Student Body - Theatre Review

Student Body

By Alana Valentine

Presented by BOOBook Union House Theatre Thursday 24/3/2011 (Great website!)

Worthy is a word which has come to have unpleasant connotations and in relation to art/theatre/books it especially can sound cloying and judgmental. However it is without hesitation that I proclaim that the ideas, production and intent behind BOObook Theatre’s Student Body as worthy. Student Body was a play that grapples with what it means to be an International Student in Melbourne. Playwright Alana Valentine drew on the real-life experiences of students living in a foreign country and combined this around the Chinese dragon mythology.

Directed and choreographed by Dione Joseph this work is heartbreakingly important, not only for international students but for anyone who goes to Uni with these students, lives with, works with or teaches them with them on any level. Her use of dance really worked alongside the text to bring to life a rich performance.

It was clear from the production, the depth of commitment of the entire crew in this show; this was demonstrated for example with Tara Patwardhan subtle costume design. Little patches of scales appeared the various costumes of Kelly Ryan as the show progressed, aligning her visually with dragons. Also her bra costume was hilarious and a sharp contrast to the magical realism of the other designs. The set – designed by Felix Ho – was impressive, non-naturalistic and adaptable and worked well with the AV. The AV was also a useful and well used element in the set, far to often it distracts from the actors, but on this occasion it worked really well. Composer Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh provided a wonderful soundtrack for the work and Jonothan the cellist stuck a great balance between complementing the action and captivating the audience with his own performance. Altogether this was a show with great production values.

Student Body was a very well cast play and every actor had a depth to their performance that worked in nicely with the movement and mask work. The four characters are Kai Chai (Keith Brockett), Fon (Sheena Rayes), Aditya (Ash Kakkar), Song Ye (Rachel Fong), Dragon/Various (Kelly Ryan). Each of these characters was given a moment in the work to reveal their story and their difficulties of surviving in an unwelcome country. Song Ye’s bewilderment and anger at having a beautiful day ruined by racial abuse was a simple and yet undeniably powerful example of these difficulties.

In regards to the writing and structure, pacing was a little bit of an issue for me in this play; it seemed that the entire work shifted up three gears in the second act. Perhaps a condescended first half might have still established characters and tone without feeling such a ‘set up’ for what was to come. The love story of this play was nominally between Fon and Kai Chai but the real dramatic relationship in the group of friends was realised between Fon and Song Ye as they confronted each other about adapting into the mainstream culture or maintaining their traditional values. The climax in the prolonged argument was explosive and a high point of the show. It left me and the people I was sitting with gasping.

Considering the content, this play was written to be performed at a University. However, the play in the Union House Theatre felt rather small in comparison to the seating bank; I feel it would be suited to a more intimate experience in a smaller black-box venue – a longer season perhaps compensating for the reduction of audience capacity. But certainly even in a larger space the performance filled the stage and was most definitely worthy.