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A review

A Shades Theatre Production
Presented by Anita Whelan
Directed by Sean O'Riordan
Featuring stories by Deborah Biancotti, Stephen Dedman and Kaaron Warren.

A pitch black chamber, hung with thick drapes. The haunting strains of a viola and the sound of tortured breath. Three women, all beautiful, all different, approach the spotlight, chanting a nursery rhyme that seems a world away from the nursery. They laugh and scream. Their revelry is interrupted by a man in black leather trousers, who exerts discipline with a heavy, wooden rod.

So far, so gothic, but it will be a night of surprises, as the first of the women returns, bearing a watermelon and a large crow bar. She is to give voice to Deborah Biancotti's story "Stone By Stone", a descendent of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" with a delicious twist.

This is Shades Theatre's first production, the brainchild of founder Anita Whelan. Upon graduating last year from the Actors College of Theatre & Television, Anita found interesting roles to be thin on the ground in Sydney. She remedied this in the directest possible way. It was Anita who came across Deborah and Kaaron's stories and contacted them about a theatrical adaptation. Not in the sense of reconstructing the narratives into some simulated reality, but as stories told by story-tellers.

"Stone By Stone" and Kaaron's "The Glass Woman" and "The Sameness of Birthdays" share an essential characteristic. They are all the first person reflections of a single character, in each case a tortured woman. They are eminently suitable for performance. To introduce a masculine note to proceedings, the team chose Stephen Dedman's "Hard Lessons" and director Sean O'Riordan contributed an original tale of his own in "Gagging for It". It is interesting that both these tales involve the victimisation of men by helpless-appearing females.

The first Act combines three stories, the second two, with the addition of further game-play amongst the cast. Each Act is about an hour and the time does not drag. This is certainly theatre stripped back, but it seems neither sparse nor academic. You are confronted with the raw power of the written word, combining with the expressiveness of the human voice and figure. Not to mention the watermelon and, at one point, sock puppets.

To perform "Hard Lessons" with sock puppets was a daring move, though in keeping with the overall theme. More problematic was using it to divide "Stone By Stone" in two. "Hard Lessons" is short and comic: it was perhaps thought of as a tease to build the suspense in the longer story. Instead it undermined the tension, and the delivery of Anita Whelan's mostly intense and polished performance.

Jillian Russ is a perfect match for "The Glass Woman", handling the highly metaphorical material with aplomb. The story conjures a whole society out of this treatment of a woman in a box, and was the metaphorical centre of the night's proceedings. All the imagery of manipulation, children's games and desire came together into a deeply disturbing package.

Patrick Connolly, as well as playing puppeteer, provided an energetic and quite charming rendition of "Gagging For It", a story of Jack and Jill and a carving knife. He also had the responsibility for an introductory spiel and various other bits of elucidation throughout. I found these intrusive and unnecessary, especially the definition of speculative fiction. Like the mention of political correctness or the predictability of "Gagging for It", it betrayed some unfamiliarity with the field. It is clear from the first moment that we are in a dark fantasy land, and nothing else is needed to justify the material.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Jade Alexander's incarnation of "The Sameness of Birthdays", which was also the final piece. Lengthy and ambitious, covering decades and several changes changes of location, it tests her range, endurance and sheer showmanship, and she came through triumphantly. At times I experienced genuine chills. Overall, this is fine production, an entertaining two hours and a good use of some excellent fiction.

  • Shadowmuse, Cleveland Street Theatre, Sydney, 3 - 8 February 2009.

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