A Dodgeball Named Desire

MFF23-A-Dodgeball-Named-Desire-photo-by-Cameron-GrantAccountants, or maybe cynics, might think that the arts nowadays need to learn about how to attract audiences from major sports. One approach would be to make offerings more of a spectacle. Theatre company Bloomshed attempt this by pitting a team of actors against a sub-elite AFL team in a (not just) physical contest through A Dodgeball Named Desire.

The spirit of playwright Tennessee Williams (Tom Molyneux, also playing a pregnant Stella Kowalski) has orchestrated this challenge to the discipline of Theatre. Feeling (maybe without much justification) that his A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) is fading in importance, he wants to test the power of his dramatic creations against modern entertainments.

From that play, his character Blanche DuBois (Stella’s sister) – a Southern belle running out of time and luck – might still be a suitable draftee. As some residents of New Orleans know, Blanche is capable of some deceptive moves, even if she can lack discipline around scoring opportunities.

And so Team Blanche (Anna Louey, Laura Aldous, Elizabeth Brennan) will take to the playfield in dresses suitable for their character (thanks to costuming from Samantha Hastings). They will meet the physically stronger, match-fit, and far more suitably attired team Stanley (named for Blanche’s tormenting brother-in-law from more usual times), projecting serious game face.

There are some laughs to be had through the undercutting of our expectations. Even just arriving at the venue, Brennan’s Blanche found a quite unexpected reaction from an event commentator (James Jackson) towards her unhurriedly authentic southern drawl.

Williams himself would preside over the action from a tall referee’s chair. This involved much whistle blowing and awarding of penalties. Team Stanley, in accordance with Blanche’s assessment of them as ape-like, didn’t always conduct themselves reasonably, even with regards to Stella. However, the chief Stanley (Sam Nix) produced a suitably blokey version of the requisite public apology.

The show’s promotional material leads us to expect that the dodgeball rounds will enable some comedic violence. This seemed to go over well in some sections of the stands. Team Blanche is on the receiving end of much of the rough play. As bad as an on-court humiliation and some possible bruising might be, there’s an uncomfortable feeling here.

Williams’ female characters had to tolerate bouts of domestic violence because it wasn’t possible to leave. Women today tend to experience the same problem. The frivolous nature of this work seems to have kept the source’s significant themes largely on the bench. Yet, aided by John Collopy’s lighting design and Justin Gardam’s sound, there are times when there’s no doubt that this is not just a game.

It was good to see a range of approaches from Blanche, and amusing to see how this motivated later events. Louey competed hard, so it was no wonder she was in the line of fire early on; too bad there was an issue with the refreshment grapes, I mean, oranges. Her later asides as a commentator with Jackson humorously recaptured some of the inanities of sporting commentary.

Aldous’s Blanche had some appealing moments of expressing or condensing her character’s disaffections, including a pitch-perfect reference to Lethal Weapon.

An audience could appreciate the work as “spectacle”. Yet, having a reasonable familiarity with the source material (available even on YouTube) will only increase punters’ enjoyment of the spins Bloomshed use in delivery.

At the conclusion of A Dodgeball Named Desire, we could go away with a grim outlook. Only later might we appreciate the theatrical trickery here of team Blanche having the contest on their home court. For as sport largely remains the same, the arts always find new tactics to appeal, as shown by the number of youngsters in the audience here.

With Melbourne Fringe continuing to grow against expectations, perhaps the spirit of Tennessee Williams could have a little more faith in our continuing need for the temporary magic theatre gives us.

A Dodgeball Named Desire
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 19 October 2023
Season continues to 29 October 2023
Information and Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com

Image: A Dodgeball Named Desire – photo by Cameron Grant

Review: Jason Whyte