Escape from the Breakup Forest

Escape from the Breakup Forest (directed by Claire Christian and Ari Palani) is the Brisbane debut for Toowoomba’s Mixtape Theatre Collective, who formed in 2011. The show’s cut-out-and-colour-in forest set pieces take root in the Judith Wright Centre’s Shopfront.

The Shopfront is a good space for Mixtape’s intimate offering. The border between stage and audience is just a line of masking tape. We share the casual cabaret seating with a fellow critic, whom I hadn’t seen years, and a traveller who bought a ticket on a whim.

Steve Pirie, as Josh, takes the lead in a plot as simple as “boy loves girl; girl leaves boy; boy meets puppet.” The collective take their time telling the story of Josh’s romantic youth and eventual delirious five-year spin with Emma (Ell Sachs) — which ends in three years of red wine, Special K, and Friends re-runs. The real action starts when our mopey protagonist wakes up in a mystical land, the Breakup Forest, and meets Curly (puppeteering by Dan Stewart).

Escape from the Breakup Forest is one part Boy Girl Wall, one part Scott Pilgrim, and one part fresh-but-relatable comedy. In the mystical Breakup Forest, Josh must battle the memories of his exes and others who’ve hurt him. The narrative style (even some sound effects) seems heavily influenced by the work of Brisbane’s Escapists. Regardless, this production — along with the collective’s proactive attitude to making and funding theatre — suggests there’s more to come from Mixtape. And I’ll be watching.

Escape from the Breakup Forest

Pirie is one multitalented chap: he wrote and designed Breakup Forest, as well as performing the central role. Suitably pitiable as Josh, he embodies the role with just the right amount of charisma. Despite lingering on Chapter One, the scriptwriting is sharp. The cast has our motley table of viewers laughing together — and frequently.

The monochromic set design, along with projected animations, brings to mind “Elmo’s World” or, for a more grown-up audience, Don Hertzfeldt’s “Rejected”. Coloured lighting works really well in this regard, but could be harnessed more often. The cast, wearing white tees with details gaff-taped on, use cardboard props as costumes and weapons as they flit between roles. Sachs proves herself to be a versatile actor as she plays a series of Josh’s challengers: the female friend who dotes on him, the “slut” who rejected him in grade nine (a problematic character), and (signal boss fight) the memory of his ex-girlfriend Emma.

Unfortunately Curly’s simplistic design is limiting. Despite Stewart’s best efforts, Curly lacks the individual spirit we’ve come to expect from Muppet-like hand puppets — a pity, as he proves to be a major player in Josh’s story. But perhaps Escape from the Breakup Forest’s fatal flaw is optimism; in the end, the play takes a saccharine and all-too-easy escape route. While it might be a common fantasy, few dumpees as dedicated to red wine and re-runs as Josh can tap together their ruby slippers and vamoose; this particular wood is dark and deep, and there are usually miles yet to tread — on foot.

The Mixtape Collective’s Escape from the Breakup Forest plays at the Judith Wright Centre until 23 March 2013.

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