If the mainstage directorial debuts of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, respectively on Harold Pinter’s “A Kind of Alaska” and David Mamet’s “Reunion,” indicate how their years as co-artistic directors of Australia’s biggest and best-funded theater company will play, then the Sydney Theater Company and its subscribers are poised for a steep learning curve from 2008.
Blanchett is unquestionably a master of performance, but on the evidence of this double bill, her directorial skills and those of her scribe husband are not yet worthy of the exalted role to which they have been appointed atop one of the country’s two leading theater companies (the other being Melbourne Theater Company).
Blanchett displays great strengths and some blind spots with Pinter’s 50-minute three-hander, the story of a woman coming to grips with the world upon waking from a 30-year coma.
The production is impeccably cast and features fine performances in all three roles: a child-woman, her devoted doctor and her sister.
The play is well chosen for its neat themes and interesting Oliver Sacks-inspired subject matter, and Blanchett’s decision to ditch British voice in favor of Aussie accents works.
But while “Alaska” is a solid debut, there’s nothing particularly provocative, entertaining or fresh in the staging.
Ralph Meyer’s extravagant set seems at odds with the simplicity of both plays. A concrete catwalk stretched to a white rectangle midstage, it is surrounded by a vast pool of shallow water, restricting thesps to a confined space. In the final minutes of “Alaska” the water rises slightly to cover the rectangle. The effect is stunning, but this ends up being what everyone talks about leaving the theater.
Upton’s career has flourished under current STC topper Robyn Nevin, who over the last decade has commissioned him to adapt such classics as “Hedda Gabler” and “Don Juan,” in addition to staging some of his own plays. He made his directing debut earlier this year on the company’s second stage.
Mamet’s “Reunion” is about a derelict father who gradually wins back his daughter’s regard. Again, the play is well cast, but the fuzzy scene changes, intended to be jump cuts propelling time forward, break any spell that might have been created. And in this case, Upton’s decision to use Aussie accents jars as thesps stumble over Mamet’s idiom.
“Reunion” never really achieves momentum despite the best efforts of cast members Justine Clarke and Robert Menzies, who appear to be adrift on a white triangle surrounded by a vast expanse of water.