Friday, October 14, 2011

Ruben Guthrie - Two Thumbs Up

Just looking at that makes you want to drink something.
Just quietly, between me and you, people who sporadically read this blog, there were dozens of times during Ruben Guthrie where I just wanted to grab (or hug) director David Berthold and just say "Nice job". I think blog reviews are over 9000 times more entertaining to write if I had mounds of scathing criticism, but I can't really fault Ruben Guthrie in any specific area. A dark, contemporary Australian comedy, La Boite have indeed gone out of this scene with an extremely humane production. Ruben Guthrie is a drama that's devastatingly emotionally draining, highly relevant and ultimately, extremely relatable to its audience.

Ruben Guthrie is a 29 year-old creative executive of 'Subliminal', the most successful advertising company in Australia. After a celebratory night resulting in drinking way too much, Ruben's loved ones intervene by claiming he has a problem with alcohol, and ship him off to begin AA meetings. From there, his personal and professional life change dramatically to accommodate his new life of abstaining from alcohol, and the support network of Ruben is firmly tested.

Lauren Orrell (Zorya) and Gyton Grantley (Ruben) sizzle with chemistry onstage. Hooray!
The cast are electric, combining to create an ensemble performance that runs the gamut of human emotion. Gyton Grantley stars in the titular role, playing Ruben Guthrie as the cheeky and arrogant, but infuriatingly loveable and obscurely relateable victim. I was originally going to describe Grantley's portrayal of Ruben by comparing it to something like a prism held up to a light that omitted different colours depending on how you looked at it, but I haven't slept in a while so it would be silly for me to try and conquer that. But his portrayal is multi-faceted, easily transferring himself between the comedy and his most profound personal thoughts through his impressive ability to tap into performing with inspiring, vivid realism. The role seems gargantuan, and to communicate such a deeply emotional tale of struggle for an audience each night, and to make it seem original each night, there can only be good things said about Grantley's performance. The remainder of the cast are excellent and are almost perfectly cast in their roles, playing them sensitively and realistically, without falling into any notable clichés. Darren Sabadina, who makes his professional stage debut, plays Ruben's closest friend, a shameless and flamboyantly gay socialite and fellow drinks enthusiast called Damien. Filthy in speech and action, Sabadina adorns the role with sly attributes such as continually encouraging Ruben to give into temptation. The rest of the male cast also attempt to deter Ruben off his new path. Hayden Spencer plays the suave and crafty boss, whose talent for devising advertisements pales severely in comparison to his star pupil Ruben. As Ruben's performance drops due to his creativity diminishing from a lack of alcohol, his advice to Ruben is vague, unhelpful, and occasionally contradicting as he simultaneously works to suppress his own personal experiences. Ruben's father, played by John McNeill, is equally unhelpful. In a state of disbelief, his father awkwardly tries to encourage Ruben to continue his initiative, but constantly becomes a hurdle by insisting that Ruben should drink. McNeill's performance is fascinating to watch, as he embodies the Australian attitude of drinking so spot-on. His feel and actions in the role are absolutely natural and believable.

The stand outs are found in the female cast - they were comprised of such vivacious performances that I feel I'll never tire of watching. Lauren Orrell, who in Ruben Guthrie makes her professional stage debut, plays Ruben's fiancée Zorya in a manner that is utterly charming. As Zorya, Orrell steals the stage with her portrayal that balances a weak attempt to emit an icy callousness, which is fragmented by a lovely tenderness towards Ruben which aches of compassion and naiveness. The chemistry between her and Grately is just explosive, oozing with sensuality and character that's both endearing and ultimately tragic. Kathryn Marquet plays Ruben's sponsor and later fiancée Virginia with an ingenious and sort of unnerving mix of a playful and happy-go-lucky girl that often dramatically jumps between being sportive and being utterly domineering and ferociously controlling over Ruben's actions. Marquet's character is so complex, a very sweet and quirky do-gooder who wants the best for Ruben but communicates this horrible, festering, controlling nature that's delivered in lines such as "I'll tell you when you're different" and "Your life is my life now." I literally shook my head in panic when she said those lines - it was just such an incredible achievement in communicating a subtext. Ruben's mother, played by the supremely talented Caroline Kennison, commands the stage so strongly with an air of maternal caring and wisdom, but also unearthed anguish. There were scores of moments where I was touched by the emotion found in her actions, but her soliloquy in the second act is nothing short of brilliant. I was practically moved to tears alongside her, as she regretfully acknowledges to the audience that the men around her have been slowly consumed by alcoholism while she has silently watched on. The performance that the ladies of the cast portray is simply stunning.

Caroline Kennison (Susan) owning the stage with one of her numerous provoking moments.
The most coruscating moment in the drama is when Ruben, severely intoxicated after an intense relapse, hears a series of attempted interventions from his family and friends. Although it started off in a dangerous manner of Ruben mumbling shit like "Mummy, Daddy" (gross. If anyone is writing theatre avoid using those words at all cost. It's almost as corny as having people singing 'Happy Birthday' in a vapid attempt to create some unnerving tension. Anyway, I'll continue writing positive remarks), I ended up with goosebumps in this scene, which was a perfect balance of interaction from the ensemble with Ruben. Wefts and interjections of pre-recorded dialogue in addition to a low key electrical drones are interweaved with Ruben's breakdown and the active dialogue of the ensemble. It's a moment in the drama which is utterly compelling, a moment of truth where each character reveals their personal fragilities and fears to help Ruben slow his insatiable thirst of alcohol. In a warped way I'd say it's a beautiful scene, which shows alcohol as a luxury which potentially can effect anyone's life.

On a whole the show is excellent. Among the comedy there are so many fantastic, entertaining, and moving moments that resonated with me. What's so wonderful about Ruben Guthrie is that it's totally relatable. Most of its audience can totally identify and empathize with these characters on stage - it shows a facet of humanity that hasn't been attained in the mainstage La Boite shows this year til now.  Since drinking is a gigantic part of our lives, the commentary on the attitude Australians have towards alcohol is fascinating since it's absolutely true - the ridicule Ruben receives from his father and his boss after requesting water rather than wine is totally spot on. The anger that Spencer erupts into, bemoaning how Australia has become infested by metrosexuals is undeniably a topical matter that Brendan Cowell has chosen to question at this point in time, and the acknowledgement of the problems of alcohol have become more prevalent due to organisations such as Alchoholics Anonymous seeking a change in awareness. The ingenuity of the text is found through its purpose to question our own association and moderation with alcohol. Says the boy who drank five beers within an hour after the show. Yewww!

There only aspect I wasn't thrilled with was the portrayal of Ruben's friend gay friend Damien. It comes across as really obnoxious. Loud and shameless, he emits the same persona as the Sassy Gay Friend where you just feel the need to eat some fire to get past how grating it is. I get the feeling if he was directed to tone down the outrageous actions and the chemistry between him and Ruben would have been much more intriguing. The moment where Damien breaks down after being called a 'faggot' seemed totally out of character since someone so flamboyant who regularly refers to himself in that manner... it seemed it would have made more sense if he had processed the thought internally and used his voice to express some disappointment. Anyway, one criticism for a 2 hour and 30 minute play isn't too bad.

Darren Sabadina (Damien) and Gyton Grantley (Ruben) in the penultimate scene.
Lighting and sound was fine. Although the lighting had something like 9000 lights on at once the only moment where I actively appreciated it was during the glorious creation of the Arctic Circle. I don't really have anything to say about the sound, except that I did enjoy the feel of the rock intro/outroduction. Likewise with the costumes, they were so realistic and relevant I can't say anything beyond it being acceptable, and the set was minimalist so I don't have any words on that either. This wasn't something that evoked an incredible mise-en-scène, but I was thrilled that Ruben Guthrie was actually using the theatre-in-the-round format. The layout and direction of the staging was excellent and I really love the idea that each time you view the show you'll be able to find a new point of view and see scenes in a new light.

Overall, Ruben Guthrie is a wonderful play to end the La Boite season. I'm tempted to call it beautiful, but that doesn't seem to be a term that's popular with anyone at the moment. With a top-notch ensemble of actors led by the charismatic Gyton Grantley, Brendan Cowell's text is vividly brought to life to examine the fragility of the human willpower and question our association with alcohol and note the effects of our actions on our surroundings (like David hitting my beer out of my hand and smashing it on the ground). Totally recommended, although prepare to feel emotionally drained and have an annoying inclination to control yourself the next time you reach for your sixth drink. A tour-de-force of emotion and drama that is worth seeing, two thumbs up.

Tickets for 'Ruben Guthrie' range from $28-$48 (or if we're besties, $18), and is showing until November . Book by visiting La Boite's website or by calling (07) 3007 8600. The photos on this page are taken by Al Caeiro  
which I stole from the resources section of the La Boite website, but it should be okay because it's for promotional purposes so they hopefully make some more money, so don't try to make me the bad guy in all of this, but I'll have no problems with removing them.

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