Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theatre: Ruben Guthrie

By Brendan Cowell
Directed by Andrew Lewis
Set and costume designer Jessica Glaser
Performed by WAAPA 3rd Year Acting students Ben O’Toole, Lara Schwerdt, Griffin Blumer, Ryan Jones, Jessica Clarke, Kali Hulme and Josh Brennan
Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA
June 17 - 23, 2011

Brendan Cowell’s high-style morality play, Ruben Guthrie, is a gift for any company of actors, and it certainly is for this cast drawn from the graduating class of the WA Academy of Performing Arts acting course.
I must confess to being a little wary of the piece. There’s a bit too much bender glamour here, and while the hot-shot creative genius ad guy who can only function on a cocktail of booze and coke is almost a stock character on the stage and screen, it’s a far cry from the miserable truth of abuse and addiction that ruins real lives in the real world. Any play that attempts, as director Andrew Lewis somewhat disingenuously asserts in his notes, to “hilariously tackle the territory of alcoholism and substance abuse” needs to be approached with considerable caution.
Kali Hulme and Ben O'Toole (pic: Jon Green)
Having said that, I suspect Cowell’s purpose is more allegorical – the lure of power and control expressed through the pitfalls of substance abuse and addiction – than realistic. He writes with great verve and creates some memorable characters around his  protagonist, Ruben Guthrie (Ben O’Toole).
Like John Bunyan’s beleagured Christian, Guthrie is centre-stage throughout the play, while his family, friends and lovers swirl around him like birds of carrion. His Czech model girlfriend, Zoya (Lara Schwerdt), flies back to Prague, soon to be replaced by the control freak, Virginia (Jessica Clarke), he meets at the addiction program he books into. His account manager, Ray (Griffin Blumer), though, wants him back on the booze to rekindle his creative spark, as do, for reasons more related to their own issues than any concern for their son, his estranged parents (Ryan Jones and Kali Hulme).
Things only get worse when Ruben’s outrageous gay friend, Damien (Josh Brennnan), returns from an abortive sojourn in New York and desperately wants to party. When Zoya also reappears after some late night phone pleading from Ruben to find Virginia in her apartment, and her T-shirt, Ruben hits the bottle, the pills, the blow and whatever else he can lay his hands on.
Ruben is a phenomenal part for a young actor, and O’Toole has the looks, the look and the understanding to pull it off. It would be easy to take the character over the top or leave it underpowered, but O’Toole, astutely guided by Lewis’s direction, gets him just right.
Schwerdt, Hulme and Brennan are standouts, though all the supporting cast turn in strong performances. Actors playing models are on ground as shaky as models playing actors, but Schwerdt has the cool self-absorption of the mannequin down pat (and is simply breathtaking in her party frock) while Brennan gives the needy Damien a heady mix of flamboyance and desperation.
Hulme gives the most complete performance of the play as Ruben’s mother, her assured façade disguising a terrible longing for the life she has lost. The most shocking moment of the play, her attempt to force-feed alcohol to Ruben like a mother trying to get baby food into an unwilling infant, could be pathetically absurd in lesser hands, but Hulme is totally convincing here, as she is throughout.
The production is elegantly designed by Jessica Glaser, and leaves us in no doubt as to what it hinges on. Andrew Lewis complements its look, and the clean skills of his cast, by exposing the action and the actors front-and-centre to the audience.
There was at least one of Perth’s professional theatre company’s artistic directors in the house the night we went, and I’ve no doubt he’d be happy to see this play, and these players, under his banner any time.              

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