"The Road Has No Name"
Written and directed by Feather Shaw
March 11, 2011
Wow! The first Allen Hall Lunchtime Theatre has set the bar high for the year.
(For those not in the know, Allen Hall is the theatre at my alma mater, the University of Otago, in Dunedin, Aotearoa. Each Thursday and Friday from 1 p.m., plays written, directed and teched by students are presented at a minimal cost. Actors are usually students but sometimes a stranger will be brought in. They often end up staying. I have many fond memories of that theatre, most of which were spent rigging and operating lights and sound.)
I was fortunate to be in Dunedin and in the city on Friday so made my way to Allen Hall, and was blown away. I remember some exceptional plays during my time with Theatre Studies. I also, while typing this, remember the first show of my own first Allen Hall year, which also took people’s breaths away (the play, not my year). I suspect the inaugural plays are chosen to lead the pack for that very reason.
“The Road Has No Name,” written and directed by Emma “Feather” Shaw, was simply brilliant. The tale of two young female hitch-hikers picked up by an opinionated farmer had the audience roaring with laughter while they cringed at his rants. Shaw’s farmer, played by Luke Agnew, is anything but PC. But his brash character, fluctuating between caring good guy and angry everyman (tho perhaps more foul-mouthed than most), was strangely loveable. Everything seemed equal in his eyes, from “fucking Maoris” through “fucking bitches” and “fucking queer cunts” to the “fucking cheesecake” he needed to pick up for his brother’s wife (“a fucking ugly bitch”). Well done, Luke!
Rachel Foerg and Alex Ross played the hitchers wonderfully, their separate reactions as cars passed them by our introduction to the action. They join the farmer’s ute, after the quick removal of his life’s detritus from the seats to the floor, Ross having to straddle an anatomically inconveniently placed gearstick and both having to hold their backpacks. For those of us who hitch, it’s an instantly recognizable situation (In fact, I may have been in that particular ute along my travels). The mismatched trio continue along their way, their trip beginning with the long awkward silence of strangers thrown together (interrupted, comically, by stomach rumblings from audience members who’d chosen theatre over more physical sustenance that lunchtime).
For an actor, conveying meaning without speech is a delicate balance. It’s tempting to overplay, but too subtle a portrayal may be lost on the audience. All three leads hit perfect notes the day I attended, providing identifiable comic moments as the hitchers nudged each other to begin a conversation and the farmer changed gears between Ross’s thighs as if unaware of anyone else in the cab with him.
Once the women did initiate conversation, they quickly regretted it, as the farmer gave his opinions on life, the universe and everything. Drugs, dairy-farming, music, personal struggle, relationships and indigenous affairs – this farmer had an opinion on all, well peppered with Tourette’s-like language. (If Shaw ever decides to make a short film of this and Agnew isn’t available, Charlie Sheen would be a great second choice!) The farmer was mercurial, changing from frothing abuse at the world to gentle musings and kind offers, as he explained to the hitchers that his recently-completed anger management course had helped him a lot.
The set was also impressive, a tattered ute seat strewn with its owner’s droppings in what was essentially a modern rural midden, the aforementioned gearstick and a steering wheel that, like its owner, has a tendency to become unhinged. Simple, yet effective, as was the lighting and sound design. Technicians are the unsung heroes of naturalistic plays as their effectiveness is best judged by their invisibility. Kudos to stage manager Maya Turei, sound operator Aimee Wilson and lighting operator Liam Baird - the fact that you were easily overlooked proves you did well.
My only quibble with the performance is a minor scripting one, and only a niggle to me because everything else in the script was so on-point. The ending needs a little work, I feel. The farmer’s sudden rudeness seemed out of keeping with his essential nature, which I saw as always gruff, blunt and abrupt, but not consciously rude. And tho a hitcher calling, “Don’t forget the fucking cheesecake!” as he drove away provided an easy laugh for all, at this level of writing perhaps the easy laugh and convenient ending are unnecessary. Just one opinion, of course.
Ultimately tho, I wish I had attended on the Thursday rather than the Friday so I could recommend others go see it the next day. All involved are young theatre practitioners well worth keeping an eye out for.