Saturday, 4 December 1999

Mental by Back to Back Theatre, 4 Dec 1999

At Athenaeum II until December 12, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

One of the first and most riveting images in Mental is that of a live dog, caged in a wall of pet travel containers. He is set high on the back wall in his prison: well lit, isolated, confused and barking. Or is he simply barking mad?

He is part of one of three interwoven stories told by Geelong's Back to Back Theatre, which has, as its core members, five actors with some level of intellectual disability. The style, content and performers are, once again, compelling.

The company, with Artistic Director, Bruce Gladwin and three outside actors, has devised stories about intellectual capacity.

In one, Rover, a human-sized fluffy puppy, played by Jim Russell (or is that Jack Russell?) is abused then evicted by Toni, his owner (Sonia Teuben) for soiling the floor. He finds himself part of Dr. Terrance's (Darren Riches) laboratory experiment that enhances his intelligence to international chess-playing levels.

There is a very disturbing moment when he has sex with his nurse and runs off into the night with her.

Meanwhile Toni, his dejected owner, is dumped by her lover and replaced as a phone counsellor by a computer counselling program (Fiona Todd). Ironically, after her anger abates, Toni turns to the Pentium 5500 for help.

In the third narrative, a middle-aged woman (Genevieve Morris) is forced to care for her ageing father (Mark Deans) who suffers with dementia. This is the most moving and real story. Its final poignant image between father and daughter, when the roles of parent and child have been swapped, brings tears to the eye.

The style is broad, non-naturalistic and often clown-like. Concepts of intelligence are addressed, although this is just a jumping-off point for stories rather than an analysis of human intelligence.

The stories are confusing at times but remain entertaining. The visual elements of video design (Rhian Hinkler) and set (Bruce Gladwin) and original music (Hugh Covell) are essential to the show's success.

It is odd to observe that this style, as well as the professional actors, video design, director and composer, now appear to be shared by Arena Theatre and Back to Back. Is there no room for Back to Back to have an individual style?

by Kate Herbert

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