Review By Thomas Gregory
Seneca once wrote that “Life's like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.” If one gets to enjoy life as brilliant as Ene World’s adaptation of “Art-” by Yasmina Reza, one is blessed indeed.
Reza’s play is a popular one. It’s the story of three men and their appreciation of a painting of “only” white (one that has a firm basis in reality). Every few years someone in Australia puts it on, with famous local celebrities such as John Wood, David Wenham, and the boys from The Chaser. To find something new to say about the piece could be challenging.
Fortunately, director Fini Liu provides a unique perspective of the play. Performed at first in English, then in Chinese, the production is broken up by moments of absurdist mime, slapstick comedy, and clever retellings of the story from new perspectives.
Being a bilingual play, it is “subtitled” in Chinese and English above the stage using a projection that is easy to read without being obtrusive. While this makes sense for a play by a company run to “connect new migrants with local people and communities”, you could almost argue for its exclusion - the roles of the three men are performed with such enthusiasm and charisma that the worlds seem almost irrelevant. In fact, Liu proves the power of the physical performance by having one scene performed using gibberish so well-spoken that it reminded me of “The Sims”.
Micheal Zhang, Lyle Yang, and Fini Liu himself each bring something unique and exciting to their roles, while the chemistry between themselves is palpable. In a story about three friends with very different views of the world, these actors show all the love, frustration, and arrogance that the story brings out from the men. Their comedic timing is on point, especially in moments of physical slapstick that will make you literally laugh out loud.
Besides the unavoidable large white canvas, the props are both minimalistic and cleverly used. The white milk crates are a great “typically Australian” touch, while the sparing use of umbrellas, paper, handkerchiefs, and confetti all add to the spectacle. Nothing on the stage ever appears to be there needlessly, or to “fill the gaps”, and design choices always came across as deliberate - never the mere result of logistical considerations.
In adapting “Art”, Liu adds a scene from the perspective of Yvan’s wife that was not in the original play. While it is creatively constructed from previously spoken lines of Yvan, is performed with enthusiasm, and provides some comic enjoyment to the audience, it is never entirely clear what the addition adds to the story or our understanding of the relationships. Perhaps if this scene offered a counterpoint to Yvan’s perspective, it may have been more compelling, however the “wife” appears to agree with his original telling. While a humorous interlude, it was perhaps the only addition I was not completely sold by.
A special mention must be made of the sound design for this play. While not perfectly captured by the filming of the live production, the superb score underlines the comedy of the show and is added to by clever sound effects that pay homage to early Hollywood comedies.
This production of “Art-” was performed in Hobart earlier this year, and the production quality of the filming may be the only complaint one could have. While most of the show was well-filmed, with the “subtitles” easy to read and the voices never lost, some quality of the music and sound effects was lost, and some shaky camera work occurred. I hesitate to mention this, however, as the production itself is of such a high quality that these minor failures do should not stop you from seeing it. I know that if they ever present the show live in Melbourne, I will be among the first to buy tickets.
Fini Liu’s adaptation of “Art-” is a comedy piece that doesn’t lose the message of the play. However, instead of being cynical about themes of friendship, art, and empathy, the show reminds us of how absurd it would be to put our perspective of culture ahead of real relationships.
“Art-” is available on-demand as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival online.