Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Mars Project - WAAPA (26 August 2015)

What would you do to become a pioneer? To have your name recorded in history? What lengths would you take to become truly famous? What would you be prepared to sacrifice? In our efforts to strive for that sort of immortality do we reveal our basest instincts… our most terrible selves?

Those are just some of the questions The Mars Project explores using a recent real life plan to colonise the red planet by 2025 as its foundation. In that instance over 200,000 people applied to become interplanetary travellers. How then to whittle down to the handful of pioneers whose names will be lauded forever?

The answer presented here is a mix of Big Brother reality style social experiment; the sort of manufactured team bonding exercise you find in the corporate world (your plane crashes in sub-Arctic conditions and you can only retrieve 15 items – which ones and why?); and the musings of an inspirational speaker who urges you to become the best version of yourself. Throw in a spin doctor and an eager applicant and all bets are off.

But interestingly there is another layer – our presumptive heroine Wren (Elle Harris) has a twin - autistic brother, Sam (Luke Fewster). We also meet many other autistic characters such as Mars Billy (Seamus Quinn) who is fixated on the neighbouring planet, displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge that he blurts out in rapid fire chunks. Sam, however, is silent as he twirls a red hula hoop around his waist in, if I’m not mistaken, an elliptical orbit. Like Wren and Sam, it’s posited that Earth and Mars are twins of a similar fashion, one alive and vibrant; the other dark and mysterious. There are nice parallels throughout.

Wren desperately wants to go to Mars and seeks out the assistance of PR expert Sparkle (Hoa Xuande) who attempts to spin his candidate into a winning position. Meanwhile others undertake the sub-Arctic selection process while Sam, Mars Billy and other autistic children are being cared for. Then there is the Tony Robbins style Robin (Dacre Montgomery) who entreats everyone to be the agent of their own change. Crucially it’s his oft repeated mantras that inform the drama that slowly unfolds – “glowing, stunning, forceful, dominant and magnetic” being the five principles we all should strive for; and even more salient, “I am not hurting you, I am helping myself.” This has immense significance in the latter stages of the play.

Yes, there is a lot going on which is to be expected with a play written to cater for 17 actors. I was a little lost at first but as writer-director Will O’Mahony said at the Q&A after the show, he had to introduce that many characters in the first 12 minutes and give them all something meaningful to do. However, the main narrative thread of Wren’s journey slowly emerges and we come to learn exactly what she is prepared to do with a turning point that makes the final third riveting drama.  

In this Harris is superb as she skilfully plays out Wren’s complex arc – eager, driven, kind, manipulative, callous and calculating. From crass outbursts of anger when things don’t go her way; to a sweetness dripped in duplicity as she asks if Mars Billy would like to kiss her… but only if he lies on her behalf; to a devastating climax where she is prepared to sacrifice even her own brother to quench the thirst of her ambition; Harris displays great range of emotion.

The other standout is Montgomery as Robin who epitomised the unimpeachable confidence that marks the world renowned life coach (or snake oil salesman), with the American accent, sleek look, the posture, the gestures and vocal rhythms down pat.  
Fewster plays the twin brother with a quiet physical presence as he slowly circles the space, hula hoop always in motion. He excels in the final moments where the stakes are ratcheted up as brother and sister’s different orbits collide.

Others to impress – Lincoln Vickery who gave a memorable rant of a monologue as perhaps the least likeable of all the characters; Quinn who had a dense opening monologue of facts and figures delivered at breakneck speed; Brittany Morel as another autistic character though there were occasional echoes of her character from All My Sons with certain hand movements; Claudia Ware giving her teacher a straightforward quality amongst the spin; and Hoa Xuande handled the patter of Sparkle’s dialogue very well.

Indeed, the construction of the dialogue was, in itself, a standout. There was clearly a love of language here with sly wordplay, a real rhythm to each character’s speech patterns, and a dash of Sorkinese as thoughts were re-ordered and represented in quick succession, noticeably for Sparkle. Those rhythms really played well with such a talented cast.

The presentation itself was stripped back as Rehearsal Room 2 became a surrogate for the Enright Studio – a black box space with good use of lighting and mood music with minimal props and no set to speak of. The actors were front and centre. The only issue I had is that with the seating on all four sides there were times I could not see a performer’s eyes. This was occasionally regrettable in moments of high emotion and drama. 
The play started a little slowly but developed into an intriguing concept that really kicked into something quite special when the turning point comes. This was delivered with clinical precision as Harris’ Wren pivots the stakes into the stratosphere with a simple question with awful ramifications. How that plays out is very well acted and executed and I loved that O’Mahony let the final moments breathe so that it lingers with us long after the lights have faded.

Directed by Will O’Mahony, Written by O’Mahony along with the actors, and starring WAAPA’s third year acting class, The Mars Project is on at Rehearsal Room 2 at the State Theatre Centre but only until Saturday 29 August. Original, thoughtful, complex, it is well worth catching if you can get a ticket.

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