Review By Thomas Gregory
Isabella Perversi is no stranger when it comes to writing about the problems of modern adulthood. Her previous work, “Ember” was nominated for the Best in Theatre 2020 award and was accepted as part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. From the very first lines of “What rhymes with orange?”, it is clear we are watching a writer that knows how to deliver dialogue steeped in realism, and actors that knows how to draw the subtext from behind the words.
“What rhymes with orange?” is a play about a modern relationship on the edge of a cliff, but also a play about the parts of adulthood we rarely discuss - the fear of physical aging, the loss of the idealised freedoms of our youth, the loss of childhood companions we expected to be friends for life. The hypocritical nature of our desires is presented with empathy, rather than judgement, and it would be difficult to not, at least once, recognise yourself in a scene from the play. The play does touch on quite sensitive topics such as alcoholism and abortion and does so with love and understanding.
Told in a series of chapters, complete with headings and snappy musical interludes, we jump from a hospital bed to a school reunion, and the remaining hours after a funeral, all split up by the most intimate context of a relationship - the bedroom. These settings are represented on stage by cardboard boxes, pillows, and sheets. While I suspect that the use of the boxes came from a logistical need, Perversi clearly understands how negligible props are in this play. It is a production that stands not on what is done, but what is said.
In the wrong hands, productions of this play could end up quite mediocre. The characters are deeply flawed and, at least until the final scenes, there is no hero or villain. The breakdown of the relationship is not the spiraling affair, but one that has always sat on the precipice, just waiting for a push. Actors that offer too little in early scenes or too much in later ones would fail to fully appreciate the clever flow of tensions and release.
Fortunately, Isabella Perversi and Fabio Motta are both brilliant actors. Each able to hold their own during the confronting monologues, they also show complete respect for the relationship between their characters. Motta’s broken-hearted Tom presents all the hypocrisy and love the character holds, while Perversi captures the intensity of Rosie’s desires as well as she does the recognition of her faults.
It is always risky to perform in your own play, but Perversi works with the material given to her as an actor, not the material she had hoped to producer as a writer. The distinction is an important one and is clearly appreciated.
Unlike most of the productions that have moved to digital for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, “What rhymes with orange?” is one that works 100% as both a stage production and a film. While performed on stage, it has also been filmed and edited professionally by Mad Hatter Films. The cuts are kept to a minimum, offering the audience the ability to focus specifically on one character or another at times. It only emphasises how separate they are from each other. Scene changes become cinematic chapter placements. Most importantly, the sound effects and score can be added later, making for a cleaner viewing experience. Soundscapes are not simply afterthoughts or cheating ways to offer up settings; they are carefully chosen experiences to drag us into the complex world of the characters.
The play does suffer from a flaw - one that is as complex as the characters it presents.
Take any scene from “What rhymes with orange?” and you could easily mistake it as being from some Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. Placed together, however, these scenes highlight the things that would be found in such a play.
The heartache of unaligned aspirations, the natural fears that come with adulthood, and the stabbing pain of betrayal are all offered up with honesty and skill. But the reasons these two characters found each other in the first place, the reasons they persisted so long, are not only unexplored but untouched at all. What would bring two people who appear to be on completely different paths together? While would they hold on so long? It doesn’t benefit us that “so long” is so difficult to define, as well. Is what we watched the course of a year or five? And how long had Tom and Rosie been together when he landed in the hospital? Not being able to answer these questions hurts an otherwise incredible text.
Tom’s character is likewise incomplete. While we know of the specific passions that drive Rosie, we do not for her partner. We know he wants a family, and would perhaps like to travel. His interests, however, we do not. While we know how Rosie spends her days, who Tom is without her is a mystery.
In the end, this review leaves itself as inadequately hypocritical as the content of the play. A drop of wine, spilled accidentally during a party, would stand out no better than on a large white rug. Likewise, the flaws in this production stand out specifically because of the infallibility of what remains.
While not the perfect play, it is the unmissable one of the season.