05 October 2007

Australia Project: Will of the Cockroach

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing some new plays in Manhattan, part of the Australia Project, a production of the Production Company, an Australian-American alliance, which put on eleven new plays over the past three weekends at Chashama 217, on East 42nd St between Third and Second Aves.

Stupidly, I'd written the address down as 217 *West* 42nd St, believing that this was the same Chashama Theatre in which I'd seen my friend Lan Tran's performance piece How to Unravel Your Family some years back, and so emerged into the flashing lights of the Times crawler only to find the building I sought boarded up, the only door to the construction site guarded by a screaming woman who attacked anyone who came near her. You gotta love Times Square.

Thinking quickly, I whipped out my cellphone and dialed the author of the play I'd come into town to see, Alexandra Collier, an Australian lass I'd met (by phone only) in the heady days of Arts Hub US, for which she'd written three wonderful features. Ally gave me the proper address of the theatre, and said she was sure I could sneak in, but at that point I'd have to cross half the island at its widest point, so we agreed to meet at intermission; fortunately, her play went on last of the four in that evening's offering.

No one looking like Ally's AH contributor photo appeared before the second act started, so I sat in the back alone to watch Continuing Occupation by Van Badham, a savage latter-day David-Rabe-type satirical comedy with a dotty-to-the-max Mom; Jenni, the cool narrator daughter, home for her 21st birthday party, and her nasty violent incestuous necrophiliac brother, who works for Halliburton Iraq and brings barbecued baby limbs to the party for everyone to eat. Fun for the whole family.

Ally's play, Will of the Cockroach, was less phantasmagorical than Continuing Occupation, but had its surreal dimension as well. A young Ozzie pair, D and Susie — he a writer, she a dancer (I think) as well as D's support and stay — try to cope with no money in a vermin-infested dump in Brooklyn. They're on a road trip from Oz, which has tested their relationship, but they're still very much in love, not to mention lust. The point of divergence is living in NYC, which Susie finds exhilarating (if forgivably exasperating) because Americans are always looking FORWARD, on their way, the past doesn't determine them, they can make themselves over — something it seems she's burning to do. But D is rooted in his homeland — this is what the road trip has taught him — he even has an imaginary channel on the map on which he writes his stories that leads straight through the earth to the beach where he longs to be, and every once in a while he gets a whiff of that clean ocean air that he's suffocating without.

Into this interesting mix of emotions erupts the Cockroach, a hefty guy in a brown leather coat, wearing a mask with antennae and extra appendages under his arms (the costume was very poor theatre, but, had the lighting been better, was otherwise perfect). Both D & Susie are horrified and disgusted by him, but Susie is also fascinated by his staying power: he's a survivor, and that's what she wants to be; a survivor, in fact, is what she is.

Predictably, Cockroach comes between D and Susie, though he's only symbolic of what's ultimately going to pull them apart: she wants to stay, he needs to go back home. So even though D manages to kill Cockroach off, Susie gets the last word: she repeats Cockroach's refrain, I'll be here until the end.

Much more engaging than its predecessor, and the acting, given the dismal circumstances of the production, was quite good: Tim Major (from Brisbane) was folorn as you could want as D; Mary Jane Gibson (from Newfoundland) sexy and spirited as Susie; and Joel Israel (from NYC) a stolid but winning Cockroach. Were I directing, with unlimited budget, I'd have done something creepier with the lighting and choreography, but I thought May Adrales did a servceable job in letting the play tell its own story.

Ally portrayed the relationship between D and Susie with wise compassion and a sure hand — unhappily, they seemed headed for a break-up even without the Cockroach's intervention, but that development itself was also deftly handled.

If I had a quibble, it would be that Cockroach's wisdom about surviving in New York was rather abstract, rather than exhibiting the native New Yorker's absolute and detailed mastery of the subject. On the other hand, in his terms, New York's a fairly recent development on the planet, which is his bailiwick, not just NYC today.

In short, I was charmed, and look forward to seeing this play in a more robust production, which it definitely deserves.

As it happened, Ally was delayed, and snuck in herself just before her play started, sitting next to me, unwittingly for both of us. After the curtain call, we got to chat very briefly, but she was mobbed by admirers, and I really had to fly in order to catch my boat, which in the event I missed by six minutes, stranding me for another hour until the next one. But the ferry terminal's always a rich environment for people-watching, not to mention having Roberto Bolaño's fine story "The Insufferable Gaucho" to read in the New Yorker. So the minutes flew. And I got home in one piece, my main goal of the day.


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