This Is A PlayLotte St Clair and Neil Phipps in This Is A Play. Photo - Isabella Blackburne

One-act plays are a somewhat neglected format in the local scene these days, being the middle ground between standard “feature length” programming and very brief works such as those at the Short and Sweet festival. Double bills such as this one can be a real delight, a welcome deviation from one’s theatregoing expectations.

Ably directed by John Kachoyan, Never Swim Alone & This Is A Play are two shorts by Daniel MacIvor, one of Canada’s premier playwrights, and they are both quite similar yet very different as well, and their pairing forms a nice contrast.

Performed in reverse order to their billing, the double feature opens with This Is A Play, a delightful exercise in unadulterated metatheatricality that takes an affectionately scathing look at the inner thought processes of actors whilst in the middle of a performance. As an occasional actor himself, MacIvor has an incisive understanding of how they think, both from the perspective of a fellow performer and naturally from that of a writer as well.

This Is A Play takes the form of three Actors on stage, an attractive, self-absorbed Female Actor (Lotte St. Claire), a hopelessly overeager Male Actor (Neil Phipps) and a jaded, chain-smoking Older Female Actor (Janine Penfolds), who are co-starring in a new play… about lettuce.

We get the impression that this play is fairly awful, although we the audience don’t get to judge this for ourselves, as very few of the play-within-a-play’s tortured lines of faux-Tennessee Williams are actually drawled onstage. Instead, the vast majority of the dialogue in This Is A Play takes the form of the three Actors’ inner thoughts whilst mid-performance, i.e. instead of hearing the lines which are “actually” being spoken, the actors say what the Actors are each thinking about at that exact moment. For example, the Female Actor comments as she performs an esoteric bit of choreography that “I move like this because the director has a Dance background”, while the Male Actor at one point states that “I hope that casting director is in the audience tonight. I wish they hadn’t cut that scene where I take my shirt off.”

These flashes of internal monologue vary from literal descriptions of their actions (“I cross the stage and find my light”) or what kind of acting goal they are trying to achieve with a particular delivery, to more personal meditations. The Female Actor reminisces about her hated acting teacher and consistently tries to upstage the Male Actor, who meanwhile is in a constant state of self-congratulation (e.g. “I act really, really HARD!”) mixed with awkward performance anxiety.

At times these spoken thought-bubbles become quite interactive, as the Female Actor milks dialogue pauses while the Male Actor wonders if she has “dried” (forgot her line), for example. All three frequently comment on the fact that they don’t really understand what their lines are supposed to mean, but that they will endeavour to deliver them with conviction nonetheless. The Older Female Actor is especially critical of the script and on more than one occasion points out that she is deliberately leaving out pieces of particularly overwrought exposition. She even takes the play’s metatheatricality to a third level and addresses the literal audience at a few points, assuaging their concerns that this might be experimental theatre.

This short play is a total delight, without any qualification. It would doubtlessly be funny for just about anyone, but it is an absolute riot for those who have ever been involved in theatre (especially as an actor), or is close to someone who has. It seems almost a cliché to say so, but this truly is an hysterically funny piece. All three actors are equally good, managing to be very goofy whilst still making their Actors seem quite believable even through the vinegary satire of their characterisations. Phipps in particular probably got the most laughs due to his character’s outrageous self-centered naiveté, obsession with Jake Gyllenhaal and extreme dedication to his craft despite clearly being a rather poor player indeed.

Needless to say, This Is A Play was a tough act to follow, and indeed the more serious and less accessible second short Never Swim Alone did not strike quite the same highs, although its aims were clearly rather different. While not as metatheatrical as the first play, Never Swim Alone is still extremely stylized and is presented with undisguised theatricality.

Although one doesn’t want to give away too much of the subject matter, the play is another three-hander, depicting two youngish, business-suited would-be alpha males Bill (Michael Howlett) and Frank (Tim Major) whose lifelong friendship has reached an impasse, stoked by extreme competitiveness and seething resentments. This battle of wills and personalities is depicted in a metaphorical fashion via the device of a sporting competition, overseen by a Referee (Lotte St. Clair, again) in the form of a beautiful girl in a cossie who also represents a significant figure from their shared youth. Sitting atop a tennis umpire’s chair at the back of the stage, this Referee periodically blows a shrill whistle to signal the start and finish of each of a long series of competitions (scenes) and dismounting to hold up the hand of the winner of each round, as in boxing.

These scenes, which range from almost-naturalistic conversations to all manner of strange play-acting and stylised delivery, gradually reveal the past, present and the inner psyches of these fairly objectionable yuppie blowhards. What might initially seem to be mere macho rivalry proves to have deeper, more troubling roots.

Although the narrative per se is relatively simple, the mode of its delivery and the exploration of theme is far more complex than that of This Is A Play, and it is also more ambitious in form and presentation. To be frank, the actual story and its ending have the potential to be somewhat confounding, and the initial comedic elements steadily give way to some fairly grim content. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but, unlike the first short, Never Swim Alone may not be to everyone’s taste, particularly having been billed as a comedy as well.

Once again, the actors are sensational. The sheer energy that Major and Howlett exude is astonishing, with some quite astounding displays of verbal dexterity and timing, as well as some bone-jarringly realistic stage fighting. Yet while the blokes get to showcase their skills more obviously with all these physical and verbal pyrotechnics, St. Clair is actually even more impressive in this modest role than in her much meatier part in This Is A Play. As the Referee/girl, a lot of St. Clair’s stage time in this play is spent simply sitting in her chair watching the interplay between the duelling men. A lesser actress in this situation would have either become wooden and faded into the background or desperately attempted to pull focus (as, indeed, her character of the Female Actor in the other play was want to do) with silent mugging. Instead, St. Claire’s nonverbal reactions were subtle and perfectly pitched throughout. An impressive performer indeed.

Although these two plays are quite different they are identifiably both of the same creative voice, and MacIvor’s is an intriguing one. For a cracking night of decidedly different theatre, you can hardly go wrong with this high-octane double bill.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Michaela Kalowski and RedshiftDG present
Two outstanding comedies by Daniel MacIvor

Darlinghurst Theatre Company | 19 Greenknowe Avenue Potts Point
Thursday 31 May to Saturday 23 June 2007
Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm
Full $30, Concession $25
BOOKINGS: or 02 8356 9987

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