Four Dogs and Bone – Kate Gaul at the Sydney Fringe (Theatre review)

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Four Dogs and a Bone

Brief Candle Productions with SITCO for Sydney Fringe

16 to 27 September You can grab your tickets here. 

Photo credits – Katy Green-Loughrey

There is a peculiar immodesty in writing that assumes fame and money will naturally follow recognition, when overwhelmingly, the converse is true – that even when success arrives for a writer, it is rare indeed that this results in money even if it includes a modicum of fame. John Patrick Shanley wrote Four Dogs and A Bone in 1993, after he’d been drinking the Holloywood Kool-Aid for six years (he’d had a huge success with Moonstruck [1987] and Five Corners [1987], dabbled in acting [!] with Crossing Delancy [1988] then went back to writing with The January Man and Joe Versus the Volcano [1989 and 1990 respectively] then got ‘serious’ with Alive [1993]) and had probably finally worked out that the machine was a thing that had no respect for writers. These self conscious works aren’t rare (see David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, Wag the Dog and State and Main) but they sure are paranoid in writers who seem to be a little shocked that Hollywood doesn’t fall at their feet. The idea that respect can’t be translated into dollars is difficult for writers who, starved for adulation, often confuse sex, money and the other accouterments of power with profit. Writers live in a timeless world, where if what you have created is of any value you will be remembered through the centuries, so it’s difficult for them to understand why a ‘James Joyce’ isn’t getting laid. Hollywood is a business that relies very much on trend and the immediacy of currency. Who gives a shit about tomorrow – how can they exploit what is popular today? These are oil and water worlds, the writer staring wide-eyed into the universe of film making and the world of movies not noticing that the writer is doing so.

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It is no surprise then, that John Patrick Shanley has created a world in Four Dogs and A Bone where two beautiful women are competing to sleep with ‘the writer’. It’s completely ludicrous – any film under the duress exhibited in Four Dogs and a Bone will hire a junior writer to alter the script, and use a businessman’s knowledge to “encourage” the writer to either accept the re-writes or abandon the script all together – it’s a rare Hollywood movie that sees the two starlets fighting to fuck the writer to get the script they want. Shanley, under the safety umbrella called “farce” has rewritten the world as it should be according to Shanley – where gorgeous Hollywood starlets are competing to fuck a writer who accidentally creates ‘arthouse’ he is so brilliant. The result is a strange production that seems to absorb the intentions of its creatives rather than project a fresh idea or display an adherence to a plotted arc. As the play itself reveals, anyone can re write the script to fit Hollywood standards, and yet Shanley continues to project an insistence that the writer (an almost soulful man trying to mourn the death of his mother, who also happens to be quite good-looking) has even an ounce of power in a production that doesn’t care if it commits the ultimate artistic crime and ‘goes straight to video’.

Far more interesting than the Shanley’s Freudian psychodrama, is the production itself, a Kate Gaul directed show that does seem a little out of step with her career trajectory, particularly since Penelope at the Tap Gallery last year that was such a huge success. Kate Gaul is all over this production making her presence strongly felt and turning the Shanley self consciousness into a kind of talisman for her work as a stage and budding film director. One gets a sense when we watch this production of Four Dogs and a Bone we’re looking at the competing rivalries of the Sydney theatre-to-film scene which may or may not be so, but one thing is certain, John Patrick Shanley’s play needed the personality of Kate Gaul to make it shine. Contextually the play seems like a red herring – its too old to be a fresh idea, and its too physically distant from Sydney to be of much interest. However, this company are bringing the undertones of Australian film making into the room, and if the problems are different in nature, clearly Kate Gaul thinks they are the same in substance. Then there are the performances which, while on point and immaculate in their erudition, are compliant and observant of a higher authority. I am thinking here in particular of Amanda Collins as Collette whose performance teeters on the edge of caricature in its compliant adherence to a superior intellect. Kate Gaul is a truly great director, and I am not of the camp that believe directors should be invisible people shufflers, bowing to an ever superhuman impossibly absent writer. But I would suggest in this instance, that the reasons to see Four Dogs and a Bone are very contextual and one is given the chance to peek through a curtain at a certain ‘holiest of holies’ that might be taking place that the public are usually banned from.

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All of the above wouldn’t be relevant if we didn’t expect so much from such a great talent as Kate Gaul, and her wonderful cast. The aforementioned Amanda Collins does have very funny moments, and looks impossibly beautiful as she struts her wily ways, getting funnier toward the end when she’s set freer to shine. Melinda Dransfield is the smooth vixen Brenda seamlessly handling her multiple personality changes, the new ingenue to Collette’s fading one. Paul Gerrard carries the flag for Shanley as the happless writer, seeking to take advantage of his position and not really knowing how to achieve that, although Shanley writes him as an ultimate winner (!) Gerrard is clever enough to play his role on the understated side which helps with the overt nature of Shanley’s hilarious pretensions. A stand out in the cast is Sonny Verbac as Bradley, the producer physically manifesting his pent up pain in a very unpleasant ailment. Verbac is consistently strong, delivering his comic lines with excellent timing, making himself a real joy to watch on the stage. Lighting man of the year Ben Brockman doesn’t disappoint with an exciting shadow effect against a bare back wall of The Old Fitz which gives a surreal swampy feeling to the minimalist set  – an effect that works well, implying the murky undertones are more at the surface than we realise. Four Dogs and a Bone turns out to be a fascinating moment in Sydney theatre 2014, reminding us over and over again that theatre is all about context and can’t help but shine a light on the machinations of our own community. But isn’t that why we love it?

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