by Shannon Friday
The comfy scene is shattered as the women split; Alex and Libby shout at each other; “You always flake out” crashes into “Twice! In our whole relationship!” The broad curtain is viciously yanked down, destroying the cozy domestic space, revealing a dignified old tree constructed of wood slats and branches. It arches up at the back of the stage, dominating the now-empty space, strong, alone, grand, beautiful, an obvious destination.
This moment the curtain comes down works so effing well because the design choice is a perfect metaphor for the end of this relationship The actors continue exploring conflict through the design as Libby hoists her backpack, now alone onstage, and sets off alone into the wilds of the audience. Penwarden climbs through the tiered seating block up to Studio 77’s wrap-around balcony, which is festooned with a maze of vine-line cords. Dick hauls away on the cords, snapping them tight across her path; one woman struggles to leave, contorting and bending to find her way, as the other fights to get her to stay, pulling and tugging, desperately holding on to the last few strings of attachment.
However, once Libby sets up camp, the mechanics of Lucas Neal’s set design muddies the stakes. Penwarden struggles to set up the A-frame Scout tent, partly because camping is hard for city-slickers, and partly because the tent legs are angled to the perfectly smooth floor, causing them to slip and slide far more than tent-poles usually do. As a result, I don’t know if I’m cheering for the character to overcome her ineptness, or the actress to overcome a poorly designed set piece. The levels of meaning aren’t clear, so the metaphor falls flat. In contrast to the women struggling over the path of their relationship, with each action mapping to the character’s desire, any problem with design collapses the distance between actor and character, which undermines Moose’s attempt to physicalise character and emotional conflict. And this is a problem for the second half of the show.
In addition, how the set relates symbolically to the action is really confusing. The early parts of the show, with tasks like sharing the story, fighting to escape, or setting up the tent externalise emotional stakes or conflict, while the tree, the single largest and only recurring set piece, establishes a convention unrelated to those struggles. The magnificent, ancestral tree that dominates the campground has these gorgeous articulated branches that unfurl as the show progresses. Each new day, Alex traipses across the stage, pulling open another dormant branch. But I can’t figure out what this is symbolising beyond the passage of time; there’s not enough clues as to how this relates to either the women’s relationship or Libby’s growth as a character for me to “get it.” All the actions feel world-related instead of metaphor-driven, and the show has trained me to look for connections to conflicts when the actors change parts of the set.
Moose is Neal’s baby, and I can feel the love built -- sometimes literally -- into every moment. Neal’s gift as a designer is to create large-scale, symbolic sets; he’s already proven his chops in other productions, walking away with the Willem Wassenaar Best Newcomer Award last year at the Wellington Theatre Awards. When the set really works with the action, like in the first few scenes of the show, it is theatrical in the best possible way: marrying intellectual and emotional examination of the mundane, allowing moments of insight that hit like a falling branch. At the same time, it is Neal’s first time in the director’s chair, and a lot of the issues I’m reading in the show are the result of a mis-ordered process, where the details haven’t been broken, fixed, broken again, and perfected. And I suspect, given Moose’s programming late in the MFA season, that the rehearsal process and move into the venue didn’t support this kind of play-testing. With a stronger idea of how to build a design-driven process, Moose can be an emotionally devastating emotional journey. For now, Moose is loving and pretty -- and needs more work to be built to purpose.
Moose was performed 8-10 February 2018 at Studio 77 as part of the MFA at Victoria University of Wellington "Summer of 77".