Atlantis is the latest offering from American-born, Melbourne-based award-winning playwright Lally Katz. Directed by Rosemary Myers, it’s an autobiographical work fusing a number of characters and stories from Katz’s life in recent years (in her own words, “almost everything in it is true and absolutely every character in it is based on a real person”). Crafted into a comical, dynamic and phantasmagoric presentation, Atlantis highlights the need to find contentment in the here and now.
As the piece begins, we find Katz (Amber McMahon) living in Sydney and in a disintegrating relationship with boyfriend, Dave (Matthew Whittet). In a moment of frustration, while on the phone to a Telstra operator, Katz impulsively decides to begin life over in New York CIty, to (hopefully) have a baby with a soulmate and start writing again.
But when Katz arrives in New York and begins settling into the Airbnb apartment of Electra (Paula Arundell), it becomes clear to her that the new life she seeks will be far more difficult to attain than she’d anticipated. What follows is a variety of encounters between Katz and her grandparents, a shyster psychic, some taxi and Uber drivers, a pastor, a Texan Latino businessman, and a host of other characters that play some role in Katz’s pursuit of a new life. In fact, the five actors appearing in this production play over 40 roles between them.
From an audience perspective, Atlantis is a lot of fun. We watch Katz attempt to navigate her way through an existential crisis and some weighty issues are traversed along the way – infertility, religion, climate change and the importance of home are among those that take the spotlight across the two-and-a-half-hour show. But because of Katz’s droll tone and Myers’ comedic, quirky and vibrant production, the heavier subject matter never wallops us in the head, but is tied up in a highly entertaining package that features its fair share of laugh-out-loud moments.
Leading the cast, McMahon is terrific in her portrayal of Katz, making full use of her superior comedic skills over the course of a production in which she barely leaves the stage. Arundell – another Helpmann Award-winner, who’s given several memorable performances on Sydney stages in recent years – demonstrates her remarkable versatility, with highlights including her hilarious depiction of Electra, Katz’s Airbnb landlord who counts rapper Kanye West as her one that got away. Assuming a number of starkly different guises, Arundell is never less than completely convincing. Similarly, Lucia Mastrantone is sensational as pseudo psychic Bella, as Katz’s grandmother, and as a New York taxi driver, among several strong characterisations.
Two male actors round out Atlantis’ uniformly strong cast. Whittet (last on stage at Belvoir with McMahon in the whimsical Girl Asleep) shows his agility as a performer, whose roles include Katz’s boyfriend, her grandfather, and the psychic’s daughter. Finally, Hazem Shammas’ numerous characters include a hugely enjoyable, high energy performance as Diego, the man whom Katz memorably encounters in Kansas (it also allows Shammas to showcase some impressive dance moves.)
Jonathon Oxlade’s inventive and sizable set, defined by a strong use of shape, feels like the representation of the surreal world in which Katz’s story can unfold. His work in costuming the show’s four dozen odd characters is also excellent. Meanwhile, Damien Cooper’s lighting is noteworthy for its enormously effective punctuation of scene transitions and the substantial impact of its coupling with Harry Covill’s sound design. Each design aspect coheres wonderfully to ensure that visually and sonically, the environment for Atlantis is realised.
In the wrong hands, Atlantis is a piece that could easily fall flat. Fortunately, Myers, together with her cast and creative team, have translated Katz’s text in a manner that has ensured its optimal treatment for the stage. It makes for a charming and engaging night of theatre that, while off-the-wall in some respects, succeeds in bringing home the fruitlessness of striving for a utopian existence. Too much time is spent chasing arbitrary ideals of ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ and placing pressure on ourselves to achieve those ideals by following clearly-defined paths. As much as it offers us light entertainment, Katz’s Atlantis strongly reminds us to savour the journey and to understand that the paths that lead to a satisfied state of being are not finite.
ATLANTIS – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 26 November
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444