Friday, 15 August 2014

Back to Eden - Black Martini Theatre (14 August 2014)

I remarked earlier this evening that I appear to be spending a fair bit of time at universities lately – Curtin with strong and interesting productions at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs; Edith Cowan’s Mount Lawley campus, home of course to WAAPA; and Murdoch which houses a few student theatre companies. I have already seen a couple of productions each from Second Chance Theatre and the Murdoch Theatre Company but tonight it was Black Martini Theatre’s production of Back to Eden at the Drama Workshop, written by Yuri Baranovsky.

The story, in short, revolves around Adam and Eve surrogates Michael and Samantha who are in a place they know not where, having arrived there they know not how, with their memories seemingly wiped. There is, however, a single white door. Through which bounds God-like businessman Andy Corvell who convinces Michael to sign a contract that promises him everything. Except things don’t go as expected for Michael and Samantha who end up getting married and having a child called Rose who rapidly grows as time has no meaning here, or is sped up, or… something. Yes, it’s all a little perplexing with plenty of talk about control and choice and life and suchlike with digs at religion along the way.

Now, for this review we have to discuss the writing before we get to the performances and Black Martini’s work. I had not heard of Yuri Baranovsky before tonight and I struggled with the first act – I didn’t understand the rhythms, I was unclear on tone, and the writing indulged in a lot of wordplay and trying to be clever but it fell flat for me. It also felt quite elliptical and downright obtuse at times. The acting, as a result, was also puzzling in a lot of cases. It was only in the early going of the second act when two armchairs were dragged on stage that it hit me like a freight train – this is, I swear to Corvell, a sitcom script not a stage play. 

Then it all started to make sense. I inserted my own canned mental laugh track and suddenly the odd, verbal riffing, the strange entrances and exits, the ‘guest appearances’ like the mother, the literal ‘mugging to camera’ acting for many characters, and the way it was staged began to work for me. I was in the audience for a live filming of a one-camera situational comedy set in a single location where an unwitting couple fall prey to the whims of God played as a corporate businessman.   
Michael Casas as Michael and Amelia Dee as Samantha struggle valiantly but they are playing the ‘straight men’ who don’t know what’s going on in this crazy construct. They have to do so much heavy lifting with Casas the earnest one and Dee the more questioning of the two. The problem here is that when the ‘crazier’ characters are off stage the play flattens out as they are too similar tonally and you can only play variations of “what’s going on?” for so long. There are bursts where Dee’s Samantha in particular seems about to cut loose but they are basically the ‘every-person’ couple trying to comprehend (as the audience is) events and their meaning.

The showy part of Corvell is entertainingly played by Philip Hutton who gives him a larger-than-life persona and after a strange entrance becomes the weird energy that drives the play. This is felt most clearly in his absence for a large part of the second act where we sorely miss his antics. Shannon Rogers is good as the ditzy secretary Jane and, alongside a cute running gag, does have interesting wordplay because it comes more from character not just the writer being clever. Then there’s Darren, one of Corvell’s employees, played by Andrew Trewin, who is, to all intents and purposes, our Kramer in this little sitcom which explains the over-the-top style he uses.

The ensemble is made up of Jessica Serio, Justin Crossley, Karen Hansord, Ryan Partridge, and Tijana Simich. They get to ‘nod and wink’ at the audience outrageously at times and even indulge in a little Pythonesque-style madness as we discover that Michael is indeed “not the Messiah”.

In all I found this an odd play but that was predominantly to do with the writing. It reverts to more traditional form towards the end where a choice finally needs to be made by Michael and Samantha – will they or won’t they walk through the door - and there are amusing parts along the way. I also enjoyed the cheekiness of the programme which included a section for Andy Corvell’s signature!

Directed by Thomas Dimmick and starring Philip Hutton, Amelia Dee, Michael Casas, Shannon Rogers, Andrew Trewin, Jessica Serio, Justin Crossley, Karen Hansord, Ryan Partridge, and Tijana Simich, Back to Eden has three more shows at the Drama Workshop, Murdoch University, 7.30pm Friday and Saturday with a 2pm matinee on Saturday as well. 

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