Merrily We Roll Along – Sondheim’s Franklin Shepard lives in each of us. (Theatre Review)
Merrily We Roll Along
Little Triangle Theatre Company at The Depot Theatre
7-24 March. You can grab your tickets here.
Images: Clare Hawley
The story Merrily We Roll Along, first written by George S Kaufman in 1934 then transformed to the musical we know and love today by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim is a story of an ordinary man who accidently makes enormous decisions that impact his life greatly. These human accidents are the daily practices that existed before texts or any attempts to represent behaviors. Inside this analysis, the individual is more a product of the systems that surround him. Not a victim of them, as such, but more a plurality of the relations that make up these systems. This is an operational logic of disguise and survival. Franklin Shepard ends up being a consumer of his life who poaches from things and humans around him. A counter subversion exists within the speech and practices of his friends, Mary Flynn (who has published a successful novel but given her life over to alcoholism) and Charles Kringas (who has won a Pulitzer but is bitter with rage) and we the audience witness rival narratives vying for history upon the stage. There is a ‘poesis’ inside the position of Mary and Charlie that is not given a privileged space but equates to an appropriate countering of the usage Franklin has exacted upon them both. In Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punish, the micro physics of power is explained in some detail. However, it can be argued (particularly in the case of Franklin Shepard) that the networks and resources that help people resist and evade the discipline offered by institutions affects and often infects the creative and spontaneous instincts of individuals.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Little Triangles production of Merrily We Roll Along currently showing at The Depot Theatre in Marrickville. With Mitchell Wassink’s pared down set and detailed costuming (the problem of not knowing ‘who is who’ that plagues this musical is never an issue here) and Alexander Andrew’s subtle and careful direction, the rather complex story comes to the fore, paving the way for a focus on the narrative as well as the beautiful Sondheim music we know and love. Indeed, the performances of Patrick Howard (Frank) Zach Selmes (Charlie) and Victoria Zerbst (a truly outstanding Mary that completely evokes the spirit of Dorothy Parker upon whom the character is based) call forth the consuming behaviors of Frank, that often get diffused under sentiment. With this production we have the opportunity to see ourselves in Frank, and this consuming activity (so widespread but little studied) is seen as unsigned, unreadable and unsymbolised. The notion of ‘tactics’ lends a political dimension to everyday practices; As each individual, consuming others via their own erratic trajectories, are revealed to live under unforeseeable sentences and partly unreadable paths. These cannot be described by formal analysis and that includes documentation by clarity such as statistics. The way these characters interact features bricolage, discursiveness and they lack the homogeneity necessarily to clarify outside of literature.
Indeed, the message of Merrily We Roll Along as interpreted by Little Triangle theatre company, is that there is a difference between strategy and tactic in the way an individual life is lived. Strategies require a subject. A proper place from which to generate relations with an exterior. Strategies lie at the basis of political and economic rationality. Tactics, on the other hand, have no proper localization. Tactics are opportunistic, always on the watch, and involve combining disparate elements to gain a momentary advantage. To identify the problem between Frank and Charlie and Mary is to identify the difference between strategy and tactic. A mutual strategy binds them, but the tactics of daily life (often misinterpreted as survival) divide and separate them.
With its unique structure, Merrily We Roll Along runs the risk of making a voyeur of the audience and separating us from the errors and practices of its characters. To some extent, Sondheim’s music does this also, often acting as a buffer between us the ourselves we see in Frank. However, just as those looking down from a tall building feel they can see an entire city, we risk missing the street level narrative if we indulge in lofty analysis. It is Frank’s every day understanding that is managed by speculative and classificatory operations. These always generate contractions as social extremes (such as “getting a woman pregnant”) are encountered. These moments are rarely administered rationally and they consist of ruses and combinations of power. Therefore, what may look like chaos or decay as seen from a lofty position is not supported by those who are living or walking at the street level. In this way, Frank and his tactics that defy systems, end subverting the notion of top down power as described by Foucault. The plans made by Frank, Charlie and Mary consist of an important strategy, but they will be subverted by tactics, despite the way the audience judges these things to be a tragedy. The important question for the audience as we watch the unfolding of the tactics that snared Franks demise, smolder in our identification with Frank, rather than appear with the judgmental voyeuristic audience.
It is inside this excellent production, large cast and warm location that all these ideas are able to grow. Something about Little Triangle theatre company and The Depot Theatre works very well to produce these high-quality Sondheim productions that combine the enormity of a well formed musical cast with the intimacy of what feels like a small theatre. Equally potent of course, is the impact of musical director Condrad Hamill and pianist Antonio Fernandez who successfully fill the room with a swelling sound that fosters intimacy. These are stellar productions that are not to be missed. With just a few days left to enjoy this wonderful production, get yourself to the Depot Theatre for a magical night out.