The simplicity of surprise

Anita Elizabeth Jenson
Room 60
March 18

“Anita Elizabeth Jenson” … the name, the marvel, the majesty… This show was the highlight of 2013’s Festival of Student Theatre at La Boite and now it is back, for one (fundraising) night only, as fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable as ever in its character nuance and sparkling laugh-out-loud humour.

Anita Elizabeth Jensen is a washed up but still painfully beauty starlet. She hasn’t had a hit since her last divorce (she is like whiskey without the burn). In this golden age of musicals where agents act as pharmacists, she refuses to believe that she is past her glory days. Indeed, she is determined to be the star of “Hearts and Pastures” as opposed to playing the star’s grandmother. But Anita is a little out of her mind and her movie comeback soon becomes a disaster beyond comprehension; the movie hasn’t much depth, but a lot of length (which critics love).

What makes “Anita Elizabeth Jenson” such an interesting show, is not its plot but its genre, for the work plays out as a reading, much like a radio play. It is, however, a reading rich with characterisation of the old-time Hollywood glamour type, and this is where its magic lies, for the show takes no shame in its allusions. And what other word but magic can be used to describe a show whose melodic verbalised stage directions can romanticise the simplest of descriptions, such as tapping into a hard boiled egg. The result is something quite marvellous – interesting, entertaining and full of charm, despite its differentness.The first half of the play is particularly strong. It is a clever script by Lewis Treston and Nicholas K Watson and the director skilfully serves the writing in crafting a lovely blend of humour through the banter between characters and the show’s general playfulness. The skilled ensemble cast allows each other to have their moment to shine and, in fact, set up such moments for each other with flair. Even narrator Charles is given room to sparkle in his witty worsmithery.

Despite not having costumes or extensive movement, the cast is able to bring their characters to glorious life through their distinct vocal deliveries. Movie agent Chuck Buckshot does not need to don a tweed jacket to seem like he has morphed from the page of Dick Tracy. And the audience only needs to hear of Anita’s number-one-fan Cecil’s sheltered and privileged existence to appreciate his highly-strung, Frank-Spencer-like demeanour.

This is a story of caricatures as much as characters, but it is this that makes it so great, because simplicity works. And in many ways, this is a simple show, in that it is sans the bells and whistles of setting, costumes and props (apart from a select cigarette). Yet this is also a show with so much to offer beyond a traditional theatre experience. For all of its title character’s tragic beauty and its odd ending, “Anita Elizabeth Jenson” is still a delight to behold because of, rather than despite, its differentness. Surprise in the theatre, whether it’s in terms or narrative or something more visceral or visual, can be a real pleasure and “Anita Elizabeth Jenson” only offers audiences the most wonderful of surprises.

The stake of student theatre

Theatre is there for people to attend. Too often however, opportunities are lost by misguided conceptions as to the probable worth of shows. Indeed, this is especially so in the case of student theatre. 

I have been fortunate to be in the audience at a number of impressive works this year. Vena Cava Productions’ 2013 season opener “Jerusalem”, (written by Michael Gurr ) had its performance flaws, however, was a fine Australian play telling three stories interwoven through the issues of politics, justice, personal morality and the ‘unfairness’ of life, well-staged in terms of its aged-paper-covered props.

The highlight, however, has to have been Vena Cava Productions’ work in progress “Anita Elizabeth Jenson” (the name, the marvel, the majesty) at La Boite’s Festival of Student Theatre. (It made sitting through the Flinders University’s contrived “What Seems Like a Lifetime Ago”  and Sydney University’s tedious “Krapp’s Last Tape” almost worthwhile.) Though only presented as a reading, this character piece was rich in nuance and laugh-out-loud humour and I can only hope to see its tale of a tragic ageing celebrity fully realised on stage in the future. 

Sure, seeing student theatre can be a gamble. Thankfully though, the price of a loss is never that high. And when you have a win, the elation at experiencing an undiscovered gem can be glorious.