The Kings are the ideal hosts, inviting guests into their home as part of their reality television program Living with the Kings, a very popular production. For this season finale they’ve invited the Wild Violets to join them, a musical duo set to send the show off with a real bang, but not without wreaking a little havoc.
Cassie Hamilton’s new script confronts notions of identity and performance in an extended metaphor of a game loosely explained as the premise for Living with the Kings but also the grander game of life. The characters navigate the gaze of their guests/hosts and loved ones while facing the blank lens of the camera at all times, never sure what the anonymous audience will be made privy to. This has detrimental effects on their conceptions of self as they slowly dissolve the barrier between what they want and what they do.
Mr and Mrs King (Harold Phipps and Stephanie Priest) are rigid and polite like any stereotypical mid-century couple but the harder the smile, the more their faces contort to reveal a brittle cruelty underneath. Mr King is a brutally controlling and manipulative man with Mrs King cowering under his abuse as she continually tries to fulfil her duty as wife. Ms Young (Anna Lambert) and Mr Wilde (Carl Gregory) are no better with Mr Wilde aggressively and possessively pursuing Ms Young under the guise of a tortured artist. The characterisations are often shallow or vague, relying on stereotypes to fill in the details, with the characters standing in for pawns of the game they repeatedly refer to. As an allegorical story about truth and authenticity, the outlines of characters work to convey the overall message of the production but in other moments, like displays of extreme violence from Mr Wilde and a rather haphazard revelation of Mr King’s crossdressing, more explicit exposition and character exploration would have been appreciated.
Playing Face as a production is challenged by direction that swings between abstract and realistic without quite capturing either. In the set design, also from Hamilton, the characters navigate a near-empty stage imagined as a house turned film set with the vast majority of props mimed so that the action teeters into the imagination without taking it past the limitations of reality. At the same time, thematically, the production attempts to consider huge ideas of identity, love, the meaning of life without being purely philosophical abstraction nor specific representation. For example, “the game” of the show is never explained as a literal game for Living with the Kings nor as just a metaphor for life, so the production attempts to have it both ways and, as such, loses its purpose and slips into generalisation.
To incorporate the reality show into the stage production, clips from earlier episodes play to welcome the audience while excerpts of the current episode play throughout the evening. This use of multimedia to expand the space of the stage and insert alternate perspectives works well to increase tension and intensify the feeling of being constantly filmed. Watching Mr King run through the house on the final night had the chilling atmosphere of Disturbia or Paranormal Activity, voyeurism mixed with fear.
Playing Face is an ambitious script in both theme and content and Bearfoot Theatre should be commended for attempting to incorporate so many theatrical styles, even if they didn’t always hit the mark. To learn more about what went into the making of the show, check out an interview Night Writes did with the writer/director and some of the cast.
Playing Face is running at Shopfront from October 23rd – 26th