The gay community is large and varied, and determining where exactly you belong in it is not always a simple task. In his first full-length play, This Bitter Earth, Chris Edwards presents a series of vignettes revolving around this community and how experiences within it shape who we are and how we relate to one another. The stories might not be necessarily new, but Edwards’ writing and the way in which these are depicted, brings an exciting freshness and energy to them.
This Bitter Earth opens with a young man (Matthew Predny) recalling his first gay sexual encounter. With each subsequent scene, an additional person is added so that when we reach the sixth scene, all six actors (Michael Cameron, Elle Mickel, Ariadne Sgouros, Sasha Simon, Alexander Stylianou, and Predny) are present. It's a structure that allow the stories to flow smoothly from intimate and confessional to self-regarding and exaggerated.
Edwards has brought together an impressive ensemble that flawlessly bring to life their characters. Predny's character begins his monologue animated and nervous; he swear a bit, says "anyway" a lot and uses air quotes more than he should. As we approach the climax, Predny allows his vulnerabilities, anxieties and confusion to rise with his voice getting higher and the speed in which he speaks becoming faster. Director Riley Spadaro, finds creative ways in ensuring the momentum doesn't slow down by having the performance taking on the likeness of a stand-up routine with Predny describing - in great detail - his cringeworthy grindr hook-up in to a mic. The lighting design by Phoebe Pilcher is also effective in heightening the tension while maintaining the lightness and humour of the situation.
The paired story between Cameron and Stylianou as Joel and Dean, a couple in a long term relationship, is different in tone and aesthetic but continues to explore ideas on identity, connectivity and isolation that is often felt in gay communities. Spadaro's direction of this chapter is reminiscent of a soapie or Mills & Boon novel with Grace Deacon's costume design including prominent turtle-necks and flowing, unbuttoned shirts. Even with the dramatics on whether they get married or not, Edwards doesn't let this slide into melodrama and Cameron and Stylianou are able to convey the strong emotional bond Joel and Dean share despite their acerbic retorts.
Mickel, Sgouros and Simon follow next as three friends sharing updates on their lives. Edwards has the ability to make clear his characters' backstory and connections without having to explicitly mention it. The language they use and the tones they speak with is evidence enough. The actors are remarkable in displaying this tight bond while still highlighting the frustration of needing to defend or protect themselves from their friends' reactions. Individually, the trio establish a truthfulness to their characters that enables the group dynamics to naturally emerge.
The remaining stories build on the theme of connection so it never just becomes another scene with an extra person. Edwards takes advantage of the number of people on stage and ensures they are all integral to what is transpiring. By doing so, he captures a far more realistic representation of the gay community than has been illustrated for some time.
With well drawn out characters, sharp writing and an authentic exploration of contemporary gay issues, This Bitter Earth leaves us considering the exposure we face when it comes to truly being ourselves and opening us to the microaggressions that we give and receive from the ones we find comfort in. It is a compelling piece of theatre that simultaneously tickles our funny bone and hits a nerve.
Venue: Theatre Works, 14 Acland St, St Kilda
Season: Until 2 February | Wed - Sun 7pm
Bookings: Midsumma Festival