Friday 5 May 2023

BAYOU BART: Theatre Review

WHAT: Bayou Bart
WHEN: 3 - 13 May 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works
COMPOSITION BY: Tash Atkins & James Carolan
PERFORMED BY: Pippa Asome, Tash Atkins, Karin Chen, Bailey Griffiths, Daniel Hillman, Mikaela Innes, Lucy Knight, and Rowan O'Keeffe
LIGHTING BY: Vanessa Gregoriou

Pippa Asome and Tash Atkins

The spark of inspiration for artists can come from any direction, any moment, any thing the artist touches feels and sees. In the case of Kalina Lauer the inspiration for Bayou Bart - currently playing at Theatre Works - came from a costume she created for a different objective.

From the genesis of a gorgeous Bourbon inspired outfit, the idea of an alligator emerged. From the idea of an alligator, Lauer found her imagination flurrying around the wetlands of Louisiana. There may even be a hint of the picaresque adventures created by Mark Twain in this story.

Bayou Bart is the tale of two homeless children wandering around Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the world. Tristan (Rowan O'Keeffe) is world weary and cynical and just trying to sell some fish. Henri (Pippa Asome) follows him with devotion. Henri is looking for a home. They get separated in the fog. Henri follows a siren (Tash Atkins) and finds herself in a land where animals can talk. They have built their own little town of Cyprus to live in a style replicating human settlements.

The bayou is a magical, mystical place, evident from the first swirling, hypnotic lights (Vanessa Gregoriou) which draw us into a world of mist and mischief. It has a very Disney flavour in its conception and I found myself thinking about all the alligators and crocodiles which have populated swamps in the Disney-verse as we learnt the tale of the building of Cyprus. 

Just like all good children's stories though, amongst all the wonder of sentient talking alligators, rabbits, leopards and birds, evil lurks in the form of humanity. Downstream is where the danger stalks and with the eggs of a new generation about to hatch the dangers for the animals increases. Do they dare let this young human leave them, knowing what she does? If they do will Henri ever find Tristan? Will the animals manage to keep their sanctuary away from the destruction and devastation of the humans down river? Drawn by the lure of the siren, you will be on the edge of your seat as the drama unfolds.

Lauer has developed a beautiful and heart-rending story in Bayou Bart and this production, whilst created with limited resources, is as beautiful as the tale it tells. The costumes are elegant and well conceived and the masks are great. (The production uses masquerade for the magical characters). The composition (Atkins and James Caloran) is exquisite and the use of song through the show emphasizes the beauty and lyricism of the work.

The actors do a wonderful job in bringing the animals alive. In particular, Daniel Hillman and Lucy Knight are totally compelling as their psychopomps. Mikaela Innes is wonderful too but needs to slow down her speech. It is really important to articulate clearly when doing mask work. Bailey Griffiths is wonderfully menacing yet vulnerable as the boy who starts it all, but that character currently doesn't have a lot of stage time.

I do think the play itself needs work in the later part of the script. It feels a bit rushed in the climactic moments and perhaps lacks a clear catharsis. I mentioned earlier that there is a picaresque feel and I love the way down river never stops looming even as we walk out of the theatre. 

Bayou Bart still needs some more money for production (mainly to expand on the gorgeous costuming already so well developed), but it is an amazing show for kids and a magical one for adults too. 

Do I have some concerns? Perhaps. I think the cast is big and perhaps the story needs to expand a bit to justify it. I believe there is a lot of scope and, to be honest, in this case I would hate to see the cast reduce for operational pragmatism. I also wonder whether this tale wouldn't have more power and have a longer stage life if Lauer located it in Australia. I love that the costume inspired the work, but is the power of the story which has been found really in the wetlands of America, or is there impact, meaning, and myth to be found in the tropics or saltmarshes of Australia? It is hard to kill your darlings but Lauer might find a brilliance and impact closer to home building on what she has already created. 

I was completely hypnotised by Bayou Bart and you will be too when you go and see it. This is one for the whole family, not just the kids. You will be on the edge of your seat as the drama in the bayou unfolds and evil seeks to destroy a rare and fragile magic.

4 Stars

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