By Helena Parker
There is quite a good pay off in seeing Eleanor Stankiewicz: Nanna-Stasia. Firstly, there are Tim-Tams. They are thrust in your face as soon as you walk in the door, which was very pleasing. Second and probably more importantly, Nanna-Stasia is a pretty delightful show with a lot of heart. It is at turns moving, cheesy, fun and joyous with a very talented Eleanor Stankiewicz at its centre. She is here to tell us the story of her Grandmother, Jessie, a Lithuanian refugee who came to Australia after surviving World War II. After seeing Anastasia as a child, 7 year old Eleanor makes the assumption that her Grandma must be Anastasia or at least, the Lithuanian version of Anastasia. Here we embark on a Disney-style fairytale, complete with songs, evil witches and convenient ‘3 years later..’ writing techniques.
First and foremost, the clear star of this play is the writer, director and actress Eleanor Stankiewicz who positively radiates joy and fun. Stankiewicz is the crucial talent that really makes this play work, with any other performer the Disney-style overtones and musical numbers could be nauseatingly saccharine. Granted, the play does edge a little close to this sentimentality. But through Stankiewicz’s impressive physical performance and genuine passion for the story she is telling, she gets away with it. She displays great talent when switching between characters, making each distinct and memorable. Her miming and physical performance is, crucially with such a limited set and no props, very clear and the audience never gets lost or confused as to what she is doing. Indeed, the small space actually makes the play feel all the more intimate and moments of audience interaction (shock horror for all the introverts out there!) only increase this feeling of closeness; that this is less like a performance, more like a story being told to a group of friends. Special mention should also go to the pianist, Max (full name not included in promotional material) whose musical accompaniment really adds colour to the performance.
Initially in this play, I wasn't sure where it was going. Occasionally when artists create works about their families and loved ones they can veer dangerously into sentimentality and one is unsure of the ‘point’ in its telling. However, in the last moments of the play, Stankiewicz brings this narrative home to us and highlights the importance of sharing our collective stories. In the haze of youth sometimes the stories of the elderly are lost, as we favour the reality within which we live presently. But here, we are reminded of the wisdom in those who have come before us and what we can learn if we simply asked and listened.
That this overall message was introduced only in the final moments of the play and not woven into the performance itself, would be my only critique. The play ends on quite a didactic note (albeit heartwarming) where we are directly addressed as an audience about why this play matters. Overall, I think this approach worked but I would be interested to see if later on, Stankiwicz is able to further flesh out this message and create more parallels between her Grandmother’s refugee experience and the present crisis of refugees in the present time, as this became an interesting parallel within the play.
Ultimately, Stankiewicz tells us to value the stories of others and avoid ‘filling in’ the gaps in our knowledge with fantasy fluff and fairytales. I left the play uplifted and with a smile on my face. Catch this play if you can. It is unusual to see such a personal, joyful piece of theatre. Eleanor Stankiewicz: Nanna-Stasia runs until the 21st (not much time left but lets be optimistic!).
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.