Funny and farcical as it is, however, you probably wouldn't call Perplex a comedy, because von Mayenburg is busy breaking the most basic conventions of the genre and making fun of the pieces. It’s non-stop existential bewilderment with a lot of good laughs – a bit like Sartre on nitrous oxide. Our basic assumptions are challenged on a cognitive rollercoaster that leaves us changed and unsettled. Although it's too soon to say whether the play will be regarded as an exemplar of post-absurdist theatre, it's already clear that it's a highly original, entertaining, and well-crafted work, and we are fortunate to have the first production in English from the Sydney Theatre Company, which previously presented von Mayenburg's Fireface and Moving Target, also translated by his colleague and fellow dramaturg Zade.
Director Sarah Giles (who previously directed von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One
at Griffin Theatre Company) delivers a great deal more clarity than anyone could expect from such a challenging script. We're not going to spoil the very elaborate plot by revealing many details, partly to let you enjoy them, partly because the story wouldn't make sense, and partly because you wouldn't believe us anyway.
We can tell you that the four actors do very well with their individual challenges: the normally sanguine Glenn Hazeldine throwing a temper tantrum accusing his parents of erecting a totalitarian regime; Tim Walter naked and deadpan reinventing Darwin's theory of evolution with a Freudian focus on sex and death; Andrea Demetriades as an Icelandic geological formation; and Rebecca Massey behaving as reasonably as anyone possibly could dressed as the wife of Hagar the Horrible. Their characters are (re)named with the first names of the cast, as they were in the premiere at Schaubühne in 2010.
The characters and the actors regularly morph roles, and resort to metaphysics to try to make sense of what is happening to them. The audience is not entirely spared in their broad-ranging enquiries. The usual cop-outs of blaming or crediting God are discarded when a Tim pops up on a ladder, near the end, disguised as Friedrich Nietzsche. But the great Prussian philosopher's bushy moustache has grown into a oversized Marxian beard, through which he paraphrases from his 1882 book about the death of God, The Gay Science: "He is dead, he remains dead, and we have killed him."
It's all very confusing, but surprisingly enjoyable for a hectic adventure in epistemology.