The exoteric and instructional title of Seminar: a comedy alone gives a hint that this play by Theresa Rebeck will involve a seminar that will treat its participants with a certain level of condescension.
In this production directed by Matthew Cox, four budding fiction writers pay for a writing workshop by a renowned literary personality, Leonard (Dion Mills). Each session, one of the students is required to produce a work for Leonard to judge, which the teacher either belittled, outright rejected, or praised only for its lack of substance – as instruction on how to be successful in the literary field.
Each scene comprised a small time-point in this course duration, and between Leonard’s criticisms, covered themes such as the subjectivity of a critic, belief in one’s own work and self, and the use of sex as a means of perceived empowerment and subjugation.
Seminar: a comedy is indeed a comedy, and contains the perfect quotes for when in literary discussions, as well as being a hilarious introduction to the field for others. And much like how a semicolon joins two independent clauses, each scene lead to its own punchline before the story progressed. Well most scenes. A few ended in an awkward air of forced applause as the lights died abruptly in a matter-of- fact fashion.
For a play that covers so many topics yet gives so little of each character, individual performances are required to needed to be strong and on point, in particular the lead performance of Leonard.
While the over-the-top dramatisation by Mills was effective, and indeed his brutal treatment of his students was hilarious, the effect wore thin by the second act. His insincerity and theatrical presence ruined any attempts to develop his character by the time it became clear how the story was directedly focussed upon him and his vulnerability rather than his students.
This was a shame given how pivotal this role was for the production, especially the precedent by the late great Alan Rickman having played this role in Broadway, who is perhaps most famous at skilfully and gracefully portraying characters with a defensive criticism and cruelty to hide vulnerabilities.
Darcy Kent, who played one of the writers, Douglas, began the first act with a perfect example of how Leonard’s role could have been played, and perhaps Kent would have been better suited to the role. He and the rest of the cast performed well together, and melding the group together was the chemistry between the talented Cazz Bainbridge (Kate) and Mark Yeates (Martin).
While Ra Chapman (Izzy) was also pivotal to the production, it seems that her character was simply dismissed from the story without any attempt to delve into the rationale behind her sexual prowess and promiscuity. Bainbridge’s role also, despite being so strong throughout most the performance, faltered at the end, and it wasn’t clear whether Kate’s story ended in a state of empowerment or suppression.
The design of the set was simple (Hugh Stephens – Scenic Design), and the clean and controlled nature of the first set was set to contrast against the more chaotic second, although could have reflected Kate’s financial status more appropriately. The addition of the dimly-lit throwing of draft manuscripts was a nice touch to subtlety announce this change.
And perhaps what made this performance memorable was the depth of some of the content and ‘inside’ jokes. For example, it became apparent when exiting the theatre that the thrown manuscripts were in fact works of Jane Austen, whose homage to by Kate took her six years to write (Austen herself only producing six completed books).
Seminar: a comedy is funny and well thought out, but at times clumsy, rushed and overly exaggerated, emphasising Rebeck’s recommendation in the story of the need for a good Editor. It was clear that all the elements were present – the cast was talented and the production sound – but a guiding hand would have made this performance into something worth more than just the course fee.
Seminar: A comedy
The Loft – Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Season continues to 26 November 2016
For more information, visit: www.artefacttheatre.com for details.
Image: Cazz Bainbridge, Mark Yeates, Darcy Kent, Ra Chapman and Dion Mills feature in Seminar: a comedy – photo by Theresa Harrison
Review: Jimmy Twin