Eternity Playhouse, May 7


This cute little play is rather like an assignment at drama school: construct a comic scenario in which the actors will have to communicate non-verbally more than verbally. American Bess Wohl’s solution was to set her 90-minute work at a silent spiritual retreat, introduce a mix-and-match batch of six characters, and then sit back and watch the fun unfold.

Of course visual humour has been around since the homo erectus first slipped on a banana peel, enjoying a heyday in the silent movie era, and a resurgence 50 years ago with entertainments as diverse as Eric Sykes’ The Plank (1967) and Jacques Tati’s Traffic. Aspects of Wohl’s work are especially reminiscent of The Plank, with gags fuelled by misunderstandings, so that there’s almost a “joke approaching” neon sign, and yet as long as actors still play it for all it’s worth, the laugh still flows.

Dorje Swallow and Amber McMahon. Photos: Robert Catto.

With Wohl’s text often being a template of instructions for visual acting, the variables remain endless, so the director and performers create the work in their own image to a larger degree than normal. Director Jo Turner (for Darlinghurst Theatre Company) has given this process a head-start by assembling the considerable talents of Sharon Millerchip (Joan), Yalin Ozucelik (Ned), Amber McMahon (Alicia), Justin Smith (Jan), Jane Phegan (Judy) and Dorje Swallow (Rodney).

Communicating Wohl’s characterisations to the audience, with negligible resort to dialogue, is a challenge. This cast more or less achieves (albeit with some resort to cliché), aided by cues inherent in the costumes of Jeremy Allen, who also provided Turner with a literal set of the retreat venue, complete with Japanese-style sliding screen doors, and a garden beyond.

Turner expertly delivers the lines of the retreat’s guru (a disembodied voice-over, who seems to have stalled on the spiritual ladder many rungs shy of transcendentalism), to whom the on-stage actors react. Just when the sight gags are wearing thin, Ozucelik’s dorky Ned addresses the others, and the brief change to verbal comedy reinvigorates the show.

For a while. But ultimately Wohl’s play should have been shorter and Turner’s production snappier in places, to avoid a sense that both the humour and characterisations exhaust themselves. Perhaps that is inherent in the two-dimensional slightness of the piece, although it still exudes an undeniable charm.

Until May 26.