Saturday, 16 January 2016

Girl Shut Your Mouth - Black Swan State Theatre Company (15 January 2016)

This was the first of a double bill of new plays at the Studio Underground under the moniker Loaded, the other being Tonsils + Tweezers. Both were written by outstanding local playwrights; featured WAAPA graduates making their professional theatre debuts; and focussed on the all too real contemporary issue of gun violence.

In Girl Shut Your Mouth, playwright Gita Bezard creates a world of indeterminate location where four teenage girls live in fear of their life. One, Darcy, has been the victim of an acid attack; another, Katie, has survived a shooting with the bullet still lodged in her spine. This fact seemingly gives her the ability to leave this horrid place and go somewhere else where she will be welcomed and able to do whatever she likes free of fear. Except that Darcy believes instead Katie will be ostracised and treated poorly. That doesn’t stop Grace and Mia wanting to get their ‘own bullet’ so they too can leave.

Firstly, the acting here is excellent. Shalom Brune-Franklin (Grace), Brittany Morel (Darcy), Stephanie Panozzo (Mia), and Jessica Paterson (Katie) all graduated from the same WAAPA class in November last year. The three years they spent together shows in the natural chemistry of their interactions, whether it be playful, taunting, or full on drama. Each has a moment to shine though Paterson is the presumptive lead as the more dominant Katie. The power dynamics within the group are fascinating with Morel’s Darcy the seemingly meek outsider; Brune-Franklin’s Grace the capable ‘lieutenant’ of sorts; and Panozzo’s Mia the one that tilts that whole hierarchy on its head with a decision that escalates matters into truly dangerous territory. That escalation sees Paterson’s Katie react in telling fashion as the fa├žade of bluster and nonchalance is ripped away.

Those dynamics are enhanced by the set – in effect a big ‘playpen’ is created for these 16 year old characters to cavort in. The raised sides allow positions of dominance while the floor of the pen is used to put characters in a position of submissiveness. There is outstanding use of lighting to elevate dramatic moments through use of silhouette and to delineate flashback sequences to Katie’s shooting. The sound design aids in these distinct sequences as well.

Image by Daniel James Grant
It certainly is a confronting play with occasional beats of very black humour but it didn’t quite work for me even though there were some outstanding moments. To name three – Brune-Franklin’s ‘fear’ monologue where she wishes the most fearful moment of going to school was whether a cute boy would have the courage to say he liked her versus the ugly reality of shootings and rapes and more; the ‘Walter sequence’ where Mia follows through on a pivotal decision is truly creepy and disturbing as the reality of this world for young girls is made brutally clear; and the climax itself which takes that decision to its logical conclusion to shattering effect. The acting, staging, writing, and execution in all three of these moments makes for riveting theatre.  

However, while I understood the analogies – I took the here and now to be somewhere such as Syria; the other place free of fear to be Australia; and the shed with the blankets the dog gave birth on that Darcy thinks will be Katie’s true destination, to be a detention centre – the act of ‘getting your bullet’ seemed so extreme even in the logic of the world that was created as to be somewhat distancing. The high risk stakes of planning to get shot but not die only to prove your ‘credentials’ to enter the ‘other place’ I guess could be analogous to undertaking the dangerous passage by sea to a new world free of persecution.

I suspect the issue was that we never saw that other world in the context of the play to understand its magnetic lure; nor did we really see the horror of their present world. Both of those things were mainly only talked about and not experienced. Even the flashbacks to Katie’s shooting were more an exercise is exaggeration or shrugged off which diluted their impact.

Having said that, it is a provocative premise and one that will sponsor debate given the extreme nature of what these teenagers propose to escape the horror of their daily lives. Very well acted and staged, Girl Shut Your Mouth is on at the State Theatre Centre in the Studio Underground along with Tonsils + Tweezers until 7 February. It is written by Gita Bezard, directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler and stars Shalom Brune-Franklin, Brittany Morel, Stephanie Panozzo, and Jessica Paterson.

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