Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Looking Glass theatre review (Fortyfivedownstairs,Melbourne)

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Vladimir Mayakovsky once said – in a quote often misattributed to Brecht – ‘art is not a mirror to reflect ourselves, but a hammer with which to shape society’. This new work, Looking Glass, as the title might hint, does not reach the potential of this directive.

Daniella Farinacci, Peter Houghton and a young child feature in Louris Van de Geer’s new, state and federally funded, slice-of-life performance. It’s a premiere from New Working Group under the direction of celebrated director Suzie Dee. Louris Van de Geer is an emerging playwright who has steadily built a profile with works including Tuesday (MKA), Triumph (New Working Group), and Hello there we’ve been waiting for you (Next Wave). This episodic, one-act play has been produced after script development as part of a Masters degree at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Briefly, the character known as ‘CHILD’ (Daniel O’Neill or Thomas Taylor) mentions suicide during what his parents consider an ‘episode’. In response, ‘MOTHER’ (Daniella Farinacci) and ‘FATHER’ (Peter Houghton) go to a clinical facility. Therapy is conducted in a room with a one-way mirror, behind which ‘VOICE’ (Josh Price) guides the family through banal life events or enactments thereof.

Looking Glass finds itself unable to translate the scope of the ideas that have inspired it. The program notes tell us these include Charles Horton Cooley’s famous sociological concept of The Looking Glass Self (1902). Van de Geer structures the 60-minute play’s narrative in brief episodes, largely concocted from dialogues between the main protagonists. This is broken once or twice by sentence-long, declamations/asides from the therapist.

Sometimes we are plunged into blackouts and there is a vicious audio mix of alarms and sirens in a sound design by Ian Moorehead. Looking Glass is well-served by Suzie Dee’s crisp, hard-nosed direction and the visual design is stunning and minimalist (Amelia Lever-Davidson, lighting; Kate Davis, costumes, set.) Davis’ set is a synthetic and sterile room, somewhere between a meat locker and an operating theatre.

The opening scene of Looking Glass is a boy standing alone on stage, purposefully dropping an iced-lolly while gazing deadpan into the audience. The slick staging, the almost unbearably violent score and the passing mention of suicide promises what might be a chilling satire.

The pace is certainly brisk and the film-like cuts are as sharp as scalpels, but the text is not as dynamic as the production’s other elements. The characters come across as narcissistic, bourgeois bores whose trivial issues don’t invite emotional engagement.

There are occasional blips of Eugene Ionesco anarchy, the formal refinement of Caryl Churchill, a hint of Seneca’s Medea and some basic Freud, but the work never rises above a series of dry vignettes in the tradition of a comedy of manners.

The promotional material for the work declares Looking Glass “a frightening portrait of a family stuck looking to the ‘other’ to define its ‘self’” but it seems more interested in the characters’ interpersonal relationships and familial bonds. We are given problems like ‘how do we know exactly how much our own family likes us or not?’ and  ‘is my child normal compared to other very similar children?’. These are not insubstantial topics, but in the context of the work’s premise they are are commonplace and shallow.

A very comfortable white, single-child Australian family arguing about why their son doesn’t want to eat his cereal or why he can’t stop jumping around the room are best described as First World Problems. Looking Glass doesn’t deliver the terrors to be a ‘frightening portrait’ and isn’t a serious enough look at Cooley’s ideas.

Even as an intimate family drama, the play requires more than the characters’ banal failures or casual angst. What we have is an occasionally diverting and absurd series of sketches one might imagine happening in a nice, family clinic.

Farinacci (MOTHER), perhaps best known for her role in the film Lantana employs a considered, disjointed physical performance and a sardonic delivery that makes hers the most effective performance. Houghton and Price, might be best known as stage sit-com actors and this is what they deliver here. Price wrings laughter from his character’s strange silliness (for example, when delivering a pizza and refuses to believe the father has an allergy to pineapple).

Few demands are made of the child actor but he is admirable in his commitment to the role. Given there’s little to no information in the script to illuminate the characters’ relationships, the audience can either believe that this is a genuine family and clinic, or not. Despite the cast’s best efforts, it’s hard to care about the little moments of conflict or hints at emotional turmoil without more information.

“Never mind,” says Josh Price’s character in one of the rare, strange moments in the play as he pops a bouncing ball the family have been playing with. The family echo him: “Never mind”. It could be a moment of poignant satire, but there’s not much to mind in the first place.

[box]Looking Glass is at Fortyfivedownstairs Melbourne until August 13. Photo by Pier Carthew. L to R: Thomas Taylor (child on ground), Peter Houghton, Daniella Farinacci [/box]

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