**** STARS

By Guy Webster

Like many shows slated to perform in 2021’s season of Melbourne Fringe before lockdown, What rhymes with orange? faced a difficult decision last month. Together, the team behind the one-hour show had to decide whether to cancel the piece completely or move it online. Thankfully, they chose the latter. Written by Isabella Perversi (who’s play, EMBER had premiered last year), the show has been carefully transposed into the digital space, with help from Ross Dwyer of Mad Hatter Productions.

On paper, the plot of What rhymes with orange? reads simple enough – Tom (Fabio Motta) and Rosie (Perversi) are a couple struggling to hold onto their relationship amidst a perpetual sea of external pressures. As ageing millennials, they find their priorities changing, and the nature of their relationship with it. Rosie is a dancer facing a near-constant barrage of rejection while her high school friends are getting engaged, settling down, and having kids. Tom is a recovering alcoholic (though this is never named explicitly) with a tense relationship with his family. He wants children. ‘Do you want children’ he asks Rosie suddenly from a hospital bed mounted on crinkling boxes (‘Hello Fresh’ often printed on the sides). The question comes out of nowhere. Surprised, Rosie is quickly on the back foot, trying to navigate her own views – ‘I’m just waiting for my life to start’, she quips. ‘I think it’s already started’, comes Tom’s reply.

Much of the dialogue in Perversi’s piece works in a similar rhythm – jarring topics, often with minimal segue, cut into the banter of a relationship in its twilight years. A fight ensues, or a character delivers an evocative monologue (or both), and the scene ends with problems exposed and unresolved. It’s clear from the outset that Tom and Rosie are not suited to each other. Chemistry is often lacking between them – a fact that Tom ends up acknowledging with a stirring metatheatrical critique of Rosie’s performative role in the relationship. It will be difficult for some viewers to accept that the character’s lack of chemistry is an intentional choice from this line alone, delivered near the show’s conclusion. Part of the effectiveness of other pieces that centre on the breakdown of a relationship – Duncan Macmillan’s 2011 play Lungs and HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage are recent examples – is the believability of its central relationship. While it is at times difficult to accept that Rosie and Tom were ever really suited to each other, it is credit to Perversi’s writing that such a problem never compromises the piece, or one’s investment in what it is interested in saying.

In fact, as the piece progresses, it seems less interested in who Tom and Rosie are together. Their relationship becomes a backdrop for their individual struggles, and a conduit for their self-development. The structure of the piece complements this movement perfectly. Monologues from both characters break up the scenes, as well as surreal dreamscapes (often nightmarish) that emphasise what they are grappling with as individuals apart from each other.

Perversi’s use of humour helps us follow Rosie’s insecurities with empathy. Her constant rejections, her 10-year long grudges exposed at high school reunions; her self-consciousness, people-pleasing nature, and her reticence to have a child offer much for Perversi to showcase her skills as an actress. Likewise, Motta’s performance as Tom navigates the potential unlikability of his character with an earnestness that matches Perversi’s often more dramatic scenes with a calm stoicism that is as frustrating as it is sincere.

There were some points in the show that will make audiences miss being in the space with these actors. Under Alanah Guiry’s direction, scenes are full of arresting tableaus – often constructed from brown boxes and white blankets – and mis-en-scene that complements the repeated conflicts, while also diversifying how they are represented. While acknowledging the show’s inherent theatricality, it must be said that the team behind What rhymes with orange? has clearly invested much in translating the work online. This digital performance is not simply a play-by-play of the piece as it would be performed, but a film in its own right. Thanks to Ross Dwyer’s work as videographer, we see the theatrical and cinematic interwoven. Sudden title cards backed by an acapella chorus serve as scene changes. It’s similar to 2016’s Fleabag in this way; a parallel exacerbated by the direct eye contact often used during character monologues. I’m not convinced that these techniques were ultimately helpful to the piece – often scene changes with title cards like ‘FREEDOM’, ‘PROTECTION’, ‘INTIMACY’, ‘PASSION’, read like chapter headlines that pull viewers out of the already very crowded world navigated by both characters. At best, these transitions offered a change in pace and a hint at the surreal scenes to come. At worst, they cast a shadow over one’s experience of the naturalism often favoured by Perversi. This being said, the use of split-screen, direct address, evocative sound design, and sustained close-ups, strengthen the piece and help to assuage the pangs of missing the theatre that will inevitably strike viewers.

Ultimately, the team behind What rhymes with orange? have created an evocative and ambitious representation of a relationship coming to its logical end. It is a piece most engaging when it leans into the surreal to represent these individuals and the high stakes behind the all-too-familiar conclusion that they’re differences are irreconcilable. I found myself wishing for more of these splashes of the surreal, especially as interwoven in the show’s final scene. Nevertheless, what a joy to see theatre done well, and a painful reminder of the loneliness that so often undercuts long term relationships and their ending.

Images:Ross Dwyer (Mad Hatter Films)