THEATRE REVIEW: Malthouse – Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd now playing at the Malthouse came first from an idea Chris Kohn had after reading a book about the vaudevillian era.

When reviewing a work by Melbourne-based playwright Lally Katz it is worth noting that her work purposefully veers towards the absurdist (and some would say post modern) elements. The challenge that this goal poses on the strength of any narrative is of course just that – a real challenge.

Katz is said to have written around 20 full length plays to date (probably more) including Black Swan of Trespass (2003) and The Eisteddfod (2004), (both of which have won awards in the US as well as Australia), and has evolved a significant and noticeably successful working relationship with director Chris Kohn. This is said to be their ninth coproduction.

Katz and Kohn were commissioned by the Malthouse a couple of years ago to come up with a brilliant idea, any brilliant idea – and now here we are in 2009 with Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd.

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd came first from an idea Kohn had after reading a book about the vaudevillian era, and Katz took on the job of too finding inspiration in this era and producing a play for an audience that would most likely have no real connection to the period.

The mood set by Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd is one of passed glories and glamour. Of a theatre world that no longer shines in the limelight of fashionable Melbourne, but rather has taken on the tattered, tired attire of something close to a freak show. Haunted by memories and failed ambitions of a life greater than the sum of all their talents, the troupe who make up Charlie Mudd’s Theatre Company are mere shadows of an era that had been embraced as a celebrity creating kingdom (similar to modern day Hollywood) that so many wanted to be part of.

This part of the narrative is clear and strong in Katz’ script – the pathos, the pain and the longing easily come through, and in the first half the cast work well and sit comfortably within the skin of the shy ventriloquist (great job by Christine O’Leary), gruesome magician (Alex Menglet), simple-minded acrobat (Mark Jones), innocent heroine (Julia Zemiro) and possibly sinister Master of Ceremonies (Jim Russell).

The set too by Jonathan Oxlade is wonderfully shabby, referencing old gothic theatres – cavernous entities full of ghosts and musk.

In the second half every characters story starts to unravel. Is it all real? Are these people who we think they are? Is this just someone’s memory? Are we in an episode of the X-Files or is this purely a symbolic Satre-esque tale of lost faith, lost identity and forgotten histories?

And that is what an absurdist slant can do to any narrative to the possible chagrin or delight of an audience. The goal now then is to make sure the audience stay connected to the characters without falling into the ridiculous or uncomfortable.

In general the cast did make their narratives work, although in some instances the ridiculousness of some of what were watching did sometimes sneak through. However both Katz with her script and Kohn in his thoughtful directing worked hard to bring us back time and time again to the pathos of a now forgotten era.

The Malthouse season of Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd finishes March 28. Visit Malthouse Theatre for more information.

Rita Dimasi
About the Author
Rita Dimasi is an Arts Hub reviewer.