“Pvt. Wars” At the Alex Theatre

It’s another (male dominated) classic American play from the breakthrough of the “Method” (1950-1980) playwrights, this time James McClure’s “Pvt. Wars”. Super-fast paced, delirious and relentlessly witty, it is the tale of three US war vets from Vietnam stuck together in a psychiatric care facility, seeming to waver between utter delusion and actually trying to grapple with the reality that they are back in a world that has changed, as men who have been irretrievably damaged.

It is an intensely delicate operation to draw comedy from such a dark, upsetting subject. The writing of the time and place was all about the slow, simmering reveal, regardless of the genre, and in this instance, we are learning scene by scene just how completely broken these men are. But as the play progresses through it’s maze of brutality and hilarity, the intimacy and truth each actor brings to their role shows enough honesty and respect that the audience gives themselves subconscious permission to laugh, without ever stopping to judge the play or themselves. And laugh they do; hysterically, at times. This is an achievement that requires the utmost discipline and devotion from the actors in their work.

Nobody makes a point of mentioning the hard work that goes into acting like Peter Kalos. Of all his catchy phrases “work your ass off” (in an LA accent) has to be the most oft-quoted, if mostly by him. But that’s what you do at the Lab, whether you’re a student or their teacher; you work. This isn’t acting as a dream or as a hobby, this is acting as a job, and take it from me, you will sweat, cry and bleed to earn it your place amongst them. Nothing stands as testament to the work ethic pushed at the Lab as clearly as Lab Theatre’s shows. Even if someone knows absolutely nothing about what actually goes into a performance, has no idea about the fine points of the craft, the sheer volume of plays that they’ve staged since they first started producing last year should be a clear indication. When you do know just how much these actors are suffering and sacrificing to be up there as intensely authentic as they are, that’s when you really have to be astonished. The rest of the audience; they’ll never know. That’s the sign of a great actor – nobody notices the acting. They say things like its “raw” or its “very convincing” and then move along. The irony is, that means they’ve done their job right.

John Massarotti and Indigo Parer are exceptional as Silvio and Gately, two men from opposing worlds thrust together by the way and driven to the same strange psychological limbo of completely uprooted unreality. The hours spent venturing these surreal confines of the human psyche couldn’t be counted, but they were there, and as I write this, I don’t imagine they’re coming down easily.

However, it is Joseph Baldwin as rich boy Natwick who really steals the show. His psychosis is wrapped in so many layers of attempted normality that it adds a whole new dimension to the character; one who lives in a fantasy of control and order. He gives us glimpses of his shattered state between the long and bombastic eruptions from his co-stars, but never lets the big boys see it.

Dana Pout, meanwhile, has the thankless task of filling the role of the woman. Is she a nurse, or a therapist? It doesn’t matter. McClure didn’t care for female characters any more than his other male contemporaries, and in fact one might say a great deal less so. One of her scenes even sees her performing from just beyond the spotlight. With the wings of Lab theatre absolutely bursting with the richest assortment of hard-working, talented female actors that can be found in Melbourne – Katharine Innes, Nicole Chamoun, Davini Malcolm, Vanessa Moltzen, Elise Guy, just to name a few – Kalos is going to have to start thinking further afield than Ireland to find work for them to do. And soon.

Writen by Max Davine for Good Vibes Melbourne

Featured image by Jack Zapsalis

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