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The Humans

Photo by Clare Hawley

Mophead Productions in association with Red Line Productions presents THE HUMANS, by Stephen Karam, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo. September 5 – October 7.

THE HUMANS, an American play by Stephen Karam, won the Tony Award for Best play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2016.

In Yuval Noah Harari’s book, SAPIENS – A Brief History of Mankind (2011), and the one that followed, HOMO DEUS – A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), he postures the journey of us Humans – us, Homo Sapiens – and talks of us as a species that developed from a Cognitive Revolution, where, with the distinctive ability, that separated us from the other animals, to IMAGINE, we created stories to explain the circumstances and events that we found ourselves in. It, evidenced today, through the stories of creation that we have made, that over time became tribal survival systems – religions – and of the FAITH in them that we gave to them to get us through, flood, fire, drought, earthquakes tsunami, war, disease, plague etc. How, especially, from the 1500’s onwards we began to more actively enter a Scientific Revolution, using our imaginations again, for a gradual embrace of Objective Science to explain the continual evolving circumstances we live in.

His later book, HOMO DEUS goes further and talks of our search to become truly God-like, once again using our imagination, to develop ways to be able to overcome death and create artificial life, that has, incrementally destroyed our fragile world with our emerging powers where Death has become just a technical problem. Where faith and science now quarrel to explain our existence and justify the manner in which we live. Maybe, unsettling ourselves, that with all this knowledge we have more questions about the possibility of many, many more unknowns, about what is Life? how big is the Universe? and what is our role in it? arises.

So, Stephen Karam creates a tentatively upward-mobile family, of today, the Irish-American family, the Blake’s, who are working their way from the ‘ditches’ of the working poor, who have been surviving in Scranton, Pennsylvania and now have arrived for a Thanksgiving Dinner in the apartment of their daughter, Brigid (Madeline Jones) and her partner, Richard Saad (Reza Momenzada), in downtown Chinatown on the ‘sophisticated’ island of Manhattan.

The apartment is in transition, the couple have not yet moved completely in – their furniture sits in a truck, somewhere – and is an architecturally challenging set of spaces, in a building that has all the flaws of a passed era in time. The building, now, has creaking floors – resounding with the noise of the occupants above them – dodgy electrical wiring, scarcity of day-light. Still, its decrepitude is no hindrance to the feeling of it as a sign of progress up the ladder of human status.

Like the building, the family has its challenging biological/’archirectural’ decrepitudes: The Matriarch of the Blake family, “Momo” Blake (Diana McLean) is old and drifted into the time of Alzheimers – manifested in a language of her own that seems to be raging, raging against the dying of the light, refusing to go gently into that good night. Of Daughter, Aimee Blake (Eloise Snape), a lawyer who has lost her job, her girl-friend and developed a stomach disease that will require major surgery if she wishes to continue to live – her sense of being alone, overwhelming. Of Brigid, a musician, helping to make ends meet working in several soul destroying jobs – bars – coping with the written judgement of her musical competency rather than her creativity and intuiting the becalming of her emotional relationship. Of Richard waiting for his Trust Fund to mature while he studies – Social Science – at the age of 38, serving the aspirations and coping with the disappointments of his partner’s dreams as best he can. Of Erik Blake (Arky Michael), the patriarch of the family who has toiled as the janitor and sports coach, all his life, at the one high school, where he has been tempted, of late, to an extra-marital affair – now burdened with religious and marital/social guilt galore. Of Deidre Blake (Di Adams), the betrayed wife and mother holding steadfast to the practice of her faith and good deeds for the betterment of others, battered by the logics of science that are undermining her beliefs – the house warming gift of a statue of the Virgin Mother, scoffed at and rejected – her humiliation in the face of her families blasé rejection of her human foundations taking her to a possible shattering.

The Blake’s then are a family. An ordinary – normal – family, all existing in the challenges of being alive, for a much longer time than ever before, ever planned for. What early death once solved, prolonged life in the modern era exacerbates into a sub-conscious fear of the unknown.

The simple banalities of conversation and unspoken needs, make for a modern day Chekhovian ‘dramedy’ – an hilariously funny, poignantly moving dinner with ordinary, everyday humans with modest aspirations, pitted against the modern obstacles of the need for, at least, a comfortable wealth and good health. The juxtaposition of the many subjects of conversation of this family, stuffed with non-sequiturs of thought progression, are funny for their audacity of placement, while all the while the playwright is weaving a melancholic spell that creates a profundity of eeriness as the family leaves the darkening home to just perceptibly seen figures shuffling in the fog/gases of an empty universe – as if the future to which we are moving towards will be just a black hole.

Director, Anthea Williams, who brought us the Award winning HIR, at Belvoir, last year, guides this play to a most satisfying night in the theatre – burnishing, further, her skills.

Jonathan Hindmarsh, the Designer, manages to fit the requirements of this two-storey apartment onto the stage, with a magical ease of realism with the potential for movement to a profound concrete eeriness. Mr Hindmarsh has made the tiny Old Fitz stage a very flexible and robust space – his resourcefulness and solution for creative contribution are all reflected in much of his other work in this space: A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, BELLEVILLE and THE JUDAS KISS, for example, and with THE HUMANS continues a triumph of Design and Rendering skills. He is also in charge of the Costumes which are ‘invisible’ because of their absolute ‘rightness’. Lighting is by Kelsey Lee and the Sound is by Clemence Williams.

The ensemble of actors are so in synchronicity with each other it is a joy to see and hear the seamless crossovers of language and action that at all times are a continuous revelation of character development and narrative surety, revealing the thematics and dimensions of Mr Karam’s ‘poetry’ that are, cumulatively, mysterious and frightening in their projected presence. It is an admirable team, full of trust and a clear objective knowledge of the intricate writing of Mr Karam.

It is a while since I have seen, actor, Di Adams, at work and she gives a marvellous aching portrait of a soul in the whirlpool of doubt in a modern world of fading faith of tribal rules of religion and the endless revelations of science. Eloise Snape fresh from a marvellous performance in AIR at The old 505, earlier in the year, is just as impressive, as is Arky Michael, Madeline Jones and new comer, Reza Momenzada. But for consistency and creative concentration and the cause for much of our empathetic alarm to the story being told, the contribution of Diana McLean, as “Momo” is mesmerising in its human compassion for the possible fate that we humans have created for ourselves with the ‘gift’ of our species’ imagination to prolong life – to have the arrogance of the “God-like”.

Living our lives today, are we suffering from exploitation or irrelevance? Since the Scientific and Technological advances championed by the Corporations and Entrepreneurs sing the praises of their creations, it falls to our Sociologists, Philosophers, Historians and the keen observers of all, the Artists, to sound the alarm of caution. Stephen Karam, with his play, THE HUMANS, manages to do that with spoonfuls of ‘sugar’ to help the provocations ‘go down’.

THE HUMANS, is a must see. Another one. It has being a very good year in the theatre, especially, in the Independent sector.

N.B. 1. Thank goodness for the Old Fitz and its curating powers. The New York Times, in late May, early June, had an article suggesting the Best 25 American plays since the arrival of ANGELS IN AMERICA, 25 years ago. At the Old Fitz, this year, we have seen at number 22: THE WOLVES, (which is having a second life at the Belvoir, next year in their new season); number 11: THE HUMANS; and later this year, EURYDICE, by Sarah Ruhl, which is number 15. Outhouse productions presented THE FLICK, which is number 2. The Independent scene keeping our audiences, relatively, contemporary in the Best of Playwriting available.

2. Mr Harari’s latest book: 21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY, has just become available in Australia.