Who knew that minding a dog could shatter a person’s world?

Renowned theatre company Red Stitch is one that takes their craft seriously, noting the integrity they strive to maintain. Endeavouring to produce contemporary playwriting from around the world, Red Stitch is known for tackling new works, holding the artist as the core of their practice; however, this time, they’ve dabbled in the archives and recovered a national treasure. At the 25th Anniversary of its premiere performance, Michael Gow’s ‘Sweet Phoebe’ is resurrected for Melbourne’s small stage. Still as cracklingly outlandish yet breath-takingly captivating as it was when it was born, the exploration in ‘Sweet Phoebe’ is still as relevant today as it was decades ago. When a couple are asked to caretake a friend’s dog, the sweet Phoebe, the adventure that unfurls leads to the breakdown of their relationship, their work lives, their lifestyles and their holistic health. What starts as a comedy slowly spirals as the characters themselves go downhill. In a world of liars and cheats and everyone in between, there’s only one thought in mind: it’s all a dogfight.

Directed by Mark Wilson, ‘Sweet Phoebe’ amalgamates many different styles of theatre in a way that almost throws the bone at your face rather than beside you to pick at at your own pace and desire. Predominantly following a very farcical approach with the rapidity of reaction times and line delivery, entrances and exits and even lighting and sound cues, we follow the destruction of a comfortable situation when a new idea is introduced, showing the selfish and fickle nature of human comfort; however, the humour is exhausted by the home stretch, becoming an expressionist piece of drama and darkness with near-Artaudian elements to alienate the audience and display the claustrophobic isolation of having, feeling and becoming nothing. A very powerful twist of theatrical style is hard to pull off, but Wilson’s direction allows each moment to feel true in its hyperbolic and unbelievable scripting. With each prop, each entryway, each lighting state perfectly utilised to create a emotion and carry an intention, Wilson’s direction keeps the audience at the edge of their seats as they piece together the sporadic and erratic timeline and lifestyle of Helen and Frazer dog-sitting stint.

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Our desperados Frazer and Helen are played by Marcus McKenzie and Olivia Monticciolo respectively. With the amalgamation of styles written into the piece realising a domino effect of change and circumstance, our actors are undeniable in their performance prowess. McKenzie plays the role as a chirpy man who, in the face of loss and grief, lashes out and falls to his aggression as a solution; his ferocity on the stage while tackling slapstick cheese through to alienating drama solidifies his strength and versatility as a formidable performer, all while he confidently commands the stage with a huge presence. Monticciolo’s Helen is a sweet but saucy woman in real estate who somehow gets roped into sacrificing time for others consistently; lifting her nose to the sweet scent of curiosity, every story that is painted by Monticciolo’s voice and expressions are a beautiful mosaic of gesture and intonation, making her as mesmerising a storyteller as any David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman. Together, these two carry us along like parents to their two-year old baby in a game of peek-a-boo: a moment of bated anticipation, then a shock of some extreme that leaves us gagging, whether with laughter or on emotion. This duo proves hypnotic in their energy and authenticity.

With a set consisting of three open doorways leading to backstage – two on either side and a large double-door entrance centre back – we takes leaps forward in time as the performers enter and exit in new variations of their base costumes: tie gone, jacket on, shoes off, shirt unbuttoned. This mobility, with all entrances accessible offstage and in short distance from each other, allows the performers to easily manipulate time and progress the timeline sectionally. A hovering wire LED light bent in multiple angles upon itself hangs like an ominous contemporary art piece in the top corner, being as much an element of set design as it is lighting. With the location never changing from our lovers’ house, standing centrestage is a large blocky pedestal; becoming all the furniture a household could need, our actors do their work on it like a tabletop or lounge on it like a couch. Set & Costume Designer Laura Jean Hawkins does a marvellous job of keeping it simple but making it effective.

With Stage Manager Natasha Marich and assistant Chelsea Maron taking the reigns, not a cue is missed and dynamics are struck with a definitive pulse. They have everything from underlying crescendos into a blackout to backlighting from the open doorway to even a larger-than-life jazz standard bursting out mid-show in a moment of hiatus. Lighting Designer Lisa Mibus and Sound Designer Daniel Nixon have each other’s backs as they meld the movements and motions of both stagecrafts in a stream of precision and impact; it seems they are so a part of one another with crackling energy and mutual achievement that it almost becomes its own living, breathing entity.

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‘Sweet Phoebe’ just goes to show that, when faced with a joined struggle, if one force slips out of place or doesn’t follow suit, the other stumbles with it and suffers the consequences of their quake. In reaction, the two forces butt heads and clash bodies, barking and clawing and biting at the other as the stories unfold and the truths are learnt. In a world of choices and freedoms and variables, two people can split from one event; but if two are separated by one, then one can bring two back together. By technicality, there is one answer, one solution, but that one solution must be collaboratively sought in order to reach singularity again. It’s all so confusing, isn’t it? This simple yet complex production reaffirms that only one thought remains: it’s all a dogfight.

Images: Teresa Noble

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