Bliss by Jack Braddy, Kurtis Laing, Alex Letts and Josh Thia.
Presented by Underground Productions
Directed by Alex Letts and Kurtis Laing, featuring Drew Buchanan, Lily Jones, Rjien Mulgrew, Zaitoon Salman and Peter Staff
110 Swan Street, Gordon Park
All remaining performances of this show are SOLD OUT
Review by Josh Lyons
The best way I can think of to describe Bliss is as a choose-your-own-adventure murder-mystery psychological thriller. That sounds like a lot, and something that shouldn’t work, but Bliss definitely pulls it off.
Underground has brought a lot to the table with Bliss, it’s complex, conceptual and intense, and it more than takes advantage of what makes Anywhere Fest (and Indie theatre in general) special.
Our show kicks off after a brief announcement to cover the concept, which is that the audience will move through the performance spaces and have the chance to view different scenes occurring at once. We mill in the driveway a few moments more, and then the story begins. Jack (Mulgrew) and Taylor (Salman) have come separately to visit the unseen Mark in his home. When Dan (Staff) opens the door and invites them in, we follow into the Share House, and meet the two other roommates, Brendan (Buchanan) and Stacey (Jones).
Jack is looking for Mark, who, as it turns out, has been missing for the past week. We’re immediately and effectively immersed in the tension of established and complex relationships. Brendan and Stacey are dating, Jack and Taylor can’t stand each other, Dan, Jack and Mark were high-school friends, and Taylor and Mark’s parents are recently deceased, to name but a few. It is shortly after a healthy dose of exposition that the audience is split for the first time. We can watch what happens outside, between Dan and Taylor, or stay indoors and see Jack and Stacey (who, as far as we know don’t know each other) interact.
From here the tensions increase and arguments ensue about each of their strained relationships with Mark and each other. Jack, who assumes the role of the leader, won’t have anyone contacting the police, which he assures us is because he doesn’t want to tarnish his record. This leaves the investigation to the group, and immediately casts suspicion on all of them. Each of them has something to hide, and more than a little bit is laid bare before the end of the show.
One of the directors commented after the show that they were thrilled to see the audience actively discussing the “Whodunnit” of the play, and that Bliss was at least partially designed to encourage a great deal of discussion after its conclusion. Personally, I didn’t particularly care to know what had happened (if anything) nor who was guilty of removing Mark from the picture (if anyone). I was much more fascinated in the psychology of the drama, the way the characters interacted with each other throughout the show, and which secrets would come to light. Each to their own, however. It’s always great to see shows that affect people differently, and give them different takeaways.
From a writing perspective, the show occasionally felt to drag, and at times got bogged down in its exposition. It often felt as if the same conversations were being repeated throughout the play without any particular change in circumstance or consequence. I feel that this comes from a lack of active consideration of the motivations of the characters throughout the show, and how these are changed by the action of the play. This wasn’t helped by the fact that regardless of considerations, audience movement slows a show significantly, and can seriously impact the energy of it. Bliss also suffered from being slightly scattered in direction, emphasised by the amount of times that a character would need to “remind” the others of the central plot in order to return to it.
Additionally, in regards to the performances, it did become rather flat at times. The actors were all capable, but some of the subtleties of the stories and relationships were overplayed, which meant that the emotionally charged climax felt a little bit lackluster, and the psychological journeys of our characters were somewhat stunted. There is definitely both room and capability for more discoveries by these performers.
Despite these flaws, there was definitely a lot to love about the show. The writing was on the whole very strong, the actors honest and genuine, and the direction led to a well-executed production. Particular credit to Peter Staff, whose complete embodiment of the slightly unhinged Dan was excellent to watch, and Rjien Mulgrew for his intense and at times terrifying Jack, whose secondary motivations were fascinating to engage with.
All up, Bliss was a magnificent example of the versatility of Indie theatre, and maintained an excellent standard throughout the production. This show is definitely worth seeing, especially for young artists seeking exemplary independent work. Unfortunately it is sold out for this season, but keep an eye out for Underground’s other work if you’re interested in engaging with these young artists.