Steinbeck superlatived

Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 2 – 18

For those unfamiliar with John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men”, a strumming pre-show soundtrack accompanying the rustic bunkhouse staging (Bill Haycock, Designer) plants Ad Astra audiences firmly in its depression era California setting. Lighting also warms us into the tender take at the heart of the story as we meet is main characters, displaced migrant ranch workers, the intelligent but uneducated George Milton (Patrick Shearer) and the bulky and strong, but intellectually disabled Lennie Small (Francis McMahon).

The relationship and backstory of the cynical George and the childlike bear Lennie is soon revealed, cementing sentiment at the story’s heart; the itinerant workers, move from farm to ranch seeking opportunities to engage in casual labour, before quickly moving on when they encounter trouble. The trouble, it is soon apparent, tends to stem from Lennie’s fondness for stroking soft things (including pretty ladies’ dresses) combined with his lack of awareness of his own brute strength. So it is with a sense of foreboding that Lennie’s innocent view of the world is about to be corrupted, that we then follow the men into their new job, despite their determination to keep their noses clean.

Under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the story is well-paced, with the production allowing us to sit in the silences of its sorrow, but also in the anxiety of its fight scenes and what happens thereafter. And passages of time are cleverly crafted through the fast forward of scene stills, which, in moving things along, contribute much to the development and maintenance of dramatic tension. Those familiar with the story, know of the tragedy of its plot trajectory and as many were anticipating in pre-show discussions, those unfamiliar with how things are to unfold are walloped by the confrontation of its emotion, which is heightened by David Walters’ shadowed lighting hues and Ben Lynskey’s melancholic soundscape.

“Of Mice and Men” is an affecting show and experience of the performances in Ad Astra’s production serves as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but its endurance as a classic text. The talented cast take us to all edges of the character spectrum. Danny Brown steadies things as respected main mule team driver Slim, easily conveying the characters’ natural authority and essential empathy towards George and Lennie’s bond. As the boss’ bully of a son Curly, Andrew Lowe has a cocksure swagger that tells us about his character before he even speaks, so that his jealous over-protection of this wife that brings about much of the play’s antagonism comes as little surprise.

The tough-love relationship between George and Lennie is movingly drawn. McMahon’s performance as Lennie is touching in its tenderness and sensitivity, yet he also appropriately dominates the space when provoked into physical altercation. Shearer’s intuitive approach to accessing George’s character gives us the light and shade required by his both his protection towards and frustration with Lenny, and also contrasting commitment to a dream but also feeling of economic powerlessness integral to experience of the depression era. George is a complicated character whose conflicted empathy for Lennie is key to the plot’s impact and Shearer conveys this in an accomplished, understated manner through dialogue delivery that is viscerally charged with mumbles and pauses, in almost James Dean like style.

More than just being a story of its characters, however, “Of Mice and Men”, is clearly also a character study of its era. Audience members feel its pathos through the characters’ expression of simple pleasures like a comfortable chair as much as their bigger dreams of self-determination. Curly’s unnamed wife (Caitlin Hill) dreams of better things, beyond the loneliness at the heart of her flirtatious interactions with the men on the ranch and aging handyman Candy (Iain Gardiner) who, having lost his hand in an accident, fears for his future and so dreams of a life beyond the ranch.

Our protagonists’ shared dream is made clear from initial scenes of George’s wistful contemplation of aspirational independence. Their plan is to save the stake to buy a few acres and make their own farm life, with a big vegetable patch, chickens and some rabbits, Lennie keeps reminding with childlike sweetness. But harsh realities and a tragic turn of events see dreams shattered for as Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley” (often go awry).

All things considered, this is a superb production of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, highly professional in all of its aspects and with a calibre of talent that could easily be showcased on the QPAC stage. Indeed, Ad Astra has created an accessible, engaging and powerful piece of theatre worth of all the superlatives. The fact that the limited season is being brought to Brisbane audiences by the creators of “Red” comes of little surprise given that the 2020 production similarly combined staging and performances with such excellence.

Smart art authenticity

Red (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 17 – 26

What is red? The answer is multifaceted, audience members discover as the characters of John Logan’s play of the same name debate through a list of the colour’s binary opposition associations – from lipstick to lava and Santa to Satan. The conversation is typical of those between the two-hander’s characters, abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko (Francis McMahon), the last artist left of his peers, and his young assistant, recent art school graduate Ken (Richard Lund).

You don’t need to know about Rothko to recognise his type almost immediately as he bombasts his new assistant as to the nature of his daily duties, helping to stretch the canvases, mix the paints, clean the brushes and apply the ground colour…. not painting. Cantankerous and prone to titanic self-absorption, the brash artist projects a paranoid and dogmatic indifference to the world and lack of awareness of others, including Ken, (who he never actually addresses by name), as he monologues about the patient process of art-making and the temporal nature of his painting compared to traditional representational artworks.

While John Logan’s Tony Award winning play is taut in its pacing, it is very much a ‘talky’ work, full of scholarly dialogue and ideas for the audience to wade through. It doesn’t shy away from its intelligence in contemplation about what art is and how it is made, including references to Nietzsche, Sophocles, Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, Byron, Matisse and Van Gogh, just to name a few.

Just as Rothko’s paintings are about the tension between their blocks of colour, so the play itself is about contrasting artistic viewpoints. Drama builds as Ken boldly questions his employer’s theories of colour and, by association, his integrity in accepting a lucrative commission to paint a coordinated series of paintings for the interior of the upmarket Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue.

The setting is the pre-eminent painter’s late 1950s New York studio and while the era is never made too apparent, beyond use of a black rotary telephones, Set/Costume Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, is impressive. And lighting (consultant David Walters), works well to create nooks and crannies within the set. Indeed, attention to detail is evident throughout and immediately apparent from introduction of characters attired in paint speckled clothing and shoes.

The relationship between the two characters is what endures at the core of the work’s drama. To Rothko, artistry is a job more than a calling; from his perspective Ken is never more than an employee and Jackson Pollock was but a tragic bohemian. Still, under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the duo works well together, which we best see in an exhilarating sequence in which prime a blank canvas with a base layer, enthusiastically splashing on the colour to the sounds of a cresendoing classic music score.

Not a lot happens in “Red”; its drama is not plot-drive but rather comes from its character studies, so it is appropriate that the McMahon and Lund give such powerful performances. As the bullish Rothko, McMahon presents a convincing, unrelenting portrait of the tormented visionary artist, commanding attention with grandiose movements and exclamation. Lund, meanwhile, engages the audience in sincere articulation of Ken’s nuanced later less-enigmatic arguments, for example, of the conflicts of previous art movements. His layered but still-contained performance elevates the character of Ken to being more than just Rothko’s foil when he shares a gripping revelation of the details of an event from his past.

The art of quality theatre does not come easy, which makes the experience of Ad Asta’s “Red” all the more rewarding. While the play is often intense, there are some lighter comic moments to ease the dramatic tension, such as when the moody American painter explains why he doesn’t ever paint outdoors.

This is excellent theatre presented with an authenticity that makes it feel like a voyeuristic glimpse into Rothko’s life at a point in time that sees him fearing that one day ‘the black will swallow the red’ in foreshadow of the circumstances of his death just over a decade later. And just as tension of the expressive blocks of colour contrasts of Rothko’s trademark large, floating rectangles seem to engulf the spectator, so too are audience members easily absorbed into his “Red” story through its enduring intimations on mortality and the philosophical truths of human drama.