Polemic theatre can sometimes be a real chore, and you could be forgiven for expecting nine short plays on the issue of gay marriage to be didactic and repetitive. Fortunately, the creators of Standing on Ceremony have consciously avoided the urge to berate or cajole their audience, and as a result deliver a night at the theatre that is poignant, funny and largely compelling.
Well-established playwrights have been encouraged to tackle the material idiosyncratically, and have come up with a refreshing variety of tonal and thematic approaches. Naturally, not all are of equal quality. In fact, just over half of them are any good. But the overall effect is undeniably convincing.
Having a first rate cast certainly helps. The actors manage to invigorate even the weakest plays with verve and humour, and display admirable dexterity as they switch between a vast range of characters.
First up are Spencer McLaren and Brett Whittingham in Jordan Harrison’s The Revision, about two guys preparing their marriage vows. It’s a confused and largely ineffectual play, but the two actors bring a nice naturalism to their roles and a tone of affability is established that will be carried through the night.
The next play, This Flight Tonight by Wendy MacLeod, is much better. That affability and effortless naturalism finds a true home here, aided enormously by the performances of Olivia Hogan and Pia Miranda. Two young women chat as they prepare to take a flight to Iowa to get married, and all the usual angst and doubt of such a momentous decision is offset by the relaxed affection of the couple. We want them to succeed, and a political point is made with no strain at all.
Helen Ellis is hilarious in Paul Rudnick’s The Gay Agenda, which otherwise suffers from a fatal lack of credibility. A Republican woman gives a speech against gay marriage, before spiralling out of control and revealing the fear at the heart of her opposition. It could have been a stunning monologue, bitter and powerful. Unfortunately, Rudnick is so patronising towards his subject that the effect is lost, and his character becomes a smug parody.
Doug Wright’s On Facebook is a cracking idea done well. A Facebook conversation strand on the issue of gay marriage is dramatised with minimum fuss, all the actors lined up at the front of the stage as they deliver their increasingly fractious messages. Pia Miranda is superb as a passive-aggressive conservative, and Helen Ellis and Olivia Hogan are great in support.
Neil LaBute is certainly the best-known playwright on the program, and he certainly displays thematic ambition with his play Strange Fruit. The reference to the song made famous by Billy Holiday, which deals with public lynchings of black people, is explicit in the title. Two men recount the day of their wedding, which is inevitably marred by violence and hatred. It’s intellectually lazy, but moving nonetheless. It’s also beautifully played by Spencer McLaren and Brett Whittingham.
Traditional Wedding is the best play of the night, despite an unnecessary and senseless framing device. Two women, Olivia Hogan and Pia Miranda providing a beautiful echo of their roles in This Flight Tonight, discuss their wedding to an unexplained television audience. The casual but profound love that positively seeps out of this couple says more for gay marriage than any argument I’ve heard.
The last great play of the evening is Moises Kaufman’s London Mosquitoes. Michael Veitch delivers a magnificent performance of a brilliantly modulated monologue about a man speaking at the funeral of his long term lover. The argument against gay marriage in this play is mildly subversive but utterly convincing, a plea for reverence of past sacrifice before future gain.
It’s such a contrast to the crassness of Paul Rudnick’s My Husband, a ridiculous soufflé on the subject of maternal expectation, and the facile romanticism of Andrew and Pablo at the Alter of Words, which at least has the benefit of providing a neat bookend to the first play of the evening.
This is of course the problem with nine plays on the subject of gay marriage. Some will inevitably shine and some will fail miserably. The important thing is the overall effect, and this one is generally positive. The cast is certainly impressive, with Olivia Hogan, Spencer McLaren and Pia Miranda particularly strong.
This production is certainly worth seeing, even in inner city Prahran. If only it were playing in Dandenong or rural Victoria, it would be less like preaching to the converted. And hopefully in a decade this will look utterly archaic. But then, isn’t that the point?