Tin Shed Theatre Company and Deep Sea Astronauts in association with Tamarama Rocks Surfers Theatre Company presents THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST DRAGONS, AND OTHER CLASSIC TALES, AS TOLD BY AN OCTOPUS by Alli Sebastian Wolf at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
I delayed attending this production directed by Scarlet McGlynn of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST DRAGONS, AND OTHER CLASSIC TALES, AS TOLD BY AN OCTOPUS by Alli Sebastian Wolf, as Jason Blake in his Sydney Morning Herald review, early March, had suggested that time may improve the experience. I wanted to see it because the title was whimsically attractive to me and Augusta Supple (see her blog) had some regard for Ms Wolf's work, having some sense of her development through a playwriting prism, firstly, OFF THE SHELF, and later, BRAND SPANKING NEW - two development organisations for new writers of the recent past. Since then this work has also had help from a residency at Queen St Studios and at Explicit Manor. "This is the first performance of the entire piece - whipped together in a few months under the guidance of director/producer Scarlet McGlynn."
Three short plays: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING DRAGONS, HIP HOP HIPPOLYTUS and DANTE'S GLAM ROCK INFERNO make up the evening. Each have their origin of inspiration from classic texts. Octopus (Paul Armstrong) sits resplendently dressed in smoking jacket and cravat in his red velvet armchair holding his pipe, flicking through books that surround him. He chats to us and acts as narrator, as a way of introducing this omnibus of stories. You know the ones. Firstly, says Octopus, "from that old poof" Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST; then, from "another old poof", Euripides' HIPPOLYTUS; and lastly from Dante's LA DIVINA COMMEDIA. I guess he is not a poof but a breeder (Mr Wilde, of course was also married and had two children - a homosexual then, or, a bi-sexual?). There is in the writing conceit an honouring of a tradition, of pop culture history, to things like The Monty Python team, especially the wild imaginative and separate meanderings of Terry Gilliam, Fractured Fairy Tales in the cartoon programs of my youth and even to the Pirates of the Caribbean in the imagining of Octopus. Fun and comforting. What Octopus tells us is, however, is that these stories are going to be more than stories but also moral fables about the efficacy of love in different forms.
The first has Algernon (Richard Cox), now a Dragon, devouring the corpse of his hoped to be mother-in-law, Lady Bracknell, whilst talking to that poor lady's nephew, Jack/Earnest (Charlie Falkner) about wooing. Most of the comedy in this early work is scored by that "old poof " Wilde's work - lots of quotation from the original - in this case more than politely nodding to the original author. Ms Wolf except for the absurd situated world and character excesses she has conjured for us, full of intriguing possibilities, offers not many palpable verbal hits of her own.
HIP HOP HIPPOLYTUS, is written in hip hop rhythmic poetic code, sometimes accompanied by music (Music Director & Composer, Tim Hill). In Ms Wolf's appropriation of the Euripides, Aphrodite (Kara Boland), the Goddess of love seems to be encouraging a same sex relationship between herself and Atremis (Victoria Griener) the Goddess of the Hunt, who has an unrequited yearning for the chastity vowed Hippolytus (Tim Crewe), both Goddesses wreaking death wounds and havoc on Phaedra (Sarah Hodgetts) and Theseus (Andy Leonard) of the original, in their flirtatious struggles. I wrote "seems" because the technical frailties of some of the actors skills, failed microphone equipment and too loud music from the band hampered verbal clarity. I was often left to guess the events unfolding. The text, that I could hear, had rhythmic skill and some wit.
The final work, DANTE'S GLAM ROCK INFERNO has Virgil (Andy Leonard), as a transvestite, guiding Dante, the poet to Inferno. It is indeed glam rock and owes most of its inspiration to The Rocky Horror Show - Hedwig traditions - song, dance and innuendo. Unfortunately, the music buries the writing text/lyrics. The spoken wit is here carried primarily by Mr Leonard and Crewe who have some technique to their voice work and a practiced sense of timing. What the moral lessons about love that Octopus promised us are, I was not able to deduce from this performance. My curiosity about the potential Ms Wolf's future work is aroused but not much more as this production of her work does not put it at the center of the experience. Visuals jokes, pictures, images more important than the words or their stylistic organisation for comic communication. Ms Wolf from what I could discern has wit and a keen sense of parody, but beyond the comic sketch as a homage to other people's work, not very arresting. There is also a tendency to cheap vulgarisms to cover as comedy when all else is failing - the poofter jokes getting the biggest laughs on the night I attended - and oddly, a leaning to a misogynistic fate for her female characters. All the women in Earnest Dragons are killed and eaten (why one would kill off Lady Bracknell, who Wilde describes as "a Gorgon without being a myth" and the cause of most of the brilliant epigrams, I can't begin to guess). The Goddesses in HIP HOP are fairly uncompromisingly 'ugly' with each other - with the swiveled smooth action hips of Ms Boland being the principal source of humour (she was virtually inaudible). And apart from the transvestite/transgender role played by Mr Leonard, there are no women in the last piece except as servants or chorines that may have come from an American seedy burlesque house, exploited sex objects (I was curious that the company had decided the dialogue was to be spoken in American approximations).
Ms Wolf says in the program, "I started Deep Sea Astronauts to get my friends into festivals for free and bring talented people out of shells into hanging out, to spark the sparks of making. I make work with the idea that anything we do has to be brilliant fun, giving talented people a place to create, collaborate and drink beer. It has worked out pretty well so far." Indeed, they are playing in a pub theatre, but is it free?
The imagined world is tantalising. The Design led by Dylan James Tonkin and assisted by Gemma O'nions and Allegra Holmes is especially atmospheric with the imagery of a dull black and white flocked wallpaper, painted to cover all the walls and floor and works to expand the space of the Old Fitz, with the band of six musicians spread across the upper terrace. The costumes are remarkably witty and detailed and the organising of the quick changes ingenious. The head piece for Octopus is fun as most of the dressings are. Well done. The Lighting Design by Christopher Page is mostly useful as atmospheric "event" states with not much focused details to assist the clarity of the text. Often the actors/singers are in black holes and only faintly visible, the principal characters positioned on the penumbra of the states instead of in it. Considering that Mr Page was nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award for best lighting design for The Dark Room last year, one is not sure why the lighting of this production is so inappropriate. I'm inclined to attribute this to the inexperience of the actors and/or director rather than Mr Page. Ms McGlynn, the director, has managed to get the design elements and a cast and musicians together (remarkably 16 performers in this small theatre space) but does not really seem to be able to guide a fairly inexperienced company of actors to a sense of language usage to achieve the best from the written word e.g. rhythmic tempo to make the work consistently cogent and funny.
The first play suffers enormously with a sense of mis-timing and the comedy struggles under the holes in the action and re-action, one of the keys to comic technique. Mr Crew and Mr Leonard, with more experience, solve relatively, the interactions of the third play and come out of this production best. The singers are often not featured at all in the lighting design and part of the failure for us to follow/hear what is going on is the gloom that they are in, so we cannot see or 'read' the text of the lyrics - and then add the constant failure of equipment to capture and balance / monitor the sound, and some reason for lack of clarity of the text reveals itself. Ms McGlynn also directed BOXING DAY for the Old Fitz last year and still has the same weaknesses in her work.
Mr Blake had intimated in his review that the work is fairly suggestive of a university breakout, and given that I took his advice and waited to give it time to settle and saw it in the last week of its run, I would suggest nothing much has developed and I take on the same view as his, whatever Ms Supple hopes. How this work was thought to be ready for exposure in one of the few performing spaces available in Sydney is a very provocative question. I don't believe anybody much was served by the airing of this work at this stage of its development. It seemed to be a premature exposure in a theatre house that is of much more sophisticated fare and production.
I made mention of this at the performance of THE HORSES MOUTH which I attended at the Old Fitz last year. Nothing has changed. The actual starting time was almost identical Just what is the starting time at the Old Fitz? 8pm or 8.21pm?
Boring and rude, I reckon.