Review: The Moon Men

Review by Jonathan O’Brien.

This is the third public iteration of The Moon Men, and the third time I’ve seen it. The first showing was during Fresh Blood festival, in QUT’s once-haunted, now-demolished Woodward Theatre; the second in QACI’s theatre as part of the Festival of Australian Theatre (FAST). The first showing was incredible to experience—The Moon Men embodied at that time a fresh and innovative voice that was the highlight of the 2015 edition of Vena Cava Productions’s annual festival.

But the fact that this initial performance, and the energy around it, leaned a lot on the power of inside jokes and a subjective understanding of QUT’s theatre culture meant the production’s greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. This fact became incredibly prominent during the FAST showing. A basically unedited script, and a large proscenium theatre space with such a number of seats that not even the collective social circles of The Moon Men’s dozen-strong team could fill it.

And so the show fell flat. This second showing proved that inside jokes could not appeal unilaterally to those who were unfamiliar with the team and the QUT theatre community as a whole. This was a national theatre festival, after all.

As such, the key question going into this, the show’s third iteration, and first showing outside of a ‘student’ context was whether it could appeal to an audience beyond its own circles.

And if this performance weren’t hindered by a great deal of things, then the show maybe could finally find a decent audience. The Moon Men, as a text, is the strongest it’s ever been. But as a performance, and as a full experience, it is not. Where the text is polished, more nuanced, and clearer in terms of its structure and intent, the delivery of this text is harder to follow, and clumsier—and a lot of this comes down to the space the team chose for their performance. The Greaser carpark is grungy. It’s graffitied, concreted, and tucked away. It’s essentially perfect for The Moon Men’s aesthetic—the space feels like an extension of the marketing and that’s a great thing. But the space, in a functional sense, completely drowns out so much of the effect the show might have had. In fact, what this production proves more clearly than anything is that Anywhere Festival’s old ‘Theatre. Anywhere.’ slogan clearly has a few stipulations attached to it.

For starters, there were insane levels of background noise fed by the bars and ventilation systems all around, in addition to the fact that an L-shaped indoor carpark is just not something designed to carry acoustics. On top of that, anything spoken through the microphone—essential exposition, for the most part—became inaudible because the speaker was positioned behind the mic and any attempt to turn it up to a decent volume was haunted by feedback.

Sometimes, actors would face backwards and I could hear them. Other times, they’d face thirty degrees to the right and I’d hear nothing. The blocking was rough, and there were fumbled steps and unclear formations—in the end, the presentation of the text felt less choreographed, and that affected how it came across.

I took my theatre-virgin brother and the show was lost on him. He couldn’t hear a lot of it, and what he did hear made him feel like the show’s ideas were repetitive. This is a damn shame, because I actually think writer/director Esther Dougherty’s latest script has a lot of nuance to it. Sure, I still remember a lot of the jokes I laughed at the last two showings—and I expected them to come as I watched the piece, though they never did. And that was okay. The absence of jokes made room for depth, and that that room was utilised. The titular Moon Men are less a unit and more their own individual characters; and Anthony has more of an active voice in the play, which in turn gives more definition to the nature of his relationship with Brigid Holt’s brilliantly angry Winona.

Simply put: the show’s thematic exploration of meaning in a world that’s ending—while certainly not a unique thing—is the best it’s ever been. The voiceover, the emblematic Wandering Jew, the monologue suggesting that grid-based systems are humanity’s greatest mark upon the universe—all of this was great, when I could actually hear it and connect with it. True, there was little reason for the grid monologue to be a projected film segment with lo-fi audio, and there was no excuse for a few scenes that felt like they could have been combined, or smoothed out. And certainly there were times when the dialogue could have been given more ambiguity.  But still—the script was a solid thing.

The main issue with the writing as it exists within the Greaser carpark is that jokes can’t land when the audience is straining their ears to hear the punchline. Likewise, meaning can’t easily be deduced when piecing things together is superseded by the effort of focussing on hearing exactly what those things are. In a way, the effect this has on the audience fits the show thematically—but that’s really quite a reach.

When The Moon Men was audible and incisive and smart, I loved a majority of what it was doing. But when it was drowned out in a wash of all the space’s issues, the show was completely lost on me. And this was something that happened far too often to be considered simply incidental to the sort of energy an Anywhere Festival production embodies. Because when it comes down to it, the ‘site-specific’ half of site-specific theatre makes or breaks a production, and even in the case of a show with the potential of The Moon Men, you can definitely feel the strain.

You can purchase your tickets to The Moon Men here.

This review is based on the reviewer’s experience of the opening night performance on May 5.

Full disclaimer: The reviewer is friends with many of those involved in this production.