Thursday, March 15, 2018

Oedipus Schmoedipus - Canberra Theatre

An anatomy lesson on death (photo by Rob Maccoll)

Review by John Lombard

“I’m going to die.”

Oedipus Schmoedipus rests on a great idea: ransack the classic plays by “Great White” males for death scenes, and stitch them together in a gory and glorious absurdist romp.

And that is exactly what Post performers Mish Grigor and Shelly Lauman delivered in the first ten minutes of the performance. The darkness lifted on the pair dressed all in white in front of a white backdrop, like a pair of sociopathic painters. In a montage set to rap they then re-enacted a cavalcade of death scenes: tongues were cut out, hands severed, poison quaffed, and there was every variation of stabbing. The blood that spurted out decorated both the set and the performers’ clothes.

After this strong opening, the play opted for a deliberate lull: cleaners tried to mop the stage, filling it with more blood before finally wiping it clean. While this sequence was intended to defuse our expectations, it went on for too long, and erased the momentum created by the strong opening.

The pair returned with microphones, and begin an oral dissertation on their theme: death in theatre. Theatrical death has weird rituals: the dead body must always be surrounded by candles, mourners inevitably shake with grief, and the dying always need some snappy last words.

These descriptions were acted out by an ad hoc troupe recruited mostly from Canberra local theatre. This group was given only a few hours prep, and followed instructions on a teleprompter: odd numbers shake, or evens wail. In an absurdist flourish one of these local performers carked it quite early, and spent the rest of the night lying on the stage as a dead lump. A lot of the fun came from watching this barely oriented group being thrust into weird situations.

The performance had a tendency to over-explain itself, and highlighted a lack of inclusion in the classical canon at the expense of the more relevant, but equally ripe for satire treatment of death in modern plays. The pair made a joke about the title of Angels in America, but the content of a 1991 play about death by a gay playwright was outside the show’s satirical remit. Even Willy Loman’s famous demise was too "modern" to make the cut.

The volunteer performers took over the stage for the finale, each individual - young and old - making a sober announcement that they were going to die, before performing a choreographed boogie of death.

The show was sometimes moving, and sometimes very funny, but the analytical approach to the topic struggled to match the visceral energy of the opening. Often the night felt like a revue of loosely connected sketches rather than a unified idea: famous death scenes were put on the spit, but not turned enough to receive a full roast.

Oedipus Schmoedipus entertains, but puts the catharsis before the hearse.