The Disappearances Project
version 1.0 inc. @ Adelaide College of the Arts – Main Theatre
9:30pm, Fri 24 Feb 2012
I’ve let off a lot of steam (about audience behaviour, mainly) talking to Martin prior to the show; as all eight of us queued for Disappearances, we eyed off the fifty or sixty queued for The Year of Magical Wanking. The door guy announced the opening of the house for Wanking; a massive cheer went up from the guys in the queue. “Those are going to be some sad, desperate people in an hour’s time,” I thought.
A sparse set greets us on entrance to the wide expanses of the Main Theatre: a wide video screen, and two wooden chairs. That’s it. The house lights drop, and some very soft ambient electronica starts burbling in the background… quiet. Moody. Unsettling.
The video screens slowly come to life: they start showing houses passing by, as if we were looking out the passenger side of a car. The buildings that we see feel anonymous in what feels like early-morning light; there’s precious few people in the imagery, and when one inadvertently does appear – in the bakery, for example – it’s a surprise… they feel significant. The audio and video combine to create an incredible sense of displacement.
Two people walk onto the stage and sit on the chairs. She is white, and speaks with an distinctly Australian accent; he is black, and sounds anonymously North American. Their seats are simply lit, the lighting creating a white box at the feet of their chairs.
And, slowly… precisely… they begin telling their stories. Fragments of dialogue from people whose loved ones have simply vanished. There’s no strict narrative – each will adapt the persona of a character for a short time, alternating lines with the other actor’s character, in a very back-and-forth style; characters would change regularly, sometimes returning to expand on their experience.
These characters have all lost loved ones. And that “lost” is in the most painful sense: they’ve disappeared without a trace, with no trail to follow, no bodies found. Most stories recount the unsettling early days of the absence, followed by frustration when they report the Disappeared as missing; the blunt advice from police suggesting that maybe things weren’t good at home, or that it’s best to check back at the local station after a storm because “that’s when all the bodies float up”. Tangling with bureaucracy – trying to see whether a Medicare card has been accessed, or changing addresses – is also frequently mentioned, often accompanied by the admission that the character “felt like a pest” for continually trying to find some information – any information – about the Disappeared.
But amongst these tales of frustration and barely-contained anger are little gems of… well, not hope, because everyone is pragmatically bleak. But there are some police officers, some members of bureaucracy, that display genuine compassion towards the grieving characters. And, make no mistake, these people are suffering; they are the silent victims.
Having said that, Yana Taylor and Irving Gregory speak the characters’ dialogue with a constant, almost dispassionate monotone. And that totally works for this piece, with the effect being that we look down upon the actors as being numbed through years of pain, through years of the unknown. Rare, contemplative, and almost painful movements by the performers are accompanied by curious lighting changes: when they stand, side lighting frames them; when they sit, they become boxed in from above. And all the while, the anonymous buildings pass by in the background, while ambient noises continue to gnaw… The white-out at the end of the performance is almost cleansing, giving the audience a chance to mentally wipe the slate before emerging back into the real world.
The Disappearances Project is a very curious beast; it seems almost deliberately designed to keep the audience at arms length from the stories it tells. That, combined with the disturbing audio and video presentations, makes for a deeply unsettling experience… but one in which I’m glad I partook.
Though “glad” seems to be a completely inappropriate word to associate with the production.