Where to start with a Lally Katz play – part absurdity, part philosophy, part humour, part poetry and, in the case of Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, a good dash of down-at-heels vaudeville. Katz's thoughts move at a million miles a minute and her works, which include the award-winning The Eisteddfod and Black Swan of Trespass, never fail to challenge and entertain. A constant theme in her work is the meaning of reality and how fixed it is. In a 2005 interview with the Age newspaper's Robin Usher she is quoted as saying: It seems to me that if reality isn't fixed, then the physical world isn't likely to be too stable either. Not surprisingly then the worlds in her plays are less than stable and her audience needs to be prepared to be taken on a wild and unruly ride which, in the case of Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, results in an entertaining, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying experience that stays with you long after the curtains are drawn.
Take a band of wannabe vaudeville performers – the black face musician; the 'great' magician; the shy female ventriloquist with the foul mouthed dummy; the mute acrobat; the leading lady and the MC – put them in Charlie Mudd's Vaudeville Castle and watch the fun begin. It's 1914, the night before tomorrow, the night before the 'death' of vaudeville.
The first half is the performance. The new leading lady, Violet (Julia Zemiro), is told that, for some unexplained reason, she must now be known as Ethelyn; she is the replacement for several others who have gone before her. She has arrived late and doesn't know her lines. A book is shoved into her hands and she struggles through, book in hand, sometimes losing her place, before 'falling' into the role. The foul-mouthed Doris, the antithesis of her 'voice' the ventriloquist Maud (Christen O'Leary), delivers some raunchy humour; the mute acrobat Knuckles (Matt Wilson) brother of Charlie Mudd (Jim Russell), performs some astonishing balancing acts that aren't all that astonishing; and the Great Magician (Alex Menglet) is anything but great. As one would expect, there is lots of hype and building of anticipation from Charlie Mudd, it is after all his show, but little real talent in the outcome.
Whilst the first half is vaudeville of the tackiest kind, it does have laughs a-plenty and effectively sets the scene and introduces the mysteries that will later be revealed: What happened to the other Ethelyn's? What is behind the door no one is allowed to open? The second half is where everything comes together in a powerful, thought-provoking and dramatic way, still with its fleeting moments of laugh-out-loud humour. Now it is that the people behind the on-stage characters come alive, drop their stage personae, and have to face the big questions of who they really are, what they really want and whether they should dare to reach outside their safe little world that seems to protect them from a worse fate.
Julia Zemiro is barely recognisable in the first half as the tentative Violet/Ethelyn. It isn't until the second half that the host of RockWiz reveals her loud and energetic self. Christen O'Leary is wonderful as the shy, love-lorn ventriloquist with her bawdy, loud-mouthed doll. Alex Menglet is suitably serious and dour as the Russian-born, less than great, Great Magician. Matt Wilson almost steals the show as Knuckles; his physical skills are truly amazing and his unspoken musical exchange with Mr Bones (Mark Jones who also composed the music) is one of the many real treats in the performance. Jim Russell is perfect as the slick, fast-talking showman, Charlie Mudd, the one who holds the whole together.
The set design (Jonathon Oxlade, who also designed the costumes) is really effective - a traditional proscenium stage, complete with red curtain, for the vaudeville show, then an intriguing warren of dressing rooms, full of colour and movement, for the backstage dramas. Sound and Lighting (Jethro Woodward and Richard Vabre) create just the right mood of darkness and light and the whole is held together under the light directorial hand of Chris Kohn.
Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd is the antithesis of naturalism and might well be better described a 'magical realism' – there is even a special magical effect towards the end created by illusion designer Lawrence Leung. The work evokes a dreamlike, even nightmarish world and touches on a myriad subjects relating to being human: the conflict between dreams and reality; life and death; the mystery of time (think of TS Eliot's Burnt Norton - time present and time past /are both perhaps present in time future, /and time future contained in time past.); the mystery of being - do you have to be seen to be alive; the magic that is performance - do you need an audience? Amidst all this Katz has created characters that we care about ensuring that we are unable to remain untouched by their experiences.
Take a seat in the theatre and be prepared to be carried away by the wonderful world of Lally Katz's Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd; it's a ride you won't quickly forget.
Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre Company present
Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd
by Lally Katz
Directed by Chris Kohn
Venue: Beckett Theatre
Season: March 6 - March 28