It is that time of year again, a time for drama… Well, a Night of Drama with MPAC.
That’s right, coming hot with the month of October is Monash Performing Arts Club’s semesterly event where the thespians of MPAC host a variety show displaying the acting talents of Monash.
Hey there reader, it is I, the Burnt Cream™ and today you will be reading not only a cover of the event but also a practice in application on what we’ve had/are/will learn on writing in critically analysing the performances. Here’s the list:
A Night with the Joker
We begin with the conventional master of ceremonies, giving his conventional speech… only to be abruptly shivved by a hobo who reveals himself to be the Joker. The Joker in all his madness introduces us to each of the shows while waiting for Batman to beat him up. This is the framing story which I don’t quite get the stylistic choice but I won’t give too much comment on now for it needs context that you’ll get at the end of this review.
On with the first play.
Robbery at Moseby
Runtime (Aprox. 25 minutes)
The curtain raising act is a black comedy concerning two hoodlums, Jimmy and Larry. After telling off their dorky ‘friend’, Randy, the pair learned that their not-so-bright school principle, the titular Moseby has recently won the lottery and now they plan to rob him but as always, nothing goes according to plan when Randy mutinies and dies for his betrayal. Now the pair must coverup their crimes as the whole Moseby clan; the titular Moseby, his wife, and his daughter, Emily who is heads-over-heels in love with Randy breathe down their necks.
If the plot sounds familiar and if you thought, ‘wasn’t there that movie that-‘ then congratulations, yes, Robbery at Moseby is a similar-but-legally-distinct adaption of Weekend at Bernie’s… or at least the second act is. The first act seems to sell itself as a heist comedy with the apparent plot being the attempted robbery before Randy’s death which can cause some confusion for what the audience expects. Now you may be thinking that isn’t the unexpected a good thing? Is it not original? Yes usually being unexpected is a good thing but it can be a problem if you are going too unexpected and unconventional your audience will be too confused to get invested into the story.
The establishing scene involves Jimmy and Larry conning a bystander and harassing their ‘friend’, Randy over fashion choices and that’s before the robbery and the killing. Now if you hate these people, then great! The pair are not meant likable people and that’s fine for what the writer was going for: the Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. As these two are so unlikable as human beings, the audience won’t feel bad when horrible things happen to them and horrible things do happen to them and it is hilarious. Nonetheless I still consider them competently written because they as the protagonist, Jimmy and Larry are active characters: the plot happens because of their actions. This is good because it gives the audience some investment in following the story of their goals which in this case is to rob Moseby blind and escape justice for murder.
That said on characters, other than Jimmy and Larry the other characters are rather bits to serving a singular purpose in the story than to act as characters. The aforementioned Moseby is introduced as a strict disciplinarian only to be revealed as an alcoholic in his private moments and his role is to get robbed. His wife is set up for a few jokes and Randy doesn’t let too much character show before he is killed. This just leaves Moseby’s daughter, Emily. She is the exception.
Kudos to the writer(s) and the actor for the portrayal of Emily, Moseby’s teenage daughter. Emphasis on teenage because she is easily one of the most realistic characters of the night…. realistic in the sense on how teenagers stereotypical view love: that everything has to be at it’s most intense of the most extreme. Of particular scene is Emily at Randy’s wake when she breaks down revealing information the Jimmy and Randy and the audience for that matter would rather now know while bawling her eyes out at her imagined lost love. Emily is so absurd yet so believable, this earns Robbery at Moseby a star of hilarity.
Credits: Venus Choo
The Black Rose
(Runtime: Aprox. 30 minutes)
The Black Rose is a detective thriller following Detectives Kate, Valerie, and Nina in their attempt to solve the case but not all is as it seems. The story begins at the scene of the crime, victim dead with no evidence of foul play except for a single black rose in the victim’s hands. Nina, the loose cannon sees the death of what it is: a suicide but Kate, the cool analytical disagrees while Valerie, the by-the-book bobby plays peacemaker between the two and much of the story’s conflict revolves on their disagreements. As more information flows in the less they understand – suspects die after questioning, the apparent killer habitually singing an ironic nursery tune before committing and a member of the press, Farah constantly harassing the detectives. The story builds to its first reveal, what the aforementioned Black Rose is: a prostitution ring that was busted 15 years ago and this leads to more conflict between Nina and Kate. Valerie and Farah undaunted continue only to hit an even more sinister revelation: the identity of the killer but before they could spread the news, the killer gets them first.
The final scene is the two surviving detectives, Nina and Kate fighting again. Nina snaps, insinuating that Kate seemingly cold reaction is equated to not caring for their friend’s death. This strikes a nerve and Kate breaks down, finally revealing not a trickle but a deluge of emotion. Nina leaves Kate to her breakdown, determined to catch the killer before it was too late. The lights dim on Kate as her desperate sobs transform… into mad laughter.
On writing the main three follows the archetypal Freudian Trio: three characters each aligning with Freud’s definition of the human psyche; the Id of instincts and emotion, the Superego of logic and reasoning and the Ego of balance and it’s a pretty common dynamic as the contrasts allow characters to stand out among their peers.
As a detective thriller, The Black Rose is burdened by not only time constraints but also the need to load the audience with information for the plot to work; the zenith of a mystery. The Black Rose suffers from too much exposition by tells. Two key scenes that demonstrate this weakness. In the scene when the reporter, Farah and Det. Valerie cracks the case and learns who was the killer, the writing drags on and on teasing but not quite revealing who the killer was before they themselves were killed. To build and maintain the suspense, the two confront the killer but use only vague language such as ‘It was you! I’ve always knew it was you,’ and this is problematic because it cheats the audience of their reveal.
The second was a scene earlier, when Farah sits down with the other detectives to weave a tale of the Black Rose. After finishing the exposition, the detectives’ only reaction is along the lines of ‘We know’. In theater, this is known as ‘Maid and Butler Dialogue’ where two characters explains things to each other that they already know for the benefit of the audience. When this happens, the talking heads are no longer characters or even people – they become vehicles for the plot and thus the audience will suffer investment in the story and this violates a critical adage of writing ‘Show, don’t tell’. Now let’s think as writers. Let’s think what we can do to improve this bit; how can make this reveal more show than tell.
If this scene must happen for the audience to understand the plot, if Farah must read out the tale how can we do it without it sounding unnatural? One possible technique is the Watson character. The Watson character named after Dr. John Watson after the Sherlock Holmes mythos is a surrogate character of sorts that asks questions the audience would be asking. Now what this does is that it provides an in-story justification story on why characters would talk about a subject they already now and make them sound like people and of course, it gives you more time to flesh out more character.
Credits: Derrick Ser, MONGA
Swapped at Teens
Runtime (Aprox. 15 minutes)
One day while in school, Jake and Amelia bumped into each other and in their confusion, they found themselves too tall/short, too male/female, and too recognising of the stranger in front of them: they have been bodyswapped. Swapped at Teens is a body-swap comedy with a twist: the body-swap is voluntary choice at the touch of the characters. The story follows Jake and Amelia as they are preparing to go on a double-date, one with Amelia’s boyfriend and the other with Jake’s crush. Hilarity ensues when characters learn more about themselves than they wish.
The story itself is rather simple and there’s nothing wrong with that. However one thing I need to address with Swapped at Teens is the genre, the ‘Body Switch Movie’ which to quote the late Roger Ebert: ‘The brain of one character somehow finds itself in the body of another. Requires actors to confront an actor’s nightmare, i.e., acting as if they were another actor.‘ And in all fairness, the actors did it albeit noting that the characters are exaggerated caricatures of people. One feature that I appreciated, intentional or no, is Jake’s character tic of stuffing ‘his’ hands in his pockets when he’s talking and Amelia’s where she flaps her hands around when articulating. Attention to detail while not a key element in story-crafting will be a nice bonus to your audience and if you are the writer who wishes to reward attentive audiences with little tidbits, go ahead but do note: go overboard and it’ll be overbearing.
The humour is on the crude end of things – dirty jokes galore as expected of the genre e.g. bodyswapping of opposite sex will eventually lead to… an exploration of their new attributes. Also Jake’s crush swings the other way and he learns it when he’s swapped with Amelia.
Credits: Derrick Ser, MONGA
At Least You Tried
Runtime (Aprox. 10 minutes)
The simplest and most mundane story of the night, At Least You Tried is a short, single-scene drama of a couple breaking up. That’s it. At Least You Tried is the best acted and tied-best written of the shows as for a moment, I thought I was watching a break up and not a play and one can take it as a lesson of simple ≠ bad.
At Least You Tried makes heavy use of themes and motifs to tell the story. In terms of the visuals, black dominates the mise-en-scène: the characters wear black, the table is black, the chairs are black – black everything and the colour or general lack of hue reinforces that bleak atmosphere of the story and this is a bleak story. Dialogue wise, the word ‘Tried’ is a recurring theme. The characters make constant references that they ‘tried’ to follow each other’s schedule; that they ‘tried’ to make things work; that they ‘tried’ to love each other but can’t. Good use, this let’s the audience follow the ideas and well, themes of the story.
Runtime (Aprox. 25 minutes)
Greenfield Split is a mystery starring Detective Watson as he solves the case of the kidnapped daughter, Patricia of the CEO of Greenfield Company, Janice. Digging deeper, Detective Watson uncovers a greater conspiracy: that he was not investigating a kidnapping but internal sabotage for it was Patricia who staged her own kidnapping to bring down her mother’s company for pollution.
I am not quite sure what Greenfield Split wants to be: a somewhat serious action-adventure or a campy Sherlock Holmes expy. On one hand you have Detective Watson and CEO Janice who takes the case very seriously: Watson gets beaten and bruised and like any good detective he pushes on and Janice is understandably freaking out at these turn of events. On the other you have the entire cast of villains who are as moustache-twirling dastardly whiplashes and even they are not sure if they are to be taken seriously or as a joke.
This dissonance is of concern as a writer because again, if you cannot set the proper tone and/or atmosphere of your story what is your audience supposed to expect from you? Are they supposed to laugh at your dramatic scenes or cry at the lightheartedness?
That said, I cannot end the review for the Greenfield Split without mention and praise for the henchman Johns who despite having only five lines in the whole show is easily the most enjoyable and memorable character. Johns is as goofy as they come and his character and actor know what kind of show he’s in.
Credits: Nicholas Khoo, MONGA
Bye Bye Birdie
Runtime (Aprox. 30 minutes)
Bye Bye Birdie is a period piece drama on the dying marriage of Joan, a riches-to-rags heiress and Francis, a scarred veteran of WW2. Moving away from the city, Joan and Francis find themselves in a rather financially decrepit state. Barely able to pay the bills and living around people they hate and their lives taking a further downward spiral when Joan reveals that she is pregnant… and so we enter the crescendo to the climax.
A combination of their financial state and Francis being a physically and emotionally abuse husband, Joan confides in her sister, Maurine who Joan learns that she has inherited her family’s house giving her a hope of escape. Maurine not only ignore her sister’s pleas but betrays her to Francis. Joan desperate speaks to Francis of an abortion: she is not ready for the child and they are not in a state where a child can grow, be nurtured. Francis the husband he is beats her and is off to drinking.
Desperate, afraid and alone, Joan prepares Francis a special dinner…
While the acting is good, Bye Bye Birdie is a pretty melodramatic work. Again not to fault the actors, as a stage actor they must make broad gestures and speak loudly to tell the story – it is a consequence of the medium but how the story is written, how it unfolds is that everything must be a huge dramatic moment. For example the first few scenes involve an intense argument between Joan and Francis…. over Joan not liking her neighbours. Yes she has a reason for it but every single interaction in Bye Bye Birdie leads to an overblown fight. Contrast with At Least You Tried, the other drama of a couple in a failing relationship. In At Least You Tried keeps things small, the characters start small by listing off small problems of each other before going big. This lets the audience breathe, giving them time to let the gravitas sink in. Bye Bye Birdie in contrast hits hard and hits constantly (pun unintended) dealing with heavy subjects such as PTSD, abuse, and abortion and this suffocates the audience. Overall Bye Bye Birdie is an ambitious one but it does carry additional risks and with it, criticisms which I will go into.
For example was the setting: America in the 1950s but not with the setting itself but how Bye Bye Birdie uses it. It doesn’t. Other than a few nods such as some slurs and brief mention of WW2, the setting does not play too much of a role in the story thus bringing of the question: then why this setting? As writers, we must use everything we can as tools to tell the story but using the wrong tool can lead to a mess. So back to the setting, what can the right setting do? The right setting can temper audience expectations, allowing them to more easily suspend their disbelief and buy into the story. The right setting immerses the audience and gives them a new world to explore albeit a world seen through the lens of your characters. The wrong setting however is the opposite: it confuses the audience and pulls them out of the story.
But the biggest critique I have with Bye Bye Birdie is that from start to finish is that it’s a misery train for Joan with no light at the end of the tunnel which leaves me using the most dangerous phrase a writer does not ever want to hear ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ When I stop caring, why should I watch/read your work? The audience cannot get invested in the character because after all, why should they care if they know the character is going to fail… not too mention that every character in Bye Bye Birdie are rather flat: they have no personality other than to fit their role in the plot with the abusive spouse, Francis having nothing else to do other than beat his wife. It can be argued that this is the same for At Least You Tried, and that is a good point but the core conflict of At Least You Tried was of a couple in the process of breaking up; mundane and something I can understand and relate to compared to the misery of Joan where she is trapped with an abusive spouse, treated as a burden by her family, and aborting her child and feeding said child to spouse is too heavy for it on it’s own to make me care about the characters. That and At Least You Tried is told in a much smaller scale so we the audience will let some lack of characterizations slide.
However despite what I wrote about my apathy, other members of audience Bye Bye Birdie do care about the story and characters. Does this mean I, the Burnt Cream™ am wrong or that the audience as plebs who know little of the works? Absolutely not! Especially the first bit. What this is is a lesson on knowing your audience. Some members of audience will let you get away with things like that and others don’t and it’s your job as a writer to learn the how’s and the why’s.
The Awesome Squad
Runtime (Aprox. 30 minutes)
The Awesome Squad is a superhero comedy with much on the humour lampooning contemporary superhero films. Starring Captain Pretty Good, an inept superhero who dreams to earn the title of Captain Awesome. Joining him in his journey is Wesley; his housemate with a pornography addiction, Household; the hero with the power of household items, Takahashi; the embodiment of anime power, and Woman-man; because a woman should go before the man and together they form the Awesome Squad.
Opposing them is Dr Bad Guy; the villain with the powers of being… the bad guy. Initiating his evil plan to rob a bank, the Awesome Squad arrives and fails… badly. Broken, the team one by one admits that they like Captain Pretty Good are pretty bad at being heroes with their nonsensical gimmicks. Slowly they learn about themselves and mobilise to stop Dr Bad Guy’s 2nd robbery and this time they… still fail. On his knees but unrelenting, Captain Pretty Good reveals history with Dr Bad Guy: the original Captain Awesome and how he gave up but Captain Pretty Good refuses. Finding their second wind, the team combine their ‘talents’ and stop Dr Bad Guy and save the day.
I can say without a doubt that the The Awesome Squad while not necessarily the best acted of the night is the tied-best written. Now what do I mean by best written? You’ve seen me use this phrase twice. What I mean by ‘best written’ or ‘tied-best written’ is that at worst, these stories understand their respective genres and competently put together their story beats. These stories also star believable characters: for all their fantastic nature they do come across as actual people (For the most part) and not as a caricature of a person and like At Least You Tried, The Awesome Squad qualify.
On competent on the story beats, The Awesome Squad pretty much hits all the relevant beats of a superhero team story. The team unites and fails the first time because they were un-united. They push on because they are heroes and at the climax the learn something about themselves and use their powers in conjunction, as a team to defeat the villain. Bog standard but it works because the audience can follow the story. Now as a writer what can we do to make this fresh? The Awesome Squad does this with the character’s odd gimmicks and quirks which puts a comedic spin on the formula.
On good is that The Awesome Squad really gets it right on making the protagonist, Captain Pretty Good a likable and sympathetic character and I don’t mean sympathetic as in he’s a sad pitiable person but in that he hooks the audience to actually care for him and his story. A common trend in fiction is that the villains tend to be more popular than the heroes and one reason for this is that the villain is an active character that moves the plot forward. Captain Pretty Good is an active character. The conflict begins as Captain Pretty Good chooses to be a better person. The climax happens because Captain Pretty Good chooses to get back up and keep fighting. The story moves at his pace and he really moves. The supporting casts are colourful and quirky and like Captain Pretty Good, they portray a level of implied depth: that yes while The Awesome Squad is about Captain Pretty Good, they too have their own stories.
A Night with the Joker
And so we are back with the Joker. Assuming you’ve read everything else and understood the context, I am rather confused as to why they chose this to be the framing story of all the plays. They don’t really share a common theme associated with the Joker or any themes really and with the exception of Awesome Squad, none of them tie into the framing story.
And that’s all, folks! Thanks for reading this review/analysis/lesson and I hope it was as educational/entertaining as it was for me attending MPAC’s Night of Drama. Don’t forget, Night of Drama is a semesterly event, so….
Credits: Nicholas Khoo, MONGA