essiezoe_optMy last review of the year- I may very well squeeze a review of the year in theatre- but this is the last show I was needing to write up… which I will admit was a little tricky for a couple of reasons- the opening night being on the 23rd of December… also thinking alot about Verbatim theatre as a style/genre of theatre making, what it means for The Sydney Theatre Company to be so closely linked to an international community of filmmakers and yet seemingly so far away or disconnected from Sydney’s Theatre community.

I will take a little moment to think about what it means for two of the last shows of the main stage season to be directed by a foreign guest directors (and both film practitioners)- my interest in discussion is not necessarily the “foreign” aspect- but the film aspect.

When I was writing my thesis all those years ago on audience reception theory of a new Australian play one of my interviewed subjects made the comment along the line of theatre as the place where people learn before they become film makers… and it seems in this age of CateNAndrew that its where filmmakers go to feel legitimized as artists. I find it stunning that an opportunity is given of this kind to a filmmaker (with no noted theatre credits in the program) and is not afforded to some of the local Sydney Theatre directors… Nice to note that Cat was there on opening- but did not make the speech- I believe she had arrived back from the Streetcar tour that morning… Andrew made a speech which hinted at risk and innovation… again I’m not really sure what he was referring to- putting a show int he hands of a filmmaker? Letting someone have a slot for a verbatim piece of theatre? Verbatim theatre in general? Programming something that hasn’t been written yet? Regardless, his speech was again a recitation of the program and the sponsors more than a comment on the work itself.

In addition to this I find it somewhat patronizing to the theatre directors of Sydney and beyond that according to the STC website “Steven Soderbergh is donating his fees for Tot Mom to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Sydney Theatre Company will make no profit from this production.” One wonders about the Australian missing and exploited children- will Neil Armfield head over to NYC to direct the Opera of Lindy Chamberlin’s story and donate it to an Aussie charity?

Is Soderbergh slumming it in theatre in Sydney? Well if you stuck around opening night- you would have seen some guerilla filming happening- a “side project” I heard about- seemingly based on a mock production of Chekov’s The Three Sisters- with faux opening night speeches in the tone of a satire of the theatre industry.

Despite the reservations I have about the STC programming choices and their social and industry implications- the fact of the matter is that TOT MOM as a show, is a little on the dull side. Once you have finished being overwhelmed (which will tyake 20 minutes) by the screens (and the conservative part of who I am is a little annoyed that the screen/mobile/ipod-free sacred space of the theatre has been cluttered with screens), and impressed buy the accent work as perfected by voice coach Jennifer White, and by the collection of actors assembled onstage…. once the smoke screen of that has cleared you will notice a few things.
1. This is an editted re-enactment of a TV show… not necessarilly progressive in the realm of verbatim theatre.
2. The case and the story of Caylee is the most unimportant aspect of the message- the message is about American journalism and media- hence why the case can still be underway and it’s result does not influence the show.
3. There is a few structural problems (yes I said problems and they should not to be confused with “innovation”) with the script- including a third act introduction of a similar case about a missing 5 year old called Hayley- which seems to be included so the parent’s appeal- a heart warming reminded that they are ” real people with real lives” can be included in the show- but really without any other justification. And a clumsy false ending which was greeted with applause 4 minutes before the end of the show. There are other problems with this script- namely the very rudimentary portrayal of the search for Caylee’s body.
4. The strange emotionlessness of it all- in that I was not angered by this commentary on the American Media, I was not surprised, I was not moved, I was not disturbed- it was curiously intellectually un-nourishing.
5. The program notes are more interesting than the show- and the discourse within the program notes showed an interesting idea- which did not quite translate beyond what we already assume/know about American TV, celebrity and the American Justice System.
6. If this show was mounted in Florida where Nancy Grace is known, the case is known and the culture is being commented on- I think I would have by far had a greater respect for the act of commenting on the American Media and Culture- but as it is- presented in an Australian city to people who don’t know the case nor the celebrity journalist Nancy Grace- the comment is dis-empowered.
7. As a script- this is really a film.

Culturally- I think we have a great objectivity towards American media- and a great understanding of its corruption of justice and it’s love of opinion and sensationalism so this becomes an exercise in preaching to the converted… which was effective for about 20 minutes and then repeated for the remaining 70 minutes.

My review as published

When walking The Wharf’s long glass corridor earlier this year, one of the shows programmed for The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2009 Season stood apart from the others, sporting the image of what could be understood as a cluttered dressing room filled with props, costumes and even a disco ball- Steven Soderberg’s “Untitled.”
That untitled project has since found its title: “Tot Mom” and is as American as it is palindromic. Soderberg’s project is 90 minutes of verbatim theatre where in all the transcripts are taken directly from the source- primarily The Nancy Grace Show- covering the disappearance of Caylee Anthony a 2 year old girl.

In July 2008, 22 year old mother Casey Anthony reports her child, Caylee Anthony is missing at the insistence of her parents George and Cindy Anthony. The missing person’s case quickly becomes a murder case when “evidence of human decomposition” is found in Casey’s Anthony’s car and she is incarcerated within the month for child neglect, lying to investigators and interfering with a criminal investigation.

Five huge screens hang in the Wharf 1 Theatre- on which the god-like presence of Nancy Grace (Essie Davis) vocally puppeteers the 36 characters who come into play during the presentation and discussion of the case. The ensemble, consisting of well-loved theatre actors (Wayne Blair, Zoe Carides, Darren Gilshenan, Glenn Hazeldine, Genevieve Hegney, Damon Herriman, Peter Kowitz, Rhys Muldoon, Emma Palmer) are lined up on stage on basic black chairs numbered 1 to 9- from which they spring forth and deliver up to 11 characters each. In front of the seated actors is a small patch of marsh/swap in which silent searches are conducted between scenes. Designers Peter England, Tess Schofield and Damien Cooper have located the production very much in a theatrical space- despite the obvious importance of screens in this production.

Steven Soderbergh’s feature film career is a dynamic list of popular/mainstream and celebrated Arthouse classics including Academy Award winning Traffic, Oscar nominated Erin Brockovich, Palme d’Or winning Sex, Lies and Videotape (as writer), the recently released The Girlfriend Experience (as featured at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival) and currently released The Informant! staring Matt Damon. His producer and executive producer credits in film are lengthy and impressive- a canon of work which is mind boggling- where does he find the time? So it comes as no surprise to learn that he has been shooting a side project with the actors in Tot Mom whilst creating the show.

This is not verbatim theatre in which there is consultation with the people or the story being presented- but rather an embodied edit of cleverly re-enacted televised interrogation by an American current affairs presenter. The show highlights the quantity of people who weigh-in and are able to capitalise on the tragedy of others, the hype which surrounds infanticide, the vulturistic manner in which journalism picks at the lives of others, the highly manipulative way in which we are lead into opinions, or forced to remember heros who are summed up by their social tags. The show is commentary on commentary- and within the first twenty minutes we are suitably in shock and horrified at the mechanism of reality made entertainment: this time this is reality made entertainment and then realistically parodied. Nothing we don’t already know.

As with many multi-voiced verbatim theatre plays- the actors transform between characters (with the exception of Essie Davis) – a very fun party trick to see how a posture, a baseball cap, a stance can completely change the actor from one persona to another: and despite the commentary on commentary , this becomes the sole novelty of this production.