Facing demons in powerful Aussie play
By Sally McKenzie
Ruben Guthrie, written by Brendan Cowell, is a hard-hitting Australian play which deals with the perils of alcoholism and drug abuse as experienced by Ruben Guthrie himself and the people around him.
In this production, presented by the 1812 Theatre in conjunction with FizzWack Theatre Company, Travis Handcock played the lead role of Guthrie, as well as taking on the role of director – an ambitious project indeed, and Handcock managed to satisfy both roles quite successfully. Guthrie rarely leaves the stage, and Handcock was quite masterful in his portrayal of the struggling Creating Director of ‘Subliminal’ Advertising Agency. He opened the show by immediately breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience as though we were members of an ‘alcoholics anonymous’-style meeting. I felt Handcock was a little more hesitant in these moments. He really hit his stride when connecting with the other characters on stage, as he dealt with his struggle with sobriety. It was difficult not to empathize with his feelings of helplessness as those close to him failed to support him. Handcock did a superb job of handling the enormity and sensitivity of this role.
Jeanette Coppolino played Guthrie’s Czechoslovakian fiancé Zoya. Her accent was strong and consistent and her role well-executed. As was the intention, I felt much distaste for the manner and business-driven character of Guthrie’s boss and father-figure, Ray, played by Andy Mellor – a job well done! David Runnels as Peter, Guthrie’s father, was perfectly suited to his role, all the way down to his safari shorts and loafers. He depicted the wine-loving, self-centred, mid-life-crisis Aussie male with just the right balance of realism and humour.
Stephanie Morrell as Virginia (Guthrie’s second love interest) served as a great contrast to the conservative super-model Zoya. Her opening scene with Guthrie was particularly lovely with one of the few heart-warming and more light-hearted scenes as they faced those first few ‘awkward’ moments signalling the start of a relationship. Steve Young played Damien, one of Guthrie’s best friends: a great casting choice, as he was impressively consistent with his over-driven personality and ‘unlikable’ corruptive influences on Guthrie. Stephanie King gave a good performance as Guthrie’s alcoholic mother, and her final scene as a confessing alcoholic was particularly poignant.
The set was simple: a series of white vertical wooden panels in colourful graffiti, reminiscent of the chaos of Guthrie’s life, a couch, and the occasional stool or chair. Cast appeared between the panels as providers of props, extra clothing items, and then the various forms of alcohol, profoundly symbolic of Guthrie’s ‘enablers’, while lighting and sound was most effective in illustrating the abrupt change from the meetings to Ruben’s real life. This was all that was needed. The focus was where it needed to be – on the actors, their personal demons and the ways they dealt or chose not to deal with them.
For me, the only questionable direction decision was the choice to include nudity. I felt this was unnecessary, and only a distraction to the overall tone of the play. In addition, a fault of the script was its length: the play had well and truly made its point, whereupon I felt the last 20 minutes only served to almost disconnect us from the characters, and added choreographed movement and montages that seemed out of style with the rest of the production.
Overall however, this was an insightful and thought-provoking production, with a highly impressive cast – well worth a visit to the foot of the Dandenongs this week.
Ruben Guthrie is playing at the 1812 Theatre, Rose St, Upper Ferntree Gully for one week only – from Wed 7th-Sat 10th Sept. Tickets at www.1812theatre.com.au or by phoning 9758 3964. Please be warned that this play contains violence, drug and alcohol use, nudity, sexually explicit action, coarse language and adult themes.