Borders are intrinsically confrontational places where worlds, cultures, and expectations collide. In two short plays by Tommy James Green, characters meet on borders with troubling demands, sparking both violence and unexpected connections.
In Kindling, a young woman (Daniele Clements) leaves her community to enter the dark woods in search of her missing daughter. Amongst the gloom, she encounters the local witch Miriam (Katherine Poulsen) who takes the opportunity to twist and play with Arielle’s fears. The atmosphere of this piece was eerie with Miriam repeatedly peering into the darkness around her house as though in wait for a visitor or an attacker. The costuming also worked well to construct a medieval context with long, rough skirts and thick woollen shawls. It would be easy to imagine Miriam and Arielle as plucked from a fairytale or epic fantasy where the land was imbued with a long and potent history.
The script, offering a glimpse into a community with much more sinister underpinnings than some rumoured witchiness, was a bit convoluted, though, as Miriam wove her manner of speech between abstraction and reality. While it is customary to see mystical characters talk in riddles and extended metaphors, like Rafiki or the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland or even Yoda, the play seemed too brief to balance Miriam’s musings alongside concrete plot. It was particularly disheartening to see two women heartily engage in insults about each other’s attractiveness to men as though that was the most pressing concern for someone ostracised from their community and another missing a daughter, fearing her dead. All things considered, the impact of Kindling was one more of atmosphere than plot or character.
The second short play in this double-bill also featured a border, though, one in a much more contemporary setting. Border agents Nate (Jack Berry) and Diego (Edward Frame) have picked up Walt (Stephen Dula) for suspicious activity around the United States and Mexico border. They’ve roughed him up a bit and are now beginning their interrogation, something Walt finds equal parts frustratingly absurd and intellectually humorous. After many minutes of mutual yelling, Diego gets fed up with Nate repeatedly referring to him with racial slurs and he decides to take a break. Now, Walt and Nate are alone and Nate feels free to air his racist xenophobia in front of Walt’s stories of witnessing great cruelty and inhumanity during his time fighting in the Vietnam War. It was a meeting of two minds, one bigoted and small, the other supposedly broader and more accepting of difference, that ended with begrudged retreat from both sides as Walt was freed to return to his car.
This, like Kindling, felt like a familiar story of archetypes meeting each other on the literal and metaphorical border between their separate worlds. But whereas the previous story had an intriguing atmosphere, Broken Promise Land was a loosely jumbled collection of abrasive masculinity, blatant and unnecessary racism, and overly simplistic characterisations that engaged in unsatisfying conversation. The performances were aggressive and off-putting with an overabundance of yelling that pounded any nuance out of the scene, particularly any hints towards Walt’s complicated history of war and intellectualism. The re-entrance of Diego in the closing moments was a relief after the brute force of Nate’s hatred bulldozed any enjoyment out of the air, and his genuine engagement with Walt’s writing, confiscated earlier, added a welcome touch of the abstract and artistic to the script.
With such rich material of conflict and connection embedded in borders, the two short plays of Borderlands left a lot to be desired in terms of originality and complexity. Both were two brief for their own good which meant they committed too much to either mysticism or offensiveness and smothered the possibility of growth and nuance from their characters and circumstances.
Borderlands: Two Short Plays by Tommy James Green ran at Erskineville Town Hall from August 31st – September 3rd as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival
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