Cosi - Wollongong Workshop Theatre (NSW)
Written by Louis Nowra. Directed by Darcy Scrine in Association with Currency Press.
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
Wollongong Workshop Theatre, Gwynneville Until Saturday 11th March
- Handled with a soft touch by its director 'Cosi' proves to be a heartfelt and joyous celebration of the extraodinary -
As times change and theatre evolves within its ever changing context, remounting classics of theatrical literature becomes evermore fascinating and fragile. Cosi by Louis Nowra is one such play that is at once both an ingrained classic of Australian theatre, yet teems with possible offence if not handled correctly.
Wollongong Workshop Theatre, finally staging a full season after their pandemic-affected last few years, brings Nowra’s Cosi to open their 2023 season. Set in 1971, Cosi is Nowra’s second semi-autobiographical play seen through the lens of Nowra’s alter ego Lewis (Jonathon Frino) as he reluctantly becomes involved in a social experiment within a mental institution directing Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.
Photos by McKenzee Scrine
Directed by Darcy Scrine, Wollongong Workshop’s Cosi seems fully aware of the immediate discomfort in the premise. Scrine recognises that the play can be seen as a farce laughing at mental illness and holds elements of an ableist attitude. However her cast’s characteristics focus on the personality of each of their roles, becoming specific and unpatronising. They produce laughter from their situation, not their condition. The brunt of the degrading humour instead falls on Lewis’ head and the politics of the uber-left and far-right. Scrine directs with precision, allowing each character time to breath and capture the world of the theatre the play is set in.
Scrine and Ian McColm’s set construction create an artfully crafted space for the characters to play in. Coupled with the lighting design, there’s a warmness to the space with its horribly burnt corner and minimalist theatrical stage for Cosi Fan Tutte to play out in. Set changes seemed laboriously slow at times, and would have benefitted from a change in cast involvement to change the space whilst Mozart played in the background.
Frino’s Lewis is quick to temper and completely out of his depth. With an obscurely and oddly placed American accent, Frino comes in hot as Lewis, starting already fed up with his situation, which creates a contrast to the lesson he learns about himself at the end of the play. Frino gives Lewis a softness as he sees each of the characters for their extraordinary abilities, and realises that those closest to him are at odds with the world. Less focus on rage building and more time on finding the subtleties of Lewis would see this character fit into the mould of the play.
Ben Verdon’s Roy is a scene stealer, both as his character and as an actor. Verdon makes Roy a larger than life theatrical diva, with his dream of performing Cosi Fan Tutte, despite not speaking Italian or being able to sing, being the driving point for his character. With key moments revealing the chinks in Roy’s amour, Verdon is only outmatched by Sally Evans’ Cherry. Evans brings a Kath and Kim-esque quality to her stalker-ish Cherry, violently obsessed with Lewis throughout and ready to flick a switch blade at anyone who threatens to destroy the illusion. Evans owns every moment she is on stage, bringing a lovability to the slightly terrifying attitude she brings.
Tony Barea’s subdued Henry, with a stuttering and withdrawn characterisation, manages to avoid an offensive stereotype, and instead brings a world of pathos to Henry’s life. An extraordinary outburst at the idea of communism being near his world brings an immense tension to the space and gives Henry a layered performance.
Likewise, Erin Bubb’s Ruth and her obsessively compulsive attitudes directs her lens of the world to the situation she finds herself in, instead of bringing laughs to her disorder itself. Bubb evolves Ruth as she progresses in the story, and each moment she is not speaking she remains wholly invested in her character’s situation.
Cosi shows promise for Scrine’s future directorial roles, particularly when handling a classic script that could be panned if deftly touched.
Cameron Johnstone’s Doug bears the unfortunate brunt of the misogynistic and homophobic lines of the play, providing himself as an antagonist with deep seated pyrotechnic oedipal issues. The uncomfortable nature of Doug is played quite straight by Johnstone, who doesn’t shy away from Nowra’s lines, but it is clear why Nowra confines this character to isolation for a large portion of the play.
Whilst Julie is written as a seductress who is trying to keep from getting her next fix, V Mayer plays Julie as subdued. Their younger age did bring empathy and a youthfulness to Julie’s story, but was regularly outshone by the larger than life characters they were paired up against.
In dual roles, Michael Thompson and Tammy Kisela both played their roles admirably. Thompson’s contrast between Nick (the 1970’s definition of “woke”) and Zack (the pill-popping musician) was clearly defined, with some superbly swift costume changes.
From a young director, Cosi shows promise for Scrine’s future directorial roles, particularly when handling a classic script that could be panned if deftly touched. With outstanding character work by an ensemble of dedicated actors, Wollongong Workshop Theatre have started their 2023 season with a strong curtain rise.
Creatives Written by Louis Nowra
Director Darcy Scrine
Producer & Sound Operator Peter Scrine
Stage Manager Juliet Scrine
Photographer & Sound Production McKenzee Scrine
Set Construction Ian McColm
Marketing Daniel Stefanovzki
Lewis Jonathon Frino
Roy Ben Verdon
Cherry Sally Evans
Julie V Mayer
Doug Cameron Johnstone
Henry Tony Barea
Ruth Erin Bubb
Nick/Zac Michael Thompson
Lucy/Justine Tammy Kisela