Dust Pilgram // Red Leap Theatre

Nik Smythe • Theatre Review

"...given her story's pervading tone of sombre angst, peppered as it is with flashes of excitement and hope."

I love Red Leap. There is a certain sensibility to all their work; as well as signature forms like ropes and pulleys, original puppetry and multi-purpose constructions on wheels, it is typically underpinned by an ethereal, dreamlike essence as oddly familiar as it is curiously alien. 

While continuing this tradition, this latest venture is somewhat scaled-down from their previous opus, SEA, in terms of venue and cast size, and there is diametric contrast in its arid desert world setting.  

Artistic directors Julie Nolan and Kate Parker devised this fairly simple, somewhat dark tale with the three performers: Alison Bruce, Ella Becroft and Tom Eason.  Whether the opening night audience is well trained in the company's mystical methods, or some other magic is afoot, it's quite astonishing when the doors close and the seated audience quickly drops into absolute silence even before the house lights go out. 

Becroft plays the protagonist Panuelo, a meek and skittish young Cinderella type living inside some kind of clock run by sandbag pendulums that require constant calibration, their contents slowly trickling out as they swing across the stage.  She is under the oppressive control of her fearsome mother with the oversized cigar and the dry hacking cough (Bruce). Exactly why she is so bitter and sadistic is one of a number of indistinct mysteries addressed but not conclusively revealed, although she does irrationally blame the protracted drought on her daughter's birth. 

The imagined/manifested image of Panuelo's absent father (Eason) is her catalyst to making a break for it, escaping into the desert to eventually join a desert circus type menagerie run by a grotesque ringmaster (also Eason): unusually verbose for a Red Leap character, albeit with an amusing impediment.  

Ultimately finding no conclusive escape and driven to face the demons which pursue her, the less-than-cynical conclusion is something of a relief, given her story's pervading tone of sombre angst, peppered as it is with flashes of excitement and hope. 

Resplendent with customary curious devices, exotic creatures and repeated motifs, as always the sumptuous imagery designed and constructed by co-director Parker with Rachel Hilliar takes a prominent role, in unity with Poppy Serano's beguiling set design, Charlie Baptist's classically ostentatious costumes and Rachel Marlow's dynamic lighting. Generally quite enchanting, a few elements don't visually pop as much as it feels like they should, such as the little moths-sticks and the otherwise magnificent giant skeleton-dad. 

Sound design virtuoso Thomas Press imbues the whole artistic package with layered strings and percussions, enhancing the physical action and contributing greatly to a much-needed emotional connection. 

The elemental star of all these richly entwined production values is the titular dust, pouring, swirling and billowing over, around and through the action as it plays out like a chaotic powdery dream. Brown dust represents corporeality; white powder for smoke and ethereal type mists.

Dust really is fascinating stuff if you ever bother to think about it. It's quite normal to take its inevitability and general inconvenience for granted, but consider what wonderful creatures and things it once would have been, and witness its sobering message of entropy and transformation. Plus it looks cool when you make white clouds of talc explode under theatre lights.

Eschewing the spoon-fed narrative approach, they work hard to find an ideal equilibrium between that and its antithesis of esoteric gobbledygook. While there's a strong sense the characters know precisely who and where they are, these attributes are often ambiguous to the first-time viewer.

Greatly enjoyable in itself, the cerebral nature of the form runs the risk of compromising the play's emotional intensity. Words I want to be able to use more to describe Red Leap include Stirring, Cathartic, even Upsetting. There are certainly moments that do connect in Dust Pilgrim's premiere, but the real challenge for the company is to find the perfect balance, where captivating spectacle and penetrating insight resonate off each other to create a truly affecting piece of art.

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