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Theatre "Down Under" Australia Feels Like Home

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Most of the time, I could almost feel the distance between Australia and my everyday life.

I was there for my honeymoon---I just flew back to New York on Wednesday night---and despite the fact that everyone spoke English and wanted to talk about Friends, I was aware of being "far removed."

For one thing, Australia is 14 hours ahead of New York City, so I felt like I was living in the future. Plus, there was the delightful weirdness of climates and animals and plants that I'll never experience in Manhattan. You know you've traveled a long way when you walk past a tropical parrot on your way to lunch… and it flies down to see if you'll give it a snack.

But as I sit in TDF's offices, I'm reminded of the times Australia didn't feel so alien. I'm reminded of the times I went to the theatre.

In three weeks, I saw three shows---a production of Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls at Melbourne Theatre Company, a staging of Aida at the Sidney Opera House, and a touring production of Water by Britain's Filter Theatre that played at Sydney Theatre. In their own ways, all three felt instantly familiar.

Take Melbourne Theatre Company, which is startlingly similar to our MTC (or Manhattan Theatre Club.) New York's MTC produced Top Girls just a few years ago, so seeing the Australian production was like continuing a discussion that I started in 2008. (For what it's worth, I preferred Elizabeth Marvel's Broadway performance as Marlene, a modern corporate striver who meets with great women of the past to discuss the nature of feminine power.)

Meanwhile, both MTCs are producing Sharr White's drama The Other Place in the next few months. The Australian company is also presenting Other Desert Cities and The Mountaintop, which makes me feel I understand its identity. It's essentially a top-level regional theatre that just happens to be on the other side of the world.

I had the same sense of familiarity when I saw Water, which mingles the world of environmental politics with the collapsing personal lives of its characters. The show strips away the fourth wall, letting us see the actors when they aren't in character and showing us how every sound effect and multimedia flourish is created. When we watch an actor "become" a scientist who has just lost his father, while a projection tells us he's in a hotel room, we get a strong sense of his isolation.

In other words, Water is the kind of gently experimental work I could see at BAM or St. Ann's Warehouse. As I watched, I felt I knew its language.

To be fair, Australian theatre is not just an extension of what's in New York. There are dozens of productions playing in both Sydney and Melbourne, and if I'd wanted to, I could've seen a homegrown satire about local politics or a cabaret by a woman who calls herself "the best kind of mental." I could've seen edgier shows at edgier spaces. I could've taken more risks. But during three weeks of constant surprise, of regular immersion in new landscapes and cultures, it was satisfying to find theatre that made me feel like an instant, fluent participant in a conversation.

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo: The author in front of Melbourne Theatre Company