Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Desire Under The Elms, July 8, 2016 **1/2


By Eugene O'Neill, by Sol III Company

Chapel off Chapel until July 24, 2016

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 8, 2016

 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts in print, possibly on Tues July 12, 2016. KH

  Timothy Smith, Garikai Jani, Sam Lavery
Greed, lust and betrayal sound like the plot of an ancient Greek tragedy but early 20th century American playwright, Eugene O'Neill, plunders these theatrical elements in his gritty play, Desire Under The Elms.

Andrei Schiller-Chan’s production captures only part of the emotional depth and dramatic tension in the text although O’Neill’s earthy, poetic writing demands to be heard.

When patriarch, Ephraim Cabot (Darren Mort), returns to his New England farm with his new, young, third wife, Abbie (Diana Brumen), his two older sons decide to leave for the California goldfields while their younger half-brother, Eben (Sam Lavery), stays and demands that he inherit the farm that belonged to his dead mother.

The ambitious and greedy Abbie seduces Eben into an adulterous relationship that turns to love, but the birth of a child sends this tortured family trio into chaos and, ultimately, tragedy.

The production maintains the eerie, grim quality of O’Neill’s story that is heightened by the rough-hewn and skeletal farmhouse design (Hahna Read OK) and evocative lighting (Travis Macfarlane OK).

However, the acting is patchy, the characterisations lack complexity and nuance, while the dramatic trajectory of this production does not effectively explore the peaks and troughs of O’Neill’s narrative.

O’Neill wrote the characters’ dialogue in colloquial American speech or, more specifically, in the dialect of New England farmers, but this production introduces Irish accents that are inconsistent and distracting.

Mort’s Ephraim has the lumbering, hard-edged cruelty of O‘Neill’s patriarch, but Ephraim’s monologue about scraping a living from the harsh land loses some of its depth and clarity.

Lavery imbues Eben with some simmering resentment and unfulfilled desire but he expresses Eben’s rage and frustration by shouting, and the resulting harshness of his vocal tone ruins the emotional impact of Eben’s angst.

The role of Abbie demands a blend of bold sensuality, secretive desperation and cunning but Brumen’s characterisation lacks the requisite subtlety, complexity and credibility, although her performance improves in the final act when Abbie is no longer deceptive and her emotions are raw and direct.

Timothy Smith and Garikai Jani play the departing brothers, Simeon as Peter, as simple, rough-handed peasants and the director’s mixed-race casting adds an interesting spin to the characters.

This production of Desire in the Elms has not successfully plumbed the depths of O’Neill’s complex and intense script although it is difficult to disguise the genius of his writing.

By Kate Herbert

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