Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce - Hayman Theatre Company (21 April 2015)

There is a word – a Polish word I believe – that means the sadness one feels as the echo of laughter slowly fades from a recently emptied theatre. If only I could remember what that word is…

If I could then that’s how I would describe the aftermath of watching this very funny play that was wonderfully performed and staged. That and my now sudden guilty feelings about eating almonds!

Yes, this is a gloriously off-the-wall farce that spirals off into strange territory indeed as one of its characters turns into… an almond.

But let’s backtrack a little and start with Sarah Ruhl’s deliciously subversive script. Here it is melancholy and sadness - as embodied by Tilly (Zoe Street) - that is sexy and irresistible with happiness being a chaotic force that causes all kinds of disaster. Flipping the expected stereotypes around is a masterstroke that allows for the farcical and absurd but retains a key message with the almond transformation a clear metaphor. The last third of the play flirts with going way over-the-top but is grounded by an almost too obvious passage of dialogue delivered by Tilly that urges the characters to genuinely be there and support the nut afflicted Frances (Olivia Dugandzic)… even if they have to become nuts themselves. Yes, how does one truly support a friend or loved one who is enmeshed in sadness and melancholy?

Street is excellent as the bank employee Tilly. Her world weary, languid and poetic turn in the early going that marks her sadness as being so potent is terrific to watch. In turn, her therapist Lorenzo (Kane Parker); a tailor (Nathan Whitebrook); a hairdresser Frances (Dugandzic) and then Frances’ lover, the nurse Joan (Daisy Grant) all are drawn to and ultimately fall in love with her. Buoyed by such emotion that is magnified on her birthday, Tilly suddenly becomes inextricably happy causing everyone else to slip into sadness as her allure is somehow diminished. Here Street switches gears to become almost annoyingly ecstatic, playing children’s games and even riding a bike onstage at one point. It’s an eye-catching performance.

Whitebrook is the tentative tailor who kicks off proceedings by offering a defence of melancholy directly to the audience which is a technique used throughout as characters speak through hanging window frames. They also represent the portals to vistas that inspire melancholy such as wistfully gazing through a window on a rainy afternoon. His character’s descent into tear-filled and hiccupped sadness is nicely observed as is the boisterous rivalry with Lorenzo. Parker sports a very good Italian accent as the lovelorn therapist and he gives an exuberant performance that is amusingly capped off by his plaintive pleas to know if he too now is an almond. The fight scene with Whitebrook is a highlight. 
Dugandzic gives Frances that air of infatuation despite herself and the fact the character is already in a relationship. It is as if she is compelled to be with Tilly. I especially liked her ‘delivery’ as an ‘almond’ perched alongside the audience in her ‘letterbox’. Her ‘resurrection’ is masterfully staged. There is a late revelation regarding a dubious backstory that was perhaps one step too far for me but is well acted nevertheless. Daisy Grant’s nurse is seemingly far more practical so it’s a treat to see her play the ‘gaga’ looks and clinginess as Joan falls for Tilly’s charms as well.

The cast is rounded out by Savannah Wood, resplendent and elegant in a gown as she plays the cello to stage left. Wood played beautifully and added so much texture and tone to key moments. Of course, the cello is perhaps the instrument most suited to melancholy so it was cheeky and fun when Lorenzo asks her to play something ‘happy’ after the other characters suddenly realise she is there. This is another example of playing around with conventions with Tilly even handing her red balloon to the young boy sitting next to me.

The play fairly rockets along at just under 80 minutes and is well directed by Leah Mercer with seamless scene transitions and handoffs between characters. There is great energy throughout and, as I’ve come to expect with the Hayman Upstairs Theatre, good use of multiple entry and exit points for the actors. This is the second show I’ve seen there this year and it appears they have really taken their set designs up a notch with this and Spring Awakening. The wallpaper on the back wall; the varied rugs on the stage; the hanging frames; the centrepiece couch; Frances and Joan’s apartment space – all well-appointed and adroitly used.

Above all this is very funny even as the farce turns into something quite surreal in its last third. The performances are excellent, especially in the first half as Tilly weaves her spell. This is a really enjoyable production with only four more performances, 22-25 April at Curtin University’s Hayman Theatre Upstairs. 

Written by Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Leah Mercer, Melancholy stars Olivia Dugandzic, Daisy Grant, Kane Parker, Zoe Street, Nathan Whitebrook, and Savannah Wood.

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