REVIEW: Act Natural
Act Natural (staged reading)
Written by Miso Bell. Presented by KXT and Fruit Box Theatre.
Reviewed by Jemma Ryan
Miso Bell’s psychological thriller Act Natural shows immense promise as a piece of theatre that speaks to the innate human desire to ‘fit in’, even if it means losing all sense of one’s identity and individuality. The play was reminiscent of surveillance stories like The Truman Show. It also bears resemblance to real-world psychological experiments gone wrong like Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, which highlights how “good people can be induced, seduced, and initiated into behaving in evil ways”. However, Bell approached these timeless and universal concepts through a queer lens, which made for an intriguing, thought-provoking story exploring the “performativity of gender and sexuality”.
Bell’s play chronicles Sam, a young recluse played by Clay Crighton, who becomes the subject of a documentary, helmed by three young filmmakers. Initially presented as a quick university project that will boost Sam’s psychological grades, the ‘project’ ultimately spans over seven years, with Sam’s true identity slowly being lost; becoming a person he no longer recognises due to his overwhelming desire to be the crew’s ideal subject. By the end of the play, Sam’s consciousness is irrevocably heightened, constantly performing for a camera that is no longer present. His life exists in nothing more than ‘scenes’, even stating “I am ready for my close-up now” long after the crew is gone.
Manipulating and tracking Sam’s every move were the film crew, a trio of dynamic, entertaining characters: the Director, Assistant Director and Boom Operator. The Director’s impassioned tangent about De Niro’s Taxi Driver performance foreshadows a seemingly trivial opinion that later proved much more sinister: that an actor cannot merely mimic someone, they must go method and become them. Despite being integral to the plot, it would be interesting to see future productions of this play add more depth to these characters and their moral compasses without taking away from the play’s focal point: Sam’s character arc.
While initially unrelenting in their pursuit of the perfect narrative, audiences witness a shift in the Boom Operator’s morals as she looks past the project, instead recognising the broken subject in front of the lens and putting compassion before an incessant need for content. It seems the Director and Assistant Director, brash and self-absorbed, did not have this same realisation, however I would have liked to see more of their characters at the play’s conclusion - could they have the same sobering realisation or would they always be preoccupied by the perfect shot?
The play created a sense of both intimacy and confinement, with one setting and only a quartet of actors allowing audiences to bear witness to the harrowing shifts in Sam’s demeanour as time progressed. It often felt as though audiences were intruding upon Sam’s private life and, as we watched years progress over the span of an hour, we began to ask the question “Who has he become?” - the very same question Sam himself was pondering as his identity slipped further, and his fake persona created by the filmmakers - and a desperate desire to fit in - consumed him.
Miso Bell’s already captivating script doubles as an intimate psychological study, and will only be enhanced further with the support of production elements, specifically the use of both live and pre-recorded footage that frequently appeared in the stage directions. This relatively new phenomena, popularised by Kip Williams’ Sydney Theatre Company productions, will support Act Natural’s themes of identity and conformity, as well as making the storyline easier to follow. Act Natural shows immense promise and audiences can look forward to seeing future manifestations of the Bell’s play.
Act Natural was developed through Fruit Box Theatre’s RIPE Development Program and presented during Sydney WorldPride in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company.