Tuesday 5 March 2024

DRY LAND: Theatre Review

WHAT: Dry Land
WHEN: 28 Feb - 9 Mar 2024
WHERE: TW Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Ruby Rae Spiegel
DIRECTED BY: Olivia Staaf
DESIGNED BY: Abbey Stanway
LIGHTING BY: Tomas Gerasimidis
SOUND BY: Dion Spyropoulos
PERFORMED BY: Buzz Billman, Endrico Botha, Isabelle Duggan, Cassidy Dunn, and Luce Wirthensohn

Luce Wirthensohn and Cassidy Dunn - photo supplied

Dry Land is a confronting play about teenage sexuality and abortion. It is set in the fraught state of Florida. Written ten years ago by Ruby Rae Spiegel at a time when abortion was a protected right in that US state, it is even more topical in a post-Trump presidency era with the overturn of Roe vs Wade. Unfortunately you won't get any of this context in the production of Dry Land currently playing at The Explosives Factory. What you will see, though is a play about relationships and growth and a myriad of ways teenage girls learn about life, and pain, and problem solving.

Dry Land is a play original written as a two hander and centres around the relationship which develops between Amy (Luce Wirthensohn) and Ester (Cassidy Dunn). The two teenagers are on the same swim team. Amy used to be a cheerleader and Ester has recently transferred from another school where she was on the varsity swim team and is trying to get back on track to a University scholarship. Ester is trying to make friends. Amy is looking for someone not part of her world to help her with a serious problem. The play opens with Amy asking Ester to punch her in the stomach. Women watching this play will know exactly what is going on from the very first moment.

The set design (Abbey Stanway) is wonderfully conceived as a change room with lockers and benches and tiles. The blue is meant to tell us it is near water but it would have been even more helpful if the team had followed the writer's notes and had them both wearing bathing suits in that first scene. 

In fact, one of the most irritating thing for me in this production is the costume design and presentation of Amy. They have followed the writer's physical instructions to the letter but not the instructions on intention. Instead of Amy coming across as someone trying to look effortless, Wirthensohn's Amy comes across as someone who genuinely doesn't care. It is a surfy emo look which is miles away from the ex-cheerleader/super self conscious teenager she is supposed to be. It is the little things like doing something with the hair and getting rid of those god-awful Birkenstocks which would make all the difference. Then the character would make sense. Then, perhaps, Wirthensohn would also understand how anxious Amy really is.

Add to that the writer specifically says "the actress playing Amy should feel comfortable being exposed. If she is hidden or too covered [during the abortion scene], it will seem that the abortion is something that should not be seen. It is meant to be seen." The granny pants Wirthensohn wears for modesty totally destroys the writer's intention and is made even worse because she doesn't remove them and they appear under her bathers in a later scene. 

The reason for the exposure is represented by the location of the play which the director (Olivia Staaf) never overtly reveals and plays with, but is really important. The writer revealed in an interview that the nearest abortion clinic is 10 km away from that spot and even when the play was written and abortion was a protected right this clinic was continually bombed. Dry Land is about exposing what is underneath. Because the director never addresses any of this the scene about the Everglades makes no sense, but it is - again - important to the work. That scene is about modern America covering up what is natural and messy and difficult. 

It is rather absurd that the cast use an American accent (not the right one, but they give it a go) and the team have kept the brand names we aren't really familiar with for peanut butter and laundry detergent, etc, but the actual location of the play is never brought to the fore. It is this lack of dramaturgical understanding which gets me all riled up because the topic is so contemporary and important.

I really wanted to like Dry Land so much more than I did, but the direction and some of those key choices around Amy left me frustrated and disappointed. Some of the problems do rest with the playwright I will say. Dry Land is still a two hander play with appendages. As good as the cast are (and they are good) the three supporting roles never earn their place on stage or in the story and the story develops too slowly overall.

To finish on a positive note, I have to say that Dunn positively shone as Ester. Her journey was detailed, complicated and resolved to perfection.

2.5 Stars

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