Left - Dallas Bland, Jess Brent and Adrian Flor
It might sound like a simple exercise to create a stage production of Rebel Without a Cause. After all, you’ve got everything from script to costume design set out for you in glorious technicolour. The only problem is, because Rebel is now more an icon that a film, you also have to deal with truckloads of audience expectation. Even if we can’t remember the details, we know that Rebel was cool, brooding, and gave us the character that launched a thousand teen rebellions.
The question is, can an audience enjoy a theatre production of Rebel on its own merits, or will we always be comparing it to the film? For the most part, Free Rain Theatre Company had a convincing answer to this question. As soon as the play began it was clear that there is a world of difference between watching this story on screen and seeing it happen meters away from your seat. The close atmosphere of the Courtyard Studio, coupled with dim lighting and a minimal set, all combined to create a tense experience right from the start.
But on to the question everyone is doubtless asking: how did the actors handle this character-driven play? How was, y’know, the guy who played James Dean’s part? For the record, this was Dallas Bland’s first foray into stage performance, but that was never obvious. Of course, it takes a few moments to adjust to a new Jim Stark when the role is so defined by Dean’s performance. But Bland managed to step away from that heavy legacy by concentrating on the character, successfully bringing to life a confused, desperate, and at heart gentle young man.
Jessica Brent’s Judy was also played with sensitivity and intelligence, rising above the moments when this part could easily have slipped into caricature. As Mr Stark, Tony Falla gave us a moving combination of over-enthusiasm and frustration as a father trying everything to connect with his troubled son.
Adrian Flor didn’t know it, but I waited eagerly for the entrance of Plato, Jim’s self-proclaimed best friend and arguably Rebel’s most interesting character. His first scene seemed over-played, but he soon hit his stride, handling Plato’s complicated traits - over-friendly and unhinged, playful and desolate - often in the space of a few minutes. Even Plato’s attachment to Jim, which lies somewhere between love and admiration, was dealt with eloquently.
Anne Somes’ direction generally provided a balance between guidance and allowing the actors ‘free-reign,’ although at times the performances could have been more restrained, if only to allow more room to build on the violent emotions Rebel works with. It’s great to be able to channel those emotions, but if you begin with yelling, you’ll only have to yell louder to create contrast. The difference in skill level between the actors also jarred at times, but most members of the supporting cast had strong moments. It was clear that these actors, especially Cameron Thomas as the menacing Buzz Gunderson and Zach Raffan as well-meaning youth counsellor Ray, appreciated the importance and impact of their roles.
The script was the only other area of concern. The audience remained tense while the actors were following lines from the original, even though we knew what was going to happen. But the atmosphere deflated slightly with the more explanatory passages and scenes, apparently taken from James Fuller’s later script. These felt like explanations of the obvious, and took the power out of Stewart Stern’s sparse, punchy original screenplay.
Despite these few flaws, the Free Rain production definitely does justice to the 1955 film. And if anyone wonders whether a story that old could still be relevant, consider the laminated signs in the Courtyard Studio auditorium, politely warning us enlightened types that ‘simulated gun-shots will be used in the second act of this play.’ Even in 2008, it seems we may still need a rebel or two to shake things up.
Free Rain Theatre Company presents
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
Venue: Courtyard Studio | Canberra Theatre
Dates: 1st - 17th May 2008