Intertextual idealism

Brutal Utopias (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

May 18 – 28

“Brutal Utopias” is a bold and interesting new work by Brisbane’s own Stephen Carleton. The latest production in Playlab Theatre’s 2022 program, presented in partnership with Metro Arts, is an epic story about legacy and impact, that gives its audience members much to contemplate about having the courage of their convictions in response to life’s ethical dilemmas.

We begin with talented Australian Geo-Engineer Natalia Hoskings meeting new colleagues in Planning and Development at New York’s, Jackson and Saxon, having come from saving the third word in the central Pacific Ocean. Before long, however, we are swept back to Cold War Yugoslavia where Branislav and Valentina Radovic are being visited by an interpreter representing the President of Indonesia looking to commission design of a theme park hotel expression of the nation’s spirit, rather than in the era’s typically brutalist design…. modern and original, but also unpretentious in their bold and unapologetic aesthetic.

As conversation turns to combining the modern and traditional, there is humour in analogy explanations, but also the first tease of the play’s weighty subject matter. What follows is a provocative consideration of pragmatism vs idealism, patriotism and cultural responsibility, that characterises the Patrick White Award-Winning playwright’s intellectual script. Indeed, it’s a dense 90 minutes as audience members are jumped between Yugoslavia, New York and even Coolum.

As story returns to the modern-day home of global capitalism, talk is of a superstorm surge that sees lower Manhattan in need to a sea wall (of sorts) mitigation project to keep Wall Street high and dry from rising sea levels. Changing the habits of the city’s inhabitants is more difficult, meaning that Natalia’s suggestions for costal resilience fall on deaf ears, even to her mother, who is visiting as an escape from the reality of her life in Australia. Determined to attack the problem at its source, Natalia is steadfast in her determination not to dismiss the interrelationships that have and will continue to lead to catastrophe.

Clearly passionate, Natalia also has a penchant for dramatisation, including of the circumstances around her parents flee to Australia as refugees from Eastern Europe, as the story opens out into its wider themes. Amongst the big-picture considerations of compromise for the greater good, are many smaller moments of humour and alike. Many laughs come from Natalia’s Australian-in-America moments, often exacerbated by Anthony Standish’s pitch-perfect performance as Natalia’s very American gum-chewing, vaping boss, who manages by sports analogy.

There are no weak links within the show’s powerhouse cast of Ashlee Lollback, Michael Mandalios, Nikhil Singh, Anthony Standish and Kate Wilson. The ability of performers to switch characters, and accents, through swift scenes changes is a testament to their talent and means that even with only minimal costumes changes, characters are always distinct. And from when first see their characters meet at the Algonquin Hotel of Dorothy Parker fame, Lollback and Wilson, project a believable mother-daughter dynamic, authentic down to the smallest details of physical interaction and verbal inflections within their conversations.

A sophisticated aesthetic enhances Matt Scholten’s tight direction. Designer Bill Haycock’s striking set easily guides us through the story’s dual timelines, with the use sometimes of mirrors and alike to allow for added depth, while the subtleties of Guy Webster’s sound design plant us firmly in a New York City soundscape of background noise.

“Brutal Utopias” is a rich, multi-themed work, built upon a scaffold of architecture, but about so much more. Beneath its examination of the intersection between lofty ideals and realpolitik, there are a lot of intertextual and contemporary references throughout the play that contribute much to making it such an engaging theatrical experience, rewarding in realisation of its intersections of story and character. Crafted down to its finest details, it gives its audience much to consider with regards to idealism and compromise, making it both of its time and of all times, as all great pieces of theatre are.

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