Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 19. 3rd August 1972
Hayseed for the City Slickers
Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras
Rene de Obaldia's Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras was a curious successor to Harold Pinter's new play Old Times, at Downstage last week. It was quite different in conception, a mock-western formed as though Mack Sennett had cut loose on Zane Grey. It was entertainment rather than enigma and to the degree that it did simply amuse, it invited little of the speculative engagement of the Pinter offering.
The plot is a compendium of cliche - a slapstick exploitation of all the tired motifs which have afflicted Westerns since Tom Mix first learned to shoot straight. In the frontier cabin of John Emery Rockefeller, Patriarch and Sage ("Lord, my house is always open, 'ceptin when it's locked up"), a lonely few withstand the ravages of that Prairie Janus, Lynx-eye/Partridge-eye (both played — maniacally — by Craig Ashley ).There's Pamela Rockefeller, straining against the confines of bodice and log-cabin alike; Doc Butler, numbed by conscience and an 80 proof anaesthetic; Miss Miriam, the saloon-gal with a penchant for rhymed couplets and unreasoned coupling. Their language — and much of the joke is verbal — is as eclectic as the plot. John Rockefeller's folksy metaphors ("He's only playing possum to pull the wool over our eyes, the skunk") are complemented by trendy anachronism ("Don't lose your cool"), and some gloriously purple sequences (I particularly liked the "puissant hooves of a stormy quadruped").
This combination of ludicrously hackneyed themes, delivered in cliche, generated an instant vitality — 'though therein lay its limitations too. Sassafras was for me rather too dependent on instants, moments, but not capable of capturing a sustained interest. Sunny Amey's production seemed to reflect this. The play's highlights — the appearances of Lynx/Partridge Eye, and the confessional soliloquies - were delivered with verve and panache, but between them (and especially from Act II), the gags began to falter, and there were some odd moments of indecision in the production. To a degree, this was inevitable in a play like Sassafras — to exploit cliche comically for two and a half hours is a precarious foundation on which to build a theme. There were many moments when the redeeming comedy sagged, and one was left with the tedious banality only.
Still, if the play's parts were better than the whole, there were some very fine moments. The acting was always proficient, and frequently much much more than this. Janice Finn as Miss Miriam delivered her epic - the Rape of Pancho City — in a polished and exuberant burlesque, and Grant Tilly played the derelict Doc Butler with perfect control and timing. By comparison, Ian Mune was dynamic but a little unremitting as the Patriarch Hayseed; Nonnita Mann, as his wife, was conversely inclined to underplay, so that what I felt should have been hard-line caricature sometimes blurred to pen-and-wash.
But these are perhaps minor cavils. Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras sets out only to be entertaining, and it succeeds at that level. The production is on the whole stylish, using sound and visual gimmickry as extensions of the farce, and the final impression of set and staging is of a coherently conceived and carefully wrought presentation. In all, then, Sassafras repays a visit. It might not vex or provoke you, but it may help to relax your mind.
I know a little about Vietnam. Enough to stir my conscience from its lethargy into some remote feelings of despair at man's inhumanity to etc. "Nam", directed by Phillip Mann, served to push my weak-kneed pacifism even further into the background of my awareness.
The play is based on fact, (the letters of Jim Bury to his folks back in California) and it tries to explain the development in Bury's mind of his own feelings about the war. He seems always unable to give an adequate simile for such things as the sound of bullets when they are being fired at you, and the need for survival overthrowing any moral considerations you may have had about killing or being killed.
For me, the play did no more than encourage me to feel some kind of reaction to this senseless killing. I found myself being wound up, and then wanting the play to belt shit out of me . . . to kick me into 6ome kind of action . . . to show me what it was really trying to say. Instead, I was left with the frustration of not feeling any sympathy for anyone involved, and of being totally excluded from an explanation which the play appeared to promise me. I feel that the restraint used in directing the play (which is basically a damn good one) destroys the final impact that the play is capable of having, i was too aware of the play's director controlling the ideas to be in any way moved by the play.
The performances themselves left me cold. The Medical Instructor had some powerful lines which could have hit hard if they had been given even a tincture of sincerity. Bryan Stubbings as Bury used his facial expressions well, but his performance was otherwise jerky and artificial. The soldiers' reaction to Bury's drunken oration showed a total neglect: I've heard the same boos rhubarbs and hisses in just too many plays, from Danton's Death right down to The Winter's Tale.
Teresa Woodham as Mrs. Bury seemed to understand her role a little better than did the others, but she too was played down, restraied from realising the significance of the words she was saying Erin Dunleavy's Sylvia was sad. Her constant cries of "I love you, Jim" seemed to suggest that she didn't.
The whole production reeked of compromise. The Technical side, aborted I presume by the universal and stagnating "lack of funds", was uninspiring; except perhaps for the "teddy bears' picnic" background, but that was overdone. The sounds of the helicopter gunship were like a distant jet with close guns, and altogether lacked the volume to be of any real moment in the play. This, I was told, was because of limitations with the output of the speakers. The slides were not large enough, nor new enough to mean anything. I found myself trying to remember where I had seen that one before, and which poster that mangled body was taken from.
Don't get me wrong though, I agree with the idea I just don't agree with the way it was done and I think that the play has far, far more potential than Phillip Mann's production realised.