Con Artists is a tale for a young school based audience set in Tasmania’s colonial past, yet it begins with an “electrical safety message” from the sponsors, complete with an especially designed puppet. This incongruous choice might work better in schools, perhaps, but however well meaning, it is corporate intrusion into art gone mad. We see enough ads on television.
The play is part fairy tale, part neo-Dickensian epic written with skill and a spirit of lightness and fun by Finegan Kruckemeyer. It involves young sibling tricksters Max (performer/puppeteer Quinn Griggs) and Milly (performer/puppeteer Anna Fletcher), the exiled children of the greatest con artist of all time. During their journey as convicts from London through Van Diemans Land, they are separated from each other, as Max is transported to what was a terrible prison at Strahan and Milly is pressed into domestic service near Hobart Town. They are a resilient pair, however, easily outwitting cannibal convicts, a dim-witted prison guard and crossing hundreds of kilometres of impassable wilderness to meet up again. After a few plot twists and turns, they find what they are seeking and more.
There are some good laughs in this charming and playful show, and the young members of the audience did enjoy themselves a lot of the time. Quinn Griggs and Anna Fletcher are both able performers and puppeteers; though Fletcher’s voice production needs work and her aging hunchback version of Milly in particular did lose both her accent and her hump just once too often. Robert Jarman's direction is clear and simple, he handles the epic scale of story and mix of characters well; Milly and Max become narrators at different times and there are three versions of each, two puppet and one human. Only once or twice did this mix become slightly confusing. The design is plain, efficient enough, though the main puppets have a modern glossy look that sits oddly with the context.
My concern with this show lies in the script, the style and basic concept. The anachronisms and the lightness of style sit uncomfortably with the subject matter. The script references the style and content of fairy tales such as Hansel & Gretel – Max plants apple seeds on his journey to prison exile at Strahan so that when they grow he can follow them back to Milly. This is a delightful idea, but fairy tales generally explore the darker side of human nature – but not in this play and it is all the poorer for the omission. Max and Milly are kept jolly and confident, sending the benefit of self-reliance message home at every opportunity. The Program notes state that this story could well have been part of Tasmania’s history. However, as with Disney’s treatment of epics such as Hercules, at best this play does not serve a better understanding of our past, and at worst, it presents a cartoon greatest hits of Tasmania’s history; apples, thylacines and cannibal Alexander Pearce as a vaguely likeable but too stupid buffoon. It presents the physical, social and spiritual beginnings of white settlement here as rustic playground. I have to ask how much Tasmanian history is taught in schools, how old the audience will be, and no matter how whimsical and delightful some story ideas are - how literally are the young audience going to take these ideas? I hope the teachers’ notes correct this state of affairs.
In terms of comic/dramatic structure, the threats to Max & Milly’s safety are very slight, their adversaries are a bit too dim and nowhere near scary enough, the con tricks too obvious and the emotional stakes altogether much too low to make us worry about them or laugh enough when they have a victory. Their separation as orphan children convicts hardly even raises an eyebrow. Comedy relies on the ring of truth, and whatever the intentions of the creative team, unfortunately this play does little but cement over the cracks of history. The cracks are where the interest is. Young audiences are perspicacious; underestimate them at your peril.
Terrapin Puppet Theatre presents
by Finegan Kruckemeyer
Venue: Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart
Dates & Times: Mon 17 Sept @ 3pm, Tues 18 Sept @ 10am, 12pm & 3pm, Wed 19 Sept @ 10am, 12pm & 3pm
Duration: 60 mins
Tickets: All tix $15. Family (4 tix) $50
Bookings: TSO Box Office 1800 001 190 or at the door 30 mins prior to showtime (subject to availability)
Suitable for family audiences, children 4 & up