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By Jessica Keath
September 10, 2012

The Sea Project

An enigmatic past reemerges in this sea story.
By Jessica Keath
September 10, 2012

The Sea Project by Elise Hearst is part of Griffin's independent season, and the latest from director Paige Rattray's theatre company, Arthur (Dirtyland, Cut Snake).

In this fable about migration, Eva (Meredith Penman) washes up on an Australian shore with an Eastern European accent and a trail of seaborne debris providing clues to her past. She is taken in by laconic carpenter, Bob, an archetypal Aussie bloke played with restraint and gravity by Iain Sinclair. When former lover and stage partner Maciek (played by the charismatic Justin Cotta) arrives on the scene, Eva is forced to remember submerged aspects of her past.

The setting of time and place is intriguing. Hearst notes in the program that this timeless narrative of displacement is "just another boat story". Setting it in present-day Australia necessarily evokes current boat people, who are more likely to be from the Middle East than Eastern Europe. This is not a problem of fidelity so much as a contrast that provokes the uncomfortable question: how would we behave as a country if today's asylum seekers were European?

The Griffin stage is a bit of a shrunken head of a theatre, and it's exciting to see how each new production solves the tiny size and kooky angles. In this production, designer David Fleischer's striking solution is to deck the stage with a dark, reflective material, which suggests a depth at once evocative of the sea and the darkness of Eva’s story. The impression of vastness is redolent of Richard Wilson's 1987 installation work, 20:50, involving a room half flooded with black sump oil. The dark, reflective surface enhances the story's undulations between reality, memory and fantasy.

Hearst's writing is enigmatic. In a similar manner to Caryl Churchill, she manages to hide more of the story than she reveals, leaving empty spaces of narrative to the audience to solve. However, the character of Samuel, a happy young surfer type, is twee and his function in the play, other than finding Eva's washed-up possessions, is unclear. Travis Cardona playing him also seems a bit unsure as to what he's doing there. In contrast, Penman's performance as Eva is straight-up electrifying as she surges between the need to know her identity, and the opposing imperative to deny it in order to get by, embodied by Mephisto incarnate Maciek and steadfast Bob respectively.

The piece holds fast to its fairytale structure, with any moments of happiness or reprieve serving only as stops on the way to, or from, some kind of horror, with the closing scene planting the seed of a lie. This is cryptic and satisfying theatre.

Concrete Playground has two double passes to The Sea Project to give away. To be in the running, make sure you're subscribed to the mailing list then email with your name and address.

Photo by John Feely.

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