In Malthouse Theatre’s newest mainstage show, K-Box, time is a box. ‘Time is the substance I am made of,’ wrote the author Jorge Louis Borges in 1946. Borges, the constant surrealist, sought to understand the price exacted on us by time’s passing, a price we bear the marks of it though often struggle to recognise.
Ra Chapman, making her mainstage debut with K-Box as Malthouse’s Artist in Residence, gives time its substance by way of a decrepit box. Torn, mouldy, and graffitied with childhood doodles, it is a box large enough to house a four-year-old child and valuable enough to survive her parents’ spring cleaning when she returns to it 30 years later.
It is this homecoming which opens Chapman’s glorious new show. With a backpackers’ lethargy and hygiene, Lucy (Susanna Qian) returns to her childhood home in regional Australia and immediately seeks out this box; the centre of her world when, at four years old, she was adopted from South Korea.
She soon discovers that her parents, Shirley (Maude Davey) and George Kowalski (Syd Brisbane) have emptied it of all her childhood bric-a-brac. Likewise, her room has been gutted and turned into an arts and crafts space. Her return transforms into less of a homecoming and more of a reckoning. Over time, her home has seemingly erased her.
But what is the significance of this cardboard box? And why is Lucy, a 34-year-old woman, suddenly so struck by the changes in a home she has not lived in for years? Gathering around, the family compare their disparate memories in an attempt to name the box’s significance. It is a ship according to Shirley. No, it is an imaginary friend nicknamed Chippy, so says George. Ultimately its four corners mean different things to different people.
For Lucy, its meaning is inseparable from her experience as a transracial adoptee. Her attempts to understand its significance over the course of the play are an attempt to reckon with the story of her adoption and its long-term effects. In her programme notes, Chapman describes this reckoning as a process by which Lucy’s adoption becomes a ‘thing’. Just like the box, this ‘thing’, and the effects of naming it, mean different things to different people.
Syd Brisbane delivers a stunning performance as George, for whom this process comes up against principles he has formed as a second-generation migrant of Polish parents. George is an easy-going larrikin that became a doting Father, and Brisbane imbues him with easy likeability. In him we see an Aussie battler’s emphasis on a strong work ethic and a generational opposition to conflict, come to a head against Lucy’s reckoning with her South Korean roots and ostensibly white upbringing.
Maude Davey, surely one of our best working actors today, is similarly impeccable as Shirley. Davey hits comedic beats with laser focus and delivers dramatic monologues with an earnestness that cuts to the heart. Well-meaning, though often misguided, she relates to Lucy’s increasing conflict of self with a mother’s sensitivity to her daughter, as well as a self-awareness that she uses to understand the conflict it spurs in herself.
Some actors might be lost in the shadows of the show’s larger-than-life supporting characters, especially with actors like Davey and Brisbane at their helm. Thankfully, as Lucy, Susanna Qian leans into her character’s contrasting inscrutability. While still capable of delivering larger-than-life fanfare, her performance is the crucial slow burn that builds alongside the show’s themes to land its climactic end. Her tense introspection is magnetic to watch and her delivery of more dramatic scenes painfully attune to the realities of her complicated connection to her cultural origins and, therein, her childhood.
Yet despite Qian’s magnetic inscrutableness, the show often loses itself to ambiguity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sudden appearance of K-Pop star Kim Phan (Jeffrey Liu) early on. When Kim enters, there are questions that remain frustratingly underdeveloped. How did Lucy, who has been characterised with an agoraphobic opposition to leaving the house, meet Kim? Why is Kim here in the first place? It is clear that Kim serves an important purpose for her but the disbelief we must suspend in order to accept his presence shrouds him in unreality.
Early on in the piece we are treated to a K-Pop performance from Kim, a delightful spectacle of thick haze, strobe lights and pyrotechnics. But at this point we are still unsure of Lucy, and, relatedly, the formal language which the show is interested in using. Is it surreal or naturalistic? Kitchen-sink drama or Beckettian fever dream?
Chapman and Director Bridgette Balodis make confident enough steps stylistically that this question never compromises one’s engagement entirely. Still, some characters are left out in the cold by its ambiguity; Kim most obviously. And unfortunately Lui is unable to match the easy charisma of his co-stars in a way that might resolve these questions. Pair this ambiguity with Lucy’s child-like preoccupation with her box and the result is a show that at times stretches itself thin straddling the surreal and the realistic.
Once Kim is excised, K-Box is more surefooted stylistically and thematically. Splashes of the surreal still exist – a ghostly call from the night, a salami offering – but we are now firmly anchored to Lucy alone. As such, Chapman is able to step more confidently to her climactic conclusion and focus in on the complexities of Lucy’s self-reflection.
All the while, Bridgette Balodis’ direction retains a near-perfect complementary relationship to Chapman’s text. Comedic sequences are tightly blocked and emotional transitions carefully signposted with help from well-choreographed lighting and sound cues.
Marco Cher-Gibard’s Sound Design moves from the quintessentially Australian to the ominous expertly, and the peppering of references to Korean soundscapes offer the perfect sonic allegory to Lucy’s struggling self-reflection.
Set and Costume Designer, Romanie Harper colours the Kowalski’s suburban home with warm earth tones and a symmetrical layout that is immediately welcoming. Their choice to make the stage tiered affords the opportunity for arresting tableaus and evocations of depth that Balodis takes full advantage of with careful blocking.
Many plays of this kind can lose themselves trying to shoehorn personal relationships into social commentary. In K-Box, Chapman does not attempt to tell the ultimate adoptee story. Her characters and their opinions are vividly drawn according to specific value systems and beliefs. No matter how much we might disagree with these characters, we understand them and their opinions.
Any impulse to moralise them cannot be sustained and the result is a form of intimacy and understanding that resembles the familial. It is heartbreaking to witness the strain of this familial intimacy, as Lucy finally names the ‘thing’ that her adoption, and the box, represents – an evocation of the complex problems that come out of reflecting on the experience of transracial adoption over time.
‘Time is a river which sweeps me along,’ Jorge Luis Borges writes, ‘but I am the river; it is a tiger…but I am the tiger’. In K-Box, time is a box. Its four cardboard walls promised Lucy a suspension of time; a gateway into childhood nostalgia and so an escape from her life.
But in the end, taking a small piece of the box with her, it represents a cultural connection denied to her as a child, a totem that connects her to a home she never knew. In leaving with a piece of it, she no longer suspends time but rather reckons with how she has been made – for better or worse – from ‘its substance.’
Beckett Theatre – Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Wednesday 7 September 2022
Season continues to 18 September 2022
Information and Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au
Image: Susanna Qian, Syd Brisbane and Maude Davey in K-Box – photo by Phoebe Powell
Review: Guy Webster