12 August 2010

Guest Review: Catalpa

Catalpa
itch productions
5 August 2010
Euphemia Anderson Thearte, Portland
www.catapla.com.au

Review by John Hargreaves



“Lest I forget, wherefore I go – so you know, wherefore you go.”

The Year is 1875. The place is New Bedford, Massachusetts. Struggling George Anthony’s beautiful but sad wife Gretta is reduced to wearing a tatty silk gown. George must go to sea one last time to make his fortune. Engaged by the Irish Republican Brotherhood to rescue the ‘Freemantle Six’ from the clutches of the British, our hero captains the whaler
Catalpa on a secret mission across the waves to our shores. To escape and claim his prize, he must outrun the omnipotent and ubiquitous Royal Navy.
Creating a panoply of characters to negotiate these high adventures through the agency of a solo performer is no mean feat. But then Catalpa is no ordinary production. It is daring and innovative theatre.
Playwright Donal O’Kelly uses the intimate story telling talents of a lone actor to sweep us along a forgotten and intricate historical trail. He enhances this by an artful combination of sublime wordsmithing and ingenious constructs. For although we never leave a set depicting the comfy confines of a writer’s garret, O’Kelly zooms, tracks and pans us half way around the world by enlisting the language of film.
A feisty seabird spreads its wings as narrator and caries us swiftly aloft. Its raucous commentary scopes a bird’s-eye view of the grand spectacle unfolding far below.
The singularly challenging role of being everyone is effortlessly mastered by Des Fleming. With humour, grace and energy, he marshals his diverse characters’ voices and postures to great effect. His versatility etches them in stark relief against a fast evolving plot. From the infant Pearl, our captain’s coddled daughter, to the predatory and dangerous Irish agent John Breslin, Fleming articulates all with panache. And who better to chaperone us through the dark intrigues of the Fenians than this native of Cork?
Another device borrowed from cinema, the incidental music contributes an added dimension to the drama. The score written by Ballarat maestro Wally Gunn ebbs and flows and soothes and stirs and provokes. Pianist Biddy Connor plays from the wings, supported by recorded instrumentals, heightening the filmic qualities of the experience.
The lighting and set design are stark but adaptable. Less is more. Fleming transforms bedstead and mattress into ship’s poop. He drapes bed sheets on clothesline to hoist sails. There is humour and satire in this playful child-like make-believe.
To director Alice Bishop goes great credit. Tuning the critical elements of this minimalist production must require great finesse and a critical eye for detail. There are no fancy props or boisterous ensemble to mask blemishes in this performance. That she has succeeded is unquestionable.
But the medium of the one-man show is not without pitfalls. This plot is so intricate and the characters so numerous that occasionally one is apt to lose concentration and become momentarily disoriented. The voice of a line delivered may not be recognised. Some of the chanted sound effects are discords that startle and irritate; “cliperty cloperty, cliperty cloperty.” But the engaging Fleming always brings you back on track with a change of pace, a squawk or a familiar word from the hero George.

“All heroes are not created equal,” and Captain George Anthony’s feats of bravery and navigation are poorly rewarded. But the cast and crew of Catalpa do his saga justice. It is a great story boldly and brilliantly performed.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

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