In terms of Anywhere Festival 2016, Backyard Double Bill is probably one of the more dramatically ambitious shows I’ve seen. For starters, it’s actually two shows, bound by a short intermission, and it’s a strange sort of pseudo-surreal pseudo-immersive theatre that doesn’t come by too often. The Backyard Collective, directed by Kristen Maloney and under two different writers (Tremayne Gordon and Maloney herself), deliver The Picnic and Saying Goodbye to Ally over ninety minutes of jam-packed and thematically-heavy theatre. The former show, in its second iteration, is unquestionably the stronger of the two parts, while Goodbye to Ally feels a bit scattered and starts in one place—a place with strong thematic ties to the first work—before ending up somewhere entirely different, obstructing the work from ever feeling entirely cohesive.
The Picnic is an ode to anxiety. Not a happy, celebratory ode, but not a damning one either. It’s about the choices we do or don’t make—as well as the choices we choose not to make—and it’s very clearly inspired by Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot. The direction in this piece is great—it’s deliberately rigid, and characters move around the space based on connections in their conversation, or what food they want to eat. The characters stare into the eyes of audience members and ask accusatory questions like: ‘What did you bring for the picnic?’ when really they’re talking to another character onstage beside them. When you’re the one being stared at, it messes with your head and makes you anxious that you’ve done something wrong, or that you’re gonna have to get up on stage and defend yourself.
But, like with most things we get anxious about, nothing comes of it. The conversation moves on and you are spared. This is the brilliance of The Picnic’s participatory elements: that they add to the show thematically, and play into everything the show is trying to communicate. This is a huge achievement from the Backyard Collective.
Unfortunately, in Saying Goodbye to Ally, the second half of the Double Bill, audience participation is far less meaningfully robust. Moments like the dance party scene feel like they were thrown in there simply because it was felt that both shows, as paired performances, should engage their audience in equal amounts. But in terms of the pieces working together, where every element of The Picnic comes together to explore the overarching theme of anxiety, Saying Goodbye to Ally kinda flounders in terms of figuring out what exactly it wants to explore. It begins with a suicide party, where Ally and the charming character of Death have a discussion about the nature of suicide. It’s funny, nuanced, and at first gives the impression of continuing on from The Picnic’s questions about what’s worth waiting around for and what’s worth being active about. The show’s introduction, in its use of suicide, builds the assumption that it might be an additive discussion of why anybody even bothers sticking around to do any of waiting that the The Picnic so thoroughly explores.
But that isn’t what this second half is is. Instead, Goodbye to Ally subverts the expectations set up by the context of The Picnic, and becomes instead a scattered feminist piece whose crux is a woman’s suicide attempts as the result of the way men treat her throughout the play. But because of the way the story is told—out of order and all over the place—it doesn’t really come together as a complete work. Individual scenes are good, and the writing is mostly very good, and in particular the dynamics between Ally and her mother are interesting—and really the play just comes together as a collection of all these very good and very interesting elements that just don’t really come together, which is a shame, because I really enjoyed most of the show, and I really enjoyed The Picnic.
And for all that, Backyard Double Bill is never bad. It’s never unenjoyable, and I never rolled my eyes at any of the writing, and I never wanted to check the time while I was there. For any missteps in parts of Saying Goodbye to Ally, there’s the overwhelming success of The Picnic on all fronts: the direction, the writing, the thematic cohesiveness of every single element, brought together and tied neatly by Maloney and The Backyard Collective, ensuring that the highlights here outweigh any time this ambitious double-billed show ever falters.
You can purchase tickets to Backyard Double Bill here.
This review is based on the reviewer’s experience of the Triple Threat performance on Thursday May 12.
Full disclosure: The reviewer is friends with some members of the creative team involved in this production.
[Originally published for Anywhere Festival]