Review: Escape From the Breakup Forest – The Mixtape Collective at Empire Theatre Studio

Watching the latest offering from the Empire Theatre’s Homegrown Season I was struck by the many similarities in subject matter, style and tone between it and boy girl wall, the escapists’ smash currently touring nationally. As the blurb for Steve Pirie‘s Escape from the Breakup Forest has it: ‘Boy meets girl. Girl leaves boy. Boy meets puppet.’ boy girl wall is also a comedy about a young man suffering the pangs of love while coping with an awful, problem-filled life. And then there are the puppets.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see a gallery of memorable bit-player characters, grotesques who serve as comic butts. There’s an unmissable satirical thread too, and both are filled with smartly-turned comic dialogue accompanied by jokey asides and witty pop culture references. As to playing style, the episodic nature of the play results in non-stop action and an energetic, physical performance from everyone on stage. The spotlight is firmly on the actors and their performance skills.

The plots are nothing alike, of course. This from the program notes for Escape from the Breakup Forest:

Josh has been with his first love for almost five years. On the eve of their anniversary Emma has decided that she wants to leave. She won’t say why. She won’t say whose fault it is. She just says goodbye.

All of a sudden Josh’s world becomes a whole lot smaller. Dinnertime becomes eating cereal on the floor. Work becomes a daily challenge to not punch people in the face. And the hollow feeling in his chest that was Emma’s parting gift just won’t go away.

One morning, Josh awakes in the Breakup Forest – a magical, mysterious place where the terminally dumped are sent until they can piece together the past and move on. Emerging from the forest is his hand puppet spirit guide, Curly. Together, the two must undertake an epic journey through the darkness of the forest to confront Josh’s demons, insecurities and fears.

Will they uncover the reason Emma left? Can Josh get over it? And more importantly, can he get over himself?

Despite any influences or surface similarities to boy girl wall, Escape … quickly establishes itself as a refreshing addition in its own right to the slew of new work being produced in Queensland’s very healthy independent theatre scene. It also marks the arrival of a new ensemble of performers: Steve Pirie, Ell Sachs, and Dan Stewart. Under the direction of Claire Christian and Ari Palani, they are in excellent form for the 90 minutes of  laughs, surprises and theatrical delights that is Escape From the Breakup Forest.

We follow our charming hero Josh (Steve Pirie) through school days, first love  (Ell Sachs) and the joys of the coupled life to break-up and break-down in a life that contains pop music to suit every occasion. The mood gets a little more serious on Josh’s testing ground – the forest where he awakes, and it’s here that the play moves from domesticity into fantasy.

Deep in the forest our hero must face and slay his inner demons in order to be healed and move on. Cue the entrance of some of the characters from his past and the start of the ‘buddy relationship’ with a delightful red puppet Curly (Dan Stewart). Curly, a former Olympian now turned spirit guide bonds with Josh on his quest for enlightenment. Sound improbable? Well, it is a hero quest in a magic forest, after all. Charlie Brown meets Dr Seuss with a pop music soundtrack.

Escape … is splendidly performed by the trio. Ms Sachs in particular is a delight with her gallery of marvellously observed caricatures. The Mixtape Collective have a palpable hit on their hands with this one.

The trio of actors along with co-directors Claire Christian and Ari Palani have a hit on their hands with this one.

It looks great – the monochromatic black and white set, props and costume designs are rendered in cartoon style with beautifully drawn stick figures, while projected slides of text and sketches complement the live action. The production’s minimalist design is not only visually charming but also wonderfully effective in enabling slick scene changes using various configurations of white cubes, efficient prop handling and quick costume changes. The three actors don’t miss a crisp beat in their transformation from action to direct audience address. They move, sing, dance and generally appear to be having as much fun as we are.

The script could tighten up a bit – I thought the ‘Chapter’ treating Josh’s schooldays was a bit long. In fact, about 20 minutes in I wondered whether the show was aimed at a younger demographic – another play about self-esteem for the high-school, perhaps? It moves on into grown-up land once  Josh leaves school, gets into a relationship, goes to work, breaks up etc., etc. If, at times, the script feels somewhat unsophisticated – jocks and sluts do make for obvious laughs after all – and if the epilogue gets a were bit sentimental for my taste, the production more than makes up for it.

At heart, Escape From the Breakup Forest is sweet and funny, and provides terrific opportunities for its actors to work their magic, and work it they do with gusto.

Despite its child-like appearance and emphasis on play, the work is sophisticated in theme, direction, and execution

Any deficiencies in the script are more than made up in this excellent production. I hope this show gets a chance to sprinkle some more joy around in a remount production.

This production is another in the 2012 Homegrown Series from the Empire Theatre Projects Company. With these new works, the emphasis is on the local, giving artists and creatives in the region a chance to develop their work. So far, the series has produced some real winners. If you are in Toowoomba on Friday or Saturday, do get along to the Empire for a 7pm start.

By the way, as wonderful as they are, I wonder whether it’s time for a moratorium on hand puppets. Just putting it out there …

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