Left – Lucia Mastrantone, Amber McMahon and Matthew Whittet. Cover – Paula Arundell and Amber McMahon. Photos – Daniel Boud
Lally Katz has been one of the more unique voices writing for our stages over the last decade or so. Her award-winning plays range from canny adaptations to esoteric original works, with an eclectic and eccentric sensibility that defies easy pigeonholing. In the vein of some of her more personally-inflected, ostensibly autobiographical work of recent years, Atlantis is something of an informal sequel to her 2013 one-woman show Stories I Want to Tell You in Person.
A simple one-hander, it starred Katz as herself, relating the reputedly true story of her misadventures consulting a brash low-rent psychic in New York and the ways this influenced her life, with highly amusing results. It was a wildly disarming show, in which the effervescent Katz portrayed herself as gormless to the point of absurdity, relating hilarious behaviour and ill-advised decisions that one struggled to see as anything other than incredible open-mindedness at best, or drastically gullible naiveté at worst. If, as an audience, one chose to remain agnostic about the trade-off between truth, exaggeration or outright flights of fancy, there was no denying that Katz displayed a bold kind of fearlessness in portraying herself – clearly an intelligent and insightful writer – in such a ditzy light. Like many stand-up comedians who use a significant amount of self-effacing material for humorous effect, it depends very much on the individual member of the audience whether they were predominantly laughing with or at the unflattering antics and self-characterisation that Katz was fronting.
Atlantis continues her personal saga in a very similar vein, yet with a significantly wider scope of both material and presentation. Once again claiming that the story about to be told is almost entirely true and that all its characters are real people, this time we are presented with a full play rather than a monologue, presented by a small ensemble cast who each perform multiple roles, apart from Amber McMahon, who takes on the part of Lally Katz herself. McMahon-as-Katz explains upfront that this “will actually be better in terms of showing emotional truth”, the first of a constant stream of breaks in the fourth wall which keep Atlantis feeling very much of a piece with Stories I Want to Tell You in Person, despite the far more elaborate and dramatised presentation.
“Lally” is not wrong, for as charming a stage presence as the real Katz has, it is definitely an advantage to have so talented and experienced a dramatic and comedic actor as McMahon playing her and presenting this story in all its rampant absurdity. It is also helpful in terms of softening the extent to which one may be wondering distractedly just how true all of this really is, since we are clearly one step removed from the real-life Katz. Furthermore, it helps diffuse any potential awkwardness over the playwright’s presentation of herself on a journey through relationships and encounters that are at turns so hilarious that it will test your bladder control, heartbreaking enough to make you cry, and so squirmingly cringeworthy as to make you break out in hives from vicarious mortification.
The story we are told is essentially one of an intermittent road-trip, and ultimately, like all such tales, of self-discovery. Starting out with a floundering career and a rather harsh break-up with a boyfriend and fellow writer whom “Lally” had assumed to be the soulmate who would eventually father her children, she leaves Australia. Returning to America, the country of her birth and early youth, Lally intends to find renewed professional inspiration and hopefully new love, as her proverbial biological clock keeps mercilessly ticking. After some truly outrageous encounters with her Airbnb host come-new-friend and some rather thankless one-night stands, she pays a return visit to the psychic from the previous play, leading to decisions which are as uproarious as they are straining to our sense of credibility over Lally’s credulity. What follows beyond that are journeys from New York to Texas, and ultimately to Florida, the site of happy childhood memories with which she is reticent to tamper.
Lally, as a character, is hard to peg, with her obvious intelligence being constantly played against her impulsive and at turns go-with-the-flow actions, with a wide-eyed persona coalescing into a sort of hapless babe-in-the-woods ingénue. Both self-determining and insanely suggestible at the same time, her openness to random new experiences and lack of skepticism in doing so is endearing and embarrassing in equal measure, as she bounces between unlikley relationships, pyramid schemes, cults and desperate wannabees.
Akin to a less infantalised and infinitely more vocal Mr. Bean, whose antics are like emotional slapstick rather than literal pratfalls, Lally is constantly encountering true believers and charlatans alike, in a kind of emotionally picaresque saga as she open-heartedly pinballs amongst a wide array of broken and bizzare oddball characters along her journey. As ridiculous as it all is, there is a degree of quirky plausibility that carries you through, provided that one can accept that anyone would continue to make such seemingly ridiculous choices… at least until things start to turn surreal to the point where the opening’s “almost everything is true” disclaimer rears its head in a rather gobsmacking fashion towards the end.
It’s not all absurdist-tinged comedy though, as there are some serious underlying issues at play here concerning loneliness and the extent to which society programs us as individuals, and women in particular, to believe in the necessity of a soulmate and reinforce the expectation that we must not only find one but moreover need children as well to make ourselves whole. As an artist Katz clearly seeks to challenge these assertions about whether having a partner and particularly producing a baby is necessarily the only valid form of creation upon which to justify one’s life. These questions come to something of a head through Lally’s encounters with her elderly grandparents in a New Jersey retirement home. She initially ignores and treats them rather shabbily while distracted with the whirlwind of her life coming asunder, an emotional neglect she later comes to regret in a truly touching scene.
There is not much else one can say about the story without giving away many surprising developments which are a lot of the fun of this charming and hilarious play, but one cannot sing highly enough the praises of the terrific cast. Paula Arundell plays multiple roles with her usual aplomb, chiefly the aging would-be rapper who hosts Lally in New York and dreams of romance with Kanye West, and effortlessly slides between characters that cover the spectrum between dignity and absurdity. Matthew Whittet acquits himself well in several less flashy parts, such as Lally’s emotionally cold ex-boyfriend and her psychic’s put-upon teenage daughter, but is ultimately quite understatedly devastating as her grandfather in the play’s most moving scene.
The sinewy Hazem Shammas is excellent as most of the male characters in the play, including Lally’s various fleeting love interests, with a notable versatility for vocal and physical inflections that fully distinguish these quite different individuals. Even more astonishing in this regard is Lucia Mastrantone, who is a veritable whirling dervish of different characters, most of whom are extremely colourful, such as the New York psychic, a few different crazy cab drivers, servicepeople and assorted weirdoes, yet shows she can also reign it in as both a quiet fertility doctor and Lally’s elderly, angelic grandmother.
With this multitude of roles swirling around her, it is all the more impressive that Amber McMahon manages to hold her own as Lally without any doubling up, but she is an absolute marvel, running the gamut from heartfelt emotion to side-splitting clowning and uproarious physical comedy. It is a great delight to see this wonderful performer in a lead role, and she truly anchors this manically creative production.
The style of humour in this play may not be for everyone, it is weird, crude, embarrassing on both scatalogical and emotional levels, and rises or falls on whether you can find the antics of Lally Katz’s autobiographical main character delightful or excruciating. I would hazard that, for most, this is a truly uproarious night of imaginative, involving and wildly unpredictable theatre that will leave your sides aching and your tear-ducts moist one way or the other. It is a unique new comedy about the genuine strangeness of life, in the best possible way.
by Lally Katz
Director Rosemary Myers
Venue: Belvoir Street Theatre | N/A
Dates: 28 October – 26 November 2017
Bookings: belvoir.com.au | 02 9699 3444