PresenceLeft - Katya Shevtsov and cast. Photo - Thomas Greene

I’m one of those nosey people who loves to slow down when driving along a suburban street at night, to try and get a glimpse through parted curtains or half drawn blinds, to get that sudden snapshot of another person’s life. That’s not nosey, my significant other tells me, just a writer’s curiosity. It feels nosey, but still I lean forward, forehead pressed to the glass, circles of breath threatening to obscure my view.

Presence is a voyeur’s delight. Instead of glass against your forehead, this is an invitation to witness a slice of other peoples’ lives. And much of the intrigue comes from what is absent rather than what is really there. This is truly a joy for the car-trip voyeur: the chance for the imagination to fill in the spaces that the blinds and doors and walls block from view.

Presence, written by Patrick van der Werf, is an Australian fable that explores isolation, alienation, and the presence of the other that helps us define who we are. The script won the 2002 Griffin Award (National award for an outstanding unpublished and unproduced script), and the Taffy Davis Memorial Award for Best New Play.

Van der Werf has hinged Presence around the character of Molly Kaufman (Bronwyn Pearson), a flawed matriarch trapped in her own tiny world of loss and loneliness. She takes in a new boarder, Sam (Sebastian Gavasso), a young Italian immigrant bursting with a lust for life and dreaming of freedom. But Sam must share a room with the old and cantankerous Bob (Kingsley Judd), who has boarded with Molly for 20 years. And Molly's son, Jake (Ben Brown), who has returned home after another long absence, is haunted by the betrayal and horror that lives in his childhood, and becomes the antithesis of the vibrant Sam. A young woman, Penny (Katya Shevtsov), is also strangely drawn into their lives, prowling the night, afraid to sleep because of the evil standing at the foot of her bed. These flawed characters traverse one another like debris in a storm, their fears slipping across each other as they struggle to overcome them. Ultimately, it is through Sam that we begin to see what is and what isn’t.

Interestingly, the character of Sam wasn’t written in the script as being an Italian immigrant. This inclusion was born both of necessity and as a stroke of genius from director Bruce Denny. Denny was struggling to get suitable young male actors into the audition room when Sebastian Gavasso turned up and, in many ways, turned the whole production on its head. Twenty-six year old Gavasso, an Italian student at the International School of Theatre in Rome, has been in WA since last November as part of an international education experience to further his acting skills and perform in English. Casting him was a stroke of genius not only because Gavasso (who’s been performing professionally in Italy since 2002) was nothing short of brilliant, but also because the effect of making the stranger in the house an immigrant was extremely effective. On top of this, the Italian humour that Gavasso brings to the role is extremely refreshing. It also seems rather perfect for a play staged (mostly) in Fremantle, which is bursting with Italian influences.

While Presence is a tight, professional production by all accounts, the show really belongs to Gavasso and Judd. Their scenes together take the play to another level; Gavasso’s Tigger-like exuberance perfectly opposed by Judd’s figurative and literal decay. Both of these fine actors (Judd has graced WA audiences with some wonderfully memorable performances for many years now) embody their characters so completely that I found myself weeping for their despair. Judd manages to weave a fractious brittleness with wry humour and an aching tenderness, with what looks like extraordinary ease. He decays before your eyes and is simply a privilege to watch.

Presence is well staged. The inclusion of the live musicians, playing an original score by the immensely talented Music Director and composer Tristen Parr, makes for some haunting moments and gives the entire production a profound and sophisticated originality. The opening violin piece is beautiful and works to draw the audience straight into the mood in a way that recorded sound rarely can.

The music also works to hold the play together, bridging moments where the story lines of disparate characters become a bit too disjointed and somewhat frustrating. The dynamic between the mother and son, Molly and Jake, doesn’t quite hit its mark, despite an honest and touching portrayal of Molly by Pearson. And Brown doesn’t quite have a handle on the difficult and intense character of Jake, a tortured wordsmith, haunted by memories of his dead father - he does an admirable job in a tricky role, but ultimately is swamped by the powerhouse performances delivered by Judd and Gavasso. The character of Penny, well played by Shevtsov, could almost have been written out of the script, her presence really only required for some plot developments and to set up a potentially violent relationship between Sam and Jake. Unfortunately this aggression is diluted by the overly internal performance by Brown and, to a lesser extent, the changed nature of the character of Sam as an Italian. It would be easier to see the aggression between two hot-headed ocker blokes than a dark and intense poet and a playful, puppy-like, young Italian dreamer.

Despite these minor difficulties, Presence is one of the best plays I’ve seen this year. Everything about it smacks of originality, passion and talent. The blend of drama, humour, and pathos with tight direction, haunting original music, and some outstanding acting makes for compelling theatre. Through it we are reminded that within the darkness of fear and alienation there are always cracks of light.

So Frenchy Productions presents
by Patrick van der Werf

Fly By Night, Fremantle Sep 17- 19
Subiaco Arts Centre Sep 20 & 21

Tickets: $22 (Concession) $26 (Standard)
Bookings: Planet (Mt Lawley), Mills Records (Fremantle) or BOCS (08) 9484 1133

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