Experimental theatre is no joke. It’s serious business. It means something, something transcendental, something so pure and abstract and vibrant and pulsating that it has to be digested before it can be swallowed. At least, that’s what Jack tells himself every night backstage, before he dons his top hat, pulls up his gartered stockings and strides onstage for the opening musical number.
Not everything can be the next Hamilton, and more importantly, not everyone can star in a rap rock musical that takes the world by storm without first paying his dues. Jack considers his role here, “the Doctor” (no relation), to be an investment, possibly the kind that chips away at hopes and dreams with little to no chance of real return – but this is negative thinking. Sarah Lee has told him to think positive.
“Be the Doctor, be the Doctor!” she crows at rehearsal, and her eyes shine, reflecting the blue stage lights mistakenly soaking the stage (“I just haven’t gotten the hang of this yet!” yells Rongomai, the high school intern and lighting maestro), as if she believes that every issue in the world, every catastrophe, every natural disaster can be solved by his portrayal of an arrogant old geezer, whose narrative arc would have been better represented by a Salvador Dali painting.
“But that’s the point!” Sarah Lee declares, drifting off into her own head with a romantic sigh, “he is all that is wrong, and all that is right. He is a dredge on society. He is the disease and the cure. He is The Man and The Mother.” Jack doesn’t have the heart to tell Sarah Lee that she isn’t using the word ‘dredge’ right. “Think positive, Jack! Be the doctor.” So Jack tries. Exposure is exposure, after all. He is good at what he does, he knows that – otherwise he wouldn’t be here – and he thanks god for Creative New Zealand and their grants. Otherwise, Sarah Lee wouldn’t be here either.
Night after night, the curtain rises.
Red light downstage, warm light upstage (Rongomai has found her feet). A slow, sultry jazz riff straight out of a film noir. Muffled finger clicks from the ensemble, dressed in black morph suits. Jack makes his entrance. Three steps forward, sit down at the table, flick top hat off, scan the audience briefly while waiting for the music cue. His mum and sister always sit in the back left.
“Very good! Very good! That’s what I like to see,” Jack snarls at Emaciated Patient (a middle-aged, pot-bellied veteran of the stage who’d never gotten anywhere in his career) “If you follow my prescription you’ll be perfectly free.”
“Will I really?” croaks the Patient.
“Yes indeed!” said Jack.
Patient picks up bottle labeled ‘Vitriolic Acid’, swigs it, falls to the ground. Escalating jazz. Jack grabs his shirt at the opening and tugs, ripping apart the Velcro sewn down the middle. Yanks it off his body and swings it twice above his head, before flicking it off the stage with one hand and grabbing the acid with the other. Tugs the cork out with his teeth and pours the content over his now bare chest, which two black morphsuits begin to rub into his body.
“Pay careful attention to his nipples!” Sarah Lee had instructed, “we want to simulate his fertility!”.
There is always a quiet wolf whistle at this point from his mother’s direction.
“How strange the sky went sudden bright!” croaks Emaciated Patient from his spread-eagled position on the hard wooden floor. “Leaves sticking to my skull, I lay still as the dead.”
“Still as the dead!” chant the black morphsuits/Greek chorus, freezing abruptly.
Silence. Then a low saxophone note.
“A week in bed with pneumonia.” Jack whispers, dramatically pointing a finger at the patient like a witch casting a curse. This bit had never made sense to Jack. He’d thought the patient was supposed to be dead from acid poisoning, but apparently not. Sarah Lee had told him not to pick holes in the metaphor.
So it goes, for the whole two hour show. The Doctor (no relation), representing Mother, Man, and Madness, emulates at various points a stripper, a gardener, a toymaker, an Instagram influencer, and an ostrich. Just before intermission, the patient makes a miraculous recovery and stars in a can-can number with the chorus in showgirl outfits over their morphsuits. Even Rongomai has her own shining moment – namely the disco scene of Act Three, where she improvises the lighting scheme each night, while the jazz quintet blast an incredibly solemn version of the Cantina Theme – familiar enough that everyone understood it was a send up of that pointless space opera, subtly altered enough that they couldn’t be sued.
“We cannot strike the other down!” the Doctor and the Patient eventually cry in unison, arms raised like the conductors of some gruesome war. The lights abruptly drop. The end. In Jack’s mind, the audience each night are confused and slow to clap, but Sarah Lee would always run straight into the dressing room after, thrilled.
“Brilliant work everyone!” she shrieks, bouncing up and down and clapping. “That’s exactly how I envisioned it.”
Good, Jack thinks, because this isn’t exactly how I envisioned my early twenties. But he smiles, kisses Sarah Lee on the cheek, shakes hands with Rongomai and the other morphsuits, and wanders outside for a smoke.
One night, he bumps into the Patient, lighting up his own cigarette.
“She’s brilliant, isn’t she,” Emaciated Patient sighs, puffing into the cold night air.
“Isn’t she, though?” Jack replied, not sure who they are talking about.
“If Sarah Lee doesn’t win awards for this, well, there just ain’t no justice.”
“Your portrayal of the Doctor, well, I’m just blown away every night.”
“You make a brilliant Patient.”
‘Sarah Lee Rivers has done it again… A true psychedelic masterpiece that eloquently captures our painful history and tumultuous present… Jackson Spurnoff shines in his role as the machiavellian “Doctor”, whose sincerity and snakelike cunning-’
Jack stops reading at this point. At least he’s done a good job, he tells himself, but this is not enough. That night, he takes a deep breath before walking out onstage. He foregoes his usual mantra in favour of a desperate pep talk. Just pretend you’re high, he whispers to himself, and maybe this will all make sense. Pretend you’re stuck in a hallucination. Or rather, a dream.