Having turned herself inside out on stage, playwright Lally Katz puts her parents in the spotlight in a tale of love (and karate) across the continents
Melbourne-based playwright Lally Katz was last at Belvoir with the ‘Cat’ part of the rom-com double bill The Dog/The Cat, a slice of magical realism that featured Twilight star Xavier Samuel as a rapping cat. But she’s best known for semi-autobiographical work – most recently, at Belvoir, for Stories I Want To Tell You In Person (subsequently adapted by Matchbox Pictures for TV), and Neighbourhood Watch (currently being adapted for screen by Lally and director Gillian Armstrong).
This month she’s back with the loosely biographical Back at the Dojo, a romantic and overwrought re-imagination of the life of her father, Dan Katz, that features a trans character loosely based on Lally herself and created specifically for actor Luke Mullins (with whom Katz has a long working relationship as part of Melbourne company Stuck Pigs Squealing, who are behind this show). It’s another piece of magical realism; this time, instead of a cat with a record contract, it’s a case of duelling timelines as a bad LSD trip brings scenes from Dan’s past into the present.
As the play opens, the elder Dan (Brian Lipson) is keeping vigil in the private hospital suite of his comatose wife Lois. He passes the time with well-worn karate exercises. A friendly nurse (Shari Sebbens) occasionally brings him food and kind words. It’s a portrait of the mundanity of loss.
And then Dan’s granddaughter Patti (a lachrymose Luke Mullins) arrives. Patti is heartbroken, both over her grandmother’s condition and having been freshly dumped by boyfriend Rex.
She’s also nervously defiant. Her grandparents raised her, but she hasn’t seen them in two years – despite sharing a particular closeness with her grandfather. Until the hospital visit, she’d retreated to go through her transition. She’s high on LSD, and as the awkwardness of seeing her grandfather combines with the bad trip, she begins hallucinating scenes from his youth. Presumably these are stories she’s heard while growing up, but that is never really explained, nor does it ring quite true – some of the moments don’t seem like the stuff of oft-repeated family legend.
Patti is stunned when the younger Dan – or Danny (a rakish and charming Harry Greenwood) appears in the hospital room. She sees him flee New Jersey in the shadow of the Draft for a bohemian lifestyle, watches him lose a few years and some inner stability to drugs, and then return to New Jersey to become a regular at a dojo not far from his hometown. The discipline and focus saved and shaped his life, and led him to future wife Lois (played in these hallucinations by an illuminating, irresistible Catherine Davies; a bedridden mannequin, on Mel Page’s expansive hospital-suite set, represents her in the present).
Patti sucks on oranges (a tip from Dan to help bring her down) and skitters away from her grandfather’s past: Sensei (Natsuko Mineghishi, who taught the cast karate) leads a karate class across the room; Danny’s friend and Lois’s brother Jerry (Fayssal Bazzi), the great uncle Patti has never met, has a terrible moment just out of reach from her, in the hall outside the room.
Director Chris Kohn works hard to create harmony between the duelling eras, but when younger Danny’s overdue haircut is followed by Patti suddenly cutting her hair off in the bathroom, it feels too neat, and unsatisfying. This is a similarity between past and present that feels superficial. The hallucinations help to explain the depth of Dan’s grief as he refuses to leave Lois’s bedside, but they only become truly engaging and winsome in the second act, when the love story begins. They frequently feel like filler beforehand, disconnected from the action in the present and from Patti herself.
Patti never seems to gain any insight into her grandparents or herself, through seeing their younger days. We never learn that Patti and Danny are more alike than they think (a great dramaturgical reason to have Patti see the inner workings of her elders); we never see Patti inspired by this love story, or by Dan’s regained equilibrium through the ritual of karate. She never speaks to the characters of the past; they can’t see her and seem unstuck from time. Dan never gets to interact with his younger self, his wife’s younger self, or anyone within the hallucinations – and that seems like a missed opportunity.
Instead we see two disconnected stories unfold with the same characters. It never really feels, as the marketing proclaims, like a story about ‘the myths families live by’– just the story of true love observed by an outsider, purely to tug at heartstrings. That’s a fine thing for a play to be, but it means this play feels like a display of gimmickry.
That gimmickry threatens to spill over into Patti’s storyline: the prodigal grandchild pleading for acceptance as her true self. The trans storyline is well-intentioned, and Transgender Victoria consulted on the play’s development, but when a cisgender man plays the role of a transwoman, there is a host of problems to contend with. The first is perception: Mullins’ initial appearance on opening night caused waves of laughter through the audience. Mullins was immediately perceived as a man in a dress and wig for comedic effect, not a transwoman with a legitimate life and identity.
The second is representation. In Autostraddle.com’s recent exploration of transwomen on television, of 105 characters identified in the history of television that could be classed as transwomen, only 20 were played by actors who were trans. In Australia, there are far fewer trans characters on stage – Patti is the only trans character on Sydney’s main stage this year – and it’s disappointing that the part was created for a cisgender man and isn’t played by a transwoman.
Trans actors have fewer employment opportunities than cisgender actors (it’s rare that trans actors are considered for cisgender roles) and to see a major character with a trans identity being played by a cisgender man is a shame. Rates of employment for transgender Australians are low, and that includes in the arts and media sectors; when trans characters are written for cisgender actors, the status quo holds. An inclusive arts sector is important – it’s through sharing stories that we share empathy for human experiences that are not our own – and when the trans storyline in this play prompts laughter, it’s an opportunity lost.
Patti’s trans identity is deliberately woven into the script – it is the driving force behind the play’s denouement – so why write this part for and give it to Mullins? Patti is never part of a flashback and her transition isn’t charted in the play, which removes one justification commonly given for casting cisgender actors in trans roles: the ability to document cosmetic physical change.
Back at the Dojo might have functioned better as a sentimental end-of-life romance in the style of The Notebook. Romantic comedy suits Lally Katz’s fondness for whimsy and magical realism more than anything else, and the script feels encumbered with the need to ground the story in the present and include Patti’s recent breakup. The play feels bigger than it needs to be, and more shallow, and that’s a feeling that’s hard to shake. After the tearjerker ending, hollowness starts to creep in.