Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre
November 18 – November 29
There is a fine line between ‘in your face’ and ‘f**ked up’ and it is a line that “Awkward Conversations” sometimes spills over in its presentation of intimate, yet bold works. But what else can be expected from a Week One marathon that begins with two of the most tragically confronting stories from the cannon of classic Greek literature?
First there is “Medea Redux” by Niel LaBute, a reimagined version of the classic tale, told in monologue revelation. The story of a mother who kills her children as means of reeking revenge isn’t the easiest material to make sense of for a modern audience, yet it works, told as it is from Medea’s confession to police tape recorder.
As Medea, Amy Ingram more than does justice to one of the greatest female roles in the theatrical canon. Teetering on the edge of audience empathy throughout she shows not only a heartbroken woman hell-bent on a revenge plot 14 years in the making, but also something of the giddiness of the undying infatuation and naïve innocence that attracted the high school teacher who became her exploitative childhood partner. And while Ingraham does bitter better than anyone, it is her initial vulnerability that is the most memorable aspect of her performance. Squirming, but never really moving beyond the confine of her confessional chair, she reluctantly recalls her story of teenage-hood stolen with the benefit of adult hindsight and it is in these reflections, rather than her story recount in the moment, where La Bute’s script really shines. There is even some well-placed humour mixed in with the shocking statements regarding her murder of her child, however, a plentiful placement of ‘ya’ and dropped g’s at times feels forced and detracts from chances to be caught up in her moments.
Medea is regarded by many as being a feminist text, due to its sympathetic exploration of being a woman in a patriarchal society and it is interesting to ponder whether the motivation for her crimes matters. Indeed, it is something to prompt consideration long after the show has come to its shocking conclusion, which makes it a perfect inclusion for a curation of theatre works focussed on rattling and reeling audience members through its unflinching subject matter.
And the unspeakable tragedies continue with “Yokastas Redux”, the story of the Oedipus myth reimagined from the point of view of Yokasta, Oedipus’ wife and mother. When it comes to tragedy’s baddest mummas, you can’t go past Yokasta … or can you? (A show highlight is a Jerry Springer style character confrontation, in attempt to answer this.) Classic Greek figures abound and Yokasta features in three self-aware forms (the youngest her, middle ‘chip on her shoulder’ her and older ‘perpetually blissful’ her) so it can be difficult to follow for the uninitiated, hence the need for the ‘Oedipus the King’ cheat sheet that is provided to audience members.
At its core, “Yokastas Redux” is the narrative of a woman who loves her child and the man in her life (specifics of his same-identity aside) and Jane Barry gives a standout performance as the titular character, finally given the chance to clear the air and tell her side of the story. As the swollen-footed boy gifted to her by Zeus for her to teach to be king, Thomas Hutchins is also an imposing figure, aiding in the audience want for more of the story and the change to perhaps see the work developed further into a full-length show.
Dysfunctional family stories continue with “Debris”, the tale of two forsaken children searching for humour in the brutal world of their abandonment in the garbage that is their lives. And humour there is, with many laughs coming from the delivery of everyday lines within such a bleak and shocking story and Katy Cotter engaging in her realisation of child-like Michelle’s persona. The striking opening image, which sees the two protagonists amid a sea of garbage bags, makes for a promising beginning and interest continues as bags are shaped into make-shift props, however, this is a long and repetitive show in need of an edit. Clearly many of those in the sold out Week One marathon audience disagreed. I don’t care who you know in the show, however; to be taking even one photo with flash during a live performance is just plain rude. #whatiswrongwithpeople.
“This Child” is another gritty exploration of family relationships, explored in a volley of varied vignettes between parents and children, each packing an emotional punch, despite their gender blind presentation. Although this aspect is initially distracting, once Reuben Witsenhuysen brings to life a highly-strung mother character, it is soon easily forgotten. Character dynamics are engrained in the dialogue, however, there just needs to be more of it. Long pauses while the performers, all wearing varied basketball uniforms, stand and stare down the audience or chat amongst themselves to the pumping sounds of “Turn Down For What” make an indelible impact, but not always in a positive way.
If the inherent values of good theatre are exploration and challenge as much as entertainment, then “Awkward Conversations” is very good theatre. In bringing ancient work into focus for contemporary society, it certainly gives audiences much to talk about. Although there is little escape from the discomfort of its conversation starters, I don’t know that we would want it any other way.