“Hi, everyone, I’m Lally Katz. I’m a playwright and I wrote this play,” the writer tells us with a bright smile, breaking the fourth wall as soon as her boyfriend Dave (Matthew Whittet) falls asleep. Lally, played by Amber McMahon, is at the centre of Atlantis, Lally Katz’s brand new semi-autobiographical ‘road movie’ play at Belvoir St Theatre.
While not quite a sequel to Katz’s one-woman show Stories I Want to Tell You, which played at Belvoir in 2013, Atlantis uses elements of Katz’s life as a jumping off point: a psychic-diagnosed vaginal curse – more seriously manifesting itself as a twisted ovary – ups the stakes for the 35-year-old writer, who is presented with a shrinking window in which she might be able to become pregnant. The news sparks a frenetic, almost mythological, trip to the USA where she hopes to find a soul mate with whom to have children.
Amber McMahon and Matthew Whittet in Atlantis at Belvoir St Theatre. Photos © Daniel Boud
Set against a backdrop of climate change and hurricanes – “nature is coming” as one of the characters so eloquently puts it – a cast of 50 odd characters whirl around Lally, vividly rendered by a quartet of theatre-chameleons, Paula Arundell, Lucia Mastrantone, Hazem Shammas and Matthew Whittet.
Mastrantone is everything from a hard-edged New York taxi driver to Lally’s grandmother Dossie and the psychic who offers to lift Lally’s curse for a mere $2,000. Shammas, in addition to another significant role best left unspoilt, is an ex-Jehovah’s Witness involved in a pyramid scheme, who Lally meets on a street at night in Kansas, while Whittet spans the emotionally distant Dave to Lally’s elderly Pop-op and the psychic’s sullen teenage daughter. While the cast is strong across the board, Paula Arundell is a particular highlight as Lally’s entrepreneurial Airbnb host Electra. The characters are painted in lurid details – and they all get plenty of laughs from the audience – but they are crafted with obvious affection, each with their own stories, dreams and vulnerabilities.
Lucia Mastrantone and Matthew Whittet.
Amber McMahon’s performance is the centre of the storm, however. She plays Lally to the hilt as she invites the audience along with the playwright, narrating her life with goofy charm and energy. She navigates the mundane demands of Telstra’s customer service to larger questions of friendship, love and purpose, eliciting laughter, gasps and groans from the audience as she goes. It’s a demanding role, requiring buckets of energy and sparkle, and while McMahon’s voice was showing some signs of strain by the end of opening night, her foot never eased up on the dramatic accelerator.
Amber McMahon and Hazem Shammas.
Jonathon Oxlade’s fantastic set is all pastel colours and bold geometric shapes that conjure childhood toys, the stage furniture playfully abstract enough to fulfil the multipurpose needs of the kaleidoscopically shifting scene changes – deftly facilitated by Damien Cooper’s lighting design and Harry Covill’s sound – and supporting some wonderful, innovative moments of physical humour. The set mirrors Lally’s own costume – pastel colours and silver shoes, the space an extension of her storytelling.
Jonathon Oxlade’s set for Belvoir’s Atlantis.
While Atlantis is episodic – almost fragmentary – focussing in on a relentless barrage of delightfully comic-tragic scenes, recurring jokes and subtler motifs thread through the work to give it an elegant unity, which is further reinforced by McMahon’s persuasive characterisation. Director Rosemary Myers keeps the action moving and while the play is long it never sits still and rarely sheds momentum.
Atlantis shifts gears in the second act, plumbing deeper emotional territory – there were few dry eyes during a scene between Lally and her grandfather – before skittering to a mad finale. Clocking in at about two and a half hours, some judicious trimming could bring the play into sharper focus, but much of the pleasure of this show is in its sprawling, epic feel, and each of the scenes is shaped with incredible love and care.
Lally Katz’s Atlantis is a joyous epic of self-discovery with plenty of heart, Amber McMahon’s Lally bringing the audience along for every inch of the wild ride.
Lally Katz’s Atlantis is at Belvoir St Theatre until November 26.