Who is more exposed? The actor who stands onstage looking out at a sea of expectant faces all scrutinising and judging every word, every movement, and every expression? Or the playwright who reveals fragments of their true self in the dialogue, themes, and subtext they labour so assiduously to craft? How does the relationship between actor and writer affect the creative process and overall end result? What does this all have to do with coffee?
These are only a few of the questions posed by an intriguing play presented by a 12 person ensemble cast from the Western Australian Youth Theatre Company. Unfortunately there was no program so I apologise for not knowing any of their names other than the two alumni from WAYTCo’s excellent Punk Rock (2014), Claire Thomas and Chelsea Gibson.
The production it must be said is somewhat discombobulating at first. A young actor walks on stage and announces himself to be 51 year old playwright Thomas Douglas Finn. He will be our Narrator having written this his first play. The cast are introduced by Mister Finn and instructed to make eye contact with the audience. Then comes the coffee. Well, it would if the characters, the primary ones distinguished only by a letter of the alphabet, could decide who is going to get the coffee, what coffee to get, and how to distribute the coffee without anyone knowing who ordered what. Coffee it seems is a big deal.
Writer and cast interact insomuch as the writer instructs the actors on what to say and how to say it. Occasionally actors will protest or seek to give input. An announcer calls out scene numbers. The writer narrates to the audience. It’s all very meta and self-aware and, at times, perhaps a little too clever for its own good. What we’re seeing though is the creative process through the eyes of the writer (much to the consternation and confusion of the actors). There’s even a Robert McKee reference thrown in. McKee, of course, is considered by some to be the doyen of screenwriting theory.
This brings me to the film Adaptation which contains a very funny scene featuring McKee as played by Brian Cox. In that film the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman struggles to adapt a novel about tulips to the big screen. Instead his script morphs into a meditation on the creative process. He even invents a fictional twin brother. It struck me about halfway through that On The Face of Things, in conception, is its theatrical equivalent.
This is when our erstwhile writer Mister Finn turns out to be someone else entirely… who turns out to be someone else entirely. Yes, the writer has concealed themselves in their own construct afraid to reveal their true motivations, doubts, and fears. That biggest fear is that the play has no ending. Why? We surmise that it’s because during the writing of it the writer fell in love. The riffs on coffee I expect are extrapolations of real life conversations between the writer and their new love.
There is a tender scene towards the end where two of the characters share an intimate moment with all the artifices and devices stripped away. Then it’s time to end the play with a reprise of the actors gazing out at the audience and told to gauge the reaction to what has just been rendered.
It’s a showy piece that calls for some over-exaggerated acting, magic realism, and some chorus work of deliberately stunted enthusiasm. The performers all do well with the actor playing A and Thomas given greatest prominence as are the trio who represent the writer. The entire cast work well as an ensemble.
It’s in the quieter more honest moments, however, that the play excels when we come to realise this is about being true to who you really are. There is no need for all the masks (or, in this case, plastic cylindrical cones) and deception. Love can distract us from all the tasks and deadlines of our lives like finishing a play but it also has a way of revealing our essence, doubts and all.
On the Face of Things is written by Thomas Douglas Finn or was it Susan Catchmore? No, actually it was Alicia Osyka; directed by Dominic Mercer, and starring the WAYTCo Ensemble. It is on at Parrot House in Maylands on 31 January, 12-14 February.