Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back!

Wallace Shawn once pointed out that a benefit in traveling in a foreign country is that you can be blind to the country's propaganda and simultaneously be blind to the propaganda of your home country. An American visiting Ireland, for example, can dismiss the country's attitude that (say) the Pope is infallible, but also get some distance from and perspective on (say) America's junk pop culture worship.

This past month, the Production Company has attempted to confront this idea with 11 new plays about the American experience by Australian authors.

In 2006, the Production Company presented The Australia Project, a festival of new plays exploring the relationship between the U.S. and Australia. This year, the company has presented The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back!, a series of one-acts written by Australian playwrights based on their perceptions of the U.S.

I was in attendance at the third and final week of the festival, which featured four one-act plays, which varied in style, tone, and quality: "All This Beautiful Life," written by Veronica Gleeson and directed by Alexis Poledouris; "Beneath Us," by Ben Ellis and directed by Mark Armstrong; "Continuing Occupation," written by Van Badham and directed by Jordana Williams; and "The Will of the Cockroach," written by Alexandra Collier and directed by May Adrales.

The first two pieces, Gleeson's "All This Beautiful Life" and Ellis's "Beneath Us," are the closest in style and theme (even though the former is a dystopic science fiction tale and the latter is a dinner party of sorts between an agent, her husband, and a reclusive Salinger-like author). Both plays toy with the idea of characters being afraid of the outside world and view America as a violently hostile, cold, and dangerous landscape.

In "All This Beautiful Life," a married couple (played by Sean Williams and Mary Cross) prepares to leave a borderline uninhabitable earth to live on a colony on the moon and, after briefly misplacing their four-year-old daughter while packing (and getting reprimanded on the phone by someone from whom they ask for help), reflect on what in their lives are truly important.

"Beneath Us" deals with Tomasz, a novelist (Joseph J. Menino) working (very, very slowly) on his new book and living in a hermetically sealed underground bunker, convinced that The End is Night (and who may very well be right). His agent Barbara (Ilene Bergelson) and her husband James (Tim McGeever) come to his bunker for dinner, where Tomasz regales them with his theories on the impending apocalypse, which indeed seems to be right outside their door.

I enjoyed both of these pieces. They presented interesting - albeit bleak - ideas about Americans becoming hermits (either by design or default) and the U.S. exhausting its land and resources to the breaking point without getting too drawn out or didactic. I also liked the use of the ugly, stark florescent lights in "Beneath Us," which made the stage genuinely resemble a cold, underground bunker.

The weakest piece of the evening was "Continuing Occupation," which actually featured Nosedive's own Mac Rogers (in multiple roles). Depicting a nation of privileged white folk who literally rape their siblings and eat babies, Badham's piece is by far the most over-the-top and scathing satire of American culture, but doesn't hold together.

"Continuing Occupation" opens with a young woman, Jenni (Erin Maya Darke) telling a story about smoking weed in the car with her friend on the way to a Weezer concert and getting pulled over by the cops, when Arlo Guthrie (Rogers) pops out of the kitchen table to recite some of his lyrics to her.

Jenni's mother (Nancy Sirianni) shoos Arlo away and gets dinner ready for her son, Josh (Michael Poignand), who's come home from his job in Europe (which has something to do with making land mines or missile guidance systems). Josh is a vile human being who tries to rape his sister and brags about killing (and doing worse things to) babies for his job.

Mom is willfully ignorant and dismissive of all this rape and murder talk and works to have a Nice Family Dinner. Meanwhile, Arlo, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, and Noam Chomsky (all Rogers) periodically pop up to offer attitudes and philosophies toward America.

Badham's script and Williams's direction seem at odds with one another. This should either be more whimsical and silly or more dark and horrific. I couldn't tell if this is supposed to be a genuinely "take no prisoners" black-as-death indictment towards American culture or a nutty absurdist comedy that's too ridiculous to take seriously.

This is not to say that the weird imagery doesn't stick long after the show is over; Seeing Rogers constantly appear at random places as these various activists and folk heroes is amusing, as is the dinner spread, which consists mainly of cardboard cutouts of Wonder Bread and Oreos. Williams' take on Badham's script is fun and fascinating to watch, although ultimately "Continuing Occupation" is either too all over the map, or not over it enough.

The final piece, "The Will of the Cockroach," was the highlight of the series. It involves two young Australian lovers who have recently moved to New York to live the dream. However, as D (Tim Major) tries and fails to become a successful writer and Susie (Mary Jane Gibson) ekes out a meager living as a waitress, they each get periodic visits from one of New York's oldest residents, a suave and world-weary Cockroach (Joel Israel).

Although the Cockroach's visits cause D increasing despair (not only will the disgusting thing not die, it keeps reminding D, "I've been around much longer than you, and will be around long after you go."), they cause Susie increasing hope (she sees it as a survivor and views its visits as tough life lessons).

Eventually, Susie and D's conflicting feelings towards living in New York cause a rift in their relationship and ultimately an affair between Susie and the Cockroach (don't ask).

True, "The Will of the Cockroach" does suggest that those moving to New York to live their dreams have to lower their standards and confront filth and hardship. But it's a genuinely optimistic piece, implying that living in New York is about survival, but survival and the abandonment of pristine delusions is what's needed to make the dream (or rather, The Dream) come alive.

"The Will of the Cockroach," was by far my favorite. It gets the right blend of cynicism, comedy, and hope that "Continuing Occupation" falls short of.

Ultimately, the series of plays I saw in Week Three was a fun and interesting one. In the program notes, Production Company artistic director Armstrong writes: "Please don't mistake the plays for opinion editorials or history lessons, for our goal hasn't been documentary or authoritative in nature," which is absolutely correct. These are plays that toy with ideas about Americana by writers looking in from the outside.

Still waiting for that apology for "Jacko,"

James "Just Kidding, I Love Jacko" Comtois

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