Sometimes you find yourself watching a play that has plenty of interesting ideas but struggles with its narrative coherence. ‘Return to Earth’ is one of those plays.
Lally Katz’s play feels like she’s exploring theatrical metaphors personal to her but they don’t quite gel as a complete play…yet. This play needs more drafting and given that she wrote it in 2006 and it had a Melbourne season back then, I’m surprised she hasn’t taken to it with a pen and a pair of scissors and played around with it more. It needs a rewrite to help iron out the kinks. I’m sure I’ll be accused of petty griping when I say that little things like the parents having American accents but there’s no trace of it with the children seemed like an odd choice. It might actually be real but theatrically, it’s confusing. Or Theo’s spurs and wounds. Is he a fish that’s been caught, some mythical sea creature like a merman or an alien entity? The play is full of questions left hanging there and although some people love a mystery, I like to see where it connects to the whole, especially when ideas are constantly dispersed in the play. Is it old-fashioned to say that everything should add to the dramatic meaning of a piece? It might not be till the end we see how all the pieces fit, but they should fit, yes? This was a series of jigsaw puzzle pieces that aren't all from the same picture. Because the play delves stylistically into magic realism, there are a number of threads left unwoven and so the over-arching ideas just fall short of hitting the mark. As a result, the ending lacks the punch we would hope for and as an audience member, I’m not concerned by the implications of its reveal and therefore I'm not invested in the outcome.
But director Paige Rattray has certainly worked hard with her cast to try to make the production as workable as it could be. It’s what I’d call a good production of an ordinary play. There’s a nice use of lighting where Ross Graham creates a patch of corn-field-styled -grids that can be used to ‘deliver’ parts of our protagonist’s journey. I do hope they bought a new pineapple after the show I saw…it was one of the few times I was menaced by tension as it leaked over the stage and became a work safety issue. It had nothing to do with my handbag in the firing line, I assure you…
There were times I thought the play was taking me somewhere and the commitment and energy deployed by the cast to try to overcome the narrative gaps were impressive. This is particularly true of Shari Sebbens as main character Alice, who carried the bulk of the play and tried to find the conflict and dimensions to Alice. Wendy Strehlow as Wendy, Yure Covich as Theo and Catherine Terracini as Jeanie were a terrific support cast and the rest of the cast, Laurence Coy, Ben Barber, Mark Langham and Tahlia Hoffman Hayes/Scarlett Waters gave it their all in their smaller scenes too.
Kudos to Rattray and team for bringing something to this play and making it watchable and interesting. The problems aren’t in the production in so much as they are in the script and I imagine it’s a play that might get tucked back in the draw for another seven years if Katz doesn’t tweak out its flaws.