Review: Baby Doll (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 18 – Nov 16, 2019
Playwright: Tennessee Williams (adapted by Pierre Laville, Emily Mann)
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Kate Cheel, Maggie Dence, Socratis Otto, Jamie Oxenbould
Images by Prudence Upton
Theatre review
A young woman finally has to consummate her marriage, on her twentieth birthday, after two years of being with a much older husband. On the eve of that fateful night however, a tall, dark and handsome stranger appears, as though poised to rescue the girl from the event she has long dreaded. Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll takes place in Mississippi Delta, at a time when women, even those who were young, white and beautiful, had few rights and opportunities to speak of. We observe the restrictive circumstances faced by the protagonist, and how her choices are limited to just two men, neither of whom have her best interests at heart, but in this adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, we are able to see her desires and fortitude come to the fore, and it becomes evident that the girl is not giving up without a fight.

Directed by Shaun Rennie, the scintillating production grips us, not only with the exciting paradigm shifts deliberately introduced to the old story, but also with its exhaustive efforts at imbuing every theatrical moment with a rich sensuality, able to have us captivated on levels beyond character and narrative. Lights by Verity Hampson convey an intense sexuality, oppressed yet untameable, a wild undercurrent emerging from all sides of this lustful triangle. Sound and music by Nate Edmondson moves effortlessly from episodes of rhapsodic extravagance, to sequences filled with hushed precarity. We always know what the people on stage are thinking and feeling, even if their words are designed to disguise the truth.

Actor Kate Cheel plays the girl named Baby Doll, with a delicious intellectual aplomb that powerfully resists the relentless sexual objectification imposed upon her from all directions. The character we see is libidinous, seductive and strategic, courageously using everything she owns to make the best of a terrible situation. The shrewd defiance being portrayed by Cheel elevates the entire exercise, for a surprisingly modern take of an otherwise outdated Lolita tale.

The repellent husband Archie Lee is depicted in full bigoted glory, by an exuberant Jamie Oxenbould, who keeps us engaged by his bold embodiment of the deplorable antebellum hangover. Stoking the fire as Silva Vacarro, is Socratis Otto who manipulates levels of authenticity for a deceptive type who seems only to have ulterior motives. Otto makes every line of dialogue believable and enthralling, so that we may follow Baby Doll as she falls hopelessly under his spell. Maggie Dence is memorable in the subsidiary role of Aunt Rose, absolutely charming and humorous at each appearance.

There is little Baby Doll could do to make things better for herself, but she pulls out all the stops. Women today do not experience the same level of subjugation, but we certainly do have to rely on ingenuity and resourcefulness, to navigate a world that continues to be unjust and dangerous. Most of us can now walk away from failed marriages, but few of us can turn our backs on a culture determined to limit our identities, and an economy built on our servitude. Our survival requires that we participate within structures that routinely place us at a disadvantage. We may feel duplicitous and hypocritical, when we bite the hand that feeds, but there is no escaping that which we wish to demolish. As demonstrated in Baby Doll, we can never be prevented from being instigators for change, no matter how small a part we play in whatever revolution that may be brewing.