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Back At The Dojo

Belvoir and Stuck Pigs Squealing present BACK AT THE DOJO, by Lally Katz, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 22 June – 17 July.

BACK AT THE DOJO, is a new play by Lally Katz. It is as eccentric in its character population and in its structural worlds as any of her plays have been, but, for me, is the best play she has given us. Even better than that other old fashioned but rewarding concoction, NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH, which we also saw at the Belvoir Theatre in August, 2011.

Just like that play, BACK AT THE DOJO, has its origins in her personal history – ‘her personal myth-making’ – in what she has been able to extrapolate about the early relationship between her mother, Lois, and father, Dan. Significantly, Ms Katz tells us, in her program notes, that much poetic licence has been taken in the invention of the story she tells here for an audience. “Most of my plays are a mixture of true stories and people from my life mixed with made up stories and dreams”. But the greater affect of the play is the feeling that it has been inspired as a kind of love letter to her parents – for the old-fashioned warmth of the night in the theatre wraps one up comfortably, even on a cold winter night in Sydney.

Elder Dan (Brian Lipson) is caring for his unconscious wife, Lois, in a hospital room, when his estranged grandchild, Patti – for Patti Smith – a transgendered Patrick (Luke Mullins) – high on LSD, comes to visit her grandma. All does not go well, for Dan is finding it difficult to say farewell to his past with his wife, accepting the present possibility of her end, and to a future with his grandchild, Patrick, who he cannot accept as Patti. The conceit of Ms Katz’s writing is to have Patti have an LSD vision of the meeting of young Danny (Harry Greenwood) and young Lois (Catherine Davies), who is waiting for her brother, Jerry (Fayssal Bazzi), at a Karate dojo run by the Sensei (Natsuko Mineghishi). The play is inhabited, too, with other characters, mostly, created by Shari Sebbens and Dara Clear.

The two worlds of the play, the hospital room and the LSD vision, intertwine with clarity and ease and is beautifully harmonised and elevated with the Eastern ritual of the dojo as presented by the Sensei. The play gains a level of a higher poetry in its playing by the company engaged in the Karate ritual and sensibility, for the greater, actual plot twists mainly sit in the dramaturgy of the everydayness soap opera of love (for others and self), sex and death –  oh, so familiarly.

It is, certainly, the presence and convincing performance by Ms Mineghishi – physical dexterity and vocal purity -throughout the production, that constantly lifts the experience of the play into a kind of transcendent meditation on the foibles of the bumbling actions, lives, of all these ordinary people, who resultantly, become subtly important in our observance. It is the tangible atmosphere of a world view that is spiritually enhancing and embracing that  tugs us into the dimension of accepting a universal brotherhood-sisterhood and the possibility of another ‘time and place’ than the one we are in.

BACK AT THE DOJO has been in development since 2010, with the Director, Chris Kohn and his company, Stuck Pigs Squealing. Ms Mineghishi, who runs her own dojo in Melbourne, has been part of the long six year process to bring this work to fruition – contributing valuable insight and discipline to the creative process in all the developments of the play. It is the great good luck of this production that she has been about to guide the discipline and ‘space’ of development time that has been given to this work.

All the performances are, generally, wonderful. Mr Greenwood, Ms Davies and Mr Bazzi especially skilful in delivering performances of great delicacy of choice and graduated feeling – understatement – avoiding the ‘melodrama’ of their characters’ plight. Ms Sebbens has a ‘wicked’ time with her many, and sometimes swiftly changing impersonations, whilst Mr Clear creates his tasks efficiently. Mr Mullins, as Patti, has a bewildered presence and beautifully created detail of transgender, even if, he seems to be tempted to draw our attention to his work, occasionally, with a touch of self-awareness of physical and textural emphasis. When Mr Mullins is truly ‘lost’ in his character he communicates uncomplicatedly what the actor sometimes  feels a need to ‘demonstrate’ – taking us out of the belief mechanism to have us admire the actor rather than to stay mesmerised by his Patti. Not that he is helped or securely supported with his major interaction, that is with Mr Lipson, as Dan, who mostly plays in a bubble of self concern for his character with minimal effect of action on others, or reception of action from Mr Mullins.

The Set and Costume Design, by Mel Page, is pragmatic in serving the scenarios of the schemata. The Lighting Design, by Richard Vabre, but, most especially, the Composition and Sound design by Jethro Woodward create the “magic realist” lens for us to shift into the belief of all the dimensions of Ms Katz’s play.

BACK AT THE DOJO, is a wonderful old fashioned experience in the theatre. I am very grateful to have had it. It is certainly the best of experiences that I have had at Belvoir for some time. I recommend it very much.