Left – Sol Feldman. Cover – Sol Feldman. Photos – Pia Johnson
Fraught Outfit’s Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech have made it their signature to challenge audiences with discomfiting pieces performed by youthful actors (Bodily Education of Young Girls, The Bacchae). In their latest show, they take this approach to the Old Testament.
The premise draws on the Bible’s reference to the Hebrews as the “Children of Israel”, casting the Book of Exodus in new light by depicting Moses and his clan as literal children. Two pre-teen actors (Sol Feldman and Tarana Verma) perform the entire show, which, rather than being a narrative retelling, comprises a series of disjointed scenes suggestive of the source material. There are hints of plagues and slavery and desert wanderings, though the exact draw from the text isn’t always clear. If you can imagine children living in the aftermath of some Biblical apocalypse trying to recreate the event through story games, then that is close to the aesthetic of this piece.
The set (Kate Davis) at first appears bleak, a desert of styrofoam rubble before a blank wall, but as the children explore it, it proves to be of ingenious design, full of hidden secrets. The way props appear from beneath or behind or inside parts of the set invoke the tone of miracle in the Old Testament, in which water might be called from rocks and manna from heaven. Or, on divine whim, doom might come from nowhere.
The tone is predominantly doom-laden in fact. This is offset slightly by the charm of the young co-stars, who show a great deal of self-assurance and presence on stage, but their lighter interactions provide only brief moments of respite. This piece sets out to make you uncomfortable and it achieves this effect pretty consistently.
While the imagery feels charged with ominous significance, the meaning underlying it is often opaque. I frequently feel a little lost watching it. I’m not sure if it would help if I was more invested in religion or not. Fraught Outfit’s Exodus both casts its scriptural source material in a critical light at the same time as it demands you take that same material very seriously.
At times I find it hard to engage with on the level of intensity it requires. The impressive young actors are the show’s main strength but their performances are at first hampered by a choice to have them wearing rubber masks. Without the human connection you get from seeing their faces, and with the script offering little by way of clarity, an already difficult piece becomes alienating. It certainly works better once the masks are doffed.
Where it really comes together is in its depiction of the Sixth Plague, the death of the firstborn. Being a story explicitly about the sacrifice of children for the sake of conflict between great powers, its portrayal by child actors gives it considerable extra impact. It’s also the segment where the show’s theatrical elements work together most harmoniously.
Book of Exodus comes to an affecting conclusion and a strong final image, and there is no denying the artistry that has gone into it, but it’s hard to walk out with a clear reaction to the whole thing. This is one for those who like their art unsettling, portentous in atmosphere and challenging to decipher. If that’s you, then you’re in luck, for this is only Part 1, with a second instalment featuring a larger ensemble of child actors slated for October this year. Don’t go expecting something with a whisker of levity to it though – Jacobs’ and Orzech’s goal is to challenge and this piece does that on many levels.
Theatre Works and Fraught Outfit present
Book of Exodus: Part I
Co-creators Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech
Director Adena Jacobs
Venue: Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda VIC
Dates: 31 May – 18 June 2017
Tickets: $38 – $30