Give yourself to the Elk: STC's Perplex

Described as a shape-shifting theatrical puzzle, Marius von Mayenburg’s Perplex is, well, a perplexing series of scenes, each interconnected with those immediately either side of it, but otherwise a standalone vignette of exquisite absurdism. Directed by Sarah Giles, Perplex is playing in Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 theatre, and it’s quite a giddy night of theatre.
Wearing his inspiration on his sleeve, von Mayenburg takes a leaf out of Pirandello’s legendary Six Characters in Search of an Author and spins a chameleonic rhapsody of a reality-fuck out of the endless possibilities afforded by two doors and four actors. Like a giant game of Thank God You’re Here or musical chairs, whenever someone decisively exits or enters through a door, the scene changes, and the scene starts anew, an endless series of possibilities and multiple universes just waiting to be explored.

The four actors – each using their own names – take to the stage and the first scene unfolds. Andrea (Demetriades) and Glenn (Hazeldine) have returned from holidays to find their house and furniture somewhat changed, and the electricity cut off. Their friends, Rebecca (Massey) and Tim (Walter) were supposed to be minding the house for them, but end up showing Andrea and Glenn to the door. Across the next one hundred minutes, von Mayenburg’s four characters – Giles’ four actors – navigate their cautious way through a complex tangle of scenes until, like us, they seem to have barely any idea what’s in store for them. Desperately groping for a foothold in this world where anything can and seemingly does happen, they are constantly trying to understand themselves as much as the next person, while each consecutive reality slips through their fingers and trips them up in the next scene, like “metaphysical banana peels.”
Renée Mulder’s set – a living room, with thin green carpet, whitewashed brick walls; two doors, and windows; a couch, a coffee table – seems innocuous enough at first, but as Giles’ cleverly negotiated and playful direction takes hold, it fast becomes quite suitable, the essential tools needed to play out the scene, and affords a very clever staging of von Mayenburg’s denouement (I won’t spoil it). Mulder’s costumes too, are a riot of imagination – the ‘Nordic nights’ fancy dress party is a particular highlight (Andrea Demetriades’ volcano costume and Tim Walter’s Elk costume especially) – and it’s a bit like being inside a dream; you’re never quite sure what is through the next door, what is real or a memory, nor really what is just happening.
Von Mayenburg is a dramaturg with Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, the company which brought (artistic director) Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet to the Sydney Festival in 2010. As writer-in-residence, he has written many plays for the company (and for specific actors within the company) and “his dozen plays have made him the most produced German playwright in the English-speaking world.” What is evident in his writing is how much of a theatre-lover – nay, a theatre-animal- he is. Also a translator, his plays delight in the inherent theatricality of ideas – the transparency of illusion, the complicit nature of the relationship between audience and actors, the nature of transformation; the very idea of playing. This is particularly clear in Perplex, and part of the production’s joy comes from the intellectual and theatrical verve with which it spins its stories. Deftly navigating philosophical debates from Plato, Darwin, and Neitzsche with the brush of a pen (in a manner reminiscent of an on-form Stoppard) and with a dash of Beckett’s Groundhog Day-like waiting for Godot, von Mayenburg gives us a taste of everything we could possibly dream of in an evening at the theatre and then some, while also gently poking fun at some of the tendencies of contemporary German theatre.
You might not understand some of it, and it might seem as though you have no idea what’s going on, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much. And while it gets a bit too tangled up in itself in the middle and its end seems to be the end of two or three separate plays in one instance, it just is what it is.
So why not open your heart and your mind, and give yourself to the Elk?

Theatre playlist: 20. I Want To Break Free, Queen

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