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Vico Thai, Katia Molino, Fast Cars and Tractor Engines Vico Thai, Katia Molino, Fast Cars and Tractor Engines
photo Amanda James
It starts loudly, with a stolen fast car, drag racing down Parramatta Road at 4.20am, going 100, 110, 120 miles per hour. It concludes gently, in a tiny tractor engine-powered boat escaping from Vietnam with a desperate human cargo, struggling to make it to Singapore and safety. To make it to Bankstown...

Urban Theatre Projects’ Fast Cars and Tractor Engines is an oral history project, with actors performing a tightly edited selection of interviews with a diverse range of community residents—a Maori boxer, a former soldier turned refugee, an Aboriginal man and his mother, the Mayor of Bankstown and her mother, a group of giggling African teenage girls, an elderly German woman, and a young Arabic man and his brother. On the opening night, the Mayor declares it to be a “thought-provoking eavesdrop on our community”, and it is, even for those who aren’t locals. The “our” of this community is expansive. It may be from and about Bankstown, and performed in its heart (upstairs in the Bankstown RSL), but you hardly need to be a local resident to be captured by the power of the performance.

These stories are continually surprising which makes for compulsive listening. But what makes the performance so striking is its unique vocal mechanics. The actors are listening to the interviews on headphones as they speak the words, while the audience hears the ambient sound from the location (skilfully interwoven with Oonagh Sherrard’s subtly evocative soundscape and Fadle El-Harris’ video backdrops). Director Rosalyn Oades acknowledges the influence of London-based Non Fiction Theatre Company in pioneering this technique, but she and her actors (stellar turns from veteran Katia Molino and newcomers Mohammed Ahmad and Vico Thai) take it to the extreme. It’s a bizarre simultaneous translation, reproducing every fumble, strange pause, overlapping statement, cough, and stutter. It really shouldn’t work, but it does. The unpredictable and idiosyncratic vocal rhythms, pitch, and timings of the interviewees produces a magical transformation in the bodies of the performers, who occupy a space somewhere between acting, ‘being’, and possession.

The slippages from person to person are mesmerising, registering the impact of each new voice—from reflections on motherhood, how to accept being hit in the boxing ring, finding oneself being shot at but not being able to decide where to dive for cover—given a choice between the latrine trench on one side and thorn bushes on the other. “It’s funny now...but it was not funny then.” The disjunction between body and vocal identity is illuminating—the young Arabic male actor performing the saucy old German woman, and later that same Arabic man being performed by an Italian woman. It never feels like parody, despite the many moments of humour. While there’s an immense amount of craft at work in this performance, a disciplined precision in both the words and the apparently casual body language, it sometimes doesn’t feel like acting at all.

Another refreshing element of Fast Cars is that, despite the obvious integrity of the interview process, the performance manages to avoid sentimentality in re-presenting these personal stories. It’s a tricky line to walk when telling community stories back to the community as theatre. Not everything about the people presented here is likable or noble—the nice old lady who makes tea and shows her collection of photos of the Queen’s visit later tells us that she refuses to shop in Bankstown because there are too many Arabs there now. The old German woman who liked her men admits that she probably wouldn’t have married her husband if she’d known he was a Jew. They’re each flawed and fascinating, and the elegance of the transcript editing and shaping (dramaturgy by Andrew Ma) gives them the time and space to be complicated, real people. This is director Rosalyn Oades’ first full-length work (Fast Cars was originally a 15-minute performance presented in UTP’s Short & Sharp in 2002), and she’s been well supported (especially by artistic consultant Chris Ryan and production manager Simon Wise). Fast Cars and Tractor Engines brings a new level of technological and performative sophistication to community theatre, reinvigorating the form. This is probably the best performance I’ve seen all year and deserves to be embraced by a wider audience.

The tractor engine-d refugee boat is hopelessly lost at sea, but our narrator finally sees land over the top of a gigantic wave—“and we had hope again”. And we do as well.

Urban Theatre Projects, Fast Cars and Tractor Engines, director Rosalyn Oades, concept Tim Carroll, Rosalyn Oades, dramaturgy Andrew Ma, performers Mohammed Ahmad, Katia Molino, Vico Thai, sound Oonagh Sherrard, video Fadle El-Harris, artistic consultant Christopher Ryan; Bankstown RSL, Sept 7-10

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 41

© David Williams; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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