Left – Mel Dodge and Letitia Sutherland (See You At The Wake). Cover – Mel Dodge (Jane Austen Is Dead)
It looks like the humorous title of a single play, but it is in fact two titles of two somewhat different short plays.
Both the plays (about 45 minutes each with a 10 minute intermission during which one of the characters from the second play told us we could go downstairs for another drink or “take a slash”) were written by Kiwi writer Mel Dodge. She is also an actor, so who better to play the main character in the play she has written about the great expectations Jane Austen has instilled in girls the world over when it comes to romance?
Not only does Mel play the main character, she plays all 173 other characters in this ensemble piece. 173? That's possibly a bit of an exaggeration; I gave up counting.
Dodge plays the owner of a bar who shares with us her comparisons of her modern romantic encounters with those of Jane Austen's characters. She also morphs from one character to the next in the blink of an eye, playing various character types of both gender with considerable skill. As you'd suspect, the message seems to be that not only is Jane Austen dead but so is romance. I think the suggestion is that perhaps Jane Austen's version of romance was never more than frilly fiction.
Initially, Jane Austen Is Dead felt like little more than a showcase for Dodge to present her range of characters and emotions. However at some point I warmed to it. I found myself interested in these characters and what they had to say, and what the play had to say.
And don't be put off by Jane Austen's presence and the many references to her many leading men; it's been a million years since I was forced to read Pride And Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility et al, but I got the point anyway. If you've had anything at all to do with this romance thing, you'll recognise something in the play.
After going downstairs and taking a slash, we settle in for See You At The Wake. There is a coffin on stage in the colours of Collingwood football team. Inside the coffin is the body of Humble Dave, a kind street person, a character with friends and acquaintances from various walks of life, and with various memories of the man who was murdered while he slept in a parking lot.
As with the first play, Mel Dodge takes on a variety of roles at Humble Dave's wake. However this time she is joined by fellow actress Letitia Sutherland who also plays many and varied roles. There is an awkward funeral director, a sketchy street chick or two, a long lost daughter, a caring aid worker and more. Again characters come and go and sometimes come back again in rapid succession. And again, the acting is solid.
The problem with this play is that the contrast between the quietly dramatic sections – which achieved genuinely moving levels of poignancy – and the comic sections were just too brutal. There's no doubting that these two very good actors can do comedy as well as they can do emotional stuff, it just felt like more subtlety between the two moods was needed. In fact, the comedy just felt too over-the-top, kinda clunky. One moment we had real people with real feelings, the next we had Kath and Kim on crack having a catfight to The Gunners' Welcome To The Jungle. Comedy is so subjective, of course, and maybe for others it all worked fine.
Black Duck Collective
Jane Austen is Dead...See you at the Wake
A double bill
Jane Austen is Dead
Written and performed by Mel Dodge
Directed by Patrick Davies
See you at the Wake
Written and Performed by Letitia Sutherland and Mel Dodge
Venue: Gertrude’s Brown Couch, Fitzroy
Dates: September 21 – October 9, 2011
Tickets: $16 – $14
Bookings: www.melbournefringe.com.au | 03 9660 9666
Part of the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival