The Mechanics Institute is a great little venue for independent and emerging theatre makers to showcase their work. When I sit in the theatre, waiting for the shows to commence, I am always strangely taken by two things, the Institute’s extensive array of lights and the versatility of the space.
Last Thursday night the venue housed Christopher Durang’s play Laughing Wild, which was performed off-Broadway in 1987. In the original production of the play, Durang headlined as the lead actor as well as the playwright. In this case, the play was performed by two recent acting graduates from the VCA who made a bold decision to self-direct and crowd fund their production. Kudos to them for that, I say.
The piece largely felt somewhat absurdist from my perspective and in an appropriately self-referential way, made numerous nods to Beckett (title included), much to the audience’s delight. Not previously familiar with the play and its monologue heavy structure, I was intrigued by its set-up. It consisted of three separate acts. These acts began with the monologue of the young woman (played by Rani Pramesti), followed by the monologue of the young man (played by Daniel Last), and concluded by a final act which brought the two protagonists together in their respective subconscious worlds. Allow me to clarify one thing before I go on, I am referring to the characters as ‘young man’ and ‘young woman’ not because I have forgotten the character’s names but because that is how they were referred to in the text.
The play started off intriguingly enough I thought, with an isolated television on the stage, depicting a somewhat chaotic mash-up of old television footage. These excerpts ranged from grabs from the 1960s game show Password, a Warhol interview and a Sally Jessy Raphael segment. I was enthralled at this point and having not read anything plot-related before the commencement of the show, I got a political/pop cultural commentary vibe from the montage. I was ready to be challenged and perhaps taken back in time.
We were indeed taken back a few decades, to New York City circa sometime in the eighties, which as we all know was defined by a markedly different landscape. After the television images subsided, the young woman character emerged from backstage. She immediately established herself as a fast-talking, mentally deranged New Yorker who was fixated on a recent altercation she had instigated at the supermarket. The altercation was over a can of tuna which became a recurring motif throughout the play.
It became clear that the young woman had rage issues and narrated in retrospect her day on the New York streets. Pramesti delivered a promising performance and it would be my contention that both actors showed enormous potential. While not thoroughly polished, the performances were raw and exciting but for the part superficial, relying on the ‘hamming up’ of the dialogue. The representations were somewhat overdone and overly familiar and while I felt they failed to uncover anything we haven’t seen before, I think the actors did a pretty solid job overall.
I was somewhat more compelled by Daniel Last’s performance but I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was easier to digest than his mentally deranged counterpart. Looking back it was really more the play itself that fell short for me and not the actors. I don’t doubt that in 1987 it was compelling and thought-provoking but I couldn’t help thinking, I’ve seen all this before. The question became, what is this production of this particular play saying that is different or unusual or unexpected?
It is these ponderings that made me considerably more engaged in the final act as the characters began to interact. I think that not only the performances became more engaging but that the team presented some interesting set and costume changes that were visually exciting.
The overall lack of momentum in the production was critical in it not resonating with me. It lacked pace in the first two acts and I became disinterested in the ramblings of the respective characters. While the end of the play indicated in its dialogue overtly that the message lay somewhere in the realm of the need for human beings to feel empathy towards their fellow humans, it was too pronounced and I would have preferred to walk away wondering what it was all about. Although this one missed the mark for me, I commend Pramesti and Last for being so bold and look forward to tracking both of their careers as young emerging actors that enjoy to take risks.