Review: Duck Hunting (Contemporarian Theatre Company)

contemporarianVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 4 – 29, 2015
Playwright: Aleksandr Vampilov
Directors: Shai Alexander and Toby B. Styling
Cast: Michelle De Rosa, Nicholas Drummond, Paul Gerrard, Louise Harding, Christian Heath, Jessica Saras, Carlos Sivalingham, Anthony Sottile, Joshua Wiseman
Image by Toby B. Styling

Theatre review
Craig’s only passion is duck hunting, but he spends every second of his life avoiding it, preoccupied with all the petty mundanity of a bourgeois existence. He seems full of hatred for his job, his new home, the women around him, and most of all, himself. We see him snorting cocaine and downing copious amounts of alcohol, fantasising about better times, to which he never commits. The eccentric 1976 script by Aleksandr Vampilov is about a small man’s state of crisis. There is hardly anything likeable about Craig, but we do recognise the issues that he grapples with. The play is transposed to a modern day Australian context fairly effectively, but the sheer length of the work at three-and-a-half hours is a challenge. A heavy edit would most certainly make things more dynamic.

Shai Alexander and Toby B. Styling’s highly stylised direction delivers a lot of hits, but also more than a few misses. Their experimental anti-naturalistic mode of presentation is refreshing, with an ability to add surprising dimensions to the text, but the staging needs greater finesse to ensure that its surreality does not fall into pointless gesturing and mere pretence. The tone of performance required for the piece is specific and highly unconventional, using an idiosyncratic physical language that the cast is not always sufficiently au fait with. Michelle De Rosa and Paul Gerrard stand out for their confident embrace of the production’s offbeat nature to create characters that seem strange on the surface, while providing firm logic to their respective narratives. Craig is played by Christian Heath who brings energy and presence, along with an unshakeable conviction to hold our attention. In spite of his character’s faults, the actor’s own vulnerability and his determination to portray fragility in the protagonist’s story, help us gain an unusual, albeit objectionable, perspective of the world.

Duck Hunting is an ordinary tale that the everyman can understand. More interesting is the way it attempts to explore the potentials of the theatrical medium, and how the stage conveys meaning. It is not always successful with its endeavours, but its sense of adventure and pursuit of originality should not be disregarded. We never discover if Craig has any talent at all, but we know that he does not make it to the hunting ponds. For the artist, talent will always be subjective, but as long as self-belief and commitment exist, art will be created, and that alone, is achievement.

5 Questions with Michelle De Rosa and Carlos Sivalingam

Michelle De Rosa

Michelle De Rosa

Carlos Sivalingam: What is your experience of working with Contemporarian and with Shai Alexander and Toby B. Styling in particular?
Michelle De Rosa: I was instantly drawn to the project due to the fresh approach Contemporarian has to theatre. Shai’s focus is theatre and Toby’s is film so together, Contemporarian expertly blends both mediums to create a fantastic experience which is why as audiences, we come to see theatre! Both Shai and Toby are very dedicated. We work hard as an ensemble but that’s what all actors want, to work!

Who is your character on the show?
My character is Elena, an 18 year old foreign student from a small Swiss town on the border with Italy. She is purity and playfulness personified. A very trusting soul who is taking her first independent steps in life on the other side of the world from her home! Craig, our hero, is instantly attracted to her. I don’t want to give anything else away!

Would you say that the process challenged you and that you improved as a performer during the ongoing rehearsal period?
Absolutely! I have had the pleasure of working two shows at once and I have grown phenomenally as an actor. The ongoing rehearsal period for Duck Hunting has given us time as an ensemble to really explore our characters, the play and our work together as a group. Such a rarity and such a gift!

How different is the rehearsal process for Duck Hunting by Contemporarian from anything else you ever worked on?
I love working outside in, on stage; starting with the physical and letting that inform my choices, my character. We have worked this way on Duck Hunting; finding the story on the floor. Again, we come to the theatre for an experience and working this way ensures we create that. Also, having a long rehearsal period give us time for precision: of movement, of voice, of clarity.

Why should we come and see this show?
You still need more convincing after all my previous answers? Duck Hunting is where passion and hard work come together in a sensational symphony! A tantalising transferral of energy if you will, between actors and audience honouring a timeless piece of work. Do come and let us perform for you!

Carlos Sivalingam

Carlos Sivalingam

Michelle De Rosa: What attracted you to work with Contemporarian Theatre Company on their original adaptation of the Russian classic Duck Hunting?
Carlos Sivalingam: As soon as I realised that Shai Alexander was a Russian trained actor, I wanted to be a part of this project. That was even before I read the play. Few Australians realise, when watching English speaking films, that most of the techniques employed by the actors, have their origins in Russia. For an experienced actor like me who never had a formal training, every rehearsal with Shai is a windfall.

Who is your character on the show?
I have two roles in the production. I am the stage manager and I also have a small role as a courier. The courier’s seemingly mundane job takes quite a turn when he realises that he has delivered a sympathy wreath for the funeral of a man, who is still “…alive and well…”.

How long was the rehearsal process?
I think the rehearsal period will total about 14 weeks. What’s been different though, is the number of hours spent each week on rehearsal. This show far exceeds any independent production that I have been in, for the number of hours of rehearsal. Coming from Russia, where a play like this would be rehearsed for a year before it is performed, Shai seems to have a limitless supply of information and skills, to share with his performers at each rehearsal.

How is this production different from anything else you ever worked on?
As mentioned, the rehearsal period is much longer and more intense, than previous, independent productions that I have been a part of. The show also employs different performance techniques to the “realism” that has dominated film, stage, and TV productions in the English speaking world. This, in particular, is new to me.

Why should we come and see this show?
It’s a Russian classic, virtually unknown to Australian audiences. As I said earlier, some of the performance techniques are also different. Many of these departures from the norm though, will only work on stage. So don’t watch a screen version or something downloaded to your laptop. You really need get down to the King Street theatre.

Michelle De Rosa and Carlos Sivalingam will be appearing in Contemporarian Theatre Company’s Duck Hunting, by Aleksandr Vampilov.
Dates: 4 – 29 November, 2015
Venue: King Street Theatre