Choice is the play which kicks off The Owl and Cat's new season, 'Still'. Choice is an immersive work which investigates the lived experiences of people connected with abortion. Using verbatim techniques and placing the audience in amongst the confused and searching souls makes this theatrical experience much more intimate than most, but it is the tone and treatment of such a controversial topic which makes Choice stand out as one of this years great pieces of theatre.
We are all sitting in a waiting room. It is not a cold, sterile room but it is a waiting room none the less. We sit beside other people already waiting - watching them flick through magazines, shuffle around, and generally exhibit a sense of disquiet and impatience. We become a part of this montage as we choose our seats and settle in to wait with them. A sound which is not quite a ticking clock yet not quite a heartbeat fills the space. None of us feel inclined to speak. The water cooler stares at us, daring us to break from the crowd to quench our thirst. No one does.
Fraser breaks the silence and leads the conversation - the whole event is a conversation really - with her tale of accidental pregnancy. Flannery cuts in next. Here is where we are reminded this is verbatim work. There is something really magical which happens with verbatim when it is someone of a different age or gender reciting the words of a real person. It somehow brings home the event as a witnessing of lived experience as well as story telling. There is an ultimate truth and universality in the lie of the person speaking as if they were the other.
There are many ways to use verbatim. People are generally most familiar with the headphone verbatim technique used by Roslyn Oades. Dawes and Scarlett chose a different route. They sourced recorded and written lived experiences and have blended these stories together in a tightly woven tale which exposes an unresolved social experience of complexity and confusion.
Half the cast are reciting from audio recordings mirrors of a truth and rigor in their performance. The other half worked off written responses and have been invited by Dawes to explore that in a more traditional manner. It is not obvious to us who used which technique which demonstrates Dawes' masterful handling of the material, the actors and the mis-en-scene. There are moments which could easily have fallen into melodrama but Dawes has kept a tight rein on what is a hugely emotional topic.
I think a sign of the great success of this show is around half way through I stopped feeling like I was in a waiting room and instead felt as if I was in a support group. The stories move away from those women who have had abortions to the people around them - the partner, the brother, the best friend. I have lived experience of people who have had abortion - apparently one in three women have - so I felt I was in a room where the sharing of this phenomena was safe and honest, painful and liberating, important and put in perspective.
Choice does not preach. It does not take a moral stance. It asks questions. Questions like how did you feel at the time? How did the people around you react? How did you react? What was good? What was bad? Why did you make your decision? What do you think now? Perhaps one of the most intriguing stories was the one told by Haslam about an abortion which took place just after abortion was legalised in New Zealand.
The art of the verbatim technique is in the editing and Dawes and Scarlett have crafted a beautiful tableau. Stories interact and intertwine with each other, just as the issue interacts and intertwines with society. Dawes has also demonstrated a real artistry with the use of lighting. Spotlights everywhere but every story is told just outside of them. Not quite in the shadows but never fully being in the light - much like the topic and experience itself.
The sound design is also perfect. This show is proof that you don't need a lot to create a perfect piece of theatre. You just need to make sure what you do is precise and deliberate and thoughtful.
Choice is a piece of theatre nobody should miss. It is also a great example of the care and attention The Owl and Cat are putting into the curation and realisation of their shows. The quality control is first rate and this is the show to see if you want to know how it's done.
This past week, Baggage Productions has presented the sixth season of their annual showcase of women writers, “Madwomen Monologues”. Each year, they present two programmes of solo acts from female writers in different venues across Melbourne. Their latest season was presented at the Butterfly Club, their first appearance at that space – with full houses every night.
The two programmes this year were presented twice each, on alternating nights – and on Sunday night, there was a Madwomen retrospective, a collection from the past five years.
What has impressed me about “Madwomen” is the relative strength of their seasons. Collections of short plays presented as a season of theatre can be a good way to encourage works from new and emerging writers; but often this means a quality is wildly variable. Baggage has an ability to curate collections of short plays that are mostly quite strong. This year is no exception.
I started with Program Two on Thursday night, a collection that crossed genres from comedy to satire to science fiction. The short monologue lends itself to comedy better than drama, I think. Easier to make people laugh in a few minutes than to move them, but this is not a criticism. Program Two was comedy heavy.
Checkmate, by short play aficionado Cerise de Gelder, is about obsession and an addiction with checking things. Lauren Bailey catches the audience’s attention within seconds and keeps them laughing but mesmerised the whole time.
Sucking the Marrow out of the Limelight and Other Mixed Metaphors is a sharp satire about finding ways to please and pleasure yourself, by Baggage co-founder Christina Costigan.
While the one rule for this collection of monologues is that they be written by women, there are a small number of male performers scattered throughout the program. Jack Matthews gives an intense performance in Cindy Tomamichel’s Apocalyptic drama, Flick the Switch. Proving that you can make science fiction and drama work in the short monologue format.
Director Natasha Broadstock brought her signature over-the-top style to Niki na Meadhra’s One Moonless Night. The highlight of the night for me was Hashtag, about a mother coping with three children, one who has selective mutism; Lucy Norton’s work with the puppet and embodying the kindergarten teacher was a real stand out.
Program One on Friday night was a much more dramatic affair, though it started out with a slight comedy about an old woman and her husband’s ashes, in Hayley Lawson-Smith’s Smuggled.
A couple of other plays didn’t quite live up to their potential, I thought. Slight Denial and Gilmore Girls hinted at an interesting story that didn’t quite emerge. Naming the Babyshowcased a lovely performance by Kathy Lepan-Walker but the script didn’t have the confidence of its convictions.
Gemma Flannery’s wild performance in Diane Worswick’s Tits Mainly was the comedic highlight of a dramatic night. But program one ended on a dramatic one-two punch of Bridgette Burton’s Proprioception and Sara Hardy’s The Tree Hugger.
Proprioception, in particular, proves that you can truly devastate an audience in ten minutes, with a top-notch performance by Phoebe Anne Taylor under Natasha Moszenin’s direction.
The retrospective night was interesting, because I’ve seen most of these plays before – a couple at previous Madwomen nights and others in different incarnations.
It was really great to have the opportunity to see some of these plays again; short plays usually live for one season and then disappear.
Tania le Page’s performance as a hitwoman in Cerise de Gelder’s The Last Supper is truly unforgettable and a great opening to the retrospective. Therese Cloonan’s The Gentleman in Room 7 is utterly heartbreaking every time. And Jane Miller’s Due Diligence is so strong.
To cap off the night and the season is a truly stunning performance by Wallis Murphy-Munn playing Miss Transgression in Lesley Truffle’s Memoir of a Trollop. It starts off with a song and quickly gets out of hand, but Murphy-Munn is in complete control of us.
It’s to Baggage Production’s credit that they go from strength-to-strength every year. Here’s to many more!
Disclaimer: I have worked with and known many of the writers, performers and directors in this season; many more than I’m usually comfortable with when reviewing. But there were so many people involved and I really wanted to celebrate the anniversary and the retrospective.