The Mars Project

Nerida Dickinson

Entertaining depiction of life with disability in a world obsessed with self-transformation and excellence.
The Mars Project

Photograph by Marnya Rothe courtesy of The Blue Room Theatre.

Wren is excited by the Mars Project, a chance to take a one-way trip to be one of the first humans to settle the red planet. She signs up to join the selection process, a combination of aptitude tests and reality television style popularity contests. In her quest to obtain an edge, she attends sessions with Robin, a self-help guru with 5 pillars of self-improvement, and strongarms Sparkle Promotions into taking her on as a client to make her “watchable”.

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Wren hits a hurdle with the human interest side of her story revealing that she is a twin, her brother Sam in an education unit for people with autism. Sam, with his penchant for hula hooping and reluctance to speak, is a far cry from the idealised winning human who can change their own world through a powerful mantra and proper media exposure.

Writer Will O’Mahony directs this well-paced performance that combines sharp technical properties with excellent acting and a script that tackles contrasting social values for audience members to consider. O’Mahony joins Luke Fewster, Andrea Gibbs, Felicity McKay and Steve Turner in a talented ensemble of performers to deliver the rapid twists and turns of The Mars Project. While Fewster occupies the haunting role of Sam throughout, capturing the non-verbal repetitive motor tics and stances of a young man with autism, each other player tackles multiple roles with elan.

O’Mahony captures not only the charismatic stage persona of Robin the self-help guru, but also presents large amounts of information with impressive easy clarity as Mars Billy, a high-functioning student with autism and an obsession with Mars and girlfriends. McKay develops the role of Wren as the play progresses, including flashbacks to earlier life and incidents at the hands of Sam at difficult moments as she and her parents try to learn to live with autism. The eloquence of Gibbs’ facial expressions is outstanding as Cindy, a participant in Robin’s self-help course, and subtly anguished as a mother coming to terms with a child’s condition and its impact on the rest of her life. Gibbs brings her facial control to capture the patience of Ms Gregson, Sam’s teacher, as she deals with a class full of students with different styles of autism. Turner’s facial expressions also bring humour to the presentation, with his wide eyes twinkling as his Jeremiah assists Robin, and a range of dramatic skills on show as he creates Mr Sparkle, of Sparkle Productions. The four players work together on the conceit of interaction between the characters on the emotion flashcards used by the education centre, and simple but effective choreography creates a memorable group scene.

The soundtrack is cleverly done, well-chosen songs on point to set the mood and establish scenes. Chris Donnelly’s lighting design creates the various scenes for the simple set, moving between publicist’s office, paediatrician’s rooms, classroom and motivational speaker’s staging with minimal fuss but clear distinction.

The Skeletal System provides food for thought in this presentation of The Mars Project. There is ambiguity over whose story this should be – is it the story of Wren, trying to escape her life’s situation in an ultimate manner? Is it the story of Sam? Is it the story of a society that creates such a conflict between the way of living between the two twins? The lack of focus creates an opportunity for contemplation and later reflection, the artists refusing to give up all the answers.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

The Mars Project

Presented by The Blue Room Theatre and The Skeletal System
Written and Directed by Will O’Mahony
Lighting Designer: Chris Donnelly
Producer: Meabh Walton
Performed by Will O’Mahony, Luke Fewster, Andrea Gibbs, Felicity McKay and Steve Turner.
The Blue Room Theatre, Perth Cultural Centre
19 April – 7 May 2016

 

About the author

Nerida Dickinson is a writer with an interest in the arts. Previously based in Melbourne and Manchester, she is observing the growth of Perth's arts sector with interest.