Sunday 28 May 2023

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DINOSAURS: Theatre Review

WHAT: The World According To Dinosaurs
WHEN: 24 May - 4 June 2023
WHERE: La Mama Courthouse
WRITTEN BY: Belle Hansen and Amelia Newman
DIRECTED BY: Cassandra Gray
COMPOSITION & SOUND DESIGN BY: Jack Burmeister
DESIGN BY: Casey Harper-Wood
PERFORMED BY: Michael Cooper, Matilda Gibbs, Belle Hansen, Chris Patrick Hansen, Anna Louey, Amelia Newman, Izzy Patane, and Emily Pearson
LIGHTING BY: Theo Viney
STAGE MANAGED BY: Brigette Jennings

Amelia Newman and Belle Hansen - Photo by Darren Gill

The World According To Dinosaurs, now playing at La Mama Courthouse, is a full energy, singing, dancing, WTF dystopian brain explosion brought to us by Frenzy Theatre Co. Likening the extinction of dinosaurs to the extinction of humanity - and perhaps the planet - this coffee swilling, puppet wielding company take us far back in time, to the deepest depths of the ocean, and into a murky (perhaps not so far off) future and all in the space of 65 minutes.

Frenzy are the same company which brought us the amazing MOTHERLOD_^E earlier this year, and The World According To Dinosaurs brings us all of those wonderful elements including excellent production values and high energy, focussed performances. Unfortunately, it also brings a few of those dramaturgical flaws.

Belle Hansen and Amelia Newman (writers) play a barrista and shop assistant. Hansen is a super skilled and business-oriented worker whilst Newman is a flighty gen whateverweareupto who is obsessed with dinosaurs and extinction events and is totally up front about the fact she is crap at her job and has absolutely no interest in doing it. Casey Harper-Wood (designer) has created a magnificent set and perfect costumes, all of which look tour efficient but also with immaculate attention to detail and purpose. 

The show opens with the throbbing of a deep, disturbing tone which we later find out (as part of Newman's prattle) is the sound simulating the noises assumed to be made by the Tyrannosaurus Rex. This haunting throb emerges across the course of the show clicking down like a clock, warning an audience who will not heed that danger is close at hand. At this point I want to say that Jack Burmeister's sound design is absolutely brilliant and keeps the show moving and all the threads woven together in clever ways.

As the lights come up, we see Hansen and Newman serving a slew of customers (the ensemble) as Newman tells us everything she knows about dinosaurs. Small fact-check here. Birds are not descendants of dinosaurs, they actually are dinosaurs. It doesn't matter though; we get the point. Dinosaurs were colourful and the T-Rex had short hands to counterbalance its weight. So far so good. 

Apart from the intentional performative dissonance of discussing a historical extinction event whilst serving endless coffees to a faux woke crowd in disposable coffee cups, there is a sly reference to Hegel's definition of a dialectic inserted neatly into a play using overtly dialectic techniques to make its point. I love the intention of this work, but in attempting to be dialectic I think it falls into a bit of a mish mash of ideas and I don't know how strong some of them are. 

At one point it even uses the trite and overused talk show parody only this time I couldn't even work out what was being parodied and there was a whole lot of stuff about the colour blue which passed completely over my head. There are random Brechtian song and dance interludes which again, just didn't point strongly enough to any particular idea and some of these references are too old for the context of the work... Too far back for the age of what I assume is its audience - for example the singing trio. I was also completely bamboozled by the connection with the creatures of the deep until the very end, but I will talk about that later.

So let's talk about the T-Rex in the room. Who is the audience? I am going to suggest the script is written for teens, reflecting the ennui and sense of helplessness experienced by the current gen whateverweareupto. On the other hand, I couldn't help thinking the direction is targeting primary school children as evidenced by the dance breaks and the puppetry and some of the costuming. Cassandra Gray (director) has directed a brilliant show but appears to have directed it for the wrong age group. This opinion is supported by the fact that this play is apparently on the VCE play list.

Back to the creatures of the deep. In the middle of the play Newman tells us about how quickly bodies are recycled into food by creatures which live in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean. To me this didn't seem to relate to the overall conceit of the play so far. At the end it comes back and forms part of a comfort story she tells herself about how it will be okay if we kill ourselves and the planet because these creatures who don't need sunlight might thrive. There is a flaw in this because if we kill our sunlight, I have to assume that H2O will also be affected but I should probably leave that conversation up to scientists.

More concerning is that The World According To Dinosaurs leaves us in a place of hopelessness and helplessness. This might be an accurate representation of the youth psyche but what is the point of a play which does not provide at least some hope that change is possible? Scientists have declared that we are past the point of no climate impact, but there is still time to mitigate its extent. If you are going to write a play like The World According To Dinosaurs then why would you not make it a call to action? If we are that close to extinction, why would you end the conversation with 'there is nothing that can be done'?

The World According To Dinosaurs is a play with a lot of potential and is definitely a tale which needs telling. Frenzy Theatre need to pay much more attention to their dramaturgy though and be really clear about what they want this play to be about and to achieve. Plato would be proud of how hard spectacle works to make this play a success, but when even the spectacle is confused, it just highlights the flaws.

I do want to say the performances and production elements of The World According To Dinosaurs are impressive, with few flaws to be found. You perhaps should see this show for that reason alone. This is how you do the mechanics of theatre. If the team would just ally themselves with an experienced dramaturg, they could blow the theatre world away with what they could achieve.

3 Stars

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