peter A cross

ramblings from a troubled mind

Zebras crossing… blunted swords

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Colin Friels, Nadine Garner, Bryan Brown


The theatre can be a zoo and not all of the animals are on stage. I certainly felt like a mindless sheep as I was herded in to the theatre to see the opening of the STC’s latest offering Zebra, by automated male and female voices all around the theatre annoyingly telling me every minute to “turn off my mobile phone”. It got my dander up. 

Zebra is the new play by writer Ross Mueller starring Bryan Brown as Jimmy, Colin Friels as Larry and Nadine Garner as Robinson and directed by Lee Lewis. Set in a neighbourhood ‘dive’ Irish bar in the post GFC and pre-Obama New York, 

The last time I saw Friels on stage he was with his wife Judy Davis in the STC’s production of ‘Victory’ and they were magnificent. I can’t remember ever having seen Brown on stage although I know he has done some good work or at least I am told he has. Garner has a resume that would be the envy of many an actor twice her age. 

Zebra attempts to tell the simple story of what price love. Can a failed Beach Volleyball player turned property tycoon from Australia convince a successful dot-com millionaire who had the sense to know when enough was enough that he really, really loves his daughter and is not just after that big pay-out. Larry (Friels) is horrified to find out that Jimmy (Brown), a man uncomfortably close to his own age is marrying his estranged daughter – is it for love or is it for the money? 

But something tonight didn’t gel. 

Mueller has written a lot of words in this play and for them to work there needs to be a rhythm, a dance between the characters. They seemed to be a beat or two off. Maybe that rhythm will come as they get in to the run and settle their characters. 

Set designer David McKay has created a sensational playground for these actors to play in, a neighbourhood bar that’s going bust, and they all strut and fret throwing back bourbon or scotch at 11:30 in the morning with free abandon to allow them to explore what has happened to the American dream, to manhood, to America – when cash, if you still have it, is king and if you don’t you can barter whatever you do have for it. All Jimmy has is the love of Larry’s daughter and the rest is a negotiation – what price is that love worth? 

Friels and Brown prowl the stage goading and prodding each other like two aging alpha males; who is the better salesman, who has the bigger balls? Friels is good but not great as the cash rich father of the bride to be and Brown is great but not good as the cash strapped suitor. Maybe it’s the age difference, maybe Friels isn’t quite old enough and Brown not quite young enough to make the scenario work. 

Garner plays the down on her luck widowed bar owner faced with foreclosure somewhere between victim and feisty and she plays it well but she has little to do in the big scheme of things. 

“A Zebra walks into a bar, up the wall and across the ceiling then out the door…” and so the gag goes. There are plenty of gags like this in Zebra; there are some genuinely funny moments but few moments of pathos to offset the boy’s own humour. 

Theatre by its very nature is contrived but there is a growing trend to a much more organic form of play/acting, think The Wild Duck, a more collaborative evening that involves the audience as willing participants in what is happening. In this play we are told to sit back, watch and let us the actors do the work for you. Sure we’ll throw in some Sorkin-esque dialogue and talk over each other as if it’s all happening real-time but we’re in charge and you are the audience. It’s almost as if Mueller has one foot in both camps and committed to neither. 

And something else was missing on opening night there was a warning that strobe lighting was to be used during the production, probably during a really ordinary fight sequence to help cover the fact that these two guys are not fresh from NIDA, I’m guessing about that, but no strobe, so there might have been a couple of technical hitches going on back of stage as well. 

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the production, because I did but as we made that long post theatrical walk down the wharf corridor we pondered that something didn’t quite work and we didn’t really know what it was – cast or play or direction or maybe just all three on the same night. 

Zebra plays @ The Wharf Theatre until 30 April 2011.


Written by peteracross

March 11, 2011 at 16:41

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