“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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