Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them – New Theatre and the cry of the Left. (Theatre Review)

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Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them

New Theatre, 3 June to 28 June 2014

You can grab tickets here. 

All the photos in this review are credited to Bob Seary.

It is a helluva brave play that names Terri Schiavo as the perfect right-wing wife, but the barbs and the banter aren’t simply reserved for the far right in this very dark, very absurd comedy by Christopher Durang currently in its, I do believe first (?) Australian manifestation brought to vibrant life by the good folks at New Theatre in Newtown. Christopher Durang is gaining some much deserved momentum at the moment, for his plays have a reputation for being biting satires of dark, deep and delightful wit. This is the first of his plays I’ve seen brought to life, and it’s a bit like watching an amalgam between a DVD, a piece of theatre, a video game and a wasted night on social media. This play is very “NOW” expecting its audience to be able to rewind when something doesn’t appeal to their fancy, to make context out of borderlessness, or to listen to the DVD commentary as they watch, and director Melita Rowston keeps it pulsing all the way through, expecting (thankfully) a great deal of sophistication from her audience, who she acknowledges to be witty enough to keep up. The cast regularly hop in and out of theatre mode, in many different ways, but don’t break the fourth wall, so distance is dissolved through contemporary tricks like intimate voice overs and circular jokes on the actors and the play itself. In many ways its like visiting an on line version of the play, in which we wander around noticing things, but the performers still can’t tell we’re there. Then, if we choose we can always go back and change the ending.

However, that depends on exactly where all the trouble started. And this is Christopher Durang’s very clever point.

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Felicity (Ainslie McGlynn) wakes up to find herself staring up into a bedroom she doesn’t recognise, wedged under the arm pit of a man she has never met. Her stockings are around her ankles. She tries to disappear from the awkward situation as fast as possible, only to accidentally wake her lover, Zamir (Terry Karabelas) who looks remarkably middle-eastern and casually informs her they got married the night before. When she laughs this off, a Mr. Hyde version of Zamir is called forth, and he starts to threaten her with very funny but very horrible violence if she tries to escape the marriage. Felicity realises fast she’s married some kind of oddball psycho, and that she needs to get out of the situation. When Zamir demands he meet her parents, Felicity may have the answer she’s been looking for.

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Soon she and Zamir are at the home of Leonard (Peter Astridge manifesting a cross between James Cagney and George C Scott) and Luella (a typically superb Alice Livingstone) and it’s not long before both the men are standing on the coffee table, Leonard with his gun pointed at Zamir’s head, and Zamir holding a cell phone he’s threatening to use to detonate a bomb. Yes, Leonard is a right wing ass-hole gone all Donald Rumsfeld over the war on terror, who is just itching for a chance to torture a suspect in his secret government upstairs lair he’s been telling everyone houses a private butterfly collection. We discover in the banter between Leonard and his daughter that they have been fighting their own private war for years, as she is left wing – he constantly refers to her as “Jane Fonda”. We know, despite Felicity’s predicament, that she has handed Zamir over to her father in order to escape him, but typically loses control over the issue at hand, and eventually finds herself in the odd position of having to find a way to rescue Zamir. Aided by her terminally spaced out (critically absent) mother Felicity will call on Reverend Mike (Ryan Gibson) a porn promoting minister (!) to save the day. Dotted throughout this premise are the additional characters of the adoring Hildegarde (Romy Bartz) a right-wing Leonard aide and apologist who constantly loses her knickers, and a completely abstract but wonderfully clever Annie Schofield as an insane birth manifestation of some sort of Looney Tunes orgy.

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However, in the end Felicity will have to go way past the start of the play and examine her own behaviors, if she is to find out what went so horribly wrong. Sometimes, when we end up in bed with someone, we made a choice to be there, no matter how unpleasant they turned out to be by light of day, and for all the left’s cry over the Bush administrations bungling and wanton destruction in the war on terror, it did not really start with the Bush administration. Rowston highlights the connection between Durang’s play and our own left’s distressed witness to the Abbott governments treatment of Asylum seekers, leaving it to Durang to remind us, this all started a long time ago.

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However, the energy and sheer intelligence of the play, the game of reference spotting and the deliciously dark wit, the vibrant colour associations and the whole blessed thing ending up at Hooters (if you cannot find a reason yet in this review to attend this play, then go to see Alice Livingstone dressed as a Hooters waitress – I didn’t  even know I’d been waiting for that my whole life) and all of it melding through truly excellent performances makes Why Torture is Wrong, and the People who love them a must see for the 2014 Sydney theatre Calendar. Everyone is right on target, it’s a smorgasbord of acting talent and having a fantastic time with their deep interesting roles. Rowston has assembled a great crew of creatives who seem to never run out of mojo. This is a great manifestation of a really interesting contemporary playwright, and you won’t be sorry to say you were there.

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