Cold Boiled Potatoes: Griffin's The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself

Few things feel as cosmic as a cold boiled potato at midnight. 

The first thing that struck me was how small the foyer was, how the theatre’s capacity ended up spilling outside (a street party in Griffin’s foyer). One hundred and five people in close proximity creates its own weird alchemical energy, almost as if you’re reading from the same sentence of the same book. I used to (and still do) think that Belvoir’s ‘open-book’ corner stage was intimate, but Griffin’s precious diamond, its wedge-like stage among the seating banks takes intimate to a new level. Which, for the productions they do, seems to work a treat.

In the program, musician Tim Rogers is described as a “prancing satyr,” and it’s actually not far off the truth. From his opening dialogue with the musicians (violin and double-bass), he had a puckish raconteur-like effect on proceedings, his eyes glinting mischievously, hinting at a secret truth. It was Rogers who kept the ball rolling when Mary MacLane (a wonderfully mercurial Bojana Novakovic) rebelled against the show and disappeared off-stage, returning with a green shopping bag filled with her own possessions and diary. The line between artifice and reality, show and life, was blurred throughout, and you almost got the impression that, if MacLane hadn’t been a historical figure from the early twentieth century, then she could have been an alter-ego of Novakovic’s without much of a stretch of the imagination. (Popular opinion has taken to calling Novakovic’s MacLane ‘BoClane,’ a rather succinct way of phrasing this duality.) “You see only an impression... the impression of an impression impersonated by an imposter... She is a stupid, pompous, pretentious actress," (p22-23) she says at one point, and it’s hard not to hear Novakovic talking here, perhaps when viewed in light of her diary, read by Rogers to mock-comic effect, which speaks of being bored and angry with the production, with being someone she’s not.

I felt at times that the piece didn’t quite know what it was trying to be (regardless of the fact it had already played in Melbourne in November 2011, and was nearing the end of its Sydney run); while not a musical in the strictest sense, it was a bit like a cabaret show that had got lost on its way home, equal parts musical theatre, exposition, and a dramatized presentation of one’s life story. At seventy five minutes long, it didn’t outstay its welcome, but its pacing and rhythm perhaps elongated the running time unnecessarily; you couldn’t help but feel in one of the many awkward pauses while BoClane smoked or read the paper that it was a repetitive strategy that was relied upon, by default, whenever they wanted a pause in proceedings, just another way of pulling down the artifice of presentation, the barrier between the real world and the performance.
That said, the highlights of the night had to be the band – the brief snatch of all-out rollicking hoedown towards the plays’ end, ‘The Potato Song’ and ‘The Butte Song’ were fantastic. With a mixture of what I suppose you could call Frontier-Town Folk-Ballads, the kind of music you’d find in American towns in the 1880s, the musicians (including Rogers) adeptly kept pace with BoClane’s shifting personae, her multifaceted life and its many accomplishments. 

I, Mary MacLane of Butte Montana, so conscious of Me, and garbledly gifted – Now I am leaving you… And it is possible that I may never come again. (p40)

All quotations from: Bojana Novakovic. The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself. Strawberry Hills; Currency Press, 2012.

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