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Review: Playing Face at Shopfront Arts Co-op

By Naomi Hamer

We open with a bare stage bathed in red light and four separate piles of clothes scattered throughout the stage as the actors walk out in their underwear. We hear a prerecorded voiceover that explains the meaning behind Playing Face: “To pretend to be what you believe you should be; or to perform the persona you believe yourself to have; or to play the role you have been assigned so well that your true self falls away, and what is left, is just a face." And then the actors begin to dress themselves. Violet Young and her alcoholic virtuosic partner Mr Wilde stand together but apart upstage and Mr and Mrs King stand similarly at the back, talking at each other. There are hints of underlying rage and anger coming from both male partners early on but it’s still so subtle that it almost feels remiss of me to mention. In between these live moments we see snippets from previous episodes of Mr and Mrs King’s reality show Living with the Kings. On screen we see a shiny, happy, perfect couple but on stage we see two people barely holding it together. It is in the midst of this that the Wild Violets, a famous musical duo - with issues of their own - are joining the Kings for three days to film the season finale of Living with the Kings. And we’re all waiting with bated breath for their performance on the last day but will the couples make it out alive?

For a performance that relies so heavily on the screen, it felt out of place not to be translating the screen as directly on stage as possible, particularly by using the props seen on screen. Props such as kitchen utensils and trays of food and drinking glasses would have enhanced the reality of the perfect facade that the Kings were trying to keep up as they were gestured to and mimed on many occasions including when Mrs King made lunch for Mr Wilde at the piano and when Mr King served dinner menacingly to his wife. Although arguably significant, the only two props that had a physical appearance on stage were a kitchen knife and a bottle of Penfolds wine but this would have translated better on stage if everything was mimed or everything was present. Apart from this, the live and mediatised images integrated harmoniously, the screen showing the carefully crafted facade that the Kings and Wild Violet’s were slowly losing their grip on while buckling under each other’s manipulation on the stage. I found this to be a particularly interesting comment on our own perceptions of our identities, domestic violence, anger and mental health which each served as underlying tensions for the characters on stage.

At the same time writer and director Cassie Hamilton talks about gender identity being an equally significant theme coming from her experiences as a trans woman. Although it didn’t translate as successfully on stage apart from being subtly hinted at through Mr King’s (Harold Phipps) interest in Ms Young’s (Anna Lambert) red velour dress which he steals from her, blaming his wife before later meeting Ms Young in private and wearing her dress. Perhaps this was lost in translation compared to the other themes because as Hamilton states in the program notes, the story and the characters were built to service her message. Each character was written to represent a different way we approach identity as opposed to purposely being written as nuanced individuals. Apart from this the ensemble carried the show equally with the power balances between the characters shifting back and forth throughout the play particularly through Mr Wilde’s alcoholic fueled rage, played by a misunderstood Carl Gregory. Stephanie Priest’s Mrs King was an equally erratic figure on stage beneath the doting and well kept wife she put on for the camera until everyone’s realities graphically and horrifically collided in the final scenes between their glossy on screen alter egos and off screen realities. The repeated lyrics and Anna Lambert’s vocals of The Wild Violets new song echoing throughout the performance but none so much as in the final moments “You can’t break my heart cause there ain’t one there...”

Written, directed and composed by Cassie Hamilton, Playing Face bills itself as blending farce, murder-mystery, camp, absurdism and horror to deliver an experience like no other. Hamilton’s costumes and sound design all help to carve the perfect image we see on screen. Lyndon Buckley’s lighting design serves the show well. His red lighting before the show began, a foreshadowing of the events to come. Accompanist Kieran Norman’s performance brings Mr Wildes virtuosic music to life and underscores the show. Produced by Newcastle based emerging artist and not for profit Bearfoot Theatre which bills itself as the Hunter Region’s leading LGBTIQA+ theatre company, Playing Face is an experimental play on what we know of reality tv - that there is often little reality to it - with added gore and perhaps a deeper exploration of identity when the cameras are switched off - depending on the reality show of course.

Playing Face is playing at Shopfront Arts Co-op in Carlton from 23 - 26 October 2019.

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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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