"Holy Day" at The New Ohio Review
Australia’s history is not pretty. Between colonization, convict ships, and stolen generations, the country was built on a scar of cultural violence. The New Natives’ premiere of Andrew Bovell’sHoly Day reopens that old wound, and tries to see how much salt it will hold. In it we see disparate and desperate characters sacrificing their humanity for the barest pretenses of life in an unforgiving stretch of the Australian outback. When a local missionary’s wife has her baby stolen and husband killed, a collection of ex convicts, a local farmer, a boarding house prostitute and her adoptive aboriginal daughter form the most tenuous of alliances to extract some brand of justice from the local population. The results are brutal.
What’s immediately striking about the production is its presentation. Directors Heather Benton and Barbara Rubin’s coordination of the piece, from partially deconstructed set-design (by Maris Kaugars), through use of stark front and side lighting (by Caitlin Smith Rapoport), up to the grimy overly lived-in costuming (by Kaugars and Camlia Dely) creates a devastating mise-en-scene that leaves the actors scarily vulnerable to the shocks of the world around them. The atmosphere mimics the nightmarish rural desolation that we see in the works and staging of Sam Shepard plays.
Keeping with that Shepardian theme, the actors present their characters in varying shades of broken, as if each is operating on some unseen logical or emotional mechanism that was either vandalized, or poorly assembled. Thus every interaction holds a phosphoric intensity, as if even the most polite of exchanges could lead to the ignition of new brutality. This is most keenly seen in Shane McNaughton’s Goundry, an embittered bevy of repression, racism, and toxic turned septic masculinity. McNaughton’s portrayal is thoroughly unlikable, yet there is a subtextual sadness to it that makes him all the more believable as an abuser. Leah Gabriel’s caustic, yet surprisingly upstanding, rest stop owner Nora is another marvelous piece of work. She is able to navigate the character’s foul-mouthed right headedness, as well as effectively negotiating the audience’s shifting perception of her moral position as more of her actions are revealed over the course of the play. They are emblematic of a unanimously strong cast that alternately conjure and resist the darkness of the text in order to build the wider metaphor of these largely unremarkable people as a microcosm of society on the cusp of forming an uneasy nation.
Bovell’s text here has an inscrutable quality to it. His dialogue is largely blunt, these people are not poets, and he reflects that. They are also people who are in constant proximity to death, as such they keep their cards off the table until it cannot be avoided. His characters rarely say things they don’t mean, but will also not say anything they don’t have to. Vulnerability is a luxury they cannot afford. His plot is, on the face, a fairly simple, if dark, mystery. He takes his time building it, detail by detail, in a drip feed, allowing the world to fill out context before dropping bursts of explicit exposition in to the fray. All this leads to a mounting suspense that once revealed, leads to palpable relief set against devastating ramifications. That said, the subsequent obfuscations and clarifications of this reveal in the piece’s denouement feel as if they muddy the play’s implied thesis, or, at the very least, bury it in further metaphor. As is often the case, it means that the build is more engaging than the drop, but even with this the play’s meaning is understandable and striking.
Holy Day has its imperfections, but then most works detailing racial history do. It’s limited scriptural shortfalls are more than made up for by its startlingly good ensemble cast and directorial presentation. Stark shadows and underscored proclamations lend a heart of darkness feel to proceedings. Even when viewed as a Sunday matinee, it has a chillingly biblical tone. It is mysterious, and leaves a lingering shiver with the viewer for hours after curtain down. See it while you can, it’s only at the New Ohio for a couple of weeks.