No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Catherine Oates

Review: In The Next Room, or the vibrator play

Amber McMahon. Photo by Shane Reid.

In this house in the 1880s, the drawing room can be the domain of Catherine Givings (Amber McMahon), the slightly frustrated wife, slightly depressed new mother. In the next room is the domain of Dr Givings (Renato Musilino). This is the room where the man of the house can do his work, treating his patients. Largely women. Largely though the power of that newfangled beast: electricity. And the newfangled thing that electricity powers: the vibrator. A strictly utilitarian machine for therapeutic treatment, the cure for hysteria.

Mr Daldry (Brendan Rock) is concerned about his wife, Sabrina (Lizzy Falkland). She is faint, shaky, tired, shies away from bright lights. Hysteria, Dr Givings diagnoses. Not to worry, he and midwife Annie (Katherine Fyffe) will treat her. Once daily. It will all work out fine. Not only is Sabrina treated, but she strikes up a friendship with Catherine, and offers her maid Elizabeth (Pamela Jikiemi), recently bereft of a infant son, up as Catherine’s wet nurse.

But now there is a new patient at Dr Givings office. Leo Irving (Cameron Goodall). But surely Dr Givings couldn’t treat a man? Or could he?

Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room, or the vibrator play, gives it all up to its audience front and centre. In this production under director Catherine Fitzgerald, the plot points detailed above are no more than window dressing: this is a comedy about vibrators.

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Review: Top Girls, or, why I’m happy to be a young feminist

In 1982, the New York Times described Top Girls as “intent on breaking rules.” Thirty years later, Top Girls feels rather a lot like a Well Made Play. Playwright Caryl Churchill has been so influential on the current crop of playwrights that seeing her work on stage now as part of the canon it feels simply that – part of the canon, no longer radical.

And in that tradition, Catherine Fitzgerald’s production for the State Theatre Company is a well made production. Maintaining the eighties setting with shoulder pads intact, and with solid performances from the cast the show rips along much faster than you would suspect of its nearly three hours running time.

Mary Moore’s set keeps it mainly simple: a curved dining table in the first scene, several (computer-less, even for 1982) desks and a office percolator, a small wall for Kit (Carissa Lee) and Angie (Antje Guenther)’s hideaway, a couch and table in Joyce’s home; location settings somewhat unnecessarily indicated by large stagnant projections. The simplicity of Moore’s set – which places the characters and text at the centre of the production, is overshadowed though, by a confusingly literal interpretation of the “glass ceiling” metaphor.

At the dinner party the glass ceiling has been broken – although it is very clear that most of these women just managed to survive within the patriarchy, not beyond it: being stoned to death, giving up their children at the test of their partners, living as a concubine and a nun. At the office, too, the glass ceiling is broken – Marlene (Ulli Birvé) receiving a top job at Top Girls, this is clear enough. In Suffolk, at the home of Marlene’s working class sister Joyce (Eileen Darley), the ceiling remains intact and unbroken. Most confusingly, though, is when the glass ceiling descends during the last scene of the play (the first scene chronologically), as Marlene and Joyce talk. Saying what, exactly? The more time you spend in a lower class area the lower your ceiling becomes? The act of women talking to each other causes the ceiling to drop? The restrictions on the  working class Joyce are certainly greater than her now middle class sister, but why the lowering?

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Review: Pie

Pie by Gabrielle Griffin. Photo Heath Britton.

In the house of a purple gauze tent, a woman (Gabrielle Griffin, who conceived, devised and performs the work) counts money and squirrels it away in a box.  Under the ticking of a clock, she pulls out a pastry dish from a draw in a wooden cabinet, its glass cupboards filled with eggs, and proceeds to make a pie.  Out comes a puppet (designed and constructed by Rid Primrose) who checks the money in what is her box, and administers Griffin for the few coins she has taken.

What follows is Pie: a play I don’t quite know how to explain.  Structurally, there is little in ways of plot.  In fact, I am still not certain if the show was essentially following a structured plot, or if the scenes were simply thematically linked rather than lineally. Either way would be justifiable and fine in the context of the production, but it is the ambiguity that is not resolved, an uncertainness of time framing which has left me puzzled.

A word-less performance by Griffin is supported by her tender, skillful and considerate use of puppetry (there was one particular moment where the puppet climbs a ladder, and the swing of her leg up a step, a slight reverb and then rebalance in the hip struck me with such humanity it would be mundane in any other situation), but without a narrative or a history to the characters or their relationship most scenes threw up more questions than they answered.  I couldn’t explain to myself what a Ferris wheel was supposed to represent; I was confused if pills were fertility pills or The Pill; I didn’t know if scenes were dreams or reality within this world.

I thought perhaps it could be the fact that reproduction isn’t a thought or an issue in my life at the moment.  But I don’t think that precludes me from the understanding of the subject matter.  It’s a work that would certainly be easy to have a response to if reproductive issues were front and centre of your life, but I don’t think that goes hand in hand with it being inscrutable if they are not.

Letting these issues go, though, the production sits within a attractive design, changing to create new interesting surrounds throughout the production.  Through the gauzed tent design (Gaelle Mellis and Wendy Todd), the lighting (Mark Penningon) refracts in such a way to create rainbows of light glittering through the walls.  The use of shadows, while sometimes enigmatic within the narrative, formed compelling images.  Black and white animated projections (animation by Luku Kuku, projection design by Cindi Drennan) are at times clear in their intent and purpose to the show (sands through an hour glass), and at times not.

Composition and sound design (Catherine Oates and Belinda Gehlert) used a variety of styles, from the ticking of a clock, to the tango, to fairground music, to differentiae each scene.  This sound aids in the movement and responses between Griffin and her puppet, and gently pushes the pace along.

At just under an hour, Pie doesn’t outstay its welcome: there is enough in the design elements and Griffin’s work with the puppet that the production is a gentile divertissement.  Yet, I came away with the pressing question: if I didn’t know it was about reproduction, how long would it have taken me to have worked that out?  In the scenes and the structure I unfortunately lost too much to really comprehend the story Pie was trying to tell.

Vitalstatistix presents Pie, conceived, devised and performed by Gabrielle Griffin.  Design by Gaelle Mellis and Wendy Todd; lighting design by Mark Pennington; projection design by Cindi Drennan; composition and sound design by Catherine Oates and Belinda Gehlert; rehearsal director and dramaturgy by Kat Worth; puppet design, construction and consultancy by Rod Primrose; animation by Luku Kuku; outside eye and dramaturgy consultant Maude Davey.  At the Waterside Workers Hall until August 6.  More information and tickets.