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Online e-dition 18 Sept, 2013

A life too short, a momentary tragedy

Benjamin Brooker: Rita Kalnejais, Babyteeth, STCSA

Matt Crook, Lawrence Mau, Danielle Catanzariti, Babyteeth, STCSA Matt Crook, Lawrence Mau, Danielle Catanzariti, Babyteeth, STCSA
photo Shane Reid
A protracted gasp somewhere in the auditorium. An incredulous intake of breath? A snore? A derisory snort? No. Something darker. A shout, and the houselights go up, actors frozen on stage, suddenly displaced. The audience files out as green-jacketed paramedics file in. “She’s okay,” word comes down the line a little while later; a drop in blood pressure, she’ll go on, but some unexpected synchrony seems to have taken place, this irruption of the real underscoring playwright Rita Kalnejais’ overriding theme: the fragility of life in the face of omnipresent mortality.

Babyteeth charts, with filmic concentration, the last days in the life of Milla (Danielle Catanzariti), a fourteen-year-old with a terminal illness. The play is bookended by her death in the company of an unlikely bestie, gormless twenty-five-year-old druggie Moses (Matt Crook) whom Milla meets while waiting for her train after school. Fraught, fractured individuals surround them: Milla’s parents, Henry (Chris Pitman) and Anna (Claire Jones), her Latvian violin tutor Gidon (Paul Blackwell), her pregnant neighbour Toby (Alyssa Mason). The milieu, amplified by director Chris Drummond’s fussy, televisual instincts is again filmic, part Alan Ball, part David Lynch in its dark, coiled domesticity and depiction of suburban unease. Milla’s illness has pushed Anna towards seemingly irreversible neurosis, Henry, a psychologist, into smiling stereotypy and professional corruption. These are “etherised” lives, measured out, like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “in coffee spoons.”

As Milla’s lifeforce wanes, her hair falling out—reducing the already slight Catanzariti to a glinting, gossamer ghost—it seems to take root elsewhere. Toby’s imminent baby is its physical manifestation. Gidon’s precocious Vietnamese student Thuong (Lawrence Mau or James Min on alternate nights) seems also to represent something that will be lost once Milla has gone. The moment when, provoked by her mother’s coaxing and the pain beginning to wrack her tiny body, she hurls her violin to the floor mid-practice, is one of the play’s most affecting. We share, then, for the first time, Milla’s knowledge that she will not live long enough to get as good as Thuong, that whatever promise she possesses—as a musician or, indeed, as anything else—will never be fulfilled.

Finally there is Moses, the object of Milla’s affection and prematurely burgeoning sexual ambition. There is, in their lovemaking, a further transmission of life. It is one of the final acts of Milla’s too short life and, like life, it is confused and unsatisfying. Moses may retain something, but what? A chemical memory? A point of access to a world normally refused him? Kalnejais does not provide a ready answer, nor position Milla as a redeeming angel. Their relationship—fumbling, clingy, unarticulated—remains shrouded in ambiguity even as its great charm overcomes our initial discomfort at the age gap and the sometimes brutal discrepancies in social status. As Moses, Matt Crook, in a contained and intelligent performance, lends the underwritten part of Moses depth and dignity, but it is Danielle Catanzariti who most impresses, finding endlessly variegated shades of emotional and physical nuance as both Milla’s body and innocence diminish.

Kalnejais asks that, at the play’s end, the stage revolves to reveal a negative image of the play’s opening scene. Milla’s incorporeal presence hovers on the outside looking in, peering through set designer Wendy Todd’s oversized wooden slats into the family home; her life, suddenly, without her in it. Light streams in from seemingly distant sources. Thuong plays something on the violin which swirls heavenwards like the first movement of Górecki’s Symphony No 3. Softly, dreamily, the stage is saturated with light and sound.

Milla’s tragedy, momentarily, defocuses the everyday, transcending the ordinary illusions and transgressions that we know will continue to master the lives of those she knew in life. It is these cracked, unresolved stories—of Milla’s mum and dad, of Moses, Gidon and Toby—which an elegiac death cannot reduce and which, in the end, may give the heart the greatest cause to ache—life as fragile, blundering onwards.

State Theatre Company of South Australia, Babyteeth, writer Rita Kalnejais, director Chris Drummond, designer Wendy Todd, lighting Geoff Cobham, composer Hilary Kleinig; Space Theatre, 16 Aug-7 Sept

See Keith Gallasch's review of the premier production of Babyteeth at Belvoir

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. web

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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