The story centres around Esta, played by Virana David. A hard-working, no bullshit woman, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and that includes her charming, layabout husband Donald, brought to life by Michael Maki.
Maki plays his role with an easy charm reminiscent of a ‘Streetcar’-era Brando. He’s big, he’s sincere, and he’s simple. He’s a lady killer when he wants to be, and a wife-abuser when he doesn’t. Mostly, he’s just along for the ride.
He’s a man, not a monster. We’ve all met him, and we’ve all liked him. For many men here, we’ve all been him.
Regina is played by Rexnet Miranda. This is a breakout role for her, her first opportunity to carry a show on her shoulders, and she does it with ebullience, beauty and poignancy.
Regina and Esta are waitresses at a Port Vila cafe. Money is tight, but life is good, as long as the customers don’t get too handsy. In her first scene, Regina’s wearing her hair with a bang down, and we all know what that means.
I don’t know anyone here who hasn’t seen a co-worker with a black eye, or worse.
If that moment of revelation takes you aback, then you need to brace yourself. There’s a reason the show is not recommended for children under 13.
Wan Smolbag have never flinched when telling stories of physical or sexual abuse. They’ve repeatedly depicted it onstage, because frankly you can’t write a story about Vanuatu society without including incidents of violence and abuse.
(And laughter, and joy, and bawdy humour, hilarity and song. But also cruelty. Also abuse.)
It’s hard to say why this play is different, but it is. Ni Vanuatu audiences generally laugh nervously when they see portrayals of violence.
This time, no one did. It may have been the staging, which was more confronting. It may have been the script, which was tighter, more starkly focused than ever.
It certainly was Ms Miranda, whose terror as she’s dragged away is palpable. And Ms David, in her thunderous, impotent fury at the idle onlookers.
And equally, it was the men, whose deeply sensitive portrayals of such deeply insensitive moments forces us to recognise that this isn’t poster art. It’s real, and it’s right here.
The most under-appreciated person onstage that night was Patrick Atel, playing the role of Regina’s partner Michel. If he weren’t so utterly convincing as a troubled man whose entire emotional toolkit is a wrecking ball, none of us would care.
One of the benefits of a professional ensemble troupe is the depth of talent in the cast. There is not one among them who couldn’t carry a play on their back if they’re asked to. In fact, nearly every single one of them has done so. This richness gives life to the old adage that there are no small parts, only small actors.
Wan Smolbag is populated by giants.
An aside: If there were ever an argument against North America’s journeyman approach to acting talent, this is it. These actors are all on salary year-round. They play all types, all ages, and do so with consistent skill. They compose the music, help with the lights, set and costumes, and they give themselves to the smallest and largest roles with equal commitment. It’s a dynamic you have to see to believe.