To call Lally Katz a surrealist would be correct, but imprecise. She is certainly the only widely-produced playwright of her generation to be squarely settled in a very personal world of half-digested fairy tales, misunderstood urban myths, and personal anxieties. This is not that dissimilar from Black Lung productions; however, while Henning’s writing features pastiche characters bereft of a play, a sort of channel browsing embodied and searching for the lost narrative thread, Katz stretches her pop incoherence over sociohistorical confusions (from Ern O’Malley to suburban rivalries in Melbourne, to the history of local vaudeville), overlays it all with an anxious suburban sexuality, and wrings hard.
Katz’s characters are always vaguely aware of their fictitiousness and, like suburban teenagers, less fight it than try to manipulate their own image, make willful exits, evolve, delude: and yet, they are always trapped in the strict girdle of a Lally Katz play, a self-aware machine of its own, that gallops with the unrelenting mercilessness of the grown-up world. Levels of discourse intermingle, predictable plotlines start and finish against all odds, while the unpredictable ones drift off, and the characters, like the repeatedly erased Daffy Duck in that seminal cartoon, struggle to assert themselves. Abalone and Gerture, the two suburban orphans in The Eisteddfod, get trapped in an entire soap-opera of intrigue and ambition, despite cracking under the conflicting pressure of their own alter-egos. In Black Swan of Trespass, Ern O’Malley cannot find consolation in his brief and tortured life, despite being just a literary hoax, while Ethel O’Malley is a psychological cripple, a tragic puddle of incomplete characterization (like some David Williamson character magically granted self-awareness). In Smashed, two teenage girls are on a time trip through their own fantasy, confusing themselves and each other. It is this wild democracy of reference points that makes Katz’s productions, usually directed by Chris Kohn, a respected translator of her ideas, something of a treat for Australian stages.
None of this magic, mind you, could be deducted from their last collaboration, now playing at the Malthouse. There is a 15-minute chunk towards the end of the second act, when Katz’s usual voice cuts through the conflicting ambitions of the play so far, and suddenly all the botched possibilities are made visible. Ethylyn Rarity (not the first one to embody the role), while wrestling Charlie Mudd, the owner of the unsuccessful vaudeville house she is trying to leave (I have retold you the previous act and a half just there), finds an exact copy of her wig and dress under the stage. “How long have I been here?”, she cries, and gives a repeat of one of the first phrases we hear her utter in the show: “I don’t know my lines…” After that, she somehow coerces Mudd into killing all his characters, and it’s all meta- and confusing and utterly beautiful. And somehow, you see how high the performance could have flown.
Instead, the 125 minutes beforehand are a pretty studious failure; and less so because of any precise decision, than the cumulative effect of so many moves in many directions. A large part of Vaudeville is a low-key, low-intensity, terminally slow and dramatically flat vaudeville performance. Racist and sexist jokes are shot at us, repeatedly, with a painfully consistent lack of audience enthusiasm. Had this gone on for 140 minutes straight, it wouldn’t have been the average Katz/Kohn production, but would have been interesting nonetheless: it would be an unflinching look into the eyes of the past, untainted with the cushy nostalgia that so ruined a similarly-minded A Large Attendance in the Antechamber in 2007 Tower. As Stuff White People Like has succintly pointed out, there is a diffuse and mute sense of guilt over so many things in certain Anglo-Seaxon societies that apologies become a sort of thin veneer on the everyday life. The dissection of what exactly we get so nostalgic about that drearily drags across those planks is a marvelous goal: Mark Jones in blackface, Christen O’Leary’s horny ventriloquist puppet, Jews who lend at zero interest?
Unfortunately, Vaudeville then cascades into a stage version of Dr Quinn the Medicine Woman; a psychologically slim docu-drama on the backstage of history that cannot escape its own absurdist impulses. In purging nostalgia, it seems to veer towards revealing unpleasant historical truth, but trips over its own hysterical fantasies instead. A ventriloquist has slept with her father, the magician with two midgets, and the until-then squirmy humour turns genuinely humour-like – it still isn’t funny, but it stretches its own playing field, simulating an honest attempt at inducing laughter. Perhaps Katz has been outdone by the self-parody of cinema. While the unmasking of characters as paper dolls trapped within the play is nominally her territory, I can think of a bucketful of Sunday afternoon films in which circus freaks reveal a saccharine human face in digestible, family-friendly doses (and it merely starts with The Wizard of Oz).
Ultimately, the tripartite coalition of tendencies doesn’t quite lead us anywhere: it is not an absurd inside-out of a play that Katz likes to write; not a crude dissection of nostalgia that the program notes roundaboutedly hint at; and the part that most easily absorbs these two failed trajectories is the third slant towards rather unremarkable nostalgic setpiece. The result is wildly uneven. Like John Bolton’s recent The Masque of the Red Death, it is neither representation nor pure presence, neither vaudeville nor a well-made play, and certainly not the Katz/Kohn theatrical lunatic asylum. Its majestic, spectacularly boring offensiveness neither lasts long enough nor steps into territory slippery enough to seriously challenge the audience (the way This Is Set in the Future, with its unrelenting vulgarity, did at La Mama last December). It looks, more than anything, like an MTC-esque crowd-pleaser, and as such it clearly fails, due to the above-mentioned surrealist and offensive tendencies.
These days, I rarely book myself into performances that completely disappoint me. After Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, I had to apologise for dragging my +1 along, which is very rare indeed. The last time this happened was at the equally praised, and equally ill-conceived The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another promise of a quirky tale that couldn’t quite decide how close to middlebrow to trot. Perhaps Katz and Kohn work better off on small, semiotically already oblique stage. Perhaps it could have all been saved by more spirited acting. Not mine to tell. I am just hoping that next time will be better.
Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd. Written by Lally Katz, concept and direction by Chris Kohn. Set and costumes by Jonathan Oxlade, music composed by Mark Jones, sound design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Mark Jones, Alex Menglet, Christen O’Leary, Jim Ruseell, Matt Wilson and Julia Zemiro. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until March 28.