The Wizard of Oz | The Danger EnsemblePhotos – Morgan Roberts

The Danger Ensemble’s last two major works (2012’s Children of War and 2013’s Sons of Sin) have fumbled. While showcasing an admirable ambition to continue exploring new approaches on the part of Artistic Director Steven Mitchell Wright, both works did more to demonstrate the ensemble’s blind spots than anything else.

The Wizard of Oz reverses that trend and sees Wright really start to successfully work with some of the ideas he’s been struggling with in his most recent work. Chiefly; a newfound interest in character, narrative and pathos. It ultimately feels like more of a first draft than a final production – but it’s still a commendably dazzling, layered, risky piece of work.

As many expected, it’s a far cry from both L. Frank Baum’s novel and its subsequent 1939 adaptation. Less expected, it’s still got a strong, identifiable (and surprisingly complex) narrative. Credit to Maxine Mellor. Charged with transforming the ensemble’s devised work into a cohesive script, she’s come up with a strong, interesting and inventive storyline.

Without ruining it; it’s a twisted meditation on the dangers of chasing rainbows. It shows the risk of Oz as a concept; as opposed to its perils as a reality. It’s interesting, full of nifty little tricks and sidesteps – and, shockingly, it ultimately all makes a twisted form of sense. That said, it’s helped significantly in that regard by some stellar performances.

Particularly, those of Margie Brown Ash (as spectacularly broken protagonist Judy G) and Caroline Dunphy (as a slippery Dorothy proxy). While helped along by a chorus of performers (of which Thomas Larkin’s scatter-brained scarecrow and Polly Sara’s glamorous wicked witch are most memorable), Dunphy and Ash drive Wizard of Oz.

Ash’s work as Judy G is masterful. It’s a hopeless, broken, spiteful deluded harridan of a character and, miraculously, Ash manages to not only conjure up a significant degree of sympathy for the character but to do so without diluting the inherent selfishness around which much of the narrative revolves.

Dunphy’s work is more subtle. Not given much of an opportunity to really show the complexities of her role, still she succeeds in weaving a performance that pays tribute to Dorothy Gale’s innocence while also foreshadowing her actual character’s complex involvement in the work’s twisted narrative. It’s quite a tricky performance.

As director, Steven Mitchell Wright shows his teeth. There are weird detours, ominous chants, trashy dance sequences and surprising musical numbers. As is to be expected, there’s more than a handful of unique visual tableaus. The creature sent in pursuit of Dorothy is classic Danger Ensemble in the best sense of the terminology.

To his credit, none of this overwhelms Mellor’s narrative or any of the cast’s performance. This is a largely cohesive work and Wright’s starting to really get a feel for his unique spin on traditional storytelling. A brief scene between Ash and Dunphy at the production’s outset is just a beautiful, funny, understated piece of realism.

There are a lot of hiccups and over-indulgences with the work overall, of course. Mellor’s done a great job lending a sense of order to The Danger Ensemble but she lays her thematic pre-occupations on a little thick and, while inventive, her overall structure and eventual reveal owes a lot to recent works by Anthony Neilson and Philip Ridley.

For The Danger Ensemble’s part, each triumph is offset by a misstep. Wright’s decision to incorporate musical numbers is great but the songwriting is rarely strong enough. Similarly, it doesn’t seem to serve much purpose within the work. A collection of pop culture references littered throughout the work are likewise fun but unrewarding.

Taken as a whole, there are problems with pacing, performances and even some set and costume elements go a little bit too far. Even within the tonal palette they’re working with, that ending is a little too bleak. As a matter of both taste and function. The work spontaneously shifts from twisted light to utter darkness at warp speed.

Still, The Danger Ensemble and Mellor’s ambition could have been punished far more severely. As problems go, these are good ones to have. They’re speed bumps, really – kinks symptomatic of theatre-makers traveling entirely too fast for their own good. Which, ironically, is a good thing to have in a theatre.

My only hope is that work on the show continues after this season. In time, it could be a something very, very special.

A La Boite, The Danger Ensemble and Brisbane Festival co-production
The Wizard of Oz
by Maxine Mellor & the company

Director Steven Mitchell Wright

Venue: La Boite Roundhouse
Dates: 7 – 28 Sept 2013
Tickets: from $25

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