Writer/director Adriano Shaplin and his company The Riot Group find themselves experiencing a backlash of modest proportions this year. After building a deserved reputation for intense pieces such as Victory At The Dirt Palace and Pugilist Specialist, staged in small spaces which the material made seem even more claustrophobic (this is a compliment), the Berkeley-based group now find themselves promoted to Assembly's second-largest space, the Ballroom. It's a combination that exposes the limitations of both Shaplin's writing and staging.
This is the company's first period piece, set in a New York telephone exchange in 1919, at the moment when automation is about to replace live switchboard operators. The supervisors and the women on the jack boards banter and tussle in various permutations, as a union activist raises in vain the option of organised collective action. There's also some play about the particular Americanness of various values, as the Italian-American chief operator squares up to her Boston-Irish colleagues down the line and the English trade-unionist on the board next to her.
This kind of investigation of the axioms of American character, and the conflicts between individuality and collective impulses, are Shaplin's stock in trade; likewise the mode in which he explores them, which is that of multi-vectored power-play, a never-ending series of contests for dominance, even in supposedly co-operative environments. In this respect, and in his high-powered, densely declamatory style of writing, Switch Triptych merely maintains his reputation without advancing it; inevitably, there's a feeling that to stand still in such circumstances is to fall behind.
The rapid, machine-gun patter of Shaplin's writing and in particular of Stephanie Viola's performance as queen-bee switch woman Isabella are often at odds with the reverberation-heavy acoustics of the Ballroom. Add in dialogue exchanges (no pun intended) which are relayed over trebly speakers, and speeches which are delivered when facing upstage, and the result is that chunks of the material are frequently unintelligible. In terms both of adventurousness and the brute problems posed by their venue, The Riot Group would be advised to broaden their stylistic palette.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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