Luna Gale @ Ensemble Theatre

I think it’s incredibly easy to write a review for a show you hate. Every single flaw lasts in the memory, overshadowing the relative strengths (and there are almost always strengths). They can individually be picked apart, examined, and discussed with incredible clarity – leaving little doubt in the mind of you, the reader, as to the performance’s relative value. Hell, that’s the whole point of this blog: if I don’t keep it real, why even bother writing?

On the flip side, writing a review for a show you loved is hard. It’s difficult to capture in words the simple pleasure of watching a well put-together show. Strengths cannot be considered individually like flaws, since the essence of what makes a performance good is not one stand-out feature but rather many features working together symbiotically. Words can never really do a good play justice – it is something that requires in-person viewing to grasp.

Which is why it’s so damn hard for me to write this review of Ensemble’s Luna Gale.

There’s little doubt that the play comes with high expectations. It makes its Australian premiere and comes from Olivier-nominated/Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Rebecca Gilman. The cast and production crew have by far some of the most experience (and award nominations) I’ve seen. Ensemble, like any theatre, hates to put on a bad show. It’s very safe to say all these expectations were met, courtesy of Susanna Dowling’s world-class direction.

Entertainment Renaissance woman Georgie Parker leads her actors with a deeply nuanced understanding of her character, social worker Caroline, and all her complex and inter-weaving undertones. As the sole connection between meth-heads-turned-parents Karlie (Lucy Heffernan, making her Ensemble debut) and Peter (Jacob Warner) and Karlie’s heavily Evangelical mother Cindy (Michelle Doake) in a grueling legal battle for Karlie’s daughter Luna Gale, her stage presence is illuminating. That being said, the cast can hold their own too. Minor characters Cliff (Scott Sheridan, also an Ensemble debutant), Caroline’s complicated superior, Pastor Jay (David Whitney), and foster care ‘graduate’ Lourdes (Ebony Vagulans) possess both the comedic and dramatic skills needed to contribute strongly to this production without exhausting the audience, echoing (and at times even outdoing) the major characters in this respect. Bar the fact that Lourdes’ ultimate fate is quickly glossed over after the intermission, leaving the play little chance to explore what happens if the system fails, and Warner’s performance as Peter is initially weak, Gilman’s strong script is only enhanced by the acting of this cast. The gradual reveal of each character’s respective situation keeps us continually engaged, portrayed with stunning accuracy.

Throw in professional vocal work (courtesy of dialect coach Nick Curnow) and a deceptively simple Simone Romaniuk set (where viewing mirrors, bookshelves, and coffee machines seem to disappear in the blink of an eye) and we’re really in Iowa. The long, drawn-out words, synthetic office environments, and general muteness of the American Midwest is all there, letting us focus on the actors. I’ve actually been to Iowa, and this is a damn good representation. Even the bloody music between scene changes is worth mentioning – I don’t know what a marimba actually is but sound designer Marty Jamieson makes it addictively good.

Ultimately, this play is something else. No amount of writing can give the cast and crew the credit they deserve. This is simply good, dramatic theatre, for any and every reason. Though I wish the script had given us more on Lourdes, there’s so much else it sinks its teeth into. I’m interested to see how it copes with the likes of STC’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist (which I’ve been told is also amazing), but if there’s any show currently on that deals with guilt, shame, God and the greater good better, I’m yet to see it.

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