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Going Native

Photo by Ed Krieger

I don’t know about you, but I always get a bad feeling about plays sponsored by foreign airline companies, as though someone back at the national tourist board had pegged the work onstage as a pleasing post card of his country’s native charm. Fortunately, the Qantas-sponsored Daisy in the Dreamtime, Lynne Kaufman’s 2002 paean to Australian ethnographer Daisy Bates, doesn’t feature any koala bears but unspools some nice biographical yarn for an hour and a quarter, even if it could use a little old-fashioned drama now and then to hold our attention.

A West Coast premiere presented by the Fountain Theater at [Inside] the Ford, Daisy in the Dreamtime is the half-century-long portrait of an Irishwoman who came to the Australian bush at the start of the 20th century to find good health and a husband, only to throw away family life and the colonial’s privileges for an unmarried existence among the Aborigines, whose customs and art she spent 30 years chronicling. Dubbed by them “The Great White Queen of the Never Never,” she was the first person to record the habits and language of this most ancient of the world’s peoples, while assuming the thankless task of advocating their interests before the British Empire’s unsympathetic civil and intellectual bureaucracies (“The People of the Clock,” as Aboriginals called Europeans).

“Dreamtime” is an Aboriginal idea in which past, present and future all unfold simultaneously in a living fable. Kaufman, however, develops her story along a fairly straightforward march through time, with a few flashbacks. The stage, a barren but peaceful welt of desert designed by Desma Murphy, features a tent and its owner’s weathered possessions: a stretcher cot, a small library, identical suits of clothes, and a few pots and pans. An upstage musician, Andrju Werderitsch, occasionally exhales into a long didjeridoo that he balances on a foot.

Daisy (Lisa Pelikan) cuts a prim but tough Edwardian figure in the Northern Territory sands, attired in a hat, white blouse, tie and long black dress with a silk slip. (“I must have silk next to my skin,” she deadpans.) A small Union Jack hangs nearby, but Daisy’s most symbolically loaded ornament is a black parasol. The brolly, given to her in childhood by Queen Victoria, is both code for “civilization” and shield against a sun that is unforgiving to that civilization.

Daisy was once married to a hell-raising horseman named Jack (Lance Guest), but hardscrabble life together on the farm didn’t last long, and in the early 1900s she finds herself in the role of great white communicator to a people who regard her as a grandmother-confessor. She, in turn, considers the Aborigines as “my people,” but never condescends to them, writing down, instead, her life’s observations of their society in 52 notebooks even as the desert makes her “sandy blind.” Some of her work in language and customs will be plagiarized by official male anthropologists from Britain, represented here by a Professor Radcliffe-Brown (Jay Bell), an affable prat who lumbers in occasionally to pat Daisy on the head, query her about male-genital decorations and then appropriate her findings.

Far more rewarding for Daisy are visits by her Aboriginal friend King Billy (Anthony J. Haney), an interpreter of outback life and a window into the nonliterate and nonliteral culture to which she has attached herself. Each day she awakes in the clear air attuned to the subtle changes in climate that mark imminent change in the vast nowhere that has become her home, a home her countrymen would call a wasteland.

Daisy’s splendid isolation is broken one day by the arrival of a German missionary named Annie Lock (Suanne Spoke). Annie represents everything Daisy hates — order, roofs, religion and European food. Before long, she will blame the missionary for the advent of the railroad, whose wheels eventually grind down the Edenic life of the Aborigines and send the brokenhearted Daisy to the city, where she will die in 1951, after finally being honored by the Empire.

 

Daisy in the Dreamtime looks good onstage, and it must have looked good on paper when Kaufman sketched out its drafts. But there’s something missing — or maybe there’s both something missing and something that shouldn’t have been here in the first place. To Kaufman’s credit, her dialogue keeps the action in the believable past — the sand is not said to “impact” Daisy’s vision, and no one talks about “empowering” King Billy and other “people of color.” (Here she’s supported by Naila Aladdin-Sanders’ spot-on period costuming.) Nor does Kaufman make the mistake of putting a 21st-century feminist heroine in Edwardian tweeds; Daisy’s impatient with the prevailing chauvinisms of her day, but her maternalistic descriptions of the Aborigines do, after all, sound proprietary, and there is an appropriately annoying crankiness in her tone whenever she tries to assert her moral superiority over Annie.

The problem is that nothing really happens onstage, in dreamtime, or in real time either. Daisy never has any conflicts with King Billy, and Radcliffe-Brown appears so infrequently that he’s merely on hand for comic relief and not as a serious foil. This makes Annie Lock her sole nemesis, but she’s also no villain, which, while again a tribute to Kaufman’s light political touch, nevertheless makes the story a triumph of mutual good will, a wan narrative that puts to rest the commonplace that the best drama is found in conflict between good and good. Even if the playwright wants to avoid crass melodrama, Daisy needs to have some suggestion of egoistic motives — either this or have the characters play their scenes buried up to their necks in sand. Failing that, Kaufman should really start monkeying with her story’s time-space continuum, as King Billy might envision it.

This is a shame, because director Simon Levy’s production has the look of vision, as scenes shift from kitchen-sink realism to the Aborigines’ dreamtime, suggested by Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting plot and Marc Rosenthal’s multimedia design, as well as by Werderitsch’s haunting didjeridoo rumblings. Sound designer David B. Marling’s work also goes a long way in bringing the story to life.

While Haney turns in a versatile performance as Daisy Bates’ spiritual guide and companion (his kangaroo-hunt dance embodies the magic world he half lives in), Pelikan has a tendency to play Daisy for cute or, at least, for eccentric and plucky; this choice is not helped by Kaufman’s having the character often directly address the audience, sometimes throwing in stuff about Irish faeries and magic. As her reluctant adversary, Spoke is a little too reluctant, playing Annie as so nice that she can’t take offense at any insult Daisy spits at her, and even appears at the story’s finale to reconcile and collaborate with Daisy to publish her notebooks. In the end, we don’t really know what Kaufman intended, or what we think of Daisy Bates, except that she doesn’t seem to be a particularly complex character. Is she a saint, a madwoman or a martyr? Or is she a stand-in for what’s not onstage — a fuzzy, stuffed koala bear?

DAISY IN THE DREAMTIME | By LYNNE KAUFMAN | FOUNTAIN THEATER at [INSIDE] THE FORD, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood Through April 25 | (323) 461-3673


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