The Golden Age | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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THE GOLDEN AGE

Live Theatre

The Golden Age is not a play about dinosaurs. Playwright Louis Nowra went for the ancient Greek analogy instead; hence the title and the play's snippets of Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris. But it made me think about dinosaurs, those scary, fascinating, pea-brained creatures beloved by children and anyone else with a taste for the extinct.

The Golden Age is essentially an extremely provocative anthropology lesson--but with a focus on what "civilized" society is. It chronicles and enlarges upon the actual discovery, before World War II, of a small society forgotten for three generations in the back brush of Tasmania, and the repercussions of this anthropological find.

As the play begins two young gentlemen, Peter and Francis (Reid Ostrowski and Matthew Schaefer), are having an adventure in the wild. Peter is a wealthy geologist; Francis is a have-not with some trepidations about exploring. After discovering a dead body covered with flowers and with gold bits in his mouth, the two are led by a wailing, snarling young girl to an odd community in the midst of what used to be a much larger village.

This is no Xanadu, however. The five inhabitants speak in a strange English that combines dirty songs with daily speech. Their dress is a weird conglomeration of bits and pieces from traditional society. The village's matriarch, for example, Queenie Ayre (Marcia Riegel), uses her umbrella as an ornament, almost like a crown. And the community has a decidedly theatrical bent: their first action upon greeting the two strangers is to put on a play--a five-minute, wildly strange and funny version of King Lear--and then pass the hat.

As individuals, also, the inhabitants are pretty peculiar. One of the two boys, Stef (Trey Nichols), is a speechless, deformed, and hopelessly retarded creature. The other two young people, Mac and Betsheb (Richard Carter and Natalie Mills), appear normal enough but don't seem to enjoy talking. A fourth, Angel, apparently belongs to a middle generation; she also has an aversion to talking. Only Ayre likes to use her vocal cords.

During the course of the young men's stay with this group, Francis falls in love with Betsheb. When Queenie Ayre presses him to take them all back to civilization, then, he is quite willing, and does so. Peter's father, a doctor, becomes fascinated with the group. He learns their patois and unravels the mystery of where the clan came from: they are descended from a group of criminals, retards, and one itinerant actor who flocked to the bush during Australia's gold rush. When the gold didn't pan out, most hopeful miners returned home. But this bunch had nothing to return to. Lacking literacy or any other knowledge, the group in only three generations of inbreeding has dwindled to this pathetic, and in some cases seriously impaired, few.

Australia's government decides to withhold this interesting discovery from the rest of the world. The Australian officials fear that Hitler might use this group as proof of his theories on the superman--see what happens when you don't weed out those with genetic imperfections? They put the group in a mental institution, "just until the war's over."

The rest of the play, which follows the characters through the end of the war, deals with the impact of this decision on everyone who has come in contact with the unhappy outcasts. It shows the slow degeneration of the group itself, of Peter's father, and of Francis, who as a soldier in Germany learns about true evil.

How is all of this telescoped into a few short hours? The play is beautifully written, with rich, short scenes that jump in time and space. Nowra has created an entire language and culture that, for all of their crudeness, have integrity and nobility.

But director A.C. Thomas and the Live Theatre fail to take advantage of the script's fullness. Thomas does a fine job as traffic cop: the stage pictures and steady flow from one scene to another are skillfully done. But he fails to explore the relationships between the characters, which are all surface and no substance; the words themselves are all that tell us how deeply these characters feel about each other.

Many cast members play multiple roles, with varying success. Reid Ostrowski is uncomfortable and awkward as young Peter Archer: but as Peter's father, William, Ostrowski conveys all the wonderment and bitterness of a scientist who is forced to confront the hypocrisy of his society. Diane Ponti-Wright as Angel, one of the five villagers, could just as well not be onstage she's so pallid. But she shines as the corrupt voice of society, both in her role as Elizabeth Archer, William's wife, and as a doctor at the mental institution. She is particularly strong as Dr. Simon, who harms people not through inherent wickedness, but rather because of an ethnocentric lack of understanding.

Richard Carter and Marcia Riegel fare the best. Riegel has the advantage of playing only one part, and as Queenie Ayre she is direct and regal, even with her blackened teeth and umbrella/crown. Carter is different in each of his three roles, interesting in all. As Mac, the most conspicuous male of the forgotten clan, he exudes wildness and a silent intelligence. As Ross from the Australian health department, he captures the fear and stodginess of the bureaucracy. And as James, a mental patient who hits on Betsheb, his anxiety and directness ("I see you out there pissin' and rubbin' yourself") make an incidental scene one of the best in the show.

Natalie Mills as Betsheb and Trey Nichols as the retarded Stef do adequate jobs with very difficult roles. Matthew Schaefer is stiff and unexciting as Francis, unfortunately one of the play's main characters.

Live's production is a capable but flat rendition of an extraordinary script. The Golden Age made me feel glad that the dinosaurs died out all on their own, instead of having to stick around to be confused and probably destroyed by what came after them.

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