By Bruce Norris
Directed by Gorkem Acaroglu
With Brett Cousins, Erin Dewar, Daniel Frederiksen, Sarah Sutherland, Andrea Swifte, Fantine Banulski, Oregon Guilloux-Cookand & Terry Yeboah
Assistent Director Christian Whitehead
Set and Costumes by Anna Cordingley
Lighting by Stelios Karagiannis
Stage Manager Laura Smith
The Pain and the Itch (April 30 – May 31)
Michael Magnusson, On Stage and Walls (03/05/08)
Bruce Norris’s class satire The Pain and the Itch takes the mechanism of a good farce, one by someone like Alan Ayckbourn, tweaks it about along the clever farce lines like playing some scenes out of their time sequence, sets up the characters with petards to foist themselves on, lets it all play out until it the situations are totally confusing and then neatly ties it all up in the last ten minutes. Kelly (Sarah Sutherland) and Clay (Daniel Frederiksen) seem the perfect couple. Kelly is a successful businesswoman; Clay a somewhat resentful house husband sacrificing his own career (and cat) to care for their baby and preschool daughter Kayla (Oregen Guilloux alternating with Cooke and Fantine Banulski). What isn’t explained at first is the presence of an immigrant African taxi driver Mr. Hadid (Terry Yeboah), why he is crying in the opening scene or what it is that Kelly and Cash are trying to explain to him.
Their conversations ramble, Hadid asking the price Clay’s shoes, furniture or their property tax. At the same Kelly and Clay’s Thanksgiving gathering is played out. Visiting are Clay’s plastic surgeon brother Cash (Brett Cousins) and mother Carol (Andrea Swift) along with Cash’s East European girl friend Kalina (Erin Dewar). These two separate time frames are played together and the first act is mainly taken up with a litany of inter-family hatreds, resentments and anxiety over the discovery of a gnawed avocado. The new discovery that Kalya has a genital rash ups the anxiety that it might be caused by whatever rodent is gnawing at the avocado.
The real gnawing is the extended family gnawing at each other’s nerves exposing their prejudices. Clay resents more successful wife, harbours a life long grudge against his brother Cash. Kelly clearly loathes everything about Cash, Carol claims to favour neither son but constantly and unconsciously reinforces Clay’s claim he was the second favourite. Carol is the addled mother from Hell and nobody like the bigoted and self absorbed Kalina. Norris’s trump is that this American family are series of clichés, long reinforced by television and film. They merge left wing, radical, and PC chick with every sort of conservative prejudice imaginable. Presumably this is why everyone but the child and the taxi driver wear only their underwear, exposed for us, the audience to see them for what they are. Unlike the good humoured farces of Mr Ayckbourn and co., The Pain and the Itch is a cruel spectacle. Norris creates a log-jam of individual incidents that make this family a totally unlovable one. Even the final resolution is made at the expense of their amorality. The pain turns out an unspeakable pain caused by one of the many squabbles we witness and the chain of actions it sets off. The itch is finally explained like Ibsen’s Ghosts or Arthur Schnitzler’s Der Rondel as a sexual ‘pass the parcel’. For a final indignity Norris even includes a dash of ‘cruel woman on nerdy guy’ action Neil LaBute style in his finale.
I have to hand it to Red Stitch for finding a way of navigating through this bitch epic. The long acts, filled with abuse and ambiguity, were so well balanced. Director Görkem Acaroglu seems to keep the dysfunction afloat at all times, so well he might consider becoming a family therapist. The cast, as usual, are so well selected. Guest artist Yeboah, seeming to move and speak a little slower while the others buzz around, makes the enigmatic outsider a constant focus. Who is he, I kept thinking, what is hiding? (what else can the others possibly have hidden, I kept thinking regularly as well, right to the end). The small playing space puts everything up to close scrutiny (literally, the labels on the underwear can be read and whether the gentlemen dress to the left or right is readily apparent) so the well controlled mood was very welcome. When tempers flared, they did so explosively but when the room falls silent dirty looks carry just as well. The Pain and the Itch pushes a lot of moral buttons in what it exposes as well as how it is played. It also pushes a lot of boundaries in is the situations and characters. The child actors playing Kala are privy to some fairly raunchy sights and sounds and the play ends with the only member of the family with any decency squashed and betrayed while the appalled Hadid flees the two-faced assembly. Anna Cordingley’s set is an angry red adorned with illustrations of various skin infections from the pages of medical book. In a way the whole thing gets under your skin. Norris may have intended it but the laughs often come with a very unpleasant after taste.
Daniel Frederikson (foreground), Terry Yeboah, Erin Dewar, Andrea Swifte and Oregen Guilloux-Cooke in The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris. Image: Jodie Hutchinson.
Nikki Thomas, Australian Stage Online (05/05/08)
It is without fail that Red Stitch has delivered again, with this superbly staged production of Bruce Norris’ intricately written The Pain and the Itch.
Moving, funny and cringe worthy at the best of times, this play is an elaborate exploration into the morals and values deemed important by members of our society. Too often, do we find ourselves down on our luck about life’s dealings, only never to consider the circumstances of those less fortunate than you. With his superb use of satire, Norris has created a dark comedy with an added brilliant twist designed to cut to the very soul of your conscious.
The play takes place over one night, with most of the action a replay of the family’s Thanksgiving dinner, held by the seemingly successful young, yuppie couple, Kelly and Clay. Played superbly by ensemble newcomer Sarah Sutherland and the talented Daniel Frederiksen, they prove through their strong choices and clear grasp of the script, that looks aren’t always what they assert when it comes to their designer relationship and home.
Despite proclaiming themselves as post modern, 21st century left wing voters, they hypocritically still do their utmost to protect themselves and their children from those contaminated with the illness of the ‘lower class.’ On the night of the dinner, the discovery of a half gnawed avocado forces them to confront their worst fears – the thought of an undoubtedly harmful intruder in their cocooned home. Add to this, the finding of the severe rash on their 5 year old daughter’s genitalia region and their ‘pleasant’ Thanksgiving dinner turns sour faster than the turkey is defrosted.
Desperately failing to be seen and respected as a home-maker, father and most of all man by his high flying attorney, breadwinner wife, Clay becomes more and more distressed by the presence of his surrounding family members and as a result the tragic events of the evening unfold.
Brett Cousins does a bitingly sharp job as the crass, sexist brother Cash, who is continuously and without care at the mercy of Clay’s seemingly more-than-sibling rivalry. His girlfriend, beautifully portrayed by Erin Dewar is the big hearted, lower class Kalina, a Russian immigrant consistently insulted by Cash about her lack of command of the English language. Adding to Clay’s anguish, there is the consistent voice of his well meaning but condescending mother Carol, (played marvelously by guest actor Andrea Swifte) who never ceases to voice her own opinion about her naïve political views or the necessity of pornography in any sexual relationship.
The chain of events of this Thanksgiving’s dinner is replayed by the family to the African accented, Mr Hadid, whose consistent presence in this apparently private domestic problem is only made shockingly clear as the story unfolds. Guest actor Terry Yeboah shines in this outside perspective role and provides a fittingly heartbreaking response of a character who has suffered considerably at the hands of the self-orientated.
What is so engaging about this play is the identification that you have with these self obsessed monsters. Gorkem Acaroglu’s direction is flawless, allowing and channeling the wit and satire of the script to be fully realised. She skillfully handles the seemingly difficult problem of a child actor with ease, with 5 year old Kayla (played alternatively by convincing actors Oregen Guilloux-Cooke and Fantine Banulski) providing a vast contrast to the selfish conduct of the adults with her innocent presence.
The simple design concept by Anna Cordingley is yet another brilliant aspect about this Red Stitch production, as it too taps into the twist of the script and is manifested into the design. The disturbing pictures on the walls only reveal themselves half way through the piece, while the decision of clothing the actors only in their underwear until the near end of the play, is suddenly thrust onto you as the play unravels itself.
It is all of the above and more that really propels Red Stitch to be a leading theatre company in Melbourne. Each member of the ensemble had a brilliant and accurate interpretation of their character and always stayed one step in front of the audience by disentangling the script with their excellent choices.
This is a piece designed to reflect on the manifesto debate – how much have we really developed in the abolishment of the line between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat? It is clear from this script where Bruce Norris places his opinion and one can’t help feeling, after viewing this production, that unfortunately he is right.
Chris Boyd, Herald Sun (09/05/08)
On the strength of the first third of the year, 2008 already rates as a great year in theatre in Melbourne certainly as an above average year.
And Red Stitch has (in my rarely humble opinion) contributed two of the top 10 so far in a very strong field.
This latest production, The Pain and the Itch, is right up there. It’s a black, exciting, unpredictable and evil little comedy about a family of self-obsessed liberal Americans. And it’s given a brilliantly imaginative and strikingly original treatment by director Gorkem Acaroglu.
Written by Chicago actor Bruce Norris, The Pain and the Itch appears to have been inspired by Ibsen’s play Ghosts and David Eldridge’s stage adaptation of the Dogme 95 film Festen with a twist of Moira Buffini’s Dinner for good measure. So, if you know your plays, you’ll be expecting sexually transmitted diseases, possible incest, lots of racism and infidelity, and plenty of good old-fashioned spousal abuse.
As a tribe, these middle-class Americans are a contemptible lot, blindly avaricious and blithely self-indulgent. Their tantrums unwittingly result in the death of a young immigrant worker.
Though they could easily be caricatures, figures of fun, each player in this story is flesh and blood, played for real. Clay (Daniel Frederiksen) is a househusband bringing up a baby while his lawyer wife Kelly (Sarah Sutherland) works. He’s proud of what he’s doing, but deeply frustrated.
His brother Cash (Get it? They’re Cassius and Clay!) is a successful and smart-mouthed plastic surgeon dating a Russian sex kitten named Kalina. They’re over for dinner and all hell breaks loose.
Acting throughout is excellent, detailed and fleshy, from the brothers’ slightly dotty PBS-watching mother (Andrea Swifte) down to the mute, itchy child. Pick of the bunch though is Erin Dewar as Kalina. Yet again, she turns cliche into something indispensable, something valuable and vital.
This is a terrific piece of theatre. Don’t miss it.