>dead certain by escape theatre limited

>reviewed by MATTHEW LYON

>date: 20 aug 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>LIKE A PUPPET ON A STRING

Let me start by quoting from the programme for DEAD CERTAIN, which in turn quotes from an interview with the playwright, Marcus Lloyd:

"When asked in an interview about writing Dead Certain, Marcus Lloyd replies with a question, 'How much control do we have over our lives?' He ponders. 'Are we following some script out there, or do we have some control?'"

From this we are to take it, I suppose, that DEAD CERTAIN is a philosophical investigation into the competing claims of determinism and fatalism to govern human existence. Hmm... Not sure about that. But it was a Damn Good Yarn, and hopefully my quote-within-a-quote beginning will give you some clue as to how complex and sneaky the yarn was - except that to express that fully I would have needed to quote the programme which quoted an interview which quoted the play which quoted this review and then started over again from there.

Indeed, the script was a delicious four-dimensional pretzel which wove backwards and forwards and around to portray a dangerous game where a disabled ex-dancer-turned-playwright (Beatrice Chia) manipulates a failed actor (Mark Waite), playing with his sense of time, self and reality for unknown purposes. It was great fun trying to keep up with all the twists and work out the histories of the characters, thus divining their current motivations. The script's only failing was that Lloyd seemed to believe he had to stay one step ahead of the audience at all times, and he had added an extra twist at the very end, after the one everyone was expecting (I won't spoil it for you). This was a shame, because it didn't ring true with the precisely established psychology of the play's characters and moreover, it seemed to push the play into a mystery thriller genre it had until then succeeded in transcending. (And you can guess the last twist anyway.)

>>'Samantha Scott-Blackhall's direction was as usual highly competent, as usual well-paced, and as usual visually clean, helped by an intelligent set design that restricted the playing area to a useful size'

The script's complexity, and especially its emulsion of the real and the unreal placed great demands on its actors, and I'm glad to report that they were equal to the task. Beatrice Chia had the hardest job. As the initiator and puppet-master, the onstage world was essentially hers to control, and it was through her performance that the audience would be persuaded to believe in her world or to disbelieve in it as required, and also to pick up hints of her motives and plans. I've not been Chia's greatest fan in the past, but here she succeeded in creating a kind of reality arc for her character, so that her performance early in the play seemed disconcertingly overdramatic and even slightly fake - all the better to set the audience questioning and wondering - and then later on, when the audience had decided on some answers, she became more urgent and more believable, accentuating the play's drama over it's mystery. This was exactly what the play required and it was very impressive indeed.*

But in the interest of being a bitch, I must point out a couple of flaws, too. Firstly, Chia flubbed too many lines. Granted, the play is a verbose two-hander, but five or six noticeable stumbles on the night I attended is altogether too many. And she has an irritating habit, which I have also noticed in several other performers, of stressing personal pronouns and possessive adjectives every time they come up, whether warranted or not. Who teaches actors to do this? And will they please stop?

Mark Waite's job as the gullible pretty-boy actor trapped in Chia's web was not as hard, but it was not easy either, and he too acquitted himself well. He was particularly good (and I hope he'll take this as a compliment) at finding and portraying exactly the right level of stupidity, so that one could believe that Chia would be able to manipulate him at will, but also that he would have flashes of wit and insight and some sense of what was happening to him. Waite's anger and confusion in the later stages of the play were less effectively handled, probably because he underplayed them somewhat, and this meant that his physical/emotional performance contrasted uncomfortably with his accent, which was accurate but which was also two sizes too large.

Waite was not alone in overdoing the vocals - sound designer Darren Ng seemed to think that the best way to add suspense to a couple of flashback scenes was to turn the echo way up, like a ghost story on a kids' TV show at Halloween. He was trying so hard to be sinister that I wanted to pat him on the head and send him to bed with milk and cookies.

Samantha Scott-Blackhall's direction was as usual highly competent, as usual well-paced, and as usual visually clean, helped by an intelligent set design that restricted the playing area to a useful size. The only concrete criticism one could make is that sometimes Chia's wheelchair had to take a strangely circuitous path to get off stage. But this is minor; my main objection to Scott-Blackhall's work is that it always seems so artisanal, so unwilling to take risks, and it's almost as if her plays come off an assembly line, albeit a very high quality one. Yes, she brings out the text, yes she develops her actors, yes she works out her blocking - but no one seems to get pushed, nothing seems to get gloriously, dangerously broken. It's worth clarifying: if everything were not already in place, I would not ask for this extra. Everything is in place; I ask for it.

I ask for it particularly, now that I think of it, because this company is called Escape, and when I consider its history of productions (not all helmed by Scott-Blackhall, admittedly) I feel it should be called Departure or Vacation instead. I don't mind "escaping" to tropical beaches or verdant countryside, but once in a while I need the rush of adrenaline and the thrill of fear. I doubt I shall get these from the archetypally middlebrow 'Shirley Valentine', Escape's next production, but I hope someday soon to run for my life.

*Some of you may remember luna-id's 2001 run of 'Private Eyes' by Steven Dietz, a play which resembles this one thematically and stylistically. In it, the actors failed to do properly what Chia did so well here, and as a result, the production was sometimes clumsy and schismatic.