You come to the little side street just behind Sydney Road in Brunswick, probably thinking you’ve taken a wrong turn, there is no theatre here. You park your car, go for a little wander, and then the iconic sign jumps out at you; the black board, the intense face, half cast in shadow, the yellow stripe, and red letter: MELBOURNE ACTOR’S LAB. Almost ten years’ worth of reputation occurs to you. You’ve found the theatre, now feel that slightly nervous tingle. This is where actors work harder and are subject to the most intense training in all of Melbourne, possibly Australia. This is the only place where you can regularly find genuine off-Broadway quality in every aspect of the show. This is a style of theatre not available to everyone, not even in the theatrical world. The theatre by which all others in our fine city can be judged.
“The North Pool”, by Rajiv Joseph, is the first sign of Russian-inspired, New York-style grit, passion and raw honesty. It is structured in the classic style; a slow simmering, multi-layered enigma that must be unwrapped and played out layer by layer by the actors, who are challenged to create the emotion of the end product, then suppress it, hide it within the character and beneath the reams of dialogue which carry them and the audience toward the blazing crescendo. For a two-hander set entirely in a high school vice principal’s office, this is powerhouse writing. But you wouldn’t expect any less. It lives up to the traditions set down in such examples as Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and Mamet’s “American Buffalo”.
What is unexpected, to the newcomer, is the completeness to which actors Dennis Manahan and Sahil Saluja rise to the occasion, in the role of vice-principal and his interrogated new student, a middle-eastern transfer. What begins as a simple questioning peels back in slow phases, until the true nature of each is exposed, and as an audience, one can only sit and completely swept away by the two veteran Lab students. They are incredible. The only difficulty is tearing your eyes off of one to look at the other, and vice versa. Behind questions, behind political discussion, behind every verbal red-herring, the pot is slowly boiling over, and Manahan and Saluja disappear completely into the scene. That’s the thing about a great performance; you can’t judge it. You just have to try and remember that it isn’t real. But then again, it is. It’s as real to them as pain, and it becomes real to the witnesses as well.
Peter Kalos guided them with the finesse of a director who studied for twenty years with the finest living teachers the United States has to offer, they have free reign but never meander. It’s about them, but only so far as the script will permit. Manahan clearly set up his own office, and the background props and pieces are magnificent and well-placed to throw us. Saluja exists in there like its brand new to him, through the rehearsal periods for Lab theatre are long and intense. Both are impeccably cast, Kalos’ instincts are in perfect form, and he communicates them with strength and assurance.
Special mention to Frances Braithwaighte, who provided a beautiful flute piece, and producers Natalia Nescpeca and Skye Young, who help make Lab theatre possible. Now, if you don’t mind, find some plays with decent parts for women!
Definitely don’t miss.
Written by Max Davine
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