Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris; with regret

La Mama and Parnassus’ Den Productions present: Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris. Written by Shaun Charles. Directed by Dave Letch. Performed by Daniel Agapiou, Melanie Berry, Cat Commander, Joshua Hewitt, Gina Morley and Gus Murray. Production designed by Christina Logan-Bell. Lighting designed by Christopher Tollefson. La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton. June 4 – June 21. Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm. 2pm matinees on Saturdays June 7 & 21. Tickets: $20/$10. Bookings: 9347 6142.

A version of this review was published online on

It is much harder to criticize a production built from scratch, than a flawed production of an established text: the reasons for failure are harder to pinpoint. Was it the line or the delivery, the character or the costume, the tone or the set? Moreover, is it unredeemably bland, or just short of decent?

Set during the last few days before the world's certain end, Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris follows six characters as they, rather predictably, go mad, buy drugs, look for someone to die with, see angels, betray and love and need each other. And from the first to the last moment of the play, it is standing right next to line, and refusing to cross.

The whole point of apocalypse stories is wider-scheme revenge, fuelled by our self-righteous moral high ground. We observe shallow, hollow people around us, as they follow trends, send text messages, order take-away, mull over the new mobile phone to buy, betray higher ideals, we despite this perceived lack of involvement with great ideas, with life itself. And we yearn to see them faced with questions of life and death. We want them shaken out of their tepid complacency. We want them a bit more human. We want to know what they would be like.

Tragically, I am quite positive they would behave like the characters in Rio Saki: get absorbed in petty disputes, commit small acts of civil disobedience, have hysterical fits of fear, and endlessly describe their hopes for a glorious death. Unlike in better end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories, from Solaris through Apocalypse Now or Mercury Fur, they would not do crazy and significant things that would reveal higher laws of human nature. They would stay bland, uncreative and unreflexive right until the end. But if this is a compliment, it is a rather weak one. In a good fictional end of the world, there should be absolutely disgusting human behaviour, extremely lateral emotional logic, unexpected conclusions, traumas distorting the story and memory in short circuits, cathartic regret.

Originally, I had posted a photo-moment from the play. Having been supplied with this sort of photography since, however, I have decided to use Parnassus' Den Productions' preferred publicity images instead. They explain the 'television' part better than words ever could.

Rio Saki is much too gentle on its characters, and much too easy-going with the plot, to offer catharsis. This one is a mild, suburban apocalypse. Right until the end, everyone was well-groomed, tall and slim, tidy, rather television-looking. Nobody reached the bottom. The line of quotidian, self-interested decency was never crossed. It was the apocalypse in a soapie world. And yet, at every moment I had hope: I was waiting until the very end to give it up.

Shaun Charles’s is competent writing, well-paced and measured, yet at the end one looks back and realises that it went nowhere. The Rio Saki from the title is a symbol that never quite becomes the key to the play; of the many relationships that crack at the start, not one is significantly transformed by the end, and no personal journeys are completed either; even the world ends just as predicted. Paradoxically, the chief reason for this, apart from the refusal to torture characters, seems to be the desire to end the play in a measured and balanced way, give it a sense of closure and a calm end to rest on. As a result, everyone's journey ends before any real transformation has a chance to happen.

Could this have been compensated by braver acting or directing is the last thing that bothers me. Cat Commander is fine in her (admittedly easy) role of the deranged, perpetually screaming Charlotte, and Joshua Hewitt keeps the spirits up at the other end of the play as the drug-obsessed Louis. The rest are lukewarm and more than a bit television; but then, so are their characters. The main apocalypse devices end up being the set (clever, dirty and cluttered), and the excellent soundtrack (moody and full of feelin’).

There is a strong tendency in Australian writing to stay on the surface without approaching satire, keep understated minimalism without finding profundity, and genuinely shelter characters and plot from great events. To write an apocalypse story in that spirit, frankly, may be stretching the genre a bit far.

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