A trenchcoated P.I. lounges in a diner, a distraught husband telling him he thinks his wife is having an affair. A mysterious woman sits at a stranger’s table, begging for help. A fire and brimstone priest kicks the crap out of his lackey who’s gambled away a small fortune. A stunning student seduces a repressed academic, an ulterior motive just below the surface.
Welcome to the world of Noir, a play steeped in the conventions of film noir but which playfully both utilises and subverts its archetypes. They’re all here: the private dick, the femme fatale, the loser husband, the dupe, the seducer, the thug. To drive the point home one of the characters is even a university lecturer in film noir, and when a mysterious student tells her that he has written a screenplay, it’s titled, you guessed it, “Noir”. All this metatheatrical referencing could have been a bit ham-fisted, but in fact proved quite charming and possibly even educative to those unfamiliar with the genre.
Employing a timeline so convoluted that it makes neo-noirs like Memento and Pulp Fiction seem straightforward by comparison, scene follows scene so radically out of chronological order so that it forces the audience to play the detective themselves in order to untangle its labyrinthine plot.
I’d be tempted to say that just like authentic noir the plot itself really doesn’t matter as much as having well-drawn characters and buckets of style, but this is not entirely true. Quite a lot of effort has gone into the plot, to the extent that the ending relies not on a memorable quip, or a tonal tableau like the films of its inspiration, but rather on a carefully-orchestrated narrative twist which may be difficult for some viewers to unravel and thus fully appreciate.
This jumbled storyline and the play’s source material is emphasized by an interesting set design by Greg Hatton which places the action in an old Hollywood sound stage, and a framing device in which a crewperson transitions each scene with a movie clapboard and states the relevant time period (one week ago, today, yesterday etc.). This device may also have been writer Peter Straughn winking at the audience a bit, illustrating that the misordered scenes parallel the way films themselves are usually shot out of chronological sequence.
Production design is further enhanced by Wendy Morrison’s classy costume and prop designs which were just anachronistic enough to evoke the 1940s genre but not so stylised as to belie the play’s apparent present-day setting. The lighting design by Larry Kelly and multilayered soundscape by Daniel Baker complemented the free-flowing staging in which the different characters and scenes played out with isolated furniture in different areas of the large performance space. The action was well directed by DanaLee Mierowsky who managed to bring some real visual interest to the staging of this sprawling, episodic story.
The uncommonly large cast of ten actors (some of whom were still doubling) was a delight in itself, but it was especially pleasing that everyone in the cast was quite good indeed. Roanna Dempsy was particularly engaging as the sensual but frustrated Ruth, bringing an artfully underplayed sense of humour and desperation to her role in addition to her obvious good looks, while Greg Hatton played her hapless husband George with a deft touch. More showy were the roles of young, would-be femme fatale Alison capably portrayed by former soap actor Christie Hayes and Costa Ronin as Morris, the mysterious student with a killer screenplay. Ironically it is Morris who actually fulfills the traditional role of the femme fatale in a nice little inversion of noir gender roles.
An even greater deconstruction of noir tropes comes in the character of Ray, played with gusto by Gary Brun. A “security operative” who works at Target, Ray has delusions of being a Sam Spade, switching to an American accent for hard-boiled monologues and constantly lying about having a dark past in the military. In fact, Ray is a very well-drawn character whose pathetic play-acting and gross incompetence bring both humour and tension to the play, ultimately becoming an interesting homage/parody of Travis Bickle from the seminal neo-noir, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
Also very funny was the multi-talented Wayne Tunks, whose gratingly cheerful and utterly daggy Samaritan Howard gets into more trouble than he ever imagined and plays both high drama and cringing humour to great effect. The rest of the ensemble were also memorable in their doubled roles. Alan Lao was especially good as a croupier, loan shark and others, as was Georgii Speakman as both bubbly sex therapist and hilariously self-centred psychiatrist. David Poland makes a decidedly sinister turn as Lang the preacher, while Stef Dawson steals scenes as a long-suffering waitress.
This is a clever play, and has many fun things in it. However it is somewhat unwieldy and prone to moments and scenes that don’t quite work between the many good ones, leaving an overall impression of a somewhat rushed script in serious need of further dramaturgy.
Noir is a good production of an enjoyable script, albeit one which needs work.
Meow Media presents
by Peter Straughan
Venue: PACT Theatre | 107 Railway Parade, Erskineville
Dates: 4 - 22 April 2007
Times: Tue - Sat 8pm Sun 2pm
Tickets: $25, concession $20; Cheap Tuesdays $15; Industry Wednesdays includes free glass of wine; Preview (Wed 4 Apr) $15 includes drinks
Bookings: MCA Ticketing 1300 306 776 or www.mca-tix.com