Leah Mercer, Curtin University’s Performance Studies program Course Coordinator, has her finger on the pulse of contemporary theatre in Perth. This has been a year full of outstanding creative work from her department, with shows that are on par with the best Blue Room output (i.e. small-scale professional, independent productions). There’s an equal emphasis on producing both scripted and devised works which showcase unique performers, edgy subjects, fresh humour and thoughtful design. The program’s current production ticks all of those boxes; it’s a devised play written and directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler called Escape Goat Utopia.
I can’t find any specific reference to any particular source idea or quote by Immanuel Kant in the show’s program, but he is referred to quite frequently, and at the top of the show one of the actors is holding one of his books. So I can only assume that his work was somehow part of the devising process at one stage; in the final product, Kant’s name serves as a humorous verbal leitmotif throughout the show. The piece is absurdist-existentialist at its philosophical core, but who really wants to get into that can of worms on a Tuesday night? This show is way more fun than that.
It’s structured in roughly a dozen vignettes that cross-fade into one another, mostly featuring two performers each, but sometimes more as the show begins to turn in on itself. The opening vignette features a couple, Nathan (Nathan Whitebook) and Beth (Beth Tremlett) breaking up. Beth is pregnant and has sent Nathan packing while he’s trying to salvage the relationship. From there we cut to a dying soldier, Monty (Monty Sallur) who begs his best friend and fellow soldier, Jack (Jack Middleton) to tell him he loves him and that he’s beautiful before he dies. We move on to a supermarket where two old acquaintances, possibly schoolfellows, Bubble (Rebecca ‘Bubble’ Maynard) and Rhiannon (Rhiannon Petersen) meet and have an awkward conversation about who they’ve become and what they’ve done in life. After that we’re taken to a factory where a reluctant employee, played by Savannah Wood, is inducted to her new job by her over-enthusiastic new boss, played by Ariel Tresham.
After each pair of players has their first scene, we’re back to Nathan and Beth again, but this time, they’re characters in a film noir, talking about the existential perils of working in theatre. We’ve stepped into an alternate universe version of these previous scenes and scene partners, where things get very meta as the characters explore their relationships through the act of creating or discussing theatre. It’s too cumbersome to explain the rest in the space of a review, but it’s never cumbersome to watch, and all this clever parallelism is clearly conveyed without being too obvious. The situations these characters find themselves in are mostly hilarious with one or two exceptions when things turn rather serious, and Fowler’s ridiculously sharp dialogue is paired with confident and clever direction.
At last, the ensemble gathers on stage for a brilliant, tightly choreographed group scene in which the performers speak in chorus, absurdly and collectively pondering the nature of their existence. They hardly miss a beat in this long, demanding sequence, which is a testament to their strong energy and cohesion as a group. They listen to each other, are present with each other, and give and take generously with each other.
The set design by Lachlan MacDonald is simple, with green turf lining the floor and sidewalls and a curtain of silver tinsel running the length of the back wall. The film noir scene makes the best use of the set and lighting (designed by Karen Cook), as Beth walks slowly behind the shimmery silver curtain in a red dress, lit from one side, and Nathan stands against the green turf wall in a long shaft of light like a doorway.
This is another feather in both Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Curtin/Hayman’s caps — absurd, funny, intelligent and dynamic material created by strong, unique talents.
Escape Goat Utopia runs until October 11 at the Hayman Theatre on the Curtin University Bentley Campus.