Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Theatre: The Tribe

Written and directed by Joe Lui
Designed by India Caitlin Mehta
Performed by Ella Hetherington, Paul Grabovac and Mikala Westall
The Blue Room Theatre
Until November 2

I play a little game with the writer, director, musician and lighting and sound designer Joe Lui. It comprises using more and more extravagant superlatives to describe the polymathematical Lui (whoops! I’ve done it again) who sometimes seems the mortar without which the entire edifice of alternative theatre in Perth would collapse.
It’s hard, though, to imagine an adjective that would do Lui’s epic, The Tribe, justice. “Ambitious” hardly suffices to describe a play that re-jigs Paradise Lost before interval, before moving on to six million years of evolutionary theory after drinks.

It all begins, supernaturally enough, in Heaven, where God (Paul Grabovac), a capricious, dipsomaniac old queen, terrorizes his seraphim, the Angel of Death (Ella Hetherington) and the Star of the Morning (Mikala Westall). God bemoans how little he’s appreciated by those he’s made in his own image – “My children, why hast thou forsaken me” – and has the Angel of Death visit some well known disasters upon them, all of which he regrets, and blames his underlings for, later.
It’s all too much for the Star of the Morning (who’s job description is a little vague, it must be said) who becomes devilishly enthusiastic about sex after spying on some humans having it, and, eventually, slips away through a side door. He’s Lucifer, as those of you familiar with your Latin Vulgate will have already guessed, and that was his Fall we just saw.
We go downstairs after interval for an alternative view of the history and behaviour of our species. We’re in a run down, Tennessee Williams-esque bed-sit where an abandoned mother (Hetherington) goes through her drab daily routine while watching over her egg. (Keep up with me, here, it all makes perfect sense). She’s a bowerbird, we learn, and her story is a metaphor for various evolutionary and sociological theories, including, in particular, that of the third chimpanzee developed by the American scientist and thinker Jared Diamond. Much of the story-telling, theorising and, frankly, sermonising that follows is done by Grabovac, now a sort of Ernest Hemingway figure in safari couture who drifts around the room as Hetherington performs her rituals. Oh, and the Star of the Morning pops in occasionally to provide some coherence for the piece.
The Tribe is all a bit didactic, and perhaps a little obvious at times, but there’s no denying its nerve. Much of its enjoyment comes from some droll allusions – the Flood is wine being spilled over a sandbox, apples bob up everywhere – and even more by some very strong performances, notably from Hetherington, who is always courageous and magnetic.
But if you think I’m avoiding passing judgement on The Tribe, you’re right. It’s an idiosyncratic, subjective piece, whose beauty, or folly, will only be in the eye of the beholder. Succeed or fail, though, I doubt there’s anyone else around these parts with the chutzpah to try what the ineffable Joe Lui has here.

This review appeared in The West Australian 22.10.13      

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