Images: Morgan Roberts
Carrying the burden of iconic stardom has crippled and destroyed many – like Judy Garland. She gets resurrected from time to time in shows that reconstruct or deconstruct the legend of the woman known simply as Garland or Judy. This year alone we’ve had End of the Rainbow from Queensland Theatre Company and, a week or so ago at Toowoomba’s Arts Theatre, the first performance of a one-woman play, Bernadette Meenach‘s Miss Garland at Twilight as part of the USQ Twilight Series.
Judy Garland’s life, film and stage career have been picked over and over, like soothsayers of old delving into the entrails of sacrifices. What are they looking for? We’re less interested in what made her the extraordinarily gifted artist she undoubtedly was. It seems the appetite is for the tragic morsels her life produced. Some would say Judy Garland (the artist formerly known as Frances Ethel Gumm) became a sacrifice to the insatiable appetite of the crowds who created her as a star and then dined off the many disasters and breakdowns that dogged her life.
Judy Garland’s role as Dorothy from the 1939 MGM classic movie The Wizard of Oz shot her into an orbit that she (and the studios who owned her) fought to control for the rest of her life. The movie was based on one of L Frank Baum‘s popular children’s stories The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first published in 1900. American culture owes Mr Baum much. He went on to write other tales about the people in the Land of Oz, then came the movie and, of course, Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the west the huge musical which owes, in turn, its genesis to Gregory Maguire‘s 1995 novel of the same name. Mr Maguire mined Oz for four more books in his Oz series, and so it goes.
Now Maxine Mellor (as Principal Writer), The Danger Ensemble and La Boite have a go in their The Wizard of Oz currently playing at The Roundhouse as part of the Brisbane Festival program. In Director Steven Mitchell Wright‘s production we meet the old familiar figures: Dorothy (Caroline Dunphy in great form) and her little black dog Toto, the munchkins (Lucy-Ann Langkilde, Thomas Hutchins and Thomas Larkin) who also play the lion, tin man and scarecrow respectively – and scarily. Of course, there is a beautiful witch (Polly Sara) and Oz himself (Chris Beckey a spectacle in emerald green). Ms Mellor’s tale reframes the original into a contemporary, local setting in order to examine the burden of lost hopes and aspirations so, of course, the Garland persona will get an airing.
An old recluse, Judy Goddammit (the wonderful Margi Brown Ash who drives the mainline of this play) lives in a caravan somewhere – presumably in Queensland as there’s a cyclone warning on the radio. An estranged child (Ms Dunphy) begs her to come to safety. She refuses, the cyclone hits (I think) and she gets whirled away somewhere over a rainbow to a very sinister land of Oz where she finds herself transformed into – Toto. Judy Godammit finds herself voiceless and on a chain wandering with Dorothy further down the yellow brick road with the old pals into old familiar adventures. This time, however, Dorothy is creepy rather than jolly in blue gingham; her sweetness is cloying and off-putting. Yes, there is a definite sense that poor, old Judy is paying the price for her folly. We suspect this chastisement comes as retribution for the falsity and fantasy that she’s relied on to ‘lift her up’ out of the grey life and grey landscape she inhabits. Damn, even her shoes are grey! No ruby slippers for this old gal. With the now sinister munchkin/lion-scarecrow-tinman trio also hovering around, this is an even darker tale than we’ve known before and, despite its black humour, there seems to be no happy ending meant for Judy in this version. At least, that is how I saw it. A friend who had seen it on another night found it ‘joyous and life-affirming.’ Isn’t theatre marvellous the way it messes with your imagination?
The Danger Ensemble play on the margins of an audience’s comfort zone. Be prepared to have your sensibilities rocked and your expectations confounded. There are many of the ensemble’s signature production motifs at work in The Wizard of Oz: vivid colours, great design – including bodily fluids; blood and vomit – lots of vomit – are are used to shock and amuse. Dane Alexander does the sound and his audio track is top flight. There are the crazy haircuts, wild costuming (Simone Romaniuk does set as well), and a dazzling lighting design from Ben Hughes matched the intensity of the play’s action. I loved the mad, confident theatrical look of the show – you can’t ignore it – and the actors who revelled in their adornment and, what’s more, carried it off with style.
True to their name, there is always a sense of danger in the Ensemble’s work. The worlds they create are apocalyptic and there’s a sense of menace just around the corner in every scene. Stress and pain are embodied in action and vocal delivery, costumes are torn or disarrayed, athletic but vulnerable bodies are stretched at times to risky limits you feel. There’s no safety net in a Danger Ensemble show. Not everyone likes their work but it is always vivid, extraordinary and demanding of them and of us.
The Wizard of Oz bursts with energy, colour and life. It’s rich with thematic material and cultural references but, unless you enjoy theatre that will take you on a fairground ride where the journey and not the destination is what matters, you may find yourself being frustrated, as I was, by the twists and turns and the impenetrable nature of the production. I found much of the going along the yellow brick road really hard indeed; I wanted more signposts. Was that the point, I wondered, as I mulled over the experience while driving home. The ornateness of the production is beguiling – like Oz’s gorgeous field of poppies – but ultimately, this rich, ambitious work collapses under the weight of its own complexity.
Having said that, The Wizard of Oz is a production that you will either embrace or reject with gusto. It’s absolutely the right stuff at Festival time.