Seems playwright Annie Baker is the flavour of the month in Australian theatre. While her latest, John, is being staged by the MTC in Melbourne, the play that shot her to prominence (and a Pulitzer Prize), The Flick, is showing in Brisbane in this co-production between Queensland Theatre and Melbourne’s Red Stitch.
The Flick is the story of three ushers at an crumbling movie theatre in Worcester, Massachusetts, also called The Flick. They are Sam (Ben Prendergast), the longest-serving member of the crew; Rose (Ngaire Dawn Fair), who has the added responsibility of running the projector; and newcomer Avery (Kevin Hofbauer). They’re not exactly a “matching set”. Sam has a superficial interest in movies but is more interested in the pay cheque, while Avery is a movie nerd who specifically sought work at The Flick because they still showed movies on film, not digital. Rose is a bit of a party girl who has little interest in, or connection with, the cinema. She’s a hardened cynic, working (ostensibly) to allow people to escape from the cynicism of the world for a couple of hours. These three disparate personalities are thrown together in a largely uncaring workplace and left to their own devices.
At nearly three hours long (including a 20 minute interval), I think this play could test the resolve of many theatre-goers. That feeling is accentuated by the fact that not all that much happens on stage. There’s a lot of cleaning of popcorn, and a lot of dialogue, but not much in the way of what could traditionally be described as “action”. The program notes compare The Flick to Chekhov and there certainly are some parallels to be drawn, particularly I think with The Cherry Orchard. As an aside, one of Baker’s other works was an updated production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. This is a play about human interaction among some of those people who find themselves marginalised by society. After all, these are people who are basically invisible. When you go to the movies, you don’t see the cinema being cleaned, or the projectionist in the booth (a rarity now in any event). You barely notice them while buying snacks. In delving into their lives, Baker takes us to some uncomfortable places. In the end, the “cherry orchard” is metaphorically cut down, leaving us to speculate on what has become of the characters.
Along the way though, Baker and director Nadia Tass (well-known for both her theatre work like MTC’s Disgraced, and her work on film and TV) create some exquisite moments. For example, there’s a minor motif in the play where Sam and Avery play “six degrees of separation”. Film buff Avery is able to rattle off chains of movies to connect even the most obscure pairings. Later however, we learn that his connections to real people in his life are virtually non-existent. Rose’s hard exterior becomes more and more brittle as the play progresses and she comes to realise there’s more to life than making a buck. Sam desperately wants to follow his dream, but is too scared to make a decisive move. If these remind you of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, you may just be on to something.
There are also some intriguing power struggles and sexual politics going on within the trio. Despite her don’t-care attitude, Rose actually has a kind of superiority over Sam by virtue of her role as projectionist; something that proves a flash point later on. Sam clearly holds a torch for Rose; but she only has eyes for Avery – who seems singularly uninterested in anything of the sort (although exactly why is never spelled out). This leads to a highly awkward encounter.
So far as I can tell from the movie references, the play is set in 2012, which would have been contemporaneous with when Baker wrote it. Some of the pop-culture references are quite specific, which might affect its “shelf life”, although the cachet of the Pulitzer Prize will no doubt extend that somewhat.
The three main cast members are quite brilliant. Ben Prendergast, Ngaire Dawn Fair and Kevin Hofbauer effortlessly slip into American accents, although not specifically New England ones, for their parts. Fair’s “Valley Girl” affect, while a little jarring at first, does suit the character of the flighty, self-centred Rose. The play is complemented by some excellent stagecraft from sound designer Russell Goldsmith, AV designer Daniel Nixon and lighting designer David Parker.
For all its fine attributes though, I suspect The Flick will be one for theatrical purists. This play makes a lot of demands, and those with a passion for the stage will probably be able to meet them. It is playing at the Cremorne Theatre at QPAC until 5 March 2017.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Neon Tiger (La Boite) – theatre review
- Rice (QT) – theatre review
- Good Muslim Boy (QT) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television