Just Out of Reach has a subtitle of “Sometimes release is closer than you think”; a subtitle which provides a clue to the interpretation of the piece. It is built around three mythological figures – Tantalus, a complex figure who sacrificed his son to appease the gods and served him up in a stew for them to eat, for which he was sentenced to forever reach for fruit hung tantalisingly above his head, just out of reach while standing in a pool of water that receded whenever he wanted to drink from it; Sisyphus, a mortal who had the audacity to think he was an equal to the gods, and was punished for his deceitful actions by being condemned to roll a boulder up a hill repetitively, the boulder doomed to roll to the bottom every time he got it to the top, forcing him to begin again; and Narcissus, doomed to continue gazing endlessly at his reflection in the river Styx as the ideal object of a love he could never attain a result of scorning freely-given love.
Each of the three actors who brings these figures to life has his own characteristic means of expression. Sisyphus labours with a large scale specially-constructed metallic roller-coaster device which he deconstructs and rebuilds in order to roll his ball along and down it. The most complex of the three characters in this production is Tantalus. He expresses himself through word-play and philosophical construction and deconstruction of arguments and paradoxes as well as through external devices such as a game shows and a ventriloquist’s dummy.
This most mysterious of the three figures is positioned over a stream of black cloth. His means of expression is dance. Narcissus gazes at his reflection in a real pool in which reflections are brought to life in an inventive and classy way. He expresses himself through reflection and song. Even when he disturbs the surface of the water, the image remains recognisable, changed, rather than distorted, providing an endlessly changing object of fascination for him to gaze into.
In the upstage area, behind vaulted arches, a divine orchestra of gods sits. The gods interact with the protagonists, asking them key questions about themselves. Each is given a word which provides them with a challenge which is intended to make them face the reality of their psychological entrapment externalised in the repetitive activities they are doomed to follow in their individual and collective hell. These are challenges they are willing to discuss, but less willing to face. Narcissus, for instance is given the challenge of Love, which he repeats, then spells L-O-S-T; Tantalus: Hope, which he repeats, then spells L-E-S-S; Sisyphus: Rest, which he repeats, then spells S-I-L-E-N-C-E. Narcissus, within his torment, seems to have found release in the Samurai path. He is asked, “Narcissus, are you suffering?” “Yes,” he replies, “but I’m worth it,” then throws away the remark – nothing touches him. Sisyphus seems to have found a similar satisfaction in “The Zen of Stone-Rolling”, achieving transcendence of drudgery through immersion and endless study of the infinite variation within the task. Tantalus is the hardest and most complex character to read, but he, too, in the guise of the aptly named Matthew Romantini, seems to find release in imbuing his repetitive drudgerous task with the double-edged meaning of ‘tantalising’ – both enjoyable and torturous, treating it like endless sexual titillation which becomes an end in itself – perhaps ending up being the ultimate in sensual pleasure.
Some shows take you to hell – and leave you there. Some shows take you to hell or heaven and back, leaving you safe but keeping you outside the experience. The least said about these two, the better. Some shows take you to heaven, and leave you to face the inevitable return to reality by yourself, an experience generally worth the price you have to pay. Then there are the rare shows that take you to hell in a heavenly bathysphere, give you a guided tour, then take you back and leave you in the world you know but with just a bit of the colour of heaven to it. This is one of those rare, rare shows.
Tenor Robert Frankenberry, as Narcissus, is capable of a range of expression and musical styles in his singing voice, from early music, to operatic to musical theatre, however, with a tendency to float high notes using a falsetto quality. I, for one, would have loved to hear the full voice soar freely, but maybe this was part of the conscious artistic expression of the frustration of a self-imposed restriction.
The whole cast faced a particular challenge in dealing with the reverberant acoustics of the church building in which they performed. Clarity at times was sacrificed to dramatic effect, which was a pity, as it meant that words which could have been delivered safely to the audience were left marooned in the cavernous body of space above them.
This was a bitter shame, because the sophistication of the sound-construction of this piece is of a very, very high level. The talented co-librettists, Kevin Noe and Kieren MacMillan, play with the essence of words, building effect onto effect and the result is a sensitive, highly poetic sound-cloth which matches, if not exceeds, the combined skills of Pinter, Auden and Basho, draped over music reminiscent of, and even exceeding in places, the quality of the best of Benjamin Britten’s works, while having roots in many sources, from Camus to Shakespeare, Wilde and beyond. Cameo set pieces of TV game show and musical theatre number take on and transcend the essential audio-visual features of these respective styles. Witty rhyme schemes, (“you may find it incomprehensible how I can go ON, … perhaps my CONduct’s indefensible”) abound and the result is a piece of total theatre in which collisions continually oppose, answers are questioned, challenges are assumptioned and solutions problemed.
I’m putting Theatre of Music and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble on my list as names to look out for and prebook for whatever they may be bringing to the Fringe next year. If they continue to put on theatre this good, they’re set to go far. Whether as far as heaven or hell and back again remains to be seen, but I have a hunch that wherever they end up taking me, it will be a journey to remember.
Reviewed by Leon Conrad 15 August 2008