Review: It’s War (Bulldog Theatre Company)

bulldogVenue: Factory Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Oct 9 – 19, 2014
Playwright: Alex Lykos
Director: Alex Lykos
Cast: Jenny Apostolou, Chris Argirousis, Marissa Marie Kaye, Janette Lakiss, Ben Maclaine, Maria Tran

Theatre review
Note: This review reveals a key plot twist.

Discussions about race never seem to cease in Australia. Our history of migration over the last 226 years has seen a multiculturalism that has required constant arbitration and re-imagination. In our theatre landscape however, these discussions are few and far between, with an Anglo-Saxon culture persisting with its dominance in production and output. Alex Lykos’ It’s War attempts to shed light on racial relations at a grass roots level, with a story about neighbourly altercations involving characters from diverse ethnicities. We live in a time where the representation of that diversity is usually suppressed in mainstream media, as the depiction of difference can often be interpreted as malicious. Faces of “minorities” are presented occasionally, but they are discouraged from displaying modes of behaviour that may be too idiosyncratic. The notion of colour-blindness is well-meaning, but it tends to institute a kind of assimilation, reducing differences to a generic beigeness that serves as an image of a unified nationhood.

Lykos’ show however, exaggerates our differences by amplifying racial stereotypes, which is uncomfortable viewing for our political correct sensibilities, but also thoroughly amusing. It is challenging to laugh too heartily at a script that characterises Vietnamese women as dog-eating mail order brides, Indians as smelly curry munchers, “Aussies” as spineless, and Greek men as adulterous closeted poofters. We strive hard in our daily lives to distance ourselves from such misrepresentations, but Lykos’ efforts at finding universality through gross overstatements for every character is an interesting proposition, and because no one is spared his distortion, the show’s comedy becomes almost feasible.

Maria Tran approaches her role Ngoc Bich with an extremely coarse, but hilarious, interpretation of the recent migrant. Tran is the only actor who puts on a speech accent that is drastically unlike her natural voice, presumably because the character has only spent five years in Australia. It is debatable whether making Ngoc Bich a mail order bride actually helps with the plot but nevertheless, Tran provides many of the biggest laughs of the production with her impressive comic abilities, and enthusiasm for the stage. Also memorable is Jenny Apostolou as Soula, who creates the only realistic personality in the play. Apostolou brings an authenticity that is otherwise missing in the show’s lampoonery tone, and her reassuring presence gives a professional polish to her work. Performances in general are funny, if a little uneven, but cast chemistry is strong, displaying a good level of camaraderie and trust.

The work is neither sophisticated nor subtle, but its structure is taut and every scene is engaging. There is a vibrant energy in the writing and also in its performances, which help moderate some of the more alienating and controversial touches of the script. “Can we all get along” is Rodney King’s immortal quote from the 1992 Los Angeles riots that has found resonance the world over, and that simple message is just what It’s War wishes to say.