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Alisha Gaddis, Eddie Sharpe, Before the lights go out Alisha Gaddis, Eddie Sharpe, Before the lights go out
photo Heidrun Löhr
The clock is stuck at midnight. Clouds float past the moon. It’s a dangerous and unsettled night. At a microphone in the centre of the space, a woman continually brushes her teeth while closely watching the entering audience, the amplified sound of her brushing overlaid with the sound of a stuck record needle. Everything in the mise en scène, like the clock, is unable to move forward.

It’s an ominous and potent opening image, one of a number in PACT Youth Theatre’s Before the lights go out. At its best, this performance demonstrates an elegant blend of sophisticated direction, evocative sound design and atmospheric video coupled with detailed movement scores executed by a veritable army of 19 highly disciplined and well-trained young performers. However, while technically impressive and enthusiastically performed, this is not PACT at its best. After some truly memorable recent productions (including the Trojan war epic Song of Ghosts and the wonderfully realised ambition of Crime Sites), this latest work was disappointing. Despite the quality of individual elements, the performance felt to me to be less than the sum of its parts.

In Armageddon (1998), Michael Bay’s trashy mega budget sci-fi disaster movie, the Earth is doomed to imminent destruction due to a rogue asteroid “bigger than Texas” locked into a collision course. The only thing that can save us all is a scruffy team of oil drillers and a big old nuclear bomb. Capitalism at its most aggressive and self-righteous carries the day.

An asteroid looms large over Before the lights go out as well, blazing a fiery trail repeatedly across the multiple projection screens high above the platforms and alphabet blocks of the set. The asteroid sets a tone of impending doom, but this time it seems that capitalism is somehow the culprit. At least contemporary capitalism gets much of the blame from the parade of outsiders who appear in the performance. The performers declare in various guises that over-consumption, environmental degradation and the dehumanising of the less fortunate are all ‘bad’, but these declarations never go beyond this, neither reaching a critical mass nor building tension by being impossible to resolve. They’re simply there, like the asteroid, ready to strike, but never arriving.

The program notes state that the work is driven by the belief that “over-consumption is a fundamental global problem” and that “something has to change fast before it’s too late.” So despite the asteroid painted clearly on the video screens, the crisis the show wants the audience to contemplate is one of our own making. And yet it never remains firm in its convictions on this point, seeming to want to have it both ways. Sometimes the frame of the show is of a doomed world in which any action is futile since nothing can stop the asteroid. At other times the asteroid becomes a metaphor for the destructive impulses of capitalist over-consumption.

Both frames set the performers wallowing in the detritus of culture-op-shop costuming, a supermarket shopping trolley and the cultural trash of a game show that spontaneously begins midway through the show. The game show format, while a performance cliché, has potential here, and occasions some witty one-liners, but like everything else in the production, it slips away. “I feel like shit” one of the performers cheerfully sings, and lists a series of things he feels badly about, but never seems to do anything about. It’s a fun idea, but like everything else, it subsides into the general sense of apathy. A digital countdown reaches zero, and then starts counting down again as if nothing has happened. It seems that the end is always nigh, but the show keeps rolling on.

In its desire to be everything at once (the curse of so many productions with large casts, where each performer deserves a ‘moment’), the piece lacks a solid dramaturgical anchor that might have transformed the flow of happenings in Before the lights go out into a rich and satisfying performance work.

PACT Youth Theatre, Before the lights go out, director Regina Heilmann, assistant director Chris Murphy, performers 2005 imPACT Ensemble, creative input & movement consultant Chris Ryan, set & costume designer Kate Shanahan, video & multimedia designer Rolando Ramos, additional video Teik Kim Pok, sound designer Liberty Kerr, lighting designer Richard Montgomery, production manager Chris Axelsen, dramaturgical input Bryoni Tresize; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Dec 7-11, 2005

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 32

© David Matthews; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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