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Nuclear family gameplay

Jonathan Marshall

Luke Elliot, Jessamy Dyer, Gamegirl Luke Elliot, Jessamy Dyer, Gamegirl
photo Ross Bird
Director Rose Myers and Arena have long been addressing 2 major challenges in producing young people’s theatre: how to theatrically engage adolescents whose major cultural references are popular television, movies and music; and how to produce theatre which is educationally or morally instructive without being didactic. The consistent, a priori linking of juvenile aesthetics to instruction—however ambiguous—has secured Arena considerable resources and impressive multimedia technologies. It has, however, also reduced the inherent complexity of the company’s work.

Gamegirl deals with the emotional conflicts experienced by Lila following her parents’ separation. Lila is shown using a gaming environment to ‘work through’ her emotional conflicts. Writer Maryanne Lynch’s elementary metaphors lie at the opposite end of the spectrum to the complex Christian or feminist symbolism of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Ursula LeGuin’s fiction for young people. The game character of the “Weeping Woman”, for example, unsurprisingly represents the mother. Lynch is nevertheless to be commended for presenting gameplay itself as positive: a rare phenomenon in depictions authored by adults.

Revelations within the play suggest that earlier paternal infidelity during the marriage caused the break-up, yet the piece ends with a ‘happy families’ conclusion that sees father, mother and children all embracing following a brief period of largely implied parental friction. This is presumably to foster supportive post-show discussion with school groups, but the blatantly contrived simplicity of the finale blunts the theatrical affect and interest of Gamegirl. Previous darker Arena productions like Panacea (1998) and Play Dirty (2002) have also tended to channel their exuberant and technically sophisticated energies into a fairly banal closing motto of ‘have confidence in oneself and everything will come out alright.’ The trade-off between aesthetic stimulation and confidence building seems to produce dramaturgically mixed results.

This is, however, to take a particularly sharp and adult (though not inappropriate) eye to Arena. Gamegirl also brims with Myers’ strengths, although the performances are somewhat uneven. Myers largely resists turning the father’s ditsy girlfriend into a comic villain but this leaves actor Amanda Douge little to do but wander around looking dim and uncomfortable. Luke Elliot though is excellent as the father, his gently assertive yet consistently felt physical presence making even the mother’s cartoonish boyfriend (complete with cheesy grin, blond wig and a macho, bent-leg pose) appear sympathetic—if at a loss before the children. Jessamy Dyer as Lila is moreover suitably charismatic and confident, if at times brittle.

The most interesting development in this work is in the gaming projections from Anna Tregloan and Cazerine Barry. Arena has previously employed slick and in some cases custom-designed multimedia tools, from the revolving screen which encircled the performance space for Eat Your Young (2000) to the ingenious use of weather balloons as screens in Panacea. Here, real time projections of Lila are matted onto animations shown on 2 screens above and behind the stage. Rather than exhibiting the company’s typically glossy aesthetic, the gaming design consists of rough, shuddering montages of ingeniously assembled cut-outs and scraps. The visual mapping and animation is jerky and imperfect, stressing the provisional nature of this fantasy and its construction from shards of experience, post-industrial cast-offs and cultural tropes. The setting of such overt formal ambiguities amidst the otherwise closed circuit of Gamegirl’s narrative helps punch holes in the simplistic dramaturgy, creating a space for dreaming and allusion. In short, this design enables real play.

Gamegirl is a pleasing, accessible and not entirely unchallenging young person’s theatre piece. I have reservations though. Having attended the recent festival of director Hayao Miyazaki’s gob-smackingly inventive, disorientating and yet hugely affective animations such as Spirited Away (2001)—also made for children—one cannot help but suspect we are selling young people short if we accept that youth theatre cannot be as abstract or complicated as the music produced by the 6 year old Mozart.

Arena Theatre Company, Gamegirl, writer Maryanne Lynch, director Rose Myers; performers Jessamy Dyer, Dave Lawson, Carole Patullo, Luke Elliot, Amanda Douge; Playhouse Theatre, Perth, Awesome Festival, November 24-27, 2004

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 38

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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