THEATRE REVIEW: Sex with Strangers

Words by Tahnee Robinson 

Sex with Strangers is off to a good start. It has an intriguing title and an attractive cast — and the same play recently opened off-broadway starring Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad. Brisbane’s version, directed by Jennifer Flowers, stars Veronica Neave as the self-composed Olivia, with Thomas Larkin as the self-aggrandising Ethan. Despite the raunchy title, Sex with Strangers is essentially a romantic comedy. Two miss-matched souls meet-cute in a conveniently empty writers’ retreat cabin-in-the-woods; the action proceeds as expected (perhaps with more action than Brisbane’s theatre-going public is accustomed to).

It’s rare to see two characters so quickly and fully asserted on stage. The American accents initially come as a shock — though it becomes apparent that this was dictated by the script, which is set firmly in North America. Without microphones (clothes come off far too frequently for that to be practical) Neave and Larkin are challenged with conveying intimacy while making themselves heard. They do an admirable job, though it’s when both actors’ accents momentarily slip that I feel I’ve really seen their true potential for depth and sincerity — these are the people I want to be watching.

Larkin and Neave

Laura Eason’s script relies heavily on some well-worn territory — the comedic potential of age differences, the sexual appeal of bad boys — and is occasionally downright problematic. Ethan’s modus operandi seems to be to sail blithely over Olivia’s clearly articulated boundaries, and the initial result is a sexy good time. Naturally this approach only takes the pair so far before things start to get complicated. It’s tricky ground to navigate: understanding that having our boundaries pushed can be creatively beneficial and kind of hot, but that it can also be horribly disrespectful and destructive. It’s hard to tell if this exploration is deliberate or accidental, though it’s held together by the wholeness of Olivia’s character. She is a woman with hang-ups, on a journey of self-discovery, but she does not need to be rescued.

All of this takes place on Troy Armstrong’s simple but clever set. Each side of the open stage gives the audience a slightly different perspective — I was lucky enough to be able to see down the hallway, to catch the emotional nuances of the characters’ comings and goings. The lighting design (Jason Glenwright and Tim Gawne) is similarly clever: subtle changes in intensity and direction guide the audience’s sense of time and place. The first act closes memorably, using only the light of Olivia’s laptop screen. Dane Alexander’s sound design is fairly spare, serving largely to denote sex in a way that feels a little tongue-in-cheek. The music signaling Ethan’s arrival and departure from the writers’ retreat is a perfectly executed little touch.

Sex with Strangers explores some interesting territory with regard to consent and desire. And while it’s not quite as daring as I had hoped it would be, I suspect some of my fellow punters might disagree (there is something to be said about age gaps after all, and perhaps my browser history is filthier than I thought).

SEX WITH STRANGERS runs at Brisbane Powerhouse until 26 July 2014. Tickets $38

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THEATRE REVIEW: Caligula

The Danger Ensemble likes to live up to the name — testing the boundaries of experimental theatre, confounding expectations of narrative and taste, and generally taking a lot of risks. Like the ensemble’s previous fare, Caligula serves a challenge to its audience, asking how far we are willing to follow them and threatening to leave the meek behind.

My enduring image of Matthew Barney’s art project The Cremaster Cycle remains a painted, white-suited satyr, dragging himself laboriously through a Vaseline-filled duct. It’s grotesque: overtly sexual but lacking clear meaning. (I always assumed it was an allegory for the journey through the vas deferens, but to each their own.) It was this image that sprang to mind during Caligula. Director Steven Mitchell Wright has omitted enormous quantities of petroleum jelly from his production — perhaps even the wonderfully adventurous Judith Wright Centre has its limits — but the set is creative, nonetheless. The stage is a raised trapezoidal platform; the centre is filled with clear plastic cups. The cups give the impression of water or gems, albeit far louder when stepped on. The performers will spend most of their time cavorting on the raised edges, though they journey periodically into their crackling pool to wade or writhe about. The strongest aspect of Caligula is the visual design — from the costumes to the props and the characters’ physicality, the imagery is the most memorable part of this show.

Caligula: Chris Beckey

Perhaps the most striking image of the entire performance is the opening tableau: five busts wreathed in fog, immersed in a bassy, ambient soundscape. As the lights go down the characters behind them peel away from the dusty stone artifacts to come to noisy, lascivious life.

Initially we are treated to a brief history lesson, delivered in a bratty, synchronised monologue by performers Gabriel Comerford and Stephen Quinn. Wearing spectacles and cardigans, their scarcely restrained genitals bouncing in g-strings, the two introduce us to Caligula, who scandalised the Roman Empire during his brief reign as emperor between 37 and 41 CE. We will be taken on a tour of incest and general debauchery.

It’s around this point that shit starts to get weird. We meet sexy siblings Caligula (Chris Beckey) and Drusilla (Lucinda Shaw). Beckey manages to conjure the entire character of Caligula through voice alone, commanding and licentious, entirely sure of himself in his depravity and probable insanity. Unfortunately this does nothing to dispel the jarring tackiness of Drusilla launching into a mournful rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”. Shaw has a distinctive and powerful voice, best showcased on some of the later numbers. That’s not the problem here: the song is simply incongruous, and not in a way the aids the ensemble’s agenda.

Incongruity is an intentional part of Caligula; the show is not a linear narrative – it is not, in any real sense, a narrative at all. Instead it is a chain of impressions, images and ideas, including borrowed texts and scraps of pop culture. We are spectators to a carnival of highly sexualised folly. There is a sense that Wright and his creatives would like to link the story of Caligula and his hungers to our modern selves, a magnificent temporal fantasy of exhibitionism and desire. Unfortunately, it seems like the ensemble may be expecting too much from their audience on this front. Stripped of narrative, there isn’t enough material to conceptualise these links, and the end result is baffling and unsatisfying.

Caligula: Nerida Matthaei

Caligula relies heavily on shock value to give it weight, and in this aspect it feels as though they’re not giving their audience enough credit. At one point the performers engage in a kind of call-and-response interlude resembling a chat-room conversation or series of personal ads for fetish encounters. The content is intended to be shocking but the result is banal — there’s a glibness to their delivery that suggests that the performers aren’t quite committed to the conceit.  Nerida Matthaei is a superb physical performer, and her dance and movement throughout Caligula are no exception, but I can’t make myself believe she really wants the filthy things she’s asking for. Which is a pity — earnestness might go a long way here.

Despite the assertion towards the show’s end that the 21st century is home to an apathetic generation (why is that a thing in theatre at the moment?) I believe that what audiences crave is sincerity — no matter the subject matter. Performances that push the boundaries, like Caligula, are precious in the world of theatre, especially in Brisbane. Your audience is there because they want to leap into the void with you — if you let them.

CALIGULA plays at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts until 12 July. Tickets $20–35, restricted to viewers 18+.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.