1. Catherine Văn-Davies in STC's American Signs
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  2. Catherine Văn-Davies in STC's American Signs
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  3. Catherine Văn-Davies in STC's American Signs
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  4. Catherine Văn-Davies in STC's American Signs
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  5. Catherine Văn-Davies in STC's American Signs
    Photograph: STC/Prudence Upton
  • Theatre
  • Sydney Theatre Company - Wharf Theatres, Dawes Point
  • Recommended


American Signs

3 out of 5 stars

The extraordinary Catherine Văn-Davies stars in this tight corporate thriller for STC – but does its biting critique cut deep enough?


Time Out says

Being young, intelligent and career-driven can get pretty weird. You work incredibly hard all of your life to ace the exams, win the competitions, gain a spot at the big university, land the internships, and get the job at the prestigious firm (law, consulting, finance – take your pick). Then all of a sudden, you might find yourself at the “top” – and then, you’ll probably find that the top is actually just as awful as the climb to get there.

Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King (The Poison of Polygamy, White Pearl) peers into the murky ethics and empty promises of the corporate world in her latest piece of writing for Sydney Theatre Company. A solo-performer show, American Signs follows an unnamed “Consultant” (Catherine Văn-Davies Constellations) – she is a young, intelligent and precocious Vietnamese-American woman who has grinded her way to the “top”. Her version of the top is a prestigious management consulting firm – but when she gets there, she finds herself perpetually on the bench. That is, until a handsome, married consultant brings her onto a project at an industrial lighting factory in Ohio. A series of realisations ensues, as it dawns on our protagonist that consulting isn’t all as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be. While King’s writing is a scathing account of the American consulting industry, it is also somewhat forgiving of the Consultant’s choices, endlessly testing the audience’s sympathies. 

Anchuli Felicia King wrote this play specifically with Catherine Văn-Davies in mind...

Some of this play’s strongest moments are in its vivid visuals. Designer James Lew and director Kenneth Moraleda create the world of American Signs using neons, straight lines, smoke and mirrors. The Consultant navigates rows of empty desks, backed by a large shining mirror that reflects the audience back to themselves. A laptop sits on a random desk off to one side – flashing bits of consulting jargon throughout the play’s 70 minutes, a tool to assist us with following the many rabbit holes that we must chase the Consultant down. Morelda has a great sense of this space, and as the Consultant pushes desks around or moves towards the mirror, there’s a great sense of entrapment humming underneath the words she speaks. The stage is lit up in neons by Benjamin Brockman, with different shades signaling changes in time and place. (There is a particularly lovely moment involving a leadlight window that is cleverly rendered; and the final visual image of the play is particularly satisfying.)

Anchuli Felicia King wrote this play specifically with Catherine Văn-Davies in mind – whose talent she has been awed by since the actor starred in her debut play White Pearl, so she says in her Writer’s Note. [Editor’s note: King is not Văn-Davies’ only admirer, the actor took home two awards at the 2023 Sydney Theatre Awards for her supporting role in Red Line Productions’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and her lead role in STC’s Constellations – for which she is also nominated for the inaugural Time Out Sydney Arts & Culture Awards.]

From the very beginning, Văn-Davies’ performance is persistently sardonic. While the approach is the right fit for King’s similarly biting script, this can make it difficult to connect with moments of earnestness and tenderness when the Consultant lets her guard down. There are quite a few threads to follow in this piece, drawing the audience down one path and then another – which can actually make the play's short runtime feel rather meandering. Somewhat disappointingly though, the ending didn’t come as much of a surprise to this writer. 

American Signs is perhaps not as cutting as it sets out to be, and it lacks a little of the finality or the incisive grandeur of some of King’s previous work. Nonetheless, this is a solid piece with some great visual treats that also showcases some of Sydney’s best theatrical talents on the mainstage.

American Signs is playing at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 Theatre, Walsh Bay, until July 14, 2024. Tickets range from $55-$85 and you can snap them up over here.

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Sydney Theatre Company - Wharf Theatres
Pier 4/5 Hickson Rd
Walsh Bay

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