Sunday, 10 March 2013

Relationship drama: "Constellations", "Danny..." and "The Shape of Things"

Melbourne Theatre Company's
production of "Constellations"
by Nick Payne

There’s always something potent about a two-hander about people meeting. We can all empathise with the simple, often relatively benign moment, when we first meet someone. When we first introduce ourselves. When we first start a conversation just to see what happens. It’s a dramatic cliche that instead of having someone come through a door, have them come through a window. But how we meet peopple isn’t always dramatic, but in many ways there is always the potential for dramatic tension.

I’ve seen three plays this week about two people meeting and how their relationships develop over years, one night and several months. The Melbourne Theatre Company is currently staging “Constellations” by Nick Payne. Bridget Balodis’ production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” is on at Rancho Notorious, above 1000 Pound Bend. And RoundSquare’s first show is a production of “The Shape of Things” by Neil LaBute, at the No Vacancy Gallery at QV.

While only “Constellations” and “Danny” are actually two-handers, “The Shape of Things” turns on the relationship of one couple – Adam and Evelyn, ably supported by the compare-and-contrast relationship of Phillip and Jenny.

In “Constellations”, Marianne and Roland meet. And meet. And meet. And meet. And we see many derivations of their relationship, seeing how their lives together (and sometimes not together) would differ based on the choices they make along the way. Marianne is a theoretical physicist and she explains the “many worlds” theory of the universe, to make just a little bit of sense out of the non-conventional structure of the play.

But the key to the play is the sweetness and the lightness of touch. We may be all at sea to how all these various threads connect, but in each encounter, we empathise with these two characters. Meetings can be easy, they can be awkward, they can be rich and funny or dull and forgettable. And some of these meetings can lead to friendships or relationships or to nothing... but you never know which will lead to what. And so on. And so forth.

Letitia Caceres keeps the show tight but allows the actors to really strut their stuff. We are engaged by Alison Bell’s lovable awkwardness in many of the iterations of Marianne, just as we are drawn to the sometimes lost and sometimes strong Roland, played with marvellous dexterity by Leon Ford.

The characters at the centre of “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” are much tougher – in appearance, in temperament and physically, violently stronger. But as much as Roland and Marianne must choose the right things to say to each other in the many worlds they encounter each other, Danny and Roberta need to find the right words to even talk to each other.

Danny is a violent thug; he might even be homicidal. Roberta is a single mother, living with her parents, having trouble coping with everything life has thrown at her. And these two meet in a bar, but worlds away from the “meet cute” of “Constellations” or a million Hollywood romantic comedies. The relationship between Danny and Roberta is brutal – in physicality and language.

But they aren’t difficult to empathise with. First meetings can be fraught, even when we go in with eyes open. When the two people are as bruised and broken as these two, there’s a dramatic tension from the opening moments. Bridget Balodis’ production is tight and moody; the Rancho Notorious space is perfect for the seedy bar where this couple meets and the cramped bedroom they find themselves in later. Olivia Monticciolo and James O’Connell are strongest in the middle portion of the three-scene, sixty-minute play – but that’s where Shanley’s writing is strongest, too. When the two characters are letting their walls down, after their pants have come down, we get to see their vulnerabilities – which is often a dramatic key for getting characters together, but in this instance it begins as a catalyst to tear them apart.

Where Danny and Roberta’s relationship is based so strongly on their physicality – the way they hold and carry themselves, the couple at the centre of “The Shape of Things” begin their verbal and intellectual sparring at minute one and the cerebral sparring continues throughout Neil LaBute’s treatise on art and how appearance and relationships might change us.

Adam and Evelyn meet in an art gallery; Adam is a guard, ostensibly there to protect the art and Emily is an artist and anarchist, there to graffiti and piece of art she believes “isn’t true”. What is and isn’t true is often the key to us meeting; putting our best foot forward, willing ourselves not to make a fool in front of these people, occasionally we’ll throw in a little white lie – to keep people interested.

They key to Adam and Evelyn’s continued interest in each other is definitely the verbal sparring; these are college-age kids in a small college town – intellectual rigour is a kind of mating ritual. In contrast, Adam’s friends Phillip and Jenny seem to still be together because it’s what’s expected – even as they express doubts in the relationship, they think they should take the relationship to the next level.

As often with LaBute’s plays, human relationships become an intellectual cat-and-mouse game. Sometimes this leads to characters who are cyphers to ideas, rather than fully-rounded emotional human beings. But the relationships in “The Shape of Things” are complicated and layered – and as we see different combinations of the two couples meeting, we begin to get a fuller understanding of who they all are and what parts they play in the drama.

I was intellectually-engaged throughout, but not emotionally engaged until the climax of the piece – with Emily Wheaton’s stunning performance, as Evelyn gives the key address of the play. And as we unlock the secrets of the play, LaBute has a lot to say about how we use art, perceive art but also how we perceive people and how we use them, too.

Peter Blackburn’s directorial debut is populated by a strong cast in a great space (this show performed in an art gallery when the key pieces of work in the current display are inspired by “The Shape of Things”), but the pacing is a little off in the first half. The scene transitions are lengthy and the structure of LaBute’s work require real pace throughout; it’s one thing to nail the scenes, but if the scene changes drag, we lose some of that dramatic tension in the experience. Luckily, the second half barrels along and the climax and final scenes between Wheaton’s Evelyn and Josh Blau’s Adam are a joy and a heartbreak to watch.

Sometimes we must choose our words, choose our actions and choose how we hold ourselves. Sometimes, if we choose all three, we're bound to make an impression.


“Constellations” plays at Fairfax until March 23.

“Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” plays at Rancho Notorious until March 16.

“The Shape of Things” plays at No Vacancy until March 24.

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