“Here is the part where we tell you what the play is about”, reads the description of the Periscope Productions production of Lally Katz’s The Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, helpfully giving away nothing except an ominous self-awareness that carries through from website to stage. “Come and watch us play”, it begs. “Play” is the key word for this performance, the central idea that the staging, costumes and characters revolve around. It certainly is playful, in that childlike way, without awareness of boundaries, empathy or violence.
The play contains three parts, “the Fag from Zagreb”, “Back to the Cafeteria” and “At Last”, all woven together by a tumbling ensemble of bears and string. The first act is by far the strongest. Eric Gardiner, shoveled into a private school boy’s uniform, cuts a depressed figure as Jeremy – part teenager, part man, disconnected from himself. Angus Dowell is an insensitive amoral insert as the Apocalypse Bear himself, countering Jeremy’s barbs and physicality from within a fraying bear suit. The two actors play well off each other, particularly vocally. Gardiner’s steady volume is foiled by the blunt tonal shifts of Dowell, only build into a frightening crescendo as Dowell falls closer to silence. “The Fag from Zagreb” is also the most well written of the three parts. It’s exemplary of the best of Katz’s writing – thick, dark humour, images conjured solely through dialogue, subtext ever-present.
It’s a pity the play didn’t end there. The second act focused on Maddi Cullen as Sonya, a lonely wife come school girl. Cullen’s acting is solid, but that’s about it. Her presence feels small, a thin line next to the messy circle that is Dowell and the Apocalypse Bear. She is too subtle and naturalistic for the fantastical, dual time-frame world of the play, successful as a giggling high schooler but unconvincing as a neglected wife. The physical contrast that works so well for Gardiner – the man in boy’s clothing – is played as the opposite here, and it hinders the surrealism of the scene. Perhaps an older actor, or at least the costume of an older woman, would’ve helped lift “Back to the Cafeteria” from frivolity into something as playful as the opening sequence. It doesn’t help that this section has hints of the memoristic tone that develops in Katz’s later works (something I’m on record as disliking), cutting right back on the weirdness of the Apocalypse Bear and relying solely on time dilation as its point of non-reality.
“At Last” brings Sonya and Jeremy together, leaving the Apocalypse Bear lurking quietly in the shadows. Again, the writing here is less provocative and more introspective. Cullen and Gardiner lift their characters straight off the page, playing them as one dimensional lost souls grabbing at each other in the dark. It is clever, sure, but not particularly engaging. The most engaging part of “At Last” is Sonya’s recounting of her dream. Staged with sheets, shadows and the bear ensemble, the story is both graceful and frightening. Cullen’s soft, young voice works to wonderful effect here; the childish trauma of the dream flowing across the stage in full force. Peter Danastasio‘s lighting design is one of the unexpected highlights of the production.
Then there is the bear ensemble. Opening the performance, frolicking between acts, quietly positioning themselves throughout the scenes. Every member looks to be having a wonderful time, to be sure, and their opening sequence builds an atmosphere of playfulness that lays the foundation for the rest of the play. Yet a lot of the work done in these first few moments is undone by later scenes. The string imagery is clever, but by the time the stylised violence begins it’s hard not to wonder what the point of it is. Everything that particular scene seems to be saying is already present in the play as thematic resonances. Likewise, the joyful encouragement of the audience to clap at the end of each part utterly undercuts the uncanny dramatic tension each scene has worked hard to build.
The Apocalypse Bear Trilogy is a dark, messy thing, like the woods from whence it came. It stumbles over its own roots at it reaches out for your heart forlornly. Clearly it encourages the poetic, does away with the naturalistic, and leaves its audience with something to play with.
The Apocalypse Bear Trilogy is on at the Guild Theatre in Union House, at the University of Melbourne, from now until the 13th of August. Performances start at 7:30pm. Tickets are $20 or $15 concession, and are available both online and at the door. On Friday the 12th of August there will be an Aslan interpreter present, and a tactile tour of the stage available. This production accepts Companion Cards.