An open and engaging performance of an homage to the therapeutic power of American improv theatre
Photo: Paul Dunn
Annie Baker’s episodic one-act play about an under-enrolled acting class in a Vermont community centre is charmingly presented in its Australian premier as part of the MTC’s off-the-mainstage Lawler Season.
Well-intentioned New Age oldster Martha Kreisberg, played with beaming enthusiasm by Deirdre Rubenstein, has finally been given the acting class she always wanted. Only four people have signed up, and one of those is her husband, a faded hippie called James (Roger Oakley), but Marty is ever positive. Joining them for the five-week course are a divorced carpenter (Ben Grant), a former actress and acupressurist-in-training (Kate Cole), and a painfully shy teenager with dreams of playing Maria in her high school’s upcoming production of West Side Story (Brigid Gallacher).
Whether it’s an acting class or group therapy is not always clear. Marty’s program consists entirely of theatre games, improvisational exercises aimed at releasing inhibitions and overcoming self-consciousness. In an endearingly naive way, Baker uses these games as the theatrical machinery through which her characters are “transformed”. The students may not do any “real” acting, but they all develop emotionally by confronting their various life-problems and learning to better empathise.
It sounds saccharine, and it mostly is, but Baker’s particularly American realist technique gives it a surprising edginess. The episodes are structured using an almost filmic montage effect where scenes abruptly “cut” while emotions are still heightened and unresolved. This produces an intriguing inconclusiveness, reminiscent of the short fiction of Raymond Caver.
Baker’s micro-managed dialogue, where every pause and stutter is precisely regulated by the script, also adds to this edginess. At her best, she build an intricate lattice of psychologies and intentions as the various minute interactions develop through the play, giving a fascinating emotional texture to a narrative that might otherwise be sheer hokum.
As long as we are engrossed at this micro-level, the production works delightfully well. Director Aiden Fennessey opens the performance up, spreading the action full-length across Marg Howell’s relatively narrow stage, making all the minute interactions as accessible as possible under Philip Lethlean’s commonsense lighting.
I did feel, however, some slight tedium begin to set in as each character stepped forward to take their inevitable turn at affirmative catharsis, culminating in a virtual group-hug in the final scene. This minor sense of languor might have been avoided, perhaps, if the performances had not been quite so parodic. Take Gallacher as the surly teen for example—her portrait of a slack-jawed, hunched-shouldered, achingly awkward adolescent is hilarious, but perhaps a subtler caricature might have softened the linearity of her progress toward self-confidence. While all the performances are still a long way from slapstick, I thought perhaps Oakley was the only one who really exercised the more ambiguous edges of his character.
On the other hand, one has to say that all the caricatures are spot on as comic entertainment, and my wistful longing for narrative complexity shouldn’t detract from what is an open and engaging performance of this homage to the therapeutic power of American improv theatre.