Left - Essie Davis and Zoe Carides. Photo - Lisa Tomasetti
When walking The Wharf’s long glass corridor earlier this year, one of the shows programmed for The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2009 Season stood apart from the others, sporting the image of what could be understood as a cluttered dressing room filled with props, costumes and even a disco ball - Steven Soderberg’s “Untitled.”
That untitled project has since found its title: “Tot Mom” and is as American as it is palindromic. Soderberg’s project is 90 minutes of verbatim theatre where in all the transcripts are taken directly from the source - primarily The Nancy Grace Show - covering the disappearance of Caylee Anthony a 2 year old girl.
In July 2008, 22 year old mother Casey Anthony reports her child, Caylee Anthony is missing at the insistence of her parents George and Cindy Anthony. The missing person’s case quickly becomes a murder case when “evidence of human decomposition” is found in Casey Anthony’s car and she is incarcerated within the month for child neglect, lying to investigators and interfering with a criminal investigation.
Five huge screens hang in the Wharf 1 Theatre on which the god-like presence of Nancy Grace (Essie Davis) vocally puppeteers the 36 characters who come into play during the presentation and discussion of the case. The ensemble, consisting of well-loved theatre actors (Wayne Blair, Zoe Carides, Darren Gilshenan, Glenn Hazeldine, Genevieve Hegney, Damon Herriman, Peter Kowitz, Rhys Muldoon, Emma Palmer) are lined up on stage on basic black chairs numbered 1 to 9 from which they spring forth and deliver up to 11 characters each. In front of the seated actors is a small patch of marsh/swap in which silent searches are conducted between scenes. Designers Peter England, Tess Schofield and Damien Cooper have located the production very much in a theatrical space - despite the obvious importance of screens in this production.
Steven Soderbergh’s feature film career is a dynamic list of popular/mainstream and celebrated Arthouse classics including Academy Award winning Traffic, Oscar nominated Erin Brockovich, Palme d’Or winning Sex, Lies and Videotape (as writer), the recently released The Girlfriend Experience (as featured at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival) and currently released The Informant! staring Matt Damon. His producer and executive producer credits in film are lengthy and impressive - a canon of work which is mind boggling - where does he find the time? So it comes as no surprise to learn that he has been shooting a side project with the actors in Tot Mom whilst creating the show.
This is not verbatim theatre in which there is consultation with the people or the story being presented - but rather an embodied edit of cleverly re-enacted televised interrogation by an American current affairs presenter. The show highlights the quantity of people who weigh-in and are able to capitalise on the tragedy of others, the hype which surrounds infanticide, the vulturistic manner in which journalism picks at the lives of others, the highly manipulative way in which we are lead into opinions, or forced to remember heros who are summed up by their social tags. The show is commentary on commentary - and within the first twenty minutes we are suitably in shock and horrified at the mechanism of reality made entertainment: this time this is reality made entertainment and then realistically parodied. Nothing we don’t already know.
As with many multi-voiced verbatim theatre plays, the actors transform between characters (with the exception of Essie Davis) – a very fun party trick to see how a posture, a baseball cap, a stance can completely change the actor from one persona to another: and despite the commentary on commentary, this becomes the sole novelty of this production.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
created by Steven Soderbergh
Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 18 December 2009 to 31 January 2010
Opening Night: 23 December 2009 at 8pm
Tickets: from $30