Note: This Review Contains Spoilers.
In their short existence, The Sol III Company has made a strong impression on Melbourne’s theatre scene with powerful, risk – taking and thought – provoking choices.
Three years ago they presented ‘Cherry Smoke’, the electrifying, award – winning work by James McManus. Brutal back alley fighting formed that tale’s crux, where the protagonists’ shared futures ultimately rested on the knockout punch separating winners from losers.
This was followed up in 2015 with ‘The Exonerated’ by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank. Here, the writers’ true dramatisation detailed the stories of six real people who had been wrongfully accused of punishable crimes including murder, each later acquitted and released only after serving significant time on death row.
The company has selected ‘Desire Under The Elms’ by Eugene O’Neill for their ambitious 2016 production.
O’Neill (1888 – 1953) is considered one of the leading American playwrights of the twentieth century. His iconic pieces include ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’, ‘The Iceman Cometh’, and ‘A Moon For The Misbegotten’. Another play, ’Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ is currently enjoying a healthy revival on Broadway in New York City, having recently won its female lead, Jessica Lange, this season’s Tony Award for Best Actress.
One of his earliest family sagas, first staged in 1924, ‘Desire Under The Elms’ is set in rural nineteenth century New England. During this time frame, gold fever was luring many thousands of men across the country to California, aiming to seek their fortune.
Inspired by a pair of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedies, ‘Hippolytus’, and ‘Medea’, O’Neill also used his voice to take issue with organised religion. ‘Desire Under The Elms’ was not without other controversies either, as the writer dealt openly with shocking taboo topics such as incest and infanticide.
Acting as both Sol III’s producer and director, Andrei Schiller – Chan appears to have charged O’Neill’s text with raw and visceral energy. Here, he seems to allow his quintet of actors free – reign to embody the shear physicality of their words, meanwhile giving the audience a sense of what it must have felt like to be slaving ranch hands, kept women, or tyrannical land owners.
Schiller employs a tense build up over two fifty – minute acts, culminating in a jealous struggle between wife and husband, father and son, then all three, until their entire world comes crashing down.
Survival becomes sandwiched between layers of desperation, where staying true to one’s self is warped and manipulated by those closest around them. Exploring themes which must have been scandalous when the play debuted over ninety years ago, these conflicts of interest are still as newsworthy and relevant even today.
Excellent physical casting gives all five characters a solid and rustic realism.
Playing brothers, Peter and Simeon Cabot, Garikai Jani and Timothy Smith infuse their respective characters with heightened spiritual fervor and wealth – seeking lust. Forming the play’s prologue, they give ‘Desire Under The Elms’ an almost comic counterpoint against the unfolding drama sweeping around them.
As their father, Ephraim Cabot, Darren Mort provides the brute indifference his role requires. Cabot’s thoughts and movements may be slow with age, yet still forceful and threatening enough to his adult sons and new wife. (Having reviewed Mort last year in ‘Jacuzzi’, his performance here is a virtual flip – side to the happy – go – lucky parent he played in that production.)
Though Samuel Lavery’s Eben Cabot is potentially a younger version of his father, he is always destined to be in that man’s shadow. Filled with a mixture of resentment and sadness over the passing of his own mother, Lavery shows viewers a hatred for Ephraim which runs hot and real.
In only her second show, Diana Brumen as Abbie Putnam, reminded my plus one for the evening of Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie from Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’. Core to the plot, Brumen convincingly plays a women entitled first, seductive next and tragic last. Putnam’s gripping portrayal is torn between her need to survive, forbidden feelings for her husband’s son, and betrayal of both her newborn child and then herself.
Hahna Read’s production design makes full use of Chapel off Chapel’s intimate space. Her semi – abstract structure suggested by twin timber levels and fly mesh see – through walls, both open out the space, and give the Cabot plantation a grand yet decaying opulence.
Cindy Hanara’s costumes are deceptively simple, yet appropriate to the period. Small details such as faded, dirty or careworn fabric, add to each character’s back story as well.
Travis MacFarlane’s lighting design creates mood with a seamless switch between indoor and outdoor scenes. Effective use of the plain white backdrop with concealed spots, allowed him to colour code this wall according to the story’s time of day.
Paul Raine’s sound gives ‘Desire Under The Elms’ a neat, colonial foundation. His musical backing track is subtle and striking where needed.
Smooth stage management by Jeffrey Miceli keeps the play’s expansive drama always in focus.
This rarely – staged early work from an American master is playing until July 24.