Thursday, October 4, 2012

This is Baby Doll

This is Baby Doll (Factotum Theatre) runs at the Tap Gallery in Darlinghurst from October 4-13 2012. Stolen from Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams, adapted and directed by Liz Arday.

This is Baby Doll is a claustrophobic portrait piece. The upstairs theatre at the Tap Gallery is absolutely the right place for it: I don’t know if it’s by design or not, but the temperature in that place climbs and climbs until you’re sweating right along with Baby Doll, and she can almost fool you into believing that you really are on some destitute cotton farm in the deep south, sweating, naive, and nervous. Unfortunately, the show is let down by one very important thing: it doesn’t have an ending. It just... stops.

This is normally where I’d launch into a brief plot recap, but that’s hard to do here, because not much happens in this show. The very last moments of This is Baby Doll are action, but it is the only action we see (on stage, anyway). I’m all for character-driven theatre, but this show is character and not much else. Baby Doll (Emily Sheehan) is married to Archie Lee (Paul Armstrong), who has promised that their marriage will not be consummated until her twentieth birthday, which is in two days. They live with her Aunt Rose (Angie Elphick), and one day, they receive a visit from their neighbour Silva (Ben Dalton), who suspects Archie Lee of burning down his cotton gin and who is determined to get some sort of revenge. All the set up for some great storytelling is here: if all you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl, here, you have a girl and a strong desire for revenge, which is not dissimilar. But yet no story is told. There are two key actions involved here in this story: Archie Lee burning down Silva’s cotton gin, and Silva using Baby Doll to make Archie Lee pay. The first happens offstage (understandably –  a massive fire would be terribly difficult to represent on stage!) and the second only at the very end of the show. If you think of the basic form of storytelling as orientation/complication/resolution, the show finishes just as it gets complicated. This is Baby Doll ends, effectively, right where it gets interesting.

I confess I’m not terribly familiar with the source material Liz Arday has used to adapt this show for the stage (Elia Kazan’s 1956 film Baby Doll and Tennessee Williams’ short play 27 Wagons of Cotton), so I’m not sure if this narrative problem is something that’s common to those two pieces or not. In any case, I found it unsatisfying. There were so many plot twists left unresolved – would Baby Doll escape from Archie Lee before he demanded the consummation of their marriage? did Archie Lee really burn down the cotton gin? how would Archie Lee react when he found out what Silva did to his wife? how would Baby Doll react? This is a very melodramatic way of putting it, but it was almost like a betrayal: right when you’re becoming really involved in the characters (Baby Doll especially), the show just stops. I can’t think of any reason why it should do this. Sometimes, ambiguity is a good way of pulling the rug out from under an audience, forcing them to consider new and different perspectives. In this case, it felt like an interval, not like an ending.

If it had been an interval, it would have been a cracker of a first act. There are some really nice performances on show here, particularly from Emily Sheehan as Baby Doll. She (like all the actors) got a bit tangled up in the accent at the beginning, but she found her way back pretty swiftly and turned in a wonderfully nuanced performance. It would have been easy to play Baby Doll as a cardboard cutout confused virgin, but Sheehan did not fall into this trap. I found myself really involved with her plight (a big part of the reason why I felt so betrayed when the play ended so suddenly). I really hope to see Sheehan on stage again soon.

The simple set was also very evocative: minimalist, with just Baby Doll’s crib on stage, but effective. I’m sure there are some people who would have found the lighting a little too sparse and dark, but I liked it (except for Silva’s entrance, where he stood in almost total darkness for quite some time in a position where it would be hard for anyone in the theatre to see). It’s to writer/director Liz Arday’s credit that the fifty minutes of the show is as interesting as it is: while there are some bits that are certainly extraneous (like the character of Aunt Rose, who, despite a decent performance from Angie Elphick, adds nothing to the show), on the whole, it’s quite absorbing. Unfortunately, the whole thing ends right where it ought to be kicking into overdrive. It’s a portrait, not a story, and I felt a bit let down by that.

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