The karate kid: Belvoir & Stuck Pigs Squealing’s Back at the Dojo

The world according to Lally Katz is one populated with fortune tellers, Hungarian neighbours, golems, forgotten vaudeville troupes, the Apocalypse Bear, and the Hope Dolphin. It’s a world of magic, where things are not quite what they seem, where everything is a story in one way or another, and characters often find themselves returning to Earth sooner or later. After the success of Neighbourhood Watch and Stories I Want To Tell You In Person, and having read a number of her previous plays, the promise of a new play by Lally Katz was tantalising, and came with more than a few expectations. But even though the story is drawn from her own family mythology and features a character based on her father as a young man, it doesn’t quite feel like the play it should be, the play it wants to be, and as a result feels a little bit hollow, though not without heart.
Back at the Dojo – a co-production with Belvoir and Melbourne company Stuck Pigs Squealing, Katz’s former co-conspirators – is inspired by the story of her parents’ meeting. Drifting through 1960s America, Danny stumbles across a karate dojo in New Jersey and, like the other members of the dojo, finds his way again with the help of the strict but not unbending sensei, and a young woman called Lois. Set against this, in something of a stark contrast, is the other end of the story, that of Dan and Lois (now older and in contemporary suburban Australia), and their granddaughter who has decided to become Patti Smith. It’s a seemingly gloriously Katzian collage, drawn from real life, chance meetings, and the talents of her collaborators, but something is missing in both the script in a very basic narrative way, and in the production.

Mel Page’s set puts us firmly in the hospital where Lois lies. While the hospital room is depicted in all its clinical detail, there are one or two surprises which work their magic, and the space doubles as the karate dojo with nothing more than a change in lighting. While much of the hospital scenes are set around the upstage edges of the space, the dojo fills the downstage void with precision and rigour, but it is not enough the alleviate the ‘empty’ feeling at the heart of this production. Page’s costumes – naturalistic and/or exuberant as the scene dictates – are functional and convey the nuances and character without being obtrusive or impacting upon the actors’ performances. Richard Vabre’s lighting is at times stark (such as in the dojo), deceptively warm (in the hospital), and mesmerisingly colourful as Danny crosses the (imaginary?) America of his youth. There are some lovely touches in Vabre’s design, in the transitions between scenes and in the way characters are caught in the side or edges of light, shards of memories from years long past but no less potent. Jethro Woodward’s sound design is subtle, evoking the precision of the dojo, the sterility of the hospital, and the wildness of imagination.
Director Chris Kohn, a long-time collaborator of Katz’, keeps the story moving, but there is a weirdly languid pace to the production which doesn’t do its running time many favours. Part of this elongated rhythm stems from Katz’ play – scenes pass without too much happening, and incidents don’t feel as dramatic or significant as they should be. Part of the languidness also stems from the use of the space – too many scenes, especially the hospital scenes, and the early scenes between Danny and his father, or Lois and her family, are played too far upstage, towards the rear of the set. In the Belvoir corner, where magic frequently happens on the lip of the downstage area, right in the audience’s lap, back in the dojo we feel alienated, too far away from the action, as though we’re intruding on something, someone else’s memories, things we perhaps aren’t meant to be seeing. Kohn’s – and Katz’ – decision to include a real karate sensei, Natsuko Mineghishi, in the play, to bring the outside world into the theatre, is a bold choice which pays dividends; she brings with her a rigour, structure, discipline, and a magnetic sense of honour, respect, and perseverance which is humbling and lifts the play out of its laguidity into a methodical and logical state of being where actions have dimension, where there is no failure but small-mindedness and the inability to see beyond limitations.
Kohn’s cast are all strong actors, but we sometimes don’t get the clarity and purpose we need in their performance and/or dramatic function. Luke Mullins cuts a distinctively noticeable silhouette as Patti, but even though he looks the part, too much of his performance is played upstage, away from the audience, or with his back to the audience. While Mullins is a strong actor, we don’t see anywhere near enough of his range and versatility here; the only concession to this is the break-out moment at the end of the play where Patti Smith’s ‘Land’ plays and, well, let’s just say the pay off is gloriously full-blooded and alive, the kind of life the rest of the play could have used a little of.
Brian Lipson and Harry Greenwood play the older and younger Danny’s respectively; as (Old) Dan, Lipson is somewhat muted and muffled, though not without his own kind of grace and focus. As younger Dan – Danny, if you will – Greenwood is magnetic, and there’s a charm and compassion to his performance which you cannot deny, but also a strength and a conviction to keep going and make a better life for himself. Greenwood’s scenes with Lois, played by Catherine Davies, are beautifully played, and there’s an easy kind of friendship and sense of companionship between them. Davies’ Lois is determined but not blindly so; there is a sense of old hurt but also youthfulness, a need to build her wings in her own space that is beautiful to watch. I just wish we could have seen more of these two together.
But even though the central performances are reasonably strong (Greenwood and Davies’ in particular), Katz’ script still feels undercooked, and this seems strange considered there were two dramaturges working on the production (Louise Gough, and Anthea Williams), and the play has been in development for the better part of five or six years. Part of this stems from the two halves of the story as it has been conceived – they feel as if they come from two different plays, like two-thirds of two different plays which have been joined together to create a new one because by themselves they aren’t quite enough to sustain a play in its entirety. Part of the problem also stems from the rhythm of the play, of the scenes – not enough happens dramatically in the scenes, and incidents don’t feel as dramatic or significant as they should, and thus the stakes aren’t quite present or high enough for us to invest totally in the characters; we already know how the story will end from the very beginning of the play. Knowing that a lot of what Katz writes – and indeed very much the way she writes – is drawn from her life and/or those around her, I wonder if there could have been a way for her to take more license with the characters and situations, to stretch the truth of the situations further and make them more dramatic, raise the stakes more through invention.
Right from Patti’s entrance, Dan suspects she is having a ‘bad trip’; and although this is set up at the beginning and then reiterated several times in quick succession, and once or twice throughout, it is not developed or explored further throughout the rest of the play. What might a ‘bad trip’ consist of for Patti, what might it trigger in Dan, how might the two collide and play off each other? (I could suggest that the whole play is essentially Patti’s ‘bad trip’, but that would be disingenuous to the emotional tug of the later scenes with Danny and Lois, and would detract from a lot of the dojo scenes and the sense of purpose several of the characters find towards the end of the play.)
The other problem with the play is the idea that is it, by and large, a play about memory and experience; where the former is fallible, the latter is relatively concrete, and there are some nice moments in Back at the Dojo where the two collide and sit beside each other in gentle juxtaposition. But the curious conceit remains, in which Patti is an on-stage witness to everything that happens; I’m not sure if it’s as effective as it was meant to be, as her presence is for the most part obtrusive, and her inaction is all-too-noticeable at times. I wonder if there could be a way in which Patti shapes, plays with – or perhaps even outright rewriting – Danny’s memories, based on the stories that she herself knows from what Dan, Lois, and her own mother have told her; could there be more tension here as the ‘real’ Danny and Lois (i.e. the characters in the 1960s part of the play) try to keep it relatively truthful-to-life, and try to wrest back control from Patti? We get an eversotiny glimpse of this at the end when Patti finds herself in the dojo with Danny, but it is a tiny moment, barely more than a look and a few lines, although it does hint at a nice theatrical conceit which could be explored further.

As with a lot of Lally Katz’ work, there is a lot in Back at the Dojo which could be explored further or made more of, but to do so would take another play or perhaps a substantially different one. Despite its shortcomings, there are enough moments of rigour and tenderness in here to keep us going over the play’s two-and-a-half hour duration, though ultimately, for a play about love, karate, Patti Smith, and memory, it’s not quite as memorable as it should be.

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