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September 22, 2008 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

Empty Pleasures

A subtle sense of morbidity hung over THEA 304’s latest season of plays. While humour was the course of the day for all three of the plays offered, each was marked by a hint of darkness and even death. Empty Pleasures offers an eclectic mix of plays which are fun yet slightly gloomy.

The Festivities, directed by Bex Weatherhead, is one of Chekhov’s lesser known short plays. The play is set in a bank where Hirin (played comfortably by Paul Waggott) and his employer Shipoochin (played by Regan Sharp) are persistently annoyed by ‘pesky’ females who eventually succeed in breaking the two down, one reducing Shipoochin to tears on the floor. The show opens with a still image of the play’s women posing in various forms of sophisticated dress, which suggests an emphasis on gender, and soon the confident femininity which these women exude (notably the characters played by Christina Persson and Romy Webster) becomes the driving force behind the play’s conflict.

As many of Chekhov’s plays it can be unclear whether it is tragedy or comedy, but this show certainly foregrounds the comedic aspect. The cast was very well costumed but the set was a little sparse. It was hard to get a sense of place until late in the piece, however one of the greatest pleasures in this show was the arrangement of the theatre itself, which gracefully captures the essence of a majestic old 19th Century Russian theatre. Also, the realism of the show could have been improved had the actors kept a uniform accent. Still, Chekhov is a difficult selection and Weatherhead has worked hard.

Seven Doors, directed by Fiona McNamara, was a celestial experience where the audience are treated something like angels, gazing down from the gallery at a sequence of scenes which involve people who have recently died. The show makes excellent use of Studio 77’s trap doors, that act as open graves which the audience can see into from their vantage point high above the floor. Characters climb out of the graves and seem to be in some sort of heaven/hell/purgatory. Being seated so high up gave me a sense of divine authority, as though I were being given permission to judge the characters and their actions.

Quality acting certainly helps carry Seven Doors, and there are some very effective lighting aspects that help reinforce the sense of ‘watching’. For instance, scenes occur in rectangles of light which makes it seem as though we are looking at the characters in the bottom of their graves. I won’t say that I wasn’t perplexed by the ending, which involved Julius Caesar, a four-hundred year old girl and a couple of monks, but at least it was fun.

The evening ends on a high note with Joel Baxendale’s rendition of Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D, where two character are reunited in an almost-abandoned bar while the title characters grins behind them mysteriously. Seriously, this guy grins for so long I was afraid his cheeks would get stuck. The audience lounge about on cushions and an assortment of seats which helps make it feel as though you are in with the action, and the show’s overblown style uses broad physical gestures to create a cartoonish quality.

The two characters, Lika and Trisk, are played with exuberant abandon by Aimee-Lyn Marshall and Nick Zwart. The two are together again after a significant time apart, and when they meet again fireworks explode. The energy and physical prowess of the actors is the show’s key component, and both performers engage with the theatrical style in amusing and interesting ways. There are some very funny lines – especially from Mister Deka D at the end – and the show has some fantastic lighting effects which are incredibly effective. Yet this is the show which is the saddest, because after the sparkling reunion, the characters are alone, darkness closing in, present in space but not so much in mind.

Watch out for the last season, Tryst, in the final week of this semester. It will sell out.

Empty Pleasures
At Studio 77
17 – 20 September


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