Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, Xenides ·
Studio Underground, 27 October ·
Review by David Zampatti ·
What does a biodrama need? An interesting subject. Revealing, fresh insights into the subject and their milieu. A dramatically satisfying narrative, or a non-narrative alternative that leads us to a deeper understanding of the subject.
That’s the challenge for Clare Watson and her team of collaborators, creatives, cast and musicians in Xenides.
They’ve delivered a complex piece that is more about the theatre than the life it portrays; more about actors than the role they play.
It’s entertaining, clever and tightly staged. It’s also emotionless and shallow.
The problem is revealed by a quick dive into the reviewer’s little helper, Wikipedia.
For all her longevity as a television personality (she holds all sorts of records for her 18-year stand as the letter-spinner on Grundy’s afternoon hit Wheel of Fortune), the dislocations of her childhood and the lugubrious circumstances of her early death at 54, there’s really not much to tell about Adriana Xenides.
Neither is there any strong evidence (as far as I can tell anyway) of her standing for anything much, or, really, doing anything much else. And neither is there anything much in the text of Xenides that tells us things we wouldn’t know about her from that scant Wikipedia entry.
I mean her no disrespect. What she did so successfully for so long requires a genuine talent and determination, but I fail to see what it brings to the stage.
What Xenides does have, though, is a meta-theatrical romp that dissects what we are seeing and how we are going to see it. Four actors – Adriane Daff, Harriet Marshall, Laila Bano Rind and Katherine Tonkin – play themselves playing Xenides, or at least putting their case to play her, all dressed in variations of Adriana’s trademark red number, all striking the poses that come with the territory. It’s catty and sweet, often very funny and sometimes, though not often enough, sad.
Tonkin is an established stage and television star, and her CV, which she carries with her as a talisman, drives her self-characterisation. Bano Rind is an indigenous actor, also of Persian descent, who underlines the universality of the story of the Greek/Spanish Xenides, while Marshall is an opera singer – something Adriana was definitely not – who makes her stage debut here (and sings a lusty Vissi d’arte from Tosca, because that’s what she does).
Adriane Daff is a firecracker lit and thrown onto every stage she inhabits. She gives a curious, fidgety performance, combative and intensely self-aware, and is just about worth the price of the ticket on her own.
What seals the deal, though, is a half-dozen ripping songs by Xani Kolac, which she plays and sings expertly with bassist Djuna Lee and drummer Holly Norman and the cast. There are some wonderful, immediately accessible tunes here, and they lift the performances, which at times lacked a little vim.
The show is wittily choreographed (by Laura Boynes), well dressed (by set designer Zoe Atkinson and costume designer Sarah Duyvestyn) and wrangled (by Watson), but ultimately it couldn’t move or reveal enough to do what it needed to do.
A footnote: I despise the backslapping post-show speeches that infect opening nights these days. Nothing is more certain to subsume the experience of theatre to its corporate and social functions. Having said that, “Baby” John Burgess’s lovely remembrance of the woman he worked with on Wheel of Fortune for a dozen years, and his endorsement of the show named after her, was quiet (courtesy of incredible microphone technique learned over a half century behind them), sincere and deeply touching.
Photo: Katherine Tonkin, Harriet Marshall, Adriane Daff and Laila Bano Rind. Photo: Dana Weeks.