Theatre Review: Atlanta

Five characters examine their relationship with Atlanta, a member of their group who is now dead, and with each other.

Presented by Bakehouse Theatre Company
Reviewed 7th October, 2017

The set is cleanly effective – six white chairs, two coils of rope connected across the top of the stage to form a sort of maritime proscenium, and a screen made by criss-crossing rope over a frame.  The floor is geometric fragments. Well done, set designer Tammy Boden. In this setting, six Australian twenty-somethings interact within non-linear times.  There are strong elements of magic realism, Shoah, and the validity of friendship.  After all, it’s a 1990 play – written by major Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith.

Although the setting alternates between city and beach-house, it’s the internal geographies that matter here.  Five of the characters examine their relationship with Atlanta, a member of their group who is now dead, and with each other. Time flows irrationally between recollection and the present, as vignettes show them all worrying away at questions of loyalty, loss, blame and regret.

This structure demands a strong, wise and courageous actor to provide the pivot point for the play’s many questions. Atlanta speaks to us directly throughout the play, providing a calm baseline narrative against which her friends’ quandaries can be viewed. Actor Karen Burns gives such focus and power of personality to the character of Atlanta that it is no exaggeration to say that her strength enables the rest of the actors to grow in stature and energy. (Only some of the cast respond to this.) Atlanta is a Jewish Australian who is beset by her historic connections to the Holocaust and its faint but discernible effects on today’s Australian society. Her mother is of Polish ancestry, and Atlanta is intermittently obsessed with visiting the village from which her mother’s family came, in order to somehow reconcile her identity and integrity. Wearing Blunnies and skinny jeans, Burns brings a bruised sweetness to everything she does. Her portrayal of a contemporary young woman trailing clouds of history is never cumbersome or self-consciously clever.  She remains emotionally pellucid throughout.

The other actor who equals Burns in strength, emotional and vocal clarity, and sheer enabling force, is Adam Carter.  His character, Alex, has a close but complex relationship with Atlanta, and Carter’s broad range of nuanced acting skills help to illuminate many of Murray-Smith’s social and emotional questions.  As Jack, the plain-talking touring muso, Patrick Clements characterised well, although he was vocally under par. Stephanie Clapp played his girlfriend Grace, an unhappy writer; she added grace (no pun intended) and a certain sort of contemporary sweetness to the group.  Jack Evans, as lawyer Gabe, seemed to be having vocal problems. Jess was played by Clare Mansfield, with a lot of lipstick and (text-specified) eyeliner.

This play consists of vignettes, with times switching all over the place.  Accordingly, the flow of this single-act show needs to be seamless and almost imperceptible. Joh Hartog’s direction could have been less episodic without sacrificing meaning or removing moments that had to be savoured. Sometimes, an actor would enter the stage without purpose, perhaps reposition a chair, then stand or sit in their appointed spot… at which time their character suddenly became evident.

The overall worth of this play is in Murray-Smith’s poetic polemic examining contemporary values, and in Karen Burns’ superb performance.  Both are worth the price.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  Bakehouse Theatre
Season: 7th  – 21st October, 2017
Duration:  90 minutes  [no interval]
Tickets:  Full Price: $30:00 Concession$25:00


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