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Atlantis review (Belvoir, Sydney)

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“Write what you know” is probably the most widely known piece of advice given to writers. It’s generally pretty useful: start with finding the narratives and drama in your own life, and write about the world as you experience it. It helps a writer to find an authentic voice and ensure their storytelling rings with a degree of truth

But that approach does have its limits.

Lally Katz continues to dig deep into her own colourful personal life for … well, not just inspiration, but entire narratives, characters, settings and chunks of dialogue. Despite her imagination and talent, that particular schtick runs thin over the two-and-a-half hour running time of her new play.

Atlantis follows directly on from Katz’s 2013 one-woman play Stories I Want To Tell You In Person. In that show, Katz told of her experience with a New York psychic who charged the playwright a fortune to reverse a curse on her vagina. The psychic’s services weren’t too effective — just before the play was due to open, Katz was made violently ill from a large cyst, and underwent surgery to have part of one of her ovaries removed.

Atlantis picks up at that point, and sees 35-year-old Lally (as played by Amber McMahon) returning to the US to seek a refund from the psychic. She’s also dealing with the fact that she’s broken up with her long-term partner Dave (Matthew Whittet) and now might be reproductively challenged. She thought Dave was her soulmate and they’d have children together, but now she’s having to reevaluate her life.

The play is essentially a road trip, as Lally moves from city to city across the US seeking answers.

In addition to “write what you know”, there’s a notion that for a story to be truly universal or connect with audiences, it needs to be quite specific. Atlantis is certainly specific, but unless your world resembles Katz’s, you may find it difficult to invest too deeply in the play.

It’s almost saved by a truly wonderful and inventive production directed by Rosemary Myers and designed by Jonathon Oxlade with an idiosyncratic, stylish but kitschy aesthetic.

In the role of Lally is Amber McMahon, an actor who can take an audience anywhere thanks to her large reserves of charm and fine comic abilities. Without her in the central role, Atlantis would be quite a slog.

She’s supported by an ensemble of four — Paula Arundell, Lucia Mastrantone, Hazem Shammas and Matthew Whittet — who take on about 40 roles between them. They all draw sharp and very funny caricatures along the way, filling in the corners of Katz’s world.

Nobody does “awkward dork” quite like Whittet, and he puts those skills to good use as Dave, while Shammas is a riot as the unlikely cowboy Diego. Arundell steals multiple scenes as the Air BnB host/struggling rapper Electra, and Mastrantone is hilarious as the psychic Bella.

Part of Katz’s appeal as a writer is the way she melds what’s true and what’s untrue — or what’s real and what’s imagined — to create a uniquely theatrical world.

But in Atlantis — which seems like a randomly selected chapter of Katz’s life, peppered with surrealism — there’s a temptation for the audience to constantly question what Katz has pilloried from life and what’s a product of her own rich imagination. That temptation ultimately proves distracting.

Belvoir described Stories I Want To Tell You In Person as “the story of what Katz has been doing instead of writing a play”. Atlantis has a similar free-wheeling spirit, taking the audience along on Katz’s latest adventures.

But the play has so little focus, and misses most of its comedic marks. Worse still, the big issues it touches on — climate change, family, fertility, morality, home, sex — are only considered in reference to how they affect Katz. That feels frequently indulgent.

Katz is still a master of observation and description — her use of language is constantly evocative — but there’s much missing here. She’s a writer able to draw from the people and experiences in her life and create dramaturgically sound, focused pieces of theatre, with deeper resonances; Neighbourhood Watch and Return To Earth both come to mind.

Despite the efforts of Katz and the production team to shape these new life chapters into something more epic, the stories in Atlantis haven’t had the necessary dramaturgical transformation to really take hold.

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Atlantis is at Belvoir, Sydney, until November 26. Featured image by Daniel Boud

7 responses to “Atlantis review (Belvoir, Sydney)

  1. I suspect you are a bit too kind in your review. The most turgid and self indulgent piece of slight and superficial writing I’ve seen in an age. The set design is purposelessly repellent. The direction serves the pointless text well, as do a cast of terrific performers who do their best to turn dross into something meaningful. Unfortunately, not even their energy and skill can save this. How the play was chosen for an Upstairs production beggars belief. The work is undeveloped, feels hastily thrown on the page, and is without depth or emotional reach.

  2. I saw this a couple of days ago and I must say it is improving with time for reflection, or for the memories to settle. Not that I didn’t enjoy it – the performances were wonderful – but it is undeniably self indulgent, overdoes the commentary and is probably half an hour too long. But so many plays sink without trace…Atlantis’ hilarious sex scene alone will live long in my memories, along with many of the perfectly pitched character vignettes. Very good fun.

  3. If the wildly enthusiastic cheering and clapping at the end of the play was an indication, then Atlantis is a hit. It would be an outstanding example to give to school and tertiary Drama and Theatre students of what can be achieved on stage. There is technical wizardry in lighting and sound, simplicity and versatility in set design, appropriateness in costume and absolute brilliance in the actors who brought truth and dimension to the myriad of characters in the play. Atlantis is a wonderful night out at the theatre. It may be a tad self indulgent but who’s life isn’t about a protracted journey where influential characters are met along the way?…. and the nature of our dreams help define us? Bravo Lally Katz and the Belvoir team.

  4. I completely disagree with the above review. I think it was a beautifully crafted hysterically funny play with some of the best theatre I had seen in a long time. Lally Katz has a wonderful ability to deal with the specifics of the big issues such as family, fertility, morality, home, sex with humour, insight, empathy and pain. The actors switched brilliantly between multiple roles with finely detailed performances and superb comic timing, coralled by the directors clear, at times outrageously wild, vision. I was moved, I was nicely shocked and laughed til I cried. Go see it!

  5. People often trust reviewers to make decisions about seeing a play. Your review makes me think that you don’t have a clue and the fact that this work is missed because of your writing breaks my heart. The insanity and fun of that play was a romp, I, along with my colleague were in hysterics as were most people around me”
    A

  6. Hi Ben,

    I know it’s a bit of a dark art but what kind of interrogation do you think a writer should do when writing “what they know” to give it that special dramaturgical transformation?

  7. “Katz told of her experience with a New York psychic who charged the playwright a fortune to reverse a curse on her vagina.”

    It sounds like this play should be called “Why There’s A Gender Wage Gap.”

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