Review by Stephanie Lee
Writer Paris Balla and their Co-director Sarah Branton spoke on opening night about hoping young queer audiences will be able to see to see themselves in way they haven’t before on the stage. With the show being a part of the VCE playlist this year, I think that their aspirations will be realised. Owl and The Albatross at Theatre Works is a little beacon of hope for change not without struggle but also not facing insurmountable obstacles.
The play follows protagonist Owl, a non-binary young teen deeply concerned about the state of the world’s climate. When smoke covers the city so bad that Owl can’t go anywhere without an inhaler, they are forced to move to the seaside with their Pa who lives alone in a lighthouse. While living with their Pa, Owl befriends surf lifesaver Jack and rescues an albatross.
Owl and The Albatross deals with both climate change and gender, as Owl fights the school on archaic ideas of binary centred uniform arguing that there are more pressing issues than Owl wearing shorts to school. It is a story with big heart, a bold voice and important messaging that young people will undoubtedly connect with in many different ways.
The production design is fairly simple except for the puppetry, with the set consisting of a wooden structure reminiscent of a pier that the actors constantly stand or sit on. The puppetry created by Jason Lehane, is wonderful with each stage of the Albatrosses life held in a different puppet. The interaction between cast and puppet is incredibly moving at times, particularly when cups their hands to feed the albatross. The show truly used stage puppetry in a meaningful way.
Lighting design by Kyra Ryan and sound design by Callum Cheah both supported the action well, embellishing theatrical moments beautifully and clearly setting the scene to create different locations with the static set. At times the sound was a little loud, however, the actors still managed to speak over it and the words were not lost.
The ensemble like cast supporting Geo Valentine as Owl work together to tell the story in a highly embodied way. There’s an almost chorus-like quality despite each member also playing a specific character in the piece. Geo as Owl captured the character’s mix of boldness and wanting to be accepted well, acting as a solid central figure for the audience to follow the story. Supporting Geo is Don Bridges as Owl’s loveable, caring Pa Albert, Oliver Ayres as the genuine best friend Jack, Cassandra Hart as a stern Jane, and Mikaela Innes as the skilled puppeteer. Each actor brought their own energy to the piece, working effectively both as a collective and as stand-alone performers.
Perhaps most interestingly, the story connects different generations with Owl, their mother/teacher and Albert trying to connect. Owl’s ability to feel seen by their Pa and not their mother explores what it means to support gender-queer youth and how any level of rejection can feel like a rejection of their entire being.
Owl and the Albatross is a beautifully moving piece of theatre that is funny, heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. It is exciting to think that VCE students will be learning about and unpacking it!
Image Credit: Paris Bella