By James Ong
Entering the final stretch of the 2019 Sydney Fringe Festival, I admit I am starting to feel the fatigue. The sheer volume of new works coming through our streets is at once energising for the soul and taxing to the stamina. However, the newest production to hit the Emerging Artist Hub in Erskineville, Kallistēi is a bold shot of energy. The debut production for newly established Yellow Handle Theatre Company, Kallistēi assembles a diverse team of young artists to tackle a classic Ancient Greek tale.
Appropriating the classic story of the Trojan war, playwright Erin Middleton has shifted the main voice to one that is much less often heard. Cassandra of Troy, played by kinetic and vigorous Ash Richardson, foresees the impending tragedy that awaits her home and loved ones, but is repeatedly shut down and rejected in each attempt to inform the powers that be. We soon realise that her being invalidated is driven by the misogynistic and patriarchal framework under which they live and worship: men and gods domineer over women and goddesses (to the point of self destruction). The Greek gods are not all-knowing or all-powerful, nor are they intended to be.
They are very real in their flaws, manipulations and capriciousness, and act as humans do when granted status, power and privilege: awfully and maliciously. The veil here is very thin indeed.
The main soaring accomplishment of this production is in the visual and tech design. Director Zoe Tomaras wrangled the different departments to ensure all aspects of costume, set, lighting and sound were handled with restraint and a deft touch, delicately inferring a Grecian aesthetic with a contemporary twist. Rhiaan Marquez (also a performer!) lead the costume design, leaning on flowing dresses, silk shirts and cuffed chinos, to draw upon a modern day Greece, with muted brown and bronze tones lending a sense of age and regality upon which the actors could build their godly status. Harsh fluorescent lighting along the boundaries of the stage framed the lateral space well and provided physical and tonal dimension to scenes as necessary. Lighting and Image designers Cheng Tang (another performer!) and Matthew Murphy (not a performer!) wisely kept the set minimal, allowing the light fixtures to dazzle in their tasteful simplicity.
A somewhat inconsistent cast couldn’t quite match the same subtlety as was achieved by the design aspects, instead aiming for bold and emphatic performances. With each of the 7 actors portraying multiple roles, I did find myself confused at times in discerning who was who; variety of character was sorely missing at certain points. One thing that did help in the contrasting of characters was the use of small golden pendants to indicate a godly status - a simple piece of jewellery helped highlight the shift between basic human and almighty deity in a swift and easily read manner.
As the short play progresses, casually demeaning remarks evolve into direct assaults and the gravity of oppression is laid on thick. We wrap up with a direct address to the audience, with the cast listing out straight facts about violence towards women in modern Australia, but also about the attitudes shown towards them. There is a significant amount of damage done through the dismissal and condescension thrown at those who are calling out their abusers. Though the ending is sobering in its effect, the deep impact didn’t end up hitting me as hard as I feel was being aimed for. The ancient setting and classical context builds a theatrical representation of abuse and discrimination, which can then be undercut as real world fear, heartbreak and anger snaps us back to reality. However, the characters themselves seemed off; not feel fully fleshed out or realised, and acting as conduits for social commentary, rather than as independent figures with unique logic. Oftentimes it would seem the the playwright used a stream-of-consciousness to write the more emotional monologues, driving home a powerful modern voice, but breaking the tone and context that the show has built thus far. In this sense, I couldn’t establish full empathy with any of the main characters and the intended gut punch slightly missed the mark. That being said, the central themes of the piece were condensed and actualised well, helping me to leave the space more informed than I entered.
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