Ancient appeal

The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

February 17 – 27

“He didn’t think much of her at first.” So, the audience is tantalised by the strong start to “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars”. The work is full of creativity, not only in Van Badham’s poetic, but not overly lyrical writing (which can make even box a sound sensuous), but in The Hive Collective’s lively and engaging presentation of the work. Indeed, Heidi Manché’s nimble direction of what is essentially a series of monologues spoken directly to the audience, only adds to the experience of this smart and spirited rom-com of sorts.

The interesting and intelligent two-hander, which is based on the Ancient Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, is essentially two stories in one as it traces a woman’s romances with two very different men. The character tying the stories together is Marion (Sarah Ogden), an artist working initially at a museum and later teaching a septuagenarian art group at a holiday resort in Wales.

The opening line narration establishes the work’s distinctive style, which sees the performers talking about the characters in third person narrative before transforming into them, enabling an additional layer of interest. Michael (Rob Pensalfini) is a publications manager at an Oxford museum. Marion, is the new artist-in-residence in a comfortable relationship with a stone mason boyfriend. There is no immediate attraction. (He is married and she isn’t even his type). However, a dangerous attraction is soon developed from provocations at the photocopier, a blue dress and baking, leading to an urgent encounter during an at-night vigil in attempt to discover the truth behind the mysterious, monstrous bull threatening the museum’s antiquities.

As Michael and Marion unleash the beast of their lusty animal attraction, the Minotaur is manifested from the edge of the dark. And when, in the aftermath, she is left emotionally perished, we understand her flee to a new life as art tutor in the seaside resort, when she finds herself initially infuriated but later intrigued by Mark, a wayward womanising Australian sommelier we know will go on to enliven her from the painful self-loathing of her life’s wreckage … for despite its mythic proportions of sensuality and debauchery, “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” is also touching in the emotional honesty of its reflection on the role of cruelty and heartbreak in character development into a new version of self.

The risky and at times risqué story ebbs and flows in the ways of life, which is enhanced by the cresendoing of overlapping character narration towards the first story’s climax. This, and the use of third person storytelling, effectively gives us insight into the private thoughts of both characters, which ensures a good balance between its hyperbolic mythology and its essential charm, which is seen especially in the second story of Marion and Mark, largely due to Pensalfini’s performance.

Pensalfini brings an irresistible, charismatic energy to the knock-about Mark, delivering a memorable performance, intuitively responsive to the audience’s energy. We also see his range not only across the stories, but within the first story itself, in which, like Ogden, he thunders his character to larger-than-life elevation. In both stories, the two establish clear, distinct characters, (for Ogden, the before and after of Marion’s infidelity) and there is a clear chemistry throughout.

Sarah Winter’s deceptively simple set allows the performers the space to shine, unburdened by much beyond the text. The only items in the clean, white space of the curtained stage-upon-a-stage of New Benner Theatre are a versatile collection of white boxes that are moved around to easily represent different places, spaces and even people. And when the curtains are drawn back and the space opens up for the second story, it works with Christine Felmingham’s lighting to signal the illumination of Marion’s new self. The live on-stage musical score courtesy of Shenzo Gregorio similarly assists in taking us from the build of the first story’s cacophonies to the tender rediscoveries of later gentler sections.

Even if unfamiliar with detail of Greek mythology of the work’s source material, it is easy enough for the audience to follow the most obvious allusions. Mark is, as is quoted, clearly Dionysus, the godof wine, fertility, ritual madness and ecstasy. Still, some program guidance to assist in appreciation of the work’s ancient inspirations, would perhaps have been helpful. Regardless, the playful celebration of the complexities at the heart of female sexuality is still a vibrant addition to the busy February theatre season. And if the appeal of this dynamic debut outing is any indication, the future works of this exciting new collective can only be awaited with much anticipation.

Photo c/o –  Stephen Henry