The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 13, 2007
An experience that American theatre-goers probably almost never get, at least in New York, is an evening of plays that are all critical of America. It's an experience that I recommend: it's good for us, and not just the way spinach is; new perspectives on how the rest of the world sees our country are welcome, valuable, and vital.
This is the experience you'll get when you see The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back, a three-week series of original plays by Australian playwrights that provide "imaginative encounters with the idea of the United States and its relationship to their country." It's the current production of The Production Company. Last year, they had American playwrights create new work about Australia, which turned out to be not all that interesting. This year, with the tables turned, it's fascinating.
There's a different set of plays each week; I saw the opening group of four, which include Pinter's Explanation by Ross Mueller, The Melancholy Keeper of the Deep, Deep Green by Anthony Crowley, Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart by Lally Katz, and The Port by Wesley Enoch. Though they make for a varied bill, they share an overriding theme of constructive criticism of America and Americans.
The shortest of the pieces is almost the most direct and the most entertaining: The Port is a solo play about a young Australian woman traveling to the U.S. and reflecting on how she feels about Americans. She likes them as individuals, but not as a group, or in groups. What she goes on to describe should feel uncomfortably familiar—the innate and unwitting self-importance, in particular. As performed by Emma Jackson and directed by Ari Edelson, it's a brisk, swift, and necessary punch in the gut (not too hard a punch!) that's both very funny and very much on target.
The Melancholy Keeper of the Deep, Deep Green takes place in a lighthouse sometime before Australia became an independent federation in 1901. Patrick, the manager of the lighthouse, is visited unexpectedly by an American who wants him to extinguish the light on this particular evening, so that a ship nearby will be wrecked, thus averting (according to the mysterious American) some unstated global calamity. I did a bit of quick Googling and couldn't find an obvious historical referent for this incident, which reinforces my original reaction to this piece, that it's an allegory about the Iraq War and Australia's not-always-popular position as one of the U.S.A.'s allies in that conflict. It's certainly a potent examination of how a larger, more powerful country can easily manipulate a smaller one; the play also contains, not at all incidentally, some fascinating material about the way lighthouses were operated a century ago.
Pinter's Explanation by Ross Mueller is almost 40 minutes long and perhaps overstays its welcome, despite strong performances by Michael Szeles and Mary Cross and expert direction by Mark Armstrong. It feels, at first, also allegorical: a man and a woman have gathered to read a script (an Australian play that the man is adapting to make it more comprehensible to an American audience). The same power-politics are evident here, though on a more personal and intimate scale. The interesting twist is that both players are intimidated by the Mother Country, here represented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Harold Pinter. Mueller veers off this point and goes on a couple of tangents, with the titular one feeling too long and unnecessary to me. But this is an interesting play that, in common with the works of Pinter himself, can be looked at on a variety of different levels.
Katz's contribution, Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, is to my mind the least successful of the evening's offerings. It's set in a futuristic/apocalyptic time in "places" with names like MySpace Moscow and MySpace Tokyo; a young woman from Melbourne comes to MySpace New York for a friend's wedding, and ends up getting involved with the Best Man, a "suicide" who lives with his family of "avalanche dwellers." Katz's inability to make clear what these names mean is the fundamental problem with the play: a general disdain for American values is manifested in the plot's destruction of key Manhattan landmarks like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, but the specifics of what's actually going on in this alternate universe remain fuzzy and unconvincing.
But overall, The Australia Project II exposes us to interesting and articulate playwrights from Down Under who are not afraid to say what they think vis-a-vis the U.S.A., and that's such a good thing. We'll be reviewing the next two programs as they unfold, so stay tuned.
Week 2 - Reviewed by Kat Chamberlain (September 20, 2007)
Australia Project enters Week 2 where the focus is no longer fixed on American politics. Whether complex or blatant, quiet or riotous, these three one-act plays showcase three Australian playwrights' craft and sensitivity toward that seemingly obvious yet hard to articulate thing called the American psyche.
What is truly fun about seeing an Australian play with an American character in it, is that you get to learn—for a change—some new words, or some words with new meaning. The rocky 967 Tuna by Brendan Cowell, about a young Australian traveler on a rented fishing boat with an older American guide, starts with this conversation:
JEREMY: It's a filth boat.
STEVE: Excuse me?
JEREMY: Filth. Filth means excellent in Australian.
JEREMY: Filth boat.
STEVE: She's real filthy this boat.
JEREMY: Nice one.
Funny stuff. Jeremy brings beer onboard and manages to get Steve—the church-going, Steve Irwin-loving, "f"-word hating, walking American cliché that might be all too representative—both drunk and irate in no time. The mostly American audience laughed throughout, at both characters. I am not sure how much of Jeremy is stereotypical, but Nick Flint plays him with impeccable comic timing.
The mood turns 180 degrees with The Beekeeper, Emma Vuletic's affecting piece about an Australian wife, 40, interviewing an American surrogate mother, 26 with two prior "contracts", for carrying a baby for her. They bond, exchange their own stories, and talk about bees—an interesting metaphor that I will save for your own exploration. Chandler Vinton and Lethia Nall are both natural in their roles.
What follows throws all that contemplation out the window—literally—with Tommy Murphy's Syphon. A program note informs us, "Soda or whipped cream siphons are used with nitrous bulbs as 'whippits' by some young people in Australia to achieve a cheap high." Cheap or not, this piece is plenty high, complete with arm-severing, fire on the street, a monster, and a tissue ad that makes a boy cry. The best way I can describe the show is that two Australian college students get high and...well, all hell breaks loose, and we are not even sure if it is all in their head. The best way to appreciate this piece is just going for the ride, or in this case, the mind trip. Director Shoshana (Shana) Gold does an admirable job creating a fantastical world for this absurdist urban fable. The story, language, and acting are all refreshingly different.
Which brings me to the conclusion that it is truly wonderful to see works that feel so, dare I say, foreign. I only wish that my sister, who has naturalized to Australia, had been sitting beside me. We could surely have gotten a great discussion going.