Live theatre and motion pictures which address mental health, religious surrender, organized cults, or all three, are always going to generate considerable community buzz. Popular crowd favourites like ‘The Snake Pit’, ‘Suddenly Last Summer’, ’One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘The Devil’s Playground’, ‘Ticket To Heaven’, ‘Frances’, ‘Beyond Therapy’, ‘Fearless’, ‘Girl Interrupted’, ‘Quills’ and even ‘Carrie’ not only lure audiences deep into an affecting vortex, many of these works have long held historical interest and continue to stand the artistic test of time.

Now playing for a strictly limited season, A Curious Cat Production presents ‘Demens’, penned by Melbourne – based Amedeo Astorino. This ninety – minute, dialogue – driven four – hander, quickly paints its complex cat – and – mouse game using a combination of broad and subtle brushstrokes. (According to the show’s production notes, ‘Demens’ is an amalgam of two words, demons and dementia. Here, extreme pathos is balanced with flashes of dark humour, as it explores themes such as identity, desire, patriarchy and prejudice.)

Two long – term adult psychiatric patients, Lilith and Allen, are kept in line by the menacing Doctor Osmond and his sadistic side kick, Gabriel. In the course of this filmic one act tale, each character’s crippling back story is not only revealed piece by piece, the quartet currently share a gripping connection to one another as well.

As Lilith, Louise Crawford has been incarcerated for acting out and is suspected of killing her older brother. Depending upon whom she is playing against, Crawford enlivens her skittish and energetic performance with a fine line between empowered seductress and sexually abused victim.  It should be noted that Astorino has also planted Lilith with classical literary allusions to ‘Mary Magdalene’, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’s’ ‘Blanche Dubois’.  These inclusions not only offer significant insight into Lilith’s unstable mindset, but how she reacts to those around her as well.

demens Louise Crawford

Jai Luke plays Allan, the meek and tortured homosexual diagnosed with ADHD and advanced schizophrenia. Controlled by his oft – mentioned mother, he is also a conspiracy theorist with a protective street – smart alter ego.  Whenever Allan is pushed to the wall, Stanley arrives in a nick of time to take his place. Luke gives this challenging and multi – layered role clear separation and dimension.

It is sometimes said that hurt people will in turn, inflict similar harm on others. Philip Cristian Classen is Gabriel, the archetypical bully seeking Catholic salvation. His interpretation reminded me of such movie villains as Will Patton’s Scott Pritchard (from Roger Donaldson’s ‘No Way Out’) and Peter Lorre’s Doctor Einstein (from Frank Capra’s ‘Arsenic & Old Lace’). Smart physical casting gives the part unexpected menace, and Classen uses this key discord to make his mark.

Veteran actor, Don Bridges is Doctor Osmond, head and owner of a financially ailing hospital. Using radical medicine for his patients’ care, Bridges gives the part subtle conviction and a mad, yet intriguing authority.

Drawing on her established career as an actor – director, Natasha Broadstock supervises her experienced performers with a deft touch. There is a lot for onlookers to identify with and take from each participant, as well as this claustrophobic journey as a whole.  All four characters have their own crosses to bear.

Broadstock’s considered vision maintains pace, but she also allows herself enough time for every emotional layer to be peeled back like an onion. Further, by placing a giant question mark over this particular wing of medicine, who are the real wounded here?

It is no less than a major coup for the company that they have chosen to stage ‘Demens’ in Footscray’s impressive Bluestone Church Arts Space.  A former house of worship in Melbourne’s inner west, selection of the venue combined with raked seating ingeniously facing away from its curtained stage, lay much of the necessary atmospheric groundwork required to highlight the work’s intense theming.

Demens Jai Luke and Philip Cristian Claassen

From the outset, Harry Paternoster’s uncluttered set design provides viewers with potential visual clues, such as an antique Red Cross first aid kit, a tall metal step ladder, austere wooden box chairs washed white, a basic single bed and mattress, and a prop pistol. Serving multiple cue points throughout the show, these small details are supported by a black cardboard centre – piece made to look like a gothic stained glass window. Combined with Mathew Barber’s subtle mood lighting, this paper view to both the soul and the outside world, is colour – coded at key moments throughout.

Victoria Haslam’s subtle costuming immediately informs viewers of each participant’s position, power and status. Their emotional security blankets include Lily’s love of books, Allan’s MP3 player, Gabriel’s bondage gear hidden under his orderly’s jacket, and Osmond’s soothing guitar.

Mad Alice Media gives ‘Demens’ a multimedia twist with several short prerecorded clips projected above and behind the actors. On top of which, Lindon Blakely has composed musical backing with a medieval bent.  (It should be noted that lighting and sound operation is by Nicholas Moloney.)

As the actors were not electronically amplified, fortunately, the space offered good acoustics and did not muffle or swallow up their verbal sparring.

Where the theory is that eternal hell is other people, much like Jean –  Paul Sartre’s ‘No Exit’, ‘Demens’ is a potentially modern take on middle twentieth century’s ground – breaking existentialist theatre movement.