By Lisa Lanzi
There are many excellent professional performers and directors residing in Adelaide and making work that is of the highest quality. Fortunately for audiences, these folk continue to produce work simply because they must, even though the seasons are unpaid, profit share entities. Starc Productions’ presentation of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune is in this category and I urge Adelaide theatre-lovers to support this season featuring two fine actors (Stefanie Rossi and Marc Clements) and thoughtful direction from Tony Knight.
This Terrence McNally play (first performed off-Broadway in 1987) centres on waitress Frankie and short-order cook Johnny. We spy them first in bed in her apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, west Manhattan. During the next 90 to 100 minutes we learn more of the characters as they reveal their inner demons, their regrets and some visions for the future. It is a play of circling: Frankie and Johnny circle each other in the cramped apartment, physically occupying spaces the other abandons; they banter and bicker cycling from tenderness to annoyance through to anger as they press each other’s buttons but find certain sweet spots in each other’s company; we also cycle through gloom, moonlight and bright light as moods change and the characters shift perspective. These two figures are multi-layered and rooted in both the real world of 1980s New York yet trapped in a heightened world of their own making, sometimes whimsical and romantic, possibly dangerous, and a little claustrophobic as their large personas navigate the journey of male/female connection.
Stefanie Rossi skilfully embodies the boisterous, funny and complex Frankie. Playwright McNally’s description of Frankie is “a frumpy, fat waitress who is emotionally defined by her unattractiveness” - Ms Rossi can in no way be deemed unattractive or overweight but her portrayal of Frankie’s underlying fragility is impeccable: self-loathing and doubt about self-worth are powerful character traits to play within a theatrical sense. Frankie is a demanding role for any actor with 71 pages of fast-paced dialogue to contend with and wide-ranging emotions to work in to the character’s reality. Add to that the contextually necessary and well-executed American accent and it is clear how much work has gone into the creation of this role. Stefanie Rossi has conquered all these challenges to give us a Frankie who is complicated and compelling, endearing yet volatile.
Johnny (we never learn their last names) is the ‘intruder’ in Frankie’s contained life and small apartment. Marc Clement takes on this role with mastery and seems to relish the larger-than-life character. He gives Johnny a big presence without ‘overdoing’ or leaning toward farce, which a lesser performer might be tempted to indulge in. Johnny is bowled over by Frankie and seizes the moment, despite it being their first night together, declaring his love forcefully and often as he heaps praise upon her body and generally urges her to choose connection and choose him.
Despite his rough edges, Johnny is quite the autodidact using ‘big words’ and quoting Shakespeare to both Frankie’s annoyance and amazement. Mr Clement brings subtle physical humour to the role along with a rocking Brooklyn accent. He gives nuance to the role and dialogue to suit the mood as it shifts between fast and loud stand offs and the more tender moments. Both actors work seamlessly to enliven their characters and the relationship between them so that sparks fly on stage and the story entertains and provokes.
As an audience, we are pulled in to the action through the open fourth wall of the apartment and the intimacy of The Bakehouse space. The set is simple and functional and the lighting design by Stephen Dean works beautifully, particularly in the moonlit scenes with the impression of the paned window Frankie and Johnny gaze through. Director Tony Knight, another professional Adelaide is fortunate to have in town, centres the play around these two intricate characters letting the humour percolate through naturally. The focus on the humanity of the story gives the audience a great deal to process as we are invited in to each moment to watch the unfolding romance, wait for the revelations and ponder how it might end. All beautifully managed by Tony Knight, the layers of the story are compelling and offer huge challenges for cast and director and great rewards for the audience. For the most part the pace is excellent and I can see the actors settling more into the rhythm of that New York banter throughout the season.
This is a wonderful offering from STARC productions and I wish them a successful season with full houses. Go! Be enlightened : this is not a play that will be performed too often in Australia and if you love theatre, it should be seen.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.