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Review: Marisol + Robots Vs. Art at the Erskineville Town Hall

By Fred Pryce

The greatness of Sydney Fringe is in the can-do attitude emanating from dozens of shows, put on by up-and-coming artists in spaces you might not have ever even thought of before. Case in point: this double feature of one-act plays by Gradco. Studio, a collection of Sydney Theatre School graduates creating their own opportunities to perform. Both works presented are visions of the end of humanity, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Marisol, a 1992 play by José Rivera, is a strange and difficult work, a phantasmagoria of our collective fears of apocalypse. In fact, it’s positively eerie how much the play’s world has come closer to ours in the past 25 years, with a collapsing social structure, an increasingly absurd divide between rich and poor, and food and water poisoned through environmental destruction (coffee and apples are both referenced as being extinct). But Rivera’s vision is anything but literal, hinging upon angels waging revolution against God (trippy!). It’s also specifically a New York story, playing off the mythos of its culture and geography, and this is the root of this production’s problems. Most of the actors adopt a heavy Noo Yawk accent that doesn’t really exist anymore, on top of being difficult to perform, and any inconsistencies only highlighted how out of place the play seemed. This also relates to the venue, as Erskineville Town Hall isn’t suited to a play that should be atmospheric and transporting, given it already feels more like a rehearsal space than a theatre by default. And given this is a play about marginalised people, clearly tied to Rivera’s experience as a Puerto Rican immigrant in New York (with Marisol sharing this status), discrepancies in the replication of that place and people undermine the work. The production clearly understood the play’s rich mood and themes, but outside the setting and without a huge amount of resources, it’s hard to fully do them justice.  

What much more suited the space and budget level was Robots Vs. Art, an efficiently goofy comedy by Travis Cotton that details a world where hyper-intelligent robots have enslaved humans for their own purposes (such as mining, and making ‘food paste’). This world is much more literal, with context quickly explained through exposition in order to focus on the interactions between the robots and our requisite human, a former director who they have tasked with helping them surpass their final frontier: creating art. The stern Executive Master Bot’s attempt at playwriting is an account of the mechanics of a zinc manufacturing plant, and the robots’ lack of emotion (and therefore dramatic skill) is the main driver of humour throughout. The other robots, German Integrator Bot and Claw Bot, are very endearing in their simplistic approach to acting and deadpan reactions to Giles’ frustration (the human), and the choreography between the actors is often impressive. In fact, Giles is often the least enjoyable part of the play, as the character is saddled with constantly bemoaning the state of humanity, while also being constantly surprised that her robot overlords act, well, robotic. The play also does poke at some larger, existential issues about the nature of art and human existence, but is smart enough to always settle back into light comedy. Importantly, this is something that doesn’t feel out of place in the venue, with the DIY aesthetic adding to its charm, as well as being a recent, original Australian work. Both this and Marisol are well worth staging, and I hope the company continues to grow, and gain both resources and confidence.

Images Supplied

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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