Young people characters in popular culture tend to suffer one of two fates. The first, which we’ve seen since the fifties and perpetuated into the new millennium by the Disney Channel and High School Musical, is the glowing, effervescent, mostly-white, asexual charmer whose smile is so severe it threatens to pierce their unfathomably rosy cheeks. Even amidst all their adventures, troubles and strife, said youth is always looking out for their friends, and for that which is ‘right’ in face of ‘evil’ and the temptations of the ‘wrong’. Because, naturally, innocence is something that needs to be contained. The other is the youth turned more troubled and tortured, impossible and unrelenting, on the cusp of their pubescent explosion. The bigness of emotion and the fires of injustice and rage begin to surface; think Degrassi High or even the bitchy backstabbing and Machiavellian manipulation of The Babysitter’s Club. Sweetness is replaced with blots of sadness – suddenly the world is a far more complicated and dissatisfying place – and nobody, nobody, understands. How often, though, do we see youth characters which flit between these boundaries; which avoid the stereotypes of the angst-ridden teen and somehow deal with the fantastical and magical naivety, and wonder, of childhood that they are leaving behind, but which we know never really leaves us? Young people are, after all, a strange and mystifying bunch – their hopes, fears and insecurities are amplified and expressed in the most confusing ways – which somehow makes their contradictions and complexities all the more difficult to navigate. It is easy to see them one way or the other – to simplify them as separate from adults, and in their own chrysalises, waiting to discover their new bodies and emerge as mature men and women of the world. But to wrap flesh around their uncertain bones and to explore the darkness, the dreams and the chaos within – to really look at them, and see them for all that they are as youth – is so much richer, and also so very human, regardless of what we may find.
Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, three interconnected fragments spawned from an original short-play performed as part of David Mence’s Melburnalia experiment, doesn’t shy away from the issues and challenges of representing youth on stage. But with that said, it is not so much a play about youth and young people as it is an exploration, and blurring, of that time in our lives when our fears and desires are at their rawest, most vulnerable and their most frighteningly real. Included as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival and the MTC Lawler program, and self-directed by performers Luke Mullins and Brian Lipson, Lally Katz’s text traverses time and space, reality and history, to suggest that the chrysalis of change, growth and transformation is something that we peel away at but can never really shed; we never quite emerge the people that we expect to be, or really, emerge at all. ‘That time in our lives’, usually referred to with a whiff of youthful nostalgia, is actually our entire lives, and as our dreams and expectations are subjugated by the disappointment and the drab reality of day-to-day existence, they follow us, and come to back haunt us at the strangest, smallest and simplest moments.
The three scenes – The Fag from Zagreb, Back to the Cafeteria and Into the Woods – share one thing; the conniving, charming and malevolently disarming Apocalypse Bear (Brian Lipson). In the first, he welcomes Jeremy (Luke Mullins) home from school in affluent Kew; Jeremy, quickly drawn into his own reality with an online crush – a Croatian teenager who types in broken English – hardly has time to question the Bear’s presence, or his motivations, other than to serve him; to fix him packet nachos or a sandwich. Slowly, as Jeremy’s world and sense of self ruptures, the Bear coaxes out of him a story of danger and heartbreak set deep in the maze, in the woods, just two stops after the tram stop for home. In the second, he joins Sonja (Katherine Tonkin) in the cafeteria of her high school – they swap food when the Bear is able to illuminate that what she thought was a chicken burger was actually fish. At first Sonja tells the Bear about the popularity contest in her class; how the cool kids are always disappearing with each other, running off and hiding places, and how she isn’t a part of them. But soon she is talking about her husband, her unhappiness and her need for a history; with the Apocalypse Bear, she has aged decades in minutes, and scrambles to find, and reconnect with, some distant part of herself – a part of her story which she had never written. In the final scene, Jeremy and Sonja are a married couple; they live well with good jobs, but there is an air of eerie stagnation over their relationship, their physical interaction, and indeed, the conversation with each other. There is a strange, and poignant sense, despite their obvious love for one and other (they call each-other ‘twins’, which somewhat echoes the ‘buddy-kiss’ of Joe and Harper in Angels in America) of two people suspended, living in different times and places. Docile domesticity – from taking the garbage out to the comments of their friends on Facebook – has gotten the better of them, and while Sonja dreams of a journey into the woods, the Apocalypse Bear is there to greet her, and assist her with the shopping, on her awakening.
There is something very beautiful, original and heartbreaking about the way in which these stories come together under the guise of this clawed beast. It is a testament to the strength and depth of Katz’s writing, and the disturbingly fantastical soundness of her imagination, that we never even question the existence of the bear; he becomes a part of, and the force within, this narrative. The narrative itself is splintered in a way that is, at times, confusing – but like the characters it is exploring, and the painful incongruities of youth and growing up to accept life for what it is, the open questions and ambiguities are wholly satisfying and wholly real. And at the same time, in the haunting final minutes, there is a feeling that we have come full circle in this strange suburbia; we have arrived exactly where we are supposed to. There is never any suspicion of being cheated – no easy lines, cheap gimmicks or showy theatrics in this play; it is theatre, true, pure and powerful, which takes a part of you and never lets it go. It is the best thing that Katz, only thirty with a huge swagger of awards and productions, has written; there is already a greater clarity to Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, and a more thorough, and subtle complexity, than anything she has written prior. It will be truly fascinating to see where her writing grows from here.
The production is stunning and is the perfect showcase of Melbourne talent that the International Arts Festival commands. Mullins and Lipson, with the directorial assistance of Stuck Pigs Squealing contemporary Chris Kohn, give the text enough stillness to breathe without ever being delicate or precious. They find comedy and meaning in subtle gestures and nuanced delivery, and work to create a world which is never the one that we recognise as our own, but at the same time, never one intangible and out of our reach. It is a challenging and intriguing boundary perhaps best evidenced by the projected backdrops; supposedly denotative of a kitchen, or a cafeteria, or the wallpaper of a bedroom, the visuals can never stay in focus – they are always shifting slightly, blurring, and encouraging us to look beyond any singular constructed ‘reality’ of the scene. Indeed, like so much of Katz’s earlier work, Mullins and Lipson have teased out in Apocalypse Bear Trilogy the very strong subtext of metatheatricality and the awareness of both the fake reality in front of us, and the realities we, and the characters, subscribe to in order to give meaning to our lives. As performers, they too, along with Katherine Tonkin’s determined and disappointed Sonja, are fantastic. Mullins, in particular, who’s ambitious but not-quite-there Autobiography of Red in 2007 showed such an interesting and thoughtful engagement between body and text, hits the perfect mark with Jeremy; a character prematurely stunted by aspiration, arrogance, untruth and regret. Jethro Woodward’s sound design strongly captures, and accentuates, the fantasy, danger and deep sadness of the performance, always bubbling underneath the drama without ever needlessly dominating, while Richard Vabre’s lighting, which shifts between glossy bright states, other-worldly colours and lightning-esque flashes of the Apocalypse Bear, is effective and precise, as always. And as Mel Page’s simple, stark and slowly dismantled set reveals the depth of the Lawler space, we are left with the chilling picture of almost nothing but Mullins and Tonkin, washed in a simple spotlight, standing still in between the trunks of trees.
There is nothing straightforward and easy about how we grow up and find our place in the world; nor what we discard, or choose to keep with us, along the way. Apocalypse Bear Trilogy doesn’t romanticise youth but tackles into it, rips it apart and holds its heart in its jaws while we sit there and watch, feeling every pulse and bloody beat. Like our dreams and our fears, it is gut-wrenching and profoundly moving stuff. Apocalypse Bear Trilogy is theatre unafraid of being challenging and misunderstood. It is also theatre unafraid of being theatre, and unafraid of being so much more.
Apocalypse Bear Trilogy runs until October 24th with shows at 3pm and 7:30pm that day, MTC Lawler, Southbank. Bookings at http://www.mtc.com.au/tickets/production.aspx?performanceNumber=1998