Review: Dark Voyager (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 24 – Aug 30, 2014.
Playwright: John Misto
Director: Anna Crawford
Cast: Eric Beecroft, Jeanette Cronin, Belinda Giblin, Lizzie Mitchell, Kate Raison

Theatre review
More than a geographical location, Hollywood is a mystical place. It exists in the minds of many in different forms, whether glorified or castigated, and it refuses to be ignored. Its movies have touched people the world over, and its legends are at least as well known as the stories they tell. John Misto’s Dark Voyager is about screen sirens of the previous century. Their legacies may not appeal as widely as the personalities on today’s tabloids, but for those who share Misto’s fascination, the intensity of their resonances have not faded with time.

Dark Voyager is partly historical biography, and partly fiction. Through the famed rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Misto has created a new narrative that brings together figures from Hollywood, the U.S. government, the press and the mafia, culminating in the demise of the era’s biggest star, Marilyn Monroe. Misto’s script is funny, lively and bitchy, fashioned after the way Davis and Crawford had wished to be seen. There is a lot of glitz, glamour and joking frivolity, but the writing does surprise with moments of poignancy that emerge to offer some balance and gravitas. Monroe’s presence is artfully crafted so that the show’s comedy remains even while we witness her tragic destruction. It might be an exaggeration to label the work feminist, but it does offer its heroines strong multidimensional voices, and brings to the fore some of society’s appalling mistreatment of these women (and women in general). Ultimately, the greatest achievement of Misto’s writing is the profusion of one-liners that tickle, sting and amuse.

Anna Crawford’s intelligent direction brings out all that is joyous and dramatic in the script. Her acute awareness of character chemistry and hierarchy, as well as her flair for spacial usage, has created an enthralling production that addresses our appetite for laughter, nostalgia and flamboyant theatrics. Crawford’s efforts in creating characters that are larger than life, yet psychologically believable gives the play a seductive quality that combines a sense of idolatry with a less lofty verisimilitude. These women are both feared and revered.

The production is designed beautifully, with Anna Gardiner’s dazzling set converting the venue into a luxurious Californian home, with furniture and fixtures that are appropriate to the period and social status being explored. Everything looks exquisite, extravagant and fabulously expensive, and the greed of its inhabitants become palpable. Lighting by Matthew Marshall is suitably colourful and dynamic. Marshall’s work is sometimes sensitive and sometimes daring, but it is always just right. The tone of the show varies frequently, and the lights are crucial to these emotive and atmospheric transformations. It must also be noted that the show’s stage manager Erin Harvey does a beautiful job of keeping technical aspects flowing invisibly and without a hitch.

An undeniable strength of this production is the accuracy at which the movie stars are physically presented. Hair and makeup by Peggy Carter is not at all heavy handed, yet all three women are materialised before our eyes with astonishing results. It may be convenient to imagine that the actors are cast for their appearance, but their work dispels that notion comprehensively. Jeanette Cronin as Bette Davis is formidable. Her performance is spirited, hilarious and frightening. She is relied upon to move the plot in its various trajectories, and the clarity and precision at which she achieves this, shows impressive skill and intuition. The liveliness Cronin brings to this stage is combustible, and her light is blinding for the entire duration.

Joan Crawford is played by Kate Raison who leaves us dumbfounded by the incredible resemblance she manufactures. In fact, one is often caught gawking at Raison’s face, but her efforts are much more than surface. The Crawford we have here is complex and unexpectedly human. We catch intriguing glimpses into her private world that reveals interesting aspects to her sexuality, ambition, and cruelty that Raison portrays with delicious cunning. Marilyn Monroe is most remembered for her beauty and glamour, both qualities that Lizzie Mitchell replicates effortlessly, and her splendid comic timing wins over many of the audience’s biggest laughs. Imitations of Monroe’s idiosyncratic voice and gestures are commonplace, but Mitchell’s depiction of her hidden and inherent sadness is unexpected and completely heartbreaking. This is where the show finds its soul, and although fleeting and subtle, it adds a much needed dimension of gravity.

Also wonderful is Belinda Giblin who plays a despicable entertainment columnist. Giblin has the power required to represent a woman of great wealth and stature, as well as delightful comedy chops that keeps her endeared to her crowd. Eric Beecroft is visibly young, in appearance and experience, but has great conviction and exhibits a good understanding of the play’s humour. This is a captivating ensemble with polish and energy that has identified in a new script, all the opportunities for engaging storytelling and a whole lot of fun.

Misto’s writing has many references to homosexuality. In fact, it attributes the success of the film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (and therefore, ongoing stardom of Crawford and Davis) to its gay audience. Indeed, this is a production with distinct queer sensibilities. Its comedy and pathos comes out of the realm of gay culture, and its longstanding adoration for strong and independent women, but it is not only for gay audiences. Dark Voyager is simply a play that will speak to bold and liberated women everywhere, and of course, to the people who love them.