The Black Swan of Trespass
nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
August 15, 2004
A rooster and a cat complaining about modernism? A man talking to a mosquito? Actually, an imaginary man talking to a singing mosquito? “The urchins picked their noses in the sun, (pause) with their left hand.” Presented by Stuck Pigs Squealing.
WHAT?! If The Black Swan of Trespass sounds confusing, it is. It’s also quite wonderful. Straddling the line between linear theatre and theatre of the absurd is difficult, but the authors (Lally Katz and Chris Kohn) manage the trick fairly well. They have imagined the life and thoughts of a man who just happens to be the figment of two Australian soldiers’ imaginations.
The true story: In 1943, World War II Australian soldiers/poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart engineered an imaginary poet named Ernest Malley to parody modernist writings. They wrote poems that were deliberately nonsense, then posed as his sister submitting them by mail to Max Harris, an outspoken modernist poet and magazine editor. After Harris declared Malley the “most significant new voice in Australian Literature,” they revealed their colossal joke.
Katz and Kohn have used this historical event (and Malley’s poems and “life story”) to bring Ern Malley to life for an unusual look at what it means to be human. The show wanders in and out of a dreamlike state where Ern Malley recognizes that he is the creation of these two soldiers (the rooster and the cat, by the way). The play carefully weaves comic and tragic moments into an effective balance. Anopheles, the mosquito, sings a response to Ern’s suggestion of his eye as a biting location, “Mosquitoes suck blood, not eye juice.” The humor is truly bizarre, but it works. And somewhere between the comedy of Ern’s nonsense lines (“If I confused your blonde hair for weeds, was it not floating on my tides?”) lies a stark and painful look at reality.
The beaten, bruised object of Ern’s unrequited affection (played by Jacklyn Bassanelli) tries to entice American soldiers to her bed. James Saunders brings this imaginary poet’s melancholy and instability to life, and Katie Keady is oddly hypnotic in her portrayal of Ern’s utterly normal sister.
Adding to this cleverly written script are some inventive technical aspects. Projections of images and text on the rear wall are effective and, occasionally, fascinating: Ern reaches toward his sister’s glowing handprint. A standard echo effect yields an eerie, mesmerizing sound for Gavan O’Leary (Anopheles), including his stunning rendition of “You Don’t Know Me.”
All in all, an interesting (if sometimes oblique) concept with haunting performances. Though Black Swan is possibly not an appropriate choice for those who detest abstract art, it is a remarkable show nonetheless.