Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Teeth 2 Tail - Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company (9 December 2014)

A story is told in the early going of this play written by Steve McCall that is delivered with such frenetic energy and charm that I was so caught up in the sheer entertainment of it all that I nearly missed that it was the key thematic blueprint for everything that was about to unfold. It was unusual insomuch as it served as an introduction to the character Harry played by Kane Parker and you normally wouldn’t expect such thematic heft in an opening salvo. Very nicely written and performed, Messrs’ McCall and Parker.

That story was a tale about the goings on at a watering hole in Kruger National Park where a herd of buffalo are surprised by a pride of lions and even a crocodile while tourists look on shocked. Remarkably, even though a ‘baby’ buffalo is snatched in all the chaos by a croc, the herd regroup and fight back…

In many ways the set is its own ‘watering hole’ where a series of characters in a strictly observed hierarchy interact and clash. Two sides fronting the audience are chain link fencing topped with barb wire; another side is the wall of the theatre with a platform where characters lurk and observe atop and under; the final side having the exits that are disguised by an arch like construction. It is wonderfully enclosed and cramped with holes in the fencing allowing characters, on occasion, to literally prowl right in front of the audience. The small performance space contains a couple of school desks, a drum, and a fridge built into a section of the arch, and adds enormously to the tone of the piece. It’s tight and grimy and you’re sitting up close and personal to the action. The actors, eleven in all, manoeuvre expertly through the set.

This story has its own animals both predatory and meek, set in a high school where Eva (Eloise Carter) is fascinated by her now deceased grandfather’s war service at Kokoda and her older brother Clint’s (Ryan Hunt) current participation in the armed forces overseas. She also wants to serve her country but is bullied by fellow students Cate (Gemma Middleton) and Sophie (Zoe Street) for being studious and, well, smart. Eva’s older sister Matilda (Violette  Ayad) is pregnant to resident drug dealer and punk ‘Turk’ (Sean Guastavino) while their mother Trish (Ashleigh Morris) likes her wine and the company of, allegedly, a series of men.

Added to this combustible mix is the school teacher Ms Carlton (Amelia Tuttleby) who tries to help Eva but is largely ineffectual in the face of particularly Cate’s defiance; the tough minded and sexually adventurous Paige (Holly Dodd); the sweet newcomer Lucy (Amy Johnston) who attempts to befriend Eva; and finally the na├»ve Harry (Parker) who will become an unwitting accomplice as Eva ‘regroups and fights back’ with tragic consequences.

In many ways this reminded me of the play Punk Rock but with a totally recognisable Australian voice. Yes, things escalate out of control and Eva proves to be an increasingly fierce adversary as she stands up to those who wrong her. Eloise Carter gives a tremendous performance as she moves from passive nerd to a far more calculating and ruthless presence. I almost passed straight by her after the show not recognising who she was and Carter admitted, tellingly, that she looked far less ‘psychotic’.

There are inserts throughout the play where Eva seemingly re-enacts with the cast events from her grandfather’s time at war with the Japanese. These seemed to me though, to be signposts of a sense of, perhaps not delusion, but certainly a lack of understanding of what war truly is. A point hammered home when her brother Clint returns from overseas and tells her a story about what warfare in places in Afghanistan is really like. That he is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome is a lovely juxtaposition to his sister’s state of mind as they both deal with the ramifications of her actions.

Excellent performances abound and there is a richness to each character in both how they are drawn and presented. Guastavino is a wonderfully physical and menacing presence as Turk and his callous treatment of Eva’s sister is in many ways the catalyst for the escalation in events that spiral out of control. Parker’s Harry is thoroughly sympathetic as he is drawn into something out of his ability to comprehend. Middleton proves to be a fiery antagonist but even her Cate is ranked below Dodd’s Paige who is perhaps the “alpha female” to Turk’s alpha male. Dodd ratchets up the wattage as she confronts Eva head on over Turk. 

Johnston’s turn as Lucy adds an element of genuine warmth and sweetness and her later scenes with Carter are particularly well handled. I also really liked Morris’ performance as the almost absent mother who really has no idea of what her youngest daughter is capable of. Hunt’s involvement as the brother whose return will make everything right is telling and he gives a sober rendering of a man with competing duties to family and country. Guilt is also rife throughout and how different characters deal with this is critical.

This is a thought provoking and thematically dense play with excellent writing and wonderful performances by all the cast. Mark Storen’s direction within the deliberately cribbed space is very good as characters rotate into their scenes then return to what felt at times to be silent observers in the background, like watchful eyes around a watering hole as the animals slowly tear each other apart...

Teeth 2 Tail has three more shows on at The Blue Room, finishing on Saturday 13 December and is highly recommended.

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