Graceland and Asleep on the Wind | Operating Theatre

Graceland and Asleep on the Wind | Operating TheatrePhotos – Sam Bruce

It's a nifty niche. Operating Theatre 'is about putting on quality productions and then lifting them up and taking them into hospitals'. So, it mightn't be open-heart surgery you need, just a heartwarming play or two. If that's the case, Ellen Byron's semi-sequential companion pieces, played in reverse order, currently enjoying a season at Marrickville's Sidetrack Theatre, are probably just what the doctor ordered. Even if you're quite well, these plays will make you feel better still, I should think.

Director (and co-producer, with Rebecca Kypri-Inacio) Jo Cahill has forged a strong team on and off stage. Tom Bannerman has set the scenes for us, firstly with a swathe of artificial grass disappearing into the heavens at one end and leading to the gates of Graceland at the other. The artificial aspect says everything about the cottonwool existence the Colonel designated for himself and his charge. And the path from The King's Graceland to that other fairytale one, skyward is telling of just how fantastical we made this man's life. I say we because the fans had a hand in it, by helping elevate him to a deified status early on.

But this is really just a colourful premise for exploring and scrutinising relationships and humanity, 'up close and personal'. Bev Davies (Michelle Collins) is an old school, diehard Elvis aficionado. Her basement is a dedicated shrine to The Pelvis, housing a collection which probably represents her life's work. She devotes considerable time to arranging and rearranging it. As a mark of dedication, like a soldier for Elvis, she arrives at his Memphis mansion at five in the morning, with an esky, teepee and folding chair. She's here for the long haul and she had to be the first. She's always the first in line to celebrate Elvis landmarks. Three days from now, the gates will open to the public for the first time. Ever. Bev means to be the first to set foot upon the hallowed turf. But while Bev raises her tent, Rootie Mallert (Persia Blue), a somewhat younger fan (who caught the bug from her older brother, now gone to God, with Elvis) rocks up, ever so politely maintaining she's first in line.

Blue has consulted on costume, too, and her candy-coloured, trailer-trashy selection is on the money. In her shorts, checked blouse, pancake makeup and dangly earrings she fits somewhere between Priscilla and Doris, while Bev looks the very picture of suburban chic, in hot pink synthetic windcheater and golden-curled wig. One is tiny, twiggy and timid; the other, big, bold and brassy. But what is fashioned as a territorial dispute slowly yields to common ground, understanding and exchanges of confidences. Bev may have a hard shell but, just like her portable larder stocked with Mallomars and snowballs, she has a soft centre and soon takes to a maternal, nurturing role when she realises Rootie has been damaged and harbours delusions she can't afford to relinquish. But the eureka moment comes, when Bev relinquishes something she never thought she could.

Blue and Collins measure their performances beautifully. When one considers that, in its depth of feeling for the root causes of human competition and conflict, this play parallels the sensitivity and skill of, say, Tenessee Williams, the demands of the roles become patent and the compliment to the actors as profound as the material. That profundity derives not from overt expositions, but from the awkward, angular interactions between two strangers, who bring their respective hurts and prejudices, like so much excess baggage, to the conversation. The depth and meaning is found just beneath the confection Byron has wrapped around it. Sweet.

That's Graceland. Asleep On The Wind takes us back to the time Rootie's brother, Beau (Leigh Scully) was still around. Bayou Teche, Louisiana, ten years earlier. Rootie and Beau shared a 'special place'. That place had a physical form, but the more important dimension was emotional. Their bond probably sat right on that thin, taboo line between what should be shared between siblings and what shouldn't. But it never crossed it. Beau and Rootie have two other brothers who humbug and harass their sister. One of them has just tried to run her down in his rod. But Beau is always there as her protector. He's also especially keen to ensure she finishes school and gives herself her best chance at a decent life, because he's not going to be around to watch over her. It's '72, remember, and Beau's off to Vietnam. His life isn't going anywhere, so he's volunteered. Somewhere in the back, if not the front, of his mind, he realises he mightn't come back, but he makes his best endeavour to sell Rootie on the promise of a tropical paradise with endless beaches the army has pitched to him. Rootie's world seems to be a world of cognitive necessity, which is to say she believes whatever she needs to. He engages her in a familiar game, having her count to ten, eyes closed, while he slips into the night.

Again, Blue plays a wide-eyed innocent, a babe in the woods, wonderfully. Scully is eye-opening, as the tall, lithe, handsome Beau, calibrating the performance such that we easily intuit the thoughts concealed behind his words. Let's hope some talent scouts get along to discover how fine these actors are.

This production is so solid, I'm contemplating feigning illness, with a view to hospital admission. But Sidetrack Theatre, while it's there, is probably a preferable option. 

Operating Theatre presents
by Ellen Byron

Director Jo Cahill

Venue: Sidetrack Theatre | 142 Addison Rd, Marrickville
Dates: 5 – 16 June, 2013
Tickets: $28 – $24
Bookings: 9550 3666 |

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