Solos shine on digital stage

21 July 2020

The solo nature of the stories in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s “Unsung Heroes” is timely in more ways than one, writes David Zampatti.

Unsung Heroes, Black Swan State Theatre Company ·
Streamed from BSSTC’s website, 21 July – 3 August ·

All being well, the season of “Unsung Heroes”, Black Swan State Theatre Company’s suite of dramatic monologues about unknown or obscure West Australians, would have been and gone.

But all is not well, and the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, where it was to have had its run, remains empty.

Empty, but not quite dark. By long tradition, one naked bulb, the Ghost Light, remains to illuminate its stage; a safety precaution but also a reminder that the spirit of the theatre continues, even in its darkest hour.

So it’s apposite that each of the five pieces that comprise “Unsung Heroes” begins with the striking of a ghost light and ends with its return. It’s also appropriate that, in this time of forced or voluntary isolation, that Black Swan returns to something like the stage with solitary actors telling their solitary stories.

Happily, the dramatic monologue is a theatrical style well suited to the transition from live stage to its filmed approximation. When done well, and when it observes the verities and techniques of its hybrid conventions, it’s as satisfying a substitute for the real thing as we’re likely to get.

And for that, at least, we should be grateful.

Directed by Joe Paradise Lui, Chris Isaacs’ The Unremarkable and Ordinary Life of Carmela Caterina Tassone (née Panaia) is a loving eulogy to his grandmother. Born into the traditions of backwater Calabria she made a new life in suburban Perth (Normanby Street, Inglewood to be delightfully precise).

Performed by Isaacs with sincerity and nuance, it’s a sweet, insightful addition to the rich vein of stories that have come out of Australia’s Italian migrant experience, notably Graham Pitts’s Emma, the work of Kavisha Mazzella and the Le Goie Delle Donne choir and, most recently, Clare Testoni’s The Tale of Tales (with which it shares many strands of narrative and theme).

As Isaacs says, his grandmother’s story has been rinsed and washed many times in the copper of a family’s memory. What burns throughout, however, is her extraordinary strength and determination, and also what a great adventure Western Australia was for people from older, exhausted worlds. As her husband Sinabaldo told her when she asked what she should bring to her new home: “Nothing – Australia is the land of everything!”.

Mararo Wangai is gesturing as though miming offering something to someone off camera. His face is animated, eyebrows raised, teeth bared in an almost smile.
Mararo Wangai in ‘Song in the Key of Trust’. Photo: Philip Gostelow

Directed by Emily McLean, Mararo Wangai’s Song in the Key of Trust is an ecstatic story of the musical tide of Mozambique that lifted a poor young boy from the bairros of Mafalala into an international career (that boy, Momed Saluman, has now made Fremantle his home and has performed around the world).

Wangai’s enthusiastic performance captures the sense of discovery and wonder Momed feels, from his first halting steps singing the riffs his ersatz cardboard instruments cannot play, to his big, fortuitous break that sees him playing contra solo guitar with Unce Mafalala, the hottest band in the hotbed of Afro-beat and jazz on the outskirts of teeming Maputo, and his rise to fame.

It’s also a heartfelt story of the struggles and triumphs of a family, up to the jubilant moment when its two boys, Momed and his brother Daud, are able to give their parents un-dreamt-for gifts to celebrate their success and affection.

Playwright Gita Bezard makes the Subiaco girl Effie Fellows a pugnacious scrapper, as much Joan Of Arc as Ginger Meggs, in The Perfect Boy. Under the direction of Lui, actor Caitlin Beresford-Ord has the vaudeville chops for Fellows and the parts she played; Freddy Manners the ambitious bellboy, Bobby Fulton the toff.

The Perfect Boy is a window into the strange world of vaudeville and impersonation that thrived in music halls during and after the First World War; a bit of song and dance (Beresford Ord sings and plays piano with skill and gusto), some wink-wink, nudge-nudge, a prurient, sexist, racist demi-monde where a sharp girl with bound breasts and an augmented crotch could deceive, flatter and succeed.

Of all the three pieces in the first tranche of “Unsung Heroes” (the second, with monologues by Hellie Turner and Barbara Hostalek will follow next week), The Perfect Boy will transfer most comfortably to a live stage, but all of them prosper on a digital one.

“Unsung Heroes” is no “Talking Heads”, the extraordinary series of sad, lonely televised monologues by Alan Bennett that are the yardstick of this little genre, but that’s an awfully high peak to climb. The pieces are a little too mannered, and a little too overplayed, for that.

They do, however, serve a particular purpose in these awful times, one so perfectly devised and executed that “coincidence” doesn’t even begin to explain their timeliness.

Song in the Key of Trust opens Tuesday 21 July 2020.
The Unremarkable and Ordinary Life of Carmela Caterina Tassone (née Panaia) opens Wednesday 22 July 2020.
The Perfect Boy opens Thursday 23 July.

The pre-recorded performances will be live-streamed on the above dates, with a live Q&A post-show. Registered attendees will be able to view all performances on demand until 3 August 2020.

Pictured top: Chris Isaacs in ‘The Unremarkable and Ordinary Life of Carmela Caterina (nee Panaia). Photo: Philip Gostelow.

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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