Augusta Supple wears many hats. Producer. Director. Reviewer. Mentor. Dramaturg. Arts administrator. You name it. Some little while ago, she staged a seres of short plays (vignettes, really) at Marrickville's Sidetrack Theatre, based around the experience of catching the 428 bus, to that very suburb. It made for a surprising diversity of high-quality responses. She has visited similar territory with her latest multi-playwright juggernaut, A View From Moving Windows, which features as the final instalment of Riverside's True West fest.
Departing from platform one, Sian James-Holland's lighting design, ostensibly of flashing fluoro tubes, is redolent of late nights under artificial glare, waiting for trains as elusive as Godot. Marissa Dale-Johnson (even the names are articulated like carriages) dishes up a set comprised of a series of hanging, reflective panels that have all the glamour of train windows. Composer Jeremy Silver's music clanks and clatters along like an infamous red rattler, or tired Tangara, interspersed with songs by Jessica Chapnik & Nadav Kahn. There's witty choreography, too, by Cloe Fournier. Thus, gleaming tracks are laid for City Rail repertory.
There's an opening sequence which sets the bustling scene at a busy station, populated by people inspired by different motives and anxieties, followed closely by Teik-Kim Pok's 'You Got A Light, Irvine Welsh?', featuring Barton Williams. I didn't really get it and Williams' diction (or lack thereof) and (admittedly, or apparently, nervous) fumbling, didn't help. Citing the author of Trainspotting in its title is probably too much of an in-the-know joke for a general audience and comes off as something of a pretentious conceit. The writing's there, but was lost in translation. The idea insinuates philosophical aphorisms into the dreary, autonomic, day-to-day announcements of the (usually) disembodied station attendant. So, amidst the customary 'attention all passengers' we hear unsolicited, if sound, advice, like 'fake it till you make it'. Cute on the page, but it didn't quite come off in performance.
Smart, written by Donna Abela, was a little puzzling too, despite strong performances from Valentino Del Toro and Natalia Ladyko (not to mention flawlessly tight lighting cues, of which there were many), who compete in a kind of semantic spar. They discuss, generally in arcane detail, everything from stroganoff to homoeroticism of Jagger and Bowie. What it had to do with train journeys exactly I'm not quite sure, or can't quite recall, other than Del Toro's character is a commuter, just (serially) arrived home. I'm sure it can be sheeted home to obtuseness on my part, but, if I'm to be honest, this piece didn't click with me either, even if it makes wry observations about where we get our information and how much stock we're prepared to put in it: her version seems to come from Mx; his, the trusty smartphone.
Alison Rooke's In The Key Of E really ramped things up. Three women, each with names beginning with E, share a carriage. Well, two, to begin with. Then the third enters, sporting a showy bouquet and broad grin. Preggers Emily seems unphased by the 'intruder'. But Ellie lowers her book to observe, sneezes repeatedly (for attention) and engages Edie. Ellie's envy is patent and Helen O'Leary, tiny of stature but big in presence, plays her as a cranky eccentric, of the kind one is highly likely to encounter on trains and platforms. It's a delightful turn of comic mastery. Melinda Dransfield is an ideal foil; young and clueless ('I want to look classy; like Lara Bingle or something!'); oblivious to the seething barely concealed beneath Ellie's casual banter. Bridgette Sneddon does benign beautifully too. You know the writing's scissor-sharp when the dynamic between two characters is setup with two 'ah-choo!'s and one line: 'Allergic. Sorry.' Resentment. Jealousy. R-r-r! There are private confessions. Edie is insecure about her boganism. Ellie, about her failed fellatio the night before (note to self: 'practice on something; a banana, or some sort of hose'). Emily makes a pact with her baby to be. An accident of gin, in a moment of weakness, unmediated by contraception. She feigns an uncompromising toughness: 'you're an impediment that'll set us back years in our fiscal determinations'. Not all of the monologues resonate with complete authenticity, but roles and relationships are rooted out faster than a speeding bullet-train and when it clicks, it really locks in. Caustic. Comedic. Compassionate.
Snot is another piece by Abela, involving the whole cast, but featuring Alex Bryant-Smith and the irrepressible O'Leary. It's a short, sharp, onomatopoeic poem of the kind an Ogden Nash might've penned. It's sure to prove disgustingly familiar to anyone who's ever caught public transport mid-winter. 'Snot. Cloggy snot. Slippery slurp snot.' Need I go on? Revoltingly inventive. Obnoxiously original.
Vanessa Bates weighed in with This Train (Monkeys). I say weighed in, because this is a deviously devised work of depth. Two people strike up an awkward conversation on a platform. A man (Craig Meneaud). And a woman (Catherine Glavicic). They relate as strangers might, but familiarity unfolds. It transpires he's not there, other than in her heart and imagination. He's gone. Passed on. My partner was quick to pick up the cues and clues, but I was completely absorbed; oblivious to the coming surprise. Yes, the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. And it ran me right over. Locomotional. In other words, moving. A short, sweet, sublime, 'wish I'd written that' meditation on nostalgia, memory, longing and loss, with performances that track straight and true.
Ildiko Susany is the face in John AD Fraser's About Face, a compelling, painterly monologue, in which Maria relates a detailed anecdote of love-gone-wrong. In mere minutes, but a lifetime of the heart, she goes from starry-eyed to clear-headed; from floating on air to feet firmly planted in the earth; from facing forward and looking to the future to facing backwards. You see more. Again, this is first-class train travel.
Frog In A Frypan is an homage to Bollywood. (Given the news of recent days, it would seem almost eerily prescient of Yash Chopra's passing.) With lyrics by Noelle Janaczewska and music written and performed by Nadav & Jessica Chapnik Kahn, it's as much frivolity as you can have with an aching head and a heavy heart. It's hard to know how much coaxing and cajoling was required, but Cloe Fournier has choreographed the whole cast to look like they just arrived by train from Mumbai.
Abela and O'Leary returned with Second, a heartrending, heartstopping, heartbreaking dramatic moment, in which a woman, inspired by childlike excitement, has arranged to meet a companion, a lover, a friend, someone, on a train. Frantic mobile calls are made to cement the details of the meeting. She has a suitcase. It looks like a holiday's been planned. But noone fronts. Tragedy, writ large. And in the vernacular of the everyday. O'Leary is brilliant. Again.
Janaczewska has also written Bull, which features Alex Bryant-Smith, Craig Meneaud & Ildiko Susany, but, like numerous other of the pieces, involves the entire cast. Adolescence is tough enough. Hormones. Pimples. Body image issues. Breaking voices. Burgeoning bosoms. But it's even less of a picnic if, like Marty, you happen to be a minotaur. Presumably, Janaczewska's minotaur is a metaphor: a study of difference; prejudice; outsideness. Like one or two of the other playettes, trainspotting is difficult; it's a pretty tenuous connection (OK, so Marty gets to school by train). But that hardly matters, in and of itself. After all, the train theme is just a jumping-off point. Much as I endorse and applaud any means by which the (sadly) ever-topical subjects of xenophobia, narrow-mindedness and such are opened up, this seemed more than a little hamfisted; borrowing from mythology that has no particular relevance.
Godzilla'd is also by Janaczewska and is much more accessible. Helen O'Leary, gazing at her reflection in the carriage window, reminisces. She delves into dusty childhood memories, of the kind that intermingle fondness and terror; uncertainty and comfort. She's 'all small and human, trying to shrink', inspiring the breath of Godzilla in to a shadow falling, lizard-shaped, between the curtains at Mrs McKenzie's bed & breakfast. It's a glimpse, a reminder, a glimmer, of what it was to be six or seven and vulnerable. Evocative, melancholic and poetic, it stares into a murky pond of memory; penned with stylish economy and performed with acute sensitivity.
Teik-Kim Pok's Back Pack Hustling was next, with Peter Maple, Meneaud & Barton Williams. We've all been there. Peakhour train, packed to the gunwales. Standing room only. People clustered round the pole, as if about to launch into ensemble exotic dancing. No eye contact, of course. That's studiously avoided. Eye contact can be fatal. It can mean conflict. Or conversation. There are people living in their own virtual worlds, playing video games, texting, or listening to music loud enough to leak out of their earbuds and disturb the peace, such as it is. And there's always at least one guy with a backpack that brushes up against you. Well, probably not you. Probably me, actually. And you lose it. Well, not you. Probably me, actually. That's what this one's all about. Inconsequential, but taut and relatable.
Vanessa Bates' This Train features Catherine Glavicic waiting for her train and looking to the cctv camera, not as a contemptible, invasive big brother, but an angel, with one big, black, glass eye, watching over her. While she awaits her train, we catch her train of thought, a series of carriages which somehow link cute, fuzzy, grey mice and rail workers squeezing through tunnels, waist-deep in flaked off human skin. And, as we learn, it is all linked, in one big, happy accident. Like evolution. And our improbable, yet palpable, existence. It's a ramble. A rave that draws you in to its internal logic, as it clatters along in a rhythm resembling the steady, reassuring progress of a limited stops suburban service.
Here's Looking At You, The Unrestricted Edition is another Pok piece, engaging the whole cast. It's a love poem, of sorts, in which individuals describe the idiosyncratic material sacrifices they're prepared to make to reach out and touch the object of their desire. It's perverse, punchy and, above all, quirky. The proposed exchanges include items as pedestrian as D4 envelopes, but also, for example, 'a shiny salad fork, in cling-wrap, tines encrusted with dried-out bolognese'.
Sara is another written by Janaczewska, that draws upon the talents of Corinne Marie. I found it somewhat inscrutable, cryptic, at first. But, at the same time, poetic. And as it unfolds, it proves to be subtle. Steeped in sadness. Grief. The sweet sorrow of parting. That and a compelling delivery by Marie elevate it to something uncommonly engrossing. Sara's pensive silence while on the phone intimates something awry in her intimate relationship. When the call ends, her mind fondly journeys back to a trip to Israel; the road to Bethlehem and its hot, dusty, violent reality, set in sharp relief against her childhood associations. She hums a relevant carol. Innocence lost. Maturity found. It's an accursed and dubious transaction. The hopes and fears of all the years finally, unhappily clash.
Man In A Suit On A Train With A Job: A Homage To Simon Stone, by Emrys Quin, is another ensemble piece which, frankly, falls into the 'what the?!' category. The title is almost as long as the play and for what? The Simon Stone reference was entirely lost on me and, in any case, I've little patience for in-jokes and inside-the-industry commentary. It shows contempt for other audiences. One man on a train is a constant, as others embark and disembark. All this to the big O's You Got It, building to its characteristic crescendo. Why? The man dies. Another kicks him. And leaves. The end. The end of civilisation as we know it. Probably. Or knew it. For we entered the era of the hermetically-sealed, 'not my problem' individual quite some time ago.
Heart In A Box is a song, of sorts, with lyrics by Jess Bellamy and music written and performed by that other Jessica, Chapnik Kahn. Shauntelle Benjamin and Damian Sommerlad star, along with their castmates. For a long time, Emma and David are alone, with their thoughts. Her glass if half-full. She sees romance where, through his half-empty one, he perceives only degradation. With some cajoling from a pushy Greek chorus (of sorts) and tentative, interested glances, the two finally put us and themselves out of collective misery and become acquainted. Tormenting. Sweet. Real. And exceptionally well-played.
The Carriage is the final trip. Written by Nick Parsons, with Corinne Marie and Peter Maple, it is a highly inventive ode to the power of the imagination: if you forget about rain, you'll no longer be wet. It uses childlike logic to charm and is an elegant premise for humour: Ella must plead with Lachlan to exercise self-discipline and stop thinking about her naked, as it makes it real (she strips while imploring). Panic ensues when they can't remember the next station, 'because, if we can't remember it, we'll never arrive'. It's the sort of play that could've fallen flat on its face, if not for well-judged performances; a tribute to the actors and peripatetic director. As it is, we might all be well-served to take on board the idea that if we don't something, it doesn't exist. Perhaps it never did.
There are weak points when one looks critically through Moving Windows. But they can only really be seen close-up. Overall, one is impressed by taut & terrific performance, design, dance, lighting and music, amply informed by gentle wit. And there are one or two moments that are breathtaking. With so many writers and actors involved, it's only reasonable to expect a few buckles in the rails, probably as a result of sheer heat. And while I've identified all the scratches in the panes, it must be said that there's an aesthetic and textural cohesivesness, as well as clarity of vision that prevails overall, for which only Supple can be responsible. If this is the view through moving windows, I'd like to take yet another look. Same time, next year, Augusta?
It's like no train trip I've ever taken. It's enough to make you enthusiastic, if not downright passionate, about public transport.
True West Theatre presents
A VIEW FROM MOVING WINDOWS
by Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Jessica Bellamy, John AD Fraser, Noelle Janaczewska, Nicholas Parsons, Teik-Kim Pok, Emrys Quin, Alison Rooke
Director August Supple
Venue: Riverside Theatres | Cnr Church & Market Sts, Parramatta
Dates: Thursday 18 - Saturday 27 October 2012
Tickets: $27 – $23
Bookings: 8839 3399 | www.riversideparramatta.com.au