Stars in their EyesLeft – Joanne Sutton in Starcrossed. Cover – cast of The Premiere

What vocabulary should we reach for when someone exhibits 'deviant' behaviour? The vocabulary of criminology and its talk of delinquency? Health, and its talk of mental illness? Spirituality perhaps, with its notions of misaligned souls. Perhaps some crazed combination of all of these. The facts of the matter invariably exist within some frame or other, reality always lurking somewhere through the thick fog of prejudice and delusion.

Writer Amadeo Astorino has a penchant for stories that unfold in exactly this kind of fog. Like his earlier, excellent play demens, Starcrossed pivots on the interaction between characters who exhibit great power and great vulnerability, and asks us to think about the difference. Astorino allows us very little time to form our own judgment of what is happening – the destabilisation sets in almost immediately. The scene becomes a battle for whose frame of reality is fittest, one which the audience cannot help but be drawn into. It is a battle with few winners.

Astorino has refined his craft since the last time I saw his work, perhaps under the guiding directorial hand of Doug Montgomery. This new production has been pared down to only two characters and one act, and if anything is the better for it. In Starcrossed, he has crafted a story with difficult subject matter, with dialogue that turns on what isn't heard and isn't said. It makes for an uncomfortable experience, but theatre is at its best when the audience feels like they have a stake in the action, rather than simply sitting as if watching a well-trained television. No matter how demanding to digest, what a welcome treat to enjoy a meal of real substance.

The Premiere is a less certain affair. Instantly more arrestingly physical than its cousin; I enjoyed it immensely, without fully understanding what it was getting at. The play seems to turn on the family resemblances in language categories between human rights activism, personality politics and fame-seeking guerrilla narcissism.

This play too wants us to consider how we can know what's real, with overtones of cynical suspicion about the prospect of a satisfactory answer. "People do nothing in this country except watch each other do nothing", someone says at one point. It's never quite clear what the nature of the 'country' is – all the action takes place in a cell, or a film set, or a film set that is a cell, depending on your point of view. But you can catch the bus home afterwards, apparently.

I'm not sure if Amel B. Kenza's script was originally written as comedy, though it certainly benefits from the absurdist treatment given by director Doug Montgomery (and assisted by the bulging eyes and boundless energy of Seb, played by Gavin Williams). The earnest deadpanning of one-man human rights organisation Matt (Jonathan Dyer) drew numerous shrieks of laughter from the audience. The dialogue, and its delivery by a talented cast, is sharp and has barbs in it – "we can't afford weapons or hope" – with a creeping nihilism behind it whose target I never quite identified. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I feel that The Premiere, for all its enjoyable moments, isn't quite ready for opening night.


Stars in their Eyes
A double bill

Starcrossed
by Amedeo Astorino

and

The Premiere
by Amel B. Kenza

Directed by Douglas Montgomery

Venue: Studio 2, Northcote Town Hall, 189 High Street, Northcote
Dates: Wed 18 to Sun 29 July 2012 / Preview Wed 18 July
Times: Wed to Sat 8pm, Sun 6pm, Sat Matinee at 3pm
Tickets: $25 full/$20 conc. (Preview $15, Matinees $20, Cheap Wed 25 July $15)
Bookings: www.northcotetownhall.com.au | 0422 202 361