Eternity Playhouse, March 30


Stay Woke doesn’t just tackle the issue of racism, it bites the head off it, and then throws a spot of gender fluidity into the bloodbath. Playwright Aran Thangaratnam uses the handy narrative ploy of squashing his characters together in unfamiliar surroundings (the Victorian ski slopes), where he sets up multi-directional frictions fierce enough to cause carpet burns.

Kaivu Suvarna and Dushan Philips. Photos: Phoebe Powell.

Niv (Dushan Philips) and his younger brother Sai (Kaivu Suvarna) are Australian Tamils who, now in their 20s, have never resolved their childhood spites. Niv enjoys a long-term relationship with non-binary Mae (Brook Lee), and Sai has a new girlfriend in Kate (Rose Adams). While Kate is sweet-tempered, she is asleep at the wheel and tin-eared when it comes racial and gender stereotyping, and Niv is a tiger who keeps mauling her for her transgressions. Further stoking his belligerence is a desire to wedge his brother as being soft on racism.

Bridget Balodis has directed this energetic production for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, performed on a Matilda Woodroofe-designed, ski-lodge set that manages to be both naturalistic and slightly claustrophobic, simultaneously. Balodis ensures the play’s ready wit is never lost – the antidote to Niv’s ever-present (and justifiable) searing anger.

Dushan Philips, Kaivu Suvarna and Rose Adams. Photos: Phoebe Powell.

The frictions between Niv and Sai, Niv and Kate, and, to a lesser extent, Kate and Mae are intensified by rabid drinking. In an attempt to lighten the prevailing mood on the second night of a tense weekend, Kate, a pharmacist, is excessively generous with her stockpile of Xanax. Mae becomes the worse for wear, and this is where the play’s glaring fault line opens: despite Mae being under the weather, Niv continues his baiting of Kate and his vendetta against Sai, when, by any measure, his head-over-heels-in-love character should be entirely consumed with Mae’s well-being. Even the pervasive four-way selfishness does not explain away this behaviour.

Balodis could have had Philips’ Niv exhibiting a quieter, more menacing anger some of the time, as a counterpoint to the shouting, and she could have also reigned in Daniella A Esposito’s music, which is thrilling at its most dramatic, but can become distracting when a constant underscore. Those observations aside, the play gallops along, slightly outstripped by the dynamic acting.

Until April 17.