither should it be. I think that was the point here!

Geoffrey said...

Quite, Alison. And that is as much the reason for its pointlessness as anything else.

I would also argue that the media narratives have not been "simplistic" ... although quite possibly for those who have who have kept up with the story through regular media 'anniversary updates' and such, might have found them so.

Richard Pettifer said...

Geoffrey as for your frustration with my comment I can only again apologise for my apparent cavalier attitude above, I felt a bit queasy when I got your responses and re-read what I had written, and again I blame blogger deleting my previous well-thought out and more considered post, which is now lost in the ether.

But I think for you it is something other than theatre - I do understand and respect this. Your comment above was probably more revealing to me about the impact of Shepard's death than the play, which I thought was flawed (but from opinions since canvassed I seem to be alone on that point anyway).

Seeing as you don't wish to engage I won't draw you with any further questions though I am curious about many things you've said - I'll try and fill the gaps myself. But thank you for posting and sparking my interest in this.

(and sorry again... sigh).

Geoffrey said...

Don't despair 4Cs, really. One of things I love about TN is that is one of the very few places in cyberspace where passionate debate and differences of opinion can occur. There have been some memorable ones over the years!

Anonymous said...

Hello Alison,

This is a private comment about one of your poems, "Seduction Poem", which I recently discovered on, and I didn't see another way to contact you. I just wanted to tell you how exquisite, earthy, honest and intimate I found it. And when I listened again, I discovered the extraordinarily tender inside-outside rhyme scheme. Wow. Thanks so much. Danielle McShine

the scorpion said...

Hey 4coffins, I think I reckon I might get what you're saying - differentiating between the power of the actual events that occured and the act of the theatre you witnessed - and whether one can even come close to being able to stand up to the power of the first.

Geoffrey, the tears thing you mentioned filled me with such a deep and profound awfulness I think my skin may be crawling now with the very idea of what must have been experienced - and that horrible inevitable impossibility of being able to do a single thing about such things - so perhaps acts of theatre in this instance do that task immeasurably well.

I wonder whether these two trains of thought can be contained/referenced in regard to the crimes explored in The Boys or Blackrock. Both of which explored acts of violent masculinity.

Thank you both for your comments, I think I am in your shoes Geoffrey - in that this particular episode of awful I don't want to engage with. The entire thing makes me quesy... or perhaps in that disengagement I will be as you 4C - stupefied by the impossibility and angered by the way such material may be handled.

Thoughts, what are they good for, absolutely nothing. But this sickness that fills me, this blatant dull anger, might just be enough to close the book and burn the library.

Geoffrey said...

It's interesting that you mention The Boys, Scorpion, because I had written a little bit about that too in my initial response on this thread – but deleted it. Again, I have not seen the play, but I did last about ten minutes in a screening of the film before walking out. I didn't leave because it wasn't any good. Quite the opposite in fact … and I had no interest whatsoever in being there.

Of course Alison is correct to point out that it is not necessarily the responsibility of theatre makers to take us to 'the moment' in quite the same way that filmmakers do. The final few sickeningly unwatchable minutes of Paul Greengrass's United 93 are a case in point.

Alison Croggon said...

Interesting dsicussion, and thanks - I think it's a mistake to confuse representation with the thing itself. Art offers representation, is all: representation can be extremely powerful, but it is only representation. It is a mistake to make grandiose claims about art's capacity to change things, for instance - but that's also no reason to deplore it or to claim it does nothing. I can think of many instances where the humility of great art has affected me in ways that have (speaking personally) changed me: just one example being André Schwarz-Bart's novel on the Holocaust, The Last of the Just, which is one of the most devastating novels I've ever read. And it is so precisely because of the tact of its imagining. But that is a huge and complex issue...

...and thanks, Danielle.