small metal objects: beautiful logic

andrew templeton

Small Metal Objects

Small Metal Objects

Small Metal Objects

Small Metal Objects is about a drug-deal that goes wrong. Like any good gangster flick, it’s really about shifting power dynamics. What sets Australia’s Back to Back Theatre production apart from any gangster movie you’ve ever seen is that the drug-dealers are “mentally-challenged”, putting them even further outside the mainstream than your stereotypical dealer.

Thinking about it, a mentally challenged dealer, being largely invisible to the public would have a huge advantage over his competitors. The notion of visibility/invisibility is a key theme in Small Metal Objects. Ironically, when you eventually see the dealers, Gary and Steve, it is hard to think of two less invisible individuals. Gary is large with bleached hair and, to top it off, is played by a woman (Sonia Teuben); Steve (Simon Laherty) is small and thin. Seen from a distance, they make an intriguing odd couple with Gary providing protective gravity for Steve who looks as if a strong gust of wind might carry him away.

If Gary and Steve are outsiders, their customers couldn’t be further on the inside. Attractive and power-dressed Alan [Jim Russell is a lawyer, while Carolyn [Caroline Lee] is a corporate consultant of bundled sexuality. Their striding sense of command is unmistakable and highly visible. Alan is trying to score drugs for a large function scheduled for that evening. When the deal starts to unravel because of an ‘existential’ crisis being experienced by Steve, Alan calls in Carolyn, an expert in change management, to negotiate with the dealers and try to get through to Steve. At the core of this scenario is a delicious irony. The in-control insiders are looking to alter their mental state in order to enjoy some form of escape or even loss of control. The key to realising this altered state rests with two individuals who must confront mental issues dictated not by manufactured chemicals but by nature, something not lost on the observer of this performance.

I use the term observer advisedly. For the impact of Small Metal Objects is directly related to how the audience experiences the show. In a very special form of invisible theatre, the performance takes place in a public space—in this case, the vast atrium of Vancouver’s iconic Central Library. The actors wear small head microphones and move freely through the crowds who are generally oblivious to what’s going on. If the public notice anything, it’s the audience sitting on a raised platform, wearing headphones—so they can listen in on the performers. By these means the production neatly and effectively plays with notions of visibility and invisibility. One couldn’t help noticing the general obliviousness of the majority of people passing directly through the ‘performance space.’ Or how many in our city look like they should either be on the heath with Lear or in Waiting for Godot.

The show commence with a discussion heard through our headphones. The voices are disconnected from the setting; we have no idea who in the milling crowds is actually speaking. It’s interesting to watch the audience as they scan the atrium, looking for the performers. At first I surrender to the idea that we are meant to experience the voices this way, like an overheard conversation between unseen diners in a restaurant. But still the impulse to locate the performers is too strong and finally I spot two men sitting at a table outside a pizza place and focus my attention on them. The voices seem to match up with the movements of their heads. Suddenly my attention shifts. There, moving slowly into the centre of the space, are Gary and Steve. It’s as if they’ve come out of nowhere. The invisible made visible.

A slow, melodic piano score punctuates the dialogue. We gradually gather information about the speakers from the unusual directness and candour of their exchange. Gary, is married and has a family that he would protect at all costs, while Steve is single and worries that he might be gay because he hasn’t got a girlfriend. By the time I finally spot the performers, their exchange has built to a dialogue about dependency. Gary is going into hospital and is worried that Steve is going to be left alone, claiming his friend relies on him for everything.

Then the phone rings and Gary answers. It’s Alan speaking the international code of drug-speak, wanting to set up a deal. Gary’s response to Alan has such a fantastic, child-like blankness that you’re sure there’s been a mistake. Gary even calls out to Steve, “Do we know an Alan?” Long pause. “No”, answers Steve. But there hasn’t been a mistake and Gary finally agrees to meet Alan. The deal goes wrong when Steve, frozen with panic by Gary’s impending hospitalisation and other anxieties, refuses to accompany them to where the gear is kept. If Steve won’t go, neither will Gary. The deal is off. Steve refuses to move because he is deep in thought; he needs to understand something profound. The impact of his conversation with Gary is still resonating. In a performance of remarkable stillness, Laherty remains rooted to one spot for almost the balance of the show, while Gary, Alan and eventually Carolyn circle around him.

Nothing will persuade Steve to give in. Not more money or Carolyn’s offer to improve him or even the promise of a sucked dick. This is when the shift of the power-dynamic is most apparent. Steve considers Carolyn’s offer but still refuses. The phrase “small metal objects” refers to money and the production explores where and how we put value on things and people. Alan and Carolyn’s impatience with the dealers is palpable and their ability to quickly increase their offers through terms that they understand—money, social acceptance and ultimately sex—do not work with Steve or, because of his undying loyalty to his friend, Gary. However, Small Metal Objects is far more subtle and beautiful than this simple decoding can possibly express. It is also more than the cathartic experience of watching loveable outsiders triumphing over the powerful. Many times during the show Gary and Steve express a simple, beautiful logic that reminded me of the questions that children might ask. Questions which show a profound understanding of basic truths but which do not take into account the perceived difficulties that society imposes upon us. Just as we are often unable to answer the questions of children, Alan and Carolyn cannot fathom the dealers they have been forced to deal with.

The show is also about control and a sense of self set against the swirling demands and expectations of our world. I actually went to the library during a subsequent performance. After dropping off my overdue books, I looked back and saw Laherty perfectly framed in the wide rectangular doorway to the library: a vision of perfect, thoughtful stillness set against the oblivious and unseeing crowds. It was a striking image that will remain with me forever.

9 February 2008