New Voice, Amplified [by James Wenley]
Playwright Sam Brooks’ work concerns itself with identity, the mechanics of interaction, and an intense focus on what pulls people together… and apart.
In the spirit of ‘get up and do it’, Brooks, a graduate of Unitec’s Writers course and winner of Playmarket’s Playwrights b4 25 Award, has produced a double bill at The Basement Studio of two of his plays – Goddess and Mab’s Room, directed by Samantha Molyneux and Jacinta Scadden. They are distinct plays, but put together we get a strong sense of Brooks flavour and thematic interests as this new (and yes, exciting) playwright finds his voice.
The walls around the Studio for Goddess are covered in chalked phrases – an odd collection of mundanities, insults, questions, provocations. “Do you worry?” “What do you think?” “Moon beam or flowerpots?”. I begin to realise these are all lines from the play – a visual clue that this story has already been written, the character’s fates already defined. To narrate this story, Amanda (Elyse Brock) refers to and reads from a diary.
Through this device, Brocks looks back at moments that sketch the friendship and history between Amanda and Irvine (Taofia Pelesasa). Both are reportedly genius (Amanda, she is told, is going to be a Goddess). Meeting at high school, they join forces to get through those years. He later summons his courage to come out to her, she lightly comes out to him.
It is their friendship that is the play’s great strength and delight. Amanda has dark clouds over her from the start of the play – talking about suicide, an all too frequent subject for her. She has a complex about being too smart for other people and not achieving her potential, and has a real push back when Irvine starts to get boyfriends and see other friends. Irvine for his part has his own demons to deal with. Their relationship as writ is a complex mediation on a flawed (or all too human) relationship, how you can understand someone completely and not understand them at all.
The information about Irvine and Amanda as genius prodigies is told rather than shown, and the one element of their character that didn’t convince me.
There’s one other very important thing to mention about this relationship. In flashback, Amanda is played by another actress: Amanda Tito. Both Amandas are onstage the entire time; Brock’s older, but not necessarily wiser, narrative Amanda watching on, seeing her past play out before her. She complicates our understanding of the scenes, disagreeing with Tito’s Amanda. At times, her younger self is like a foreign person, an ‘other’ – who was this person and why does she behave this way? Brock’s Amanda begins to reject the scenes in front of her, telling us that’s not how it was. It’s a very clever device.
Molyneux directs with a theatrically free style, using full scope of the space and making continued employment of the chalk. The casting couldn’t be more perfect. Taofia Pelesasa is a fascinating prospect as Irvine, a physically commanding presence accompanied by an emotionally vulnerable and sometimes very small character. Brock and Tito complement their physicalities allowing us to buy into the younger/older conceit. Brock nails the ironic cynicism and humour looking back, and Tito is an intense performer, suggesting the dark thoughts whizzing under the surface.
A production choice, at odds with the lo-fi chalk and playful direction is a projected screen that first gets used to show a chat screen (Irvine and Amanda tap away on black boxes illustrated with a chalked keyboard). It wasn’t helped by the split focus from where I was sitting, having to turn my head back and forth, but it was a strange addition of ‘reality’, the characters speaking what they were typing anyway. When Brock narrates a passage of a homo-erotica Irvine had written, I had already read it minutes ago on the screen, lessening its comic impact. Crucially, at the emotional and climactic height of the play, a film is shown at the same time a confrontation takes place between Brock and Pelesasa. Initially confused about where to direct my focus, I consciously chose to watch the actors and listen to the dialogue. The weight of the moment was already there, showing it to us visually threatened to undercut it. It was, as they say, all there in the writing.
You do come out of Goddess quite feeling quite emotionally harrowed, so the interval is warmly welcomed. Back upstairs and there’s now a double bed in the space. Some of the chalk has been rubbed away. There are three pictures on the wall, one showing a heterosexual kiss. Oh, and I notice there’s an actor (Luke Wilson), sitting on a comfy chair. He then paces, considers himself in the mirror and sings. He’s oscillating between composed and an utter wreck. He takes off his clothes (his tie looks like it has a school logo on it…) and strips to his boxers. Then there’s a knock at the door.
Mab’s Room premise is that of two men meeting in a hotel room. Brook’s holds back on giving it to us all in one go, and initially we aren’t sure who these two men are or how they know each other. We do know of course that they are in a Hotel Room, the visitor (Steven Chudley) has bought Rosy wine and chocolates, and there’s a heavy whiff of sexual tension in the air, or is that just awkwardness?
Oscar (Chudley) is older, Amby (Wilson) is younger. Both are gay men. Amby is at the start of his journey, not yet out to his peers, desperate for discovery and with lots of questions for Oscar.
Mab’s Room is far more of a conventionally structured drama than Goddess; the hotel room is a well traversed theatrical location, and for me it suffers slightly back to back. It shares a similar thematic concern with gay identity, here extrapolated and developed through the perspectives of both characters. Following on the heels of The Pride, there’s a less flashy (and more hopeful) engagement with the questions about what it means to be Gay for the current generation in a more ‘open society’. Oscar struggles to articulate what makes a male same sex relationship special, and that seems to be the point. For Amby it’s attached with a mystique, specialness, and even a taboo as he lies to his friends and family about what he has come to do in the Hotel that night. For Oscar, it’s no longer remarkable.
Mab’s Room unfolds nicely, with a well plotted back and forth between Oscar and Amby and many aborted kissing moments. The Queen Mab speech makes a welcome visit, transported beautifully to a new context by Chudley.
So, as it asked on the wall: “What do you think?”. I enjoyed Mab’s Room, but I loved Goddess and the territory it entered, and am eager to see where this writer goes next. I’m sure other audience members would have different favourites. This Double bill is well worth a visit to taste a new writing voice and the work of its actors and directors; it’s very exciting to see some new and confident faces coming through. I admire the way these character relationships have been drawn, as well as the bigger issues and threads that he leaves with us to swirl in our own heads. ‘
The Goddess and Mab’s Room Double Bill is presented by Smoke Labours Productions and plays at The Basement Studio until 8th September. More details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe.