Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
A tight, gritty play about being woke in 2019
A gifted playwright, an ambitious director and an Oscar-winning actor come together to work on a promising new production - except they all have very different ideas of what the show is (or should be) about. 80 minutes of drawing room conversations between the two men (the actor and the director) and the female playwright turn out to be an epic ride through an impressive list of taboo topics touching race, gender, religion, politics, identity, and violence, including sexual violence.
Steve Bastoni and David Whiteley. Image credit: Teresa Noble.
Ulster American is a daring, dark, and deliberately provocative show, strewn with landmines; almost defying its audience to not be offended. There's no tippy-toeing around sensitive subjects here - the worst of human behaviour is tossed about seemingly without care - nothing is sacred, and there are no boundaries. Through witty (yet all-too-real) satire and instigative thought experiments, the play simultaneously reveals the complexity of human nature, and argues for freedom to make mistakes in the pursuit of the truth. It demonstrates with supreme effectiveness that wokeness is not just a quick pill to be swallowed, it is a long and laborious journey requiring depth in reflection and experience.
A script this sensitive and this loaded demands flawless execution, and that is precisely what this production delivers. All three actors (Steve Bastoni, Sarah Sutherland and David Whiteley) deliver brilliant, layered performances, as their characters' private intentions and public behaviour are held up and turned around, giving us a 360 degree view of every light and shadow, enabling us to examine the unfolding events on an intellectual, emotional, and ultimately a very human plane. Every character in this play is deeply flawed, yet not one can be labelled a complete villain: the audience find themselves cycling between feelings of empathy and horror towards each character, to the point that it becomes evident that there are no "goodies" and "baddies" - just actions, intentions, and outcomes for the characters; and for the audience, philosophical musings.
Steve Bastoni and Sarah Sutherland. Image credit: Teresa Noble.
Ulster American is an intelligent, piercing, tight-paced, and ultimately brilliant play that appears to have zero f*cks to give about what people say. About theatre critics, for example, it declares "they are animals, and should be treated as such: they should be killed and eaten. And the good ones kept as pets". It discusses the Bechdel test at length (which tests a work for whether it contains two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man) and then doesn't pass it (except perhaps on a technicality, if phone calls count). It ostensibly condemns thought experiments about sexual violence, and then proceeds to indulge the same, in triggering detail. But under that devil-may-care facade, the play ultimately contributes to refining and deepening the discourse around wokeness by how insightfully it satirizes it.
If there's one point the play really drives home, it is that mistakes will be made. People will encounter horrific situations, whether real or hypothetical, whether through their own imagination, or by having it thrust upon them. And sometimes, whether they mean to or not, they will respond in horrific ways. Nobody's perfect - not by a long way. But in the pursuit of the truth, there is room to consider what drives our actions, to be mindful of context, and to be mindful that it is not only possible to trivialize wokeness, but also to weaponize it.