Dead Technology Memoirs is a series of short plays being presented as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. This is bewildering because focussing on the comedy here is like focussing on the catering at a funeral. Yes, it’s there but there are so many things more appropriate to think about. This play has insight into humans during difficult times, interesting concepts around the mediation of reality, and a fairly impressive Christopher Waltz impersonation. Unfortunately we also get unfinished stories, inconsistent acting, and an intellectual condescension. It is short though, which is why there are three stars instead of two.
I can sense the collective torches of the faithful supporters rallying as I write this. Before the review proper I feel it is necessary to explain something that happens in all kinds of festivals from fringe to comedy to anything where friends and families feel motivated to put on a show. Sometimes audience reactions are more due to cast and creators than content. When there is an overly-generous audience forgiving all manner of sins and laughing raucously with the enthusiasm of a first-date it is difficult to go against the mob. Every time a production succeeds through nepotism rather than merit then the whole culture is stunted. The questions that should be asked are: is this production objectively good, is this the best that all concerned could do, and, depending on the answers, is there another hobby that they would find more fulfilling?
If the production wasn’t contextualised as being part of the comedy festival then perhaps I could be more generous; as straight theatre there were some effective aspects. This production is comprised of three short plays written and directed by James Hazelden. They are Diabolical, Theoretical, and Prototypical. When seen together these plays have an interplay of theme that is fascinating for the audience to play along with. As director, Hazelden made interesting choices although I think part of that is to realise the expectations of a comedy festival. The production values were strong with light and sound being particularly noteworthy. I realise that in a review such as this saying that the stage design was good is potentially offensive, much like an encouragement award, but Allan Hirons designed very confident and sophisticated staging.
Not since Mouse Trap has a theatre review been so careful in avoiding spoilers but to talk about these plays in the abstract might obfuscate my point. Each play was structurally similar, each has a ‘surprising’ twist that is foreshadowed by the script. Here’s where the author thinks the audience can’t keep up and here’s where I have to say SPOILER. If you are going to see this, and after this glowing review how could you not, then skip to the next paragraph. Thanks. One play is about a debtor who has to pay but can’t afford to so setting them up to die. One of the characters talks about the possibility of time travel with a true anecdote that turns out to have a mundane though great explanation as part of the ‘twist’ ending. This character attributed Zeno’s paradox to Fibonacci and spoke with such conviction that it was clear that he was comfortable with telling lies. Those who know the paradox (and if you don’t there are an infinite number of Google results you could research) lose trust in the character so it isn’t surprising at all when he reveals the truth behind his time travel experience. This play also has the story of a criminal who is an entirely unsympathetic character. His ignorance is exaggerated to the point of parody so when he is mortally baffled by science there is no connection with the audience. Another story has a character that is performing the role of detective by doing his best aforementioned Christopher Waltz. This was a dramatic piece, despite the best efforts of the cast, so a character so performative has to be acting in character which means that whoever this is has learned everything he knows about questioning from Waltz, which isn’t a bad way to learn interrogation but still. The twist is that he is pretending to be in law enforcement to which the astute audience member will say meh.
One other problem with the script was that the plays had fragmented endings. If only they could go on for another few minutes then the plays would have been resolved but as it was I was thankful for the dimming lights because otherwise I wouldn’t have been sure it ended. Some might accuse me of being too traditional with my expectation of a satisfyingly closed text. This isn’t the case and I’m all for legitimate open endings but lazy endings where it seems that the writer just thought ‘and scene’ would suffice irritates, especially when there are three in a row.
Adding to the frustrated audience expectation was the casting. This felt like a way to repackage the plays as comedies where either through acting or direction each play had a dramatic actor and a comic. Credit where due, the straight performances were very strong. The other actors seemed to waste time and perhaps ideas in going for a farcical performance. They got laughs, sure, but the script was strong enough that it didn’t need to be overacted. The straight men got as many laughs and it was more sincere laughter. As mentioned, I’m not sure where to lay the blame so I will say that this is what I noticed, it happened in each play, could that really be coincidence.
I would have liked to have seen this outside of the MICF program. There were some engaging concepts and strong performances. I am sure there are aspects that would still leave me dissatisfied though. The twist ending combined with the lack of closure.