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American Signs - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)

Written by Anchuli Felicia King. Directed by Kenneth Moraleda


A dark and cynical exploration of consultancy capitalism; the charm of being at the top of the corporate ladder is too enticing to ignore


Reviewed by Claira Prider

Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company

Until 14th July, 2024


Anchuli Felicia King’s latest play with Sydney Theatre Company, American Signs, is a corporate thriller that brings the capitalist and corrupt consulting world to Wharf 2 Theatre. Set in the high-powered, corporate world, this one woman show explores the human costs of climbing the career ladder in the world of management consulting. The writing sees a third-generation Vietnamese-American twenty-something woman, plucked straight out of university and employed at a top three consulting firm. “While American Signs is a pointed critique of the consulting industry, it’s also a character study about a young Vietnamese American woman grappling with her own traumas, ambitions, and desires in a morally complicated universe.” (Writers note.)

 

As we enter the theatre, Catherine Văn-Davies is already seated on stage; a faceless worker amongst the rows of empty desks that fill the space. “Dick-tistics” she begins – she’s learning about penis to body ratio statistics in horses, giving us insight into the unapologetic, bold, unnamed protagonist standing in front of us. It’s a memory play, the narration (and lack of other on-stage characters) directs the work and responsibility at us, the audience.


American Signs, Sydney Theatre Company (2024). Photos by Prudence Upton


Written with Catherine Văn-Davies in mind to perform the role, the text weaves layers of cultural experience as the character tries to fulfil her Vietnamese family expectations (in a western world) while regularly being sexualised for her race.

 

Apart from the pushing of a few desks together, the physical set remains unchanged for the duration of the work. As the work unfolds, a laptop placed on a desk shows confusing corporate jargon such as 'on the beach' and 'boiling the ocean' like new chapter headings in a book.


Kenneth Moraleda’s direction makes effective use of the space

Sound and lighting, smoke and mirrors help to inform us of setting and location as well as reinforcing the untrustworthy nature of the industry, as the story takes us from us from office to factory, turbulent aeroplane, to hotel room, to a chapel, and more. Much of James Lew’s set and Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design uses straight, clean-cut lines which reinforce the sterile feeling and lack of care for humanity. I particularly enjoyed the use of lighting on the back of the desks which could only be seen in the mirrors’ reflection.


Kenneth Moraleda’s direction makes effective use of the space; Văn-Davies' agile movements translate to a relentless, career driven woman as she cycles fluidly through the multiple different characters.


Sam Cheng’s sound design is relied upon heavily to inform the audience of how to interpret the scenes as our protagonist finds herself becoming the perfect consultant - ruthlessly driven and morally blind.


By being able to see the world from our front-on view as well as through the reflected image on stage, the audience are gifted a sense of objectivity, like we can see the bigger picture - like we know better. Lighting is used as a powerful tool to highlight moral viewpoint; particularly in the final scenes - the lighting in the mirror highlights how she rationalises, and separates herself from her own unethical, money driven choices.


Văn-Davies performance is extremely slick as she confides in the audience

Despite how refined Văn-Davies is in the story telling, despite her being convincing in each of the characters she portrays – I still found the work difficult to follow at times. Văn-Davies performance is extremely slick as she confides in the audience; her accents, characterisations and stagecraft precise, however there are a few storylines which the writing touches on without further explanation, leaving me struggling to sympathise and connect the relevance of these moments.


King's text cleverly focuses on the tendency that the high-end management consulting services have, to warping and weaponizing language to suit their own agenda and undermine accountability. It highlights how profits are prioritised over human beings and how workers are completely expendable. Despite the mirrored wall giving the audience a constant reminder of our complicity, the setting of the work in America allows the audience to distance ourselves from the concept, letting us view it through a 'not in my backyard' viewpoint.


American Signs continues the Wharf 2 Theatre's legacy as a space for experimentation and forging new work. A rollercoaster exploration of the consultancy industry through the blurring of ethics and justification of inhumane behaviour, American Signs is not without its pitfalls, but the message embedded is difficult to ignore.


 

CAST & CREATIVES

Designer James Lew

Lighting Designer Benjamin Brockman

Composer & Sound Designer Sam Cheng

Voice & Accent Coach Paige Walker

Vietnamese Language & Dialect Consultant Ferdinand Hoang

With Catherine Văn-Davies

Marketing image Rene Vaile

 

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