“Areté Alpha” is a very big production.  This festival features seven plays, including one in four parts, which are the work of as many separate playwrights.  Seven directors are involved.  Set, sound, costume and multimedia design is by the directors, with lighting designed by Simon Horsburgh.  Each play has its own unique cast, with no actor appearing twice.  So, as you can imagine, a very big cast.

  It is the brainchild of Emma Sproule, known previously for her work with Shoestring Theatre.  Such a big initiative needs common threads to tie it together, of course.  There needs to be a lot of cohesion and a clear theme.  The chosen theme of “Areté Alpha” is feminism, and I think it has been done well.

The many plays of “Areté Alpha” examine feminism in a way that is not altogether positive. “Areté Alpha” presents a chaotic modern world in which feminism has run riot.  It portrays women doing basically what they want in a permissive society, from carefully choosing their mates to having casual flings with the boss to rising high in their careers, and then finding their abundance of choices does not bring happiness.  We get a variance of moods, from the light-heartedness of “F.A.C.T.S” to the grimness of “Blue for a Boy.”  Some plays are more simple and gentle while others are very ambitious.  But “Areté Alpha” never stops seeking and provoking.

  The production is fittingly begun by “Casilde.”  This warm and sincere piece is written by Lachlan Casey-Roleff and directed gracefully and gently by Jesse Thomas.  “Casilde” portrays a typical family unit.  The title character, played by Alana Spencer, has everything she should want.  An understanding husband, security, and a comfortable life.  But that is not enough.  She years to break free.  Her kindly husband lets her.  He is confident she will be back.

  Most of the other plays in “Areté Alpha” portray the negative things that can happen once a woman gets that freedom.  It points to the fact that women have become confused about what feminism is and how to apply it.  That is discussed most clearly in “Feminism is not a Dirty Word.”  This piece was created and performed by Amelia Hunter, who plays the part of Rosie.  Appearing in four segments, it holds the rest of the plays together.  The screen Rosie appears in front of, with its many varied words and phrases, symbolism how indefinable the term now is.  It is almost as if Rosie is searching for liberation from feminism itself.  There is the suggestion that feminism, after growing out of distinct movements, has become so open to interpretation that many are abusing its positive values of freedom and democracy and using it an an excuse to ruthlessly compete and acquire.

  This theme is particularly well-explored in “F.A.C.T.S”, written by Brett Hicks and directed by Emma Sproule and Riley Spadaro.  The title stands for “Famous Actor and Celebrity Tabloid Services.”  It portrays a maverick modern office.  We have lots of women working.  But still, so many are pandering sexually to the male boss.  The social office politics, with one attractive woman invited away to a “business” lunch, are familiar.  What is more it seems the male boss can only relate to his female workers in a sexual manner.  Here it is reflected on that in some ways, social relations between the sexes have not come all that far.

All the people in the mostly-female team are doing everything they can to tear down women celebrities.  It is their job.  They are producing media which is against the women who are theoretically the most powerful.  They are also tearing each other down through vicious exposure.  The spite shown by the women here is dreadful.  This play raises the question- has femininity empowered women so much that we are turning on each other?  Have we become so competitive that we are hindering rather than helping each other?  Oh and by the way, the slick choreography and the James Bond music in this was certainly a highlight!  This is a comedic play with very dark undertones.

“Venus in the Mirror,” which opens Act Two and is written by Sarina Cassino and directed by Beck Benson, is also very much on the theme of feminine competition.  The situation in this is the complete reversal of the warm family atmosphere of “Casilde” that opened Act One.  Here we have a young blonde crowing over an older woman.  She is has been in love with the other’s husband for several years.  She has a child with him, and seems to have no scruples about the fact she has the power to break up the other woman’s family unit.

  However, her confidence leads to nothing.  When her adversary is hardly phased on learning all this, and informs her she is certainly not the first of her man’s paramours, the career girl’s ego very quickly deflates.  All that she has reaped from the feminist movement- the chance to rise in her job, the freedom that gives her the opportunity to have a secret affair- suddenly does not mean so much when she finds herself challenged in love.  This woman finds that when it comes to emotional fulfillment feminism is not a magic tool to make everything all right.

One of the more impressive plays is “Blue for a Boy,” written by Matt Allen and directed by Loreta Murphy.  The actors, Vince Vaughan, Jody McCarthy and Lucas Carlson, are particularly well-rehearsed.  In this very disturbing work we meet a woman who had so many choices because of freedom, beauty, eloquence and money, but still is not satisfied.  She seeks to control the very gender of her child.

The most ambitious play is probably “Shocked,” written by Shane Isheev and directed by John Russell.  It concerns a top-rating radio show which degrades women while its main audience is women.  This brings us back to the unpleasant realities exposed in “F.A.C.T.S” only here we see women destroying themselves as much as each other.  It also throws it back on the men a bit with the monstrous character of Phil, played by Chris Lowe, who preys on women’s insecurities to get ratings.  “A or B?,” written by Emma Workman Bolt and directed by Emma Sproule, wraps it all up by portraying a chilling future where people try to create “perfection” through science.  They cause quite a different type of segregation to that caused by chauvinism.  There is the option of gender choice, but it is only available for the wealthy.  And I did not miss the reference to the Pope being a woman.

The stage design is naturally minimal, as so many plays have to be accommodated.  The lighting was slick and dramatic.  But I will have to say there was a real issue with sound.  I found quite a few lines were lost when cast members turned their backs to us.  This happened in “A or B?” and “Venus in the Mirror.”  In “A or B?” in particular, there was a lot of whispering and facing away from the front audience.  It is a risk to run a show without good amplification in an era when audience members expect it, especially with three-flanked seating.  I really think the introduction of microphones would be an improvement.

Also it was a bit hard, for a while, to work out where the plays were meant to be set.  The production has a Greek name.  There were usherettes walking around dressed as mythological Greek nymphs.  We had a character called Aprhoditus in a strange parody of an ancient Greek costume in “Casilde,” next to characters in modern dress.  But after “Casilde” the half-baked ancient Greek theme suddenly stopped.  It was like, “What’s going on?”  The Greek theme was explained in the program, but executed inconsistently.  There are a lot of threads to tie together.  However as a festival with many plays on a common theme, and such a huge cast, I think “Areté Alpha” is a success.  It is certainly very thought-provoking and questions what feminism now is in a challenging way.