Thursday, 7 February 2019

REVIEW: Merciless Gods by Dan Giovannoni

Paul Blenheim and Charles Purcell in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

Red curtains adorn the back of the stage. A slice of blue cuts through the black. The playing space is intimate, at first crowded by a group of friends at a dinner party, telling stories of revenge. It’s petty to begin with and then it becomes a game of one-upmanship. And even though these middle-class people are safe, the stories of a travel-writer mate become stomach-churning.

This is the introductory tale in Christos Tsiolkas’ short-story collection “Merciless Gods” and it’s the opening piece in the stage adaptation by playwright Dan Giovannoni and Little Ones theatre company.

Tsiolkas is merciless with his characters, always. He paints stunning portraits of the cultural spread of Australians, men and women, gay and straight. The lives they lead might be bleak, but they are always suffused with truthfulness and occasional – very occasional – moments of tenderness.

Giovannoni has transformed several of the “Merciless Gods” short stories into short plays. Groups of friends. A family with a dying father. A mother coming to terms with the loss of her son through watching porn. A married couple dealing with an overbearing matriarch. A junkie suffering withdrawal and moments of clarity. Not all of these people are at the fringes of society, but they are often at the end of their rope.

Little Ones have a reputation for beautifully-wrought queer texts (or queered texts). The decadence of their Dangerous Liaisons. The simple beauty of their Nightingale and the Rose. Their camped-up Abigail’s Party. And a silent, lustful Dracula.

In comparison, Merciless Gods is almost austere. The mise-en-scene is minimalist, but piercing. Set and Costume Designer Eugyeene Teh reminds us we are watching theatre with that bold red curtain, but costumes the actors in the everyday. Lighting Designer Katie Sfetkidis’ work is brilliantly subtle, as always – a creeping shadow or a shaft of light; characters cocooned in shadow or inching toward daylight.

This production has previously played at the Northcote Town Hall, but was designed for the stage at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney. Griffin is a very intimate space. That slice of blue at the Fairfax Studio is the entire stage at Griffin.

Some of the stories in the first half felt a little overwhelmed by this new space; the choice of having actors face away from the audience is barely a problem at Griffin, but from further back at the Fairfax, parts of the dialogue were muffled or lost. This was less of a problem in the second half – where at least a couple of the pieces, like the final two monologues, felt perfectly suited to the void of darkness before we are overwhelmed by light.

The ensemble of actors are regulars in Little Ones’ productions, with the exception of Stefan Bramble, who is new to this season of the show. Jennifer Vuletic is given several chances in a variety of roles to command the stage. Paul Blenheim is heartbreaking as the junkie, remembering the man he loved. Sapidah Kian is remarkable throughout the night and pulls everything into focus in the last piece.

As tough and rough as the characters are, director Stephen Nicolazzo has created polished theatrical jewels from their lives. Out there against the blood red backdrop, he and the Little Ones team have brought Tsiolkas’ words to queer, passionate, troubling, affecting life. Merciless Gods is remarkable.



Sapidah Kian in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

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