Friday, 17 February 2017

John, MTC, until March 25, 2017 ****

By Annie Baker, by Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until March 25, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 16, 2017
Review also published in Herald Sun online on Friday Feb 17, 2017, and later in print. KH

 Helen Morse & Johnny Carr
In her play, John, award-winning American playwright, Annie Baker, braids the ordinary with the peculiar and the real with the otherworldly, evoking a slightly disturbing sense of dislocation and miscommunication.

In the historic town of Gettysburg, site of a horrific American Civil War massacre, troubled couple, Elias (Johnny Carr) and Jenny (Ursula Mills), arrive at a Bed and Breakfast run by the relentlessly cheerful but ever so slightly odd Mertis (Helen Morse), who prefers to be called Kitty.

Attentive hostess, Mertis, like one of her beloved birds, flutters around her guests in her kitsch B and B that is cluttered with bric-a-brac, decorated with old-fashioned, floral carpets (Design, Elizabeth Gadsby), and a pianola that has a life of its own.

Her big-city guests and their petty bickering seem banal in comparison with Mertis and her even more eccentric, much older friend, Genevieve (Melita Jurisic), who is blind and intermittently suffers delusions and audio-hallucinations.

‘Have you ever had the feeling that someone is watching you?’ asks Mertis; not only do we recognise the sensation of being watched over by a higher being, we are also intensely aware that we, the audience, are voyeurs on this tiny, intimate and strangely ordinary world.

The concept of vision is key in this story, with one character blind, one myopic, one a little bit psychic, and the fourth fascinated by spectacles and, adding to this notion, is the playfulness of light (Richard Vabre), both natural and artificial.

Perhaps even more significant are the lies, secrets, unspoken thoughts and mysterious pasts of all four characters that reveal themselves in spurts and trickles as the four struggle through several days and nights.

The entire cast is accomplished with the luminous Helen Morse central, playing Mertis with nuance and sensitivity, giving her a whimsical, vibrating quality that seems to mask a darker secret.

Jurisic gives an audacious and often hilarious performance as the acerbic but definitely bonkers Genevieve, whose delusions elicit laughs but whose mental illness is far from funny.

Carr effectively captures both Elias’s vulnerability and his volatility as he wrestles with his own insecurity about his fractious and unravelling relationship with Jenny.

Mills is sympathetic as Jenny, balancing her barely masked despair and overt neediness with secretive behaviour, but leaving us with the sense that Jenny is eminently faithless and untrustworthy.

Sarah Goodes’ unobtrusive direction focuses on character and relationship, and on the spaces between the words that are a signature element of Baker’s writing.

Although the play has a weird, spooky quality, it seems to occur in real time with characters frequently pausing, musing, considering or gazing during long silences.

This realistic ordinariness is more successful than the hints of the supernatural that seem tacked on and do not quite gel.

So who is John? By the end of this three-hour production with two intervals, all will be revealed and you may leave with an uneasy sense that you missed something that occurred off-stage or upstairs in this peculiar little B and B.

By Kate Herbert

Helen Morse - Mertis
Melita Jurisic - Genevieve
Johnny Carr - Elias
Ursula Mills - Jenny

Director Sarah Goodes
Set Elizabeth Gadsby
Lighting Richard Vabre
Sound – Russell Goldsmith

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