Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Seminar: A Comedy, Nov 10, 2016 ***1/2

By Theresa Rebeck, by Artifact Theatre Company
Chapel off Chapel, The Loft, until Nov 26, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: *** ½
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon Nov 14, 2016 & later in print. KH
Ra Chapman, Mark Yeates, Cazz Bainbridge, pic Theresa Harrison
Fiction writers can be a sensitive and jaded bunch, but emerging writers may still be steeped in hope and blind ambition that can easily be dismantled by a ‘mentor’ such as the noted literary identity in Theresa Rebeck’s witty play, Seminar: A Comedy.

Four evidently gifted but competitive, young fiction writers each pay (or is that ‘squander’?) US$5,000 to glean pearls of wisdom – and some useful contacts – from their writing guru in ten, weekly sessions.

However, Leonard (Dion Mills) is no warm and fuzzy, modern teacher who proffers constructive criticism, but rather a pretentious, drug- and alcohol-damaged, resentful veteran of the literati whose criticism verges on the venomous and soul-destroying and whose seduction techniques are puzzlingly successful.

Who wouldn’t want their money back? But how do you learn and improve your work if you won’t take criticism?

In Kate’s (Cazz Bainbridge) affluent, rent-controlled, New York apartment, Leonard rants about his thrill-seeking trips to Africa and his views on writing, then systematically dissects the young hopefuls’ proffered works of fiction.

Week one sees his savage dismissal of Kate’s writing, in week two he suggests Douglas (Darcy Kent) is a writing ‘whore’, in week three he admires Izzy’s (Ra Chapman) lusty and provocative writing, and, all the while, he labels Martin (Mark Yeates), who has avoided revealing any of his work to anyone, a ‘pussy’.

Rebeck’s play is language and character driven, with the stage ‘action’ being psychological and emotional rather than physical.

Matthew Cox’s direction focuses effectively on the pace and intelligence of the dialogue, the detail of characters’ emotional sensitivities and idiosyncrasies, and on their increasingly volatile relationships.

The performances from the entire cast are strong and our alliances shift between the five characters as each reveals his or her inner self so that we like or loathe each at some point.

Mills is compelling as the mean and sleazy writer, Leonard, playing him as larger-than-life, with his arrogance, vanity and insensitivity wrapped firmly around a fine, creative mind and a genuinely skilful critic, and he gains our sympathy with Leonard’s revealing monologue.

Bainbridge, as Kate, effectively grows from shrinking violet, rich girl to confident and canny young woman, while Kent’s portrayal of Douglas’s smug, overblown literary dialogue provides plenty of laughs.

Yeates shifts Martin from smart, secretive, intellectual snob to jubilant then jealous lover, and talented but resentful young buck, while Chapman’s Izzy is sultry and confident in her seductiveness but the character is underwritten compared with others.

The clever wordiness of Rebeck’s dialogue is initially startling and interesting, but the relentless negativity of the characters wears thin in the later scenes when, although the power relationships turn and characters change, the production needs a dynamic variation.

The final scene change is far too slow and complicated and interrupts the flow of the story.

If you love words, reading fiction or have ever been a student of creative writing, the wit and rhythm of this play will tickle your fancy.

By Kate Herbert

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