By Lisa Clark
Who can resist such a delicious idea of a comic sitcom version of the Great American Tragedy Death of a Salesman with such a fabulous cast? Danny McGinlay has done the inspired re-imagining of Arthur Miller’s play and manages to satirise the great American sitcom at the same time.
The audience is part of this production, playing the part of a live studio audience at the recording of a sitcom called The Loman Empire. The cast are being made up as the audience enters. The warm-up guy (Lachlan Millsom) sets the mood well, introducing us to the stars of the show and prompting us throughout. An applause sign flashes as characters enter and at end of scenes and the tech guy at side of stage also helps remind us that we are in a studio. The pre-recored filmed segments work beautifully including cute cliched opening and closing credits and some very silly ads, most of which are hilarious. There was a great moment where the actors improvised around a prop that played up which made a very funny potential ‘blooper reel’ moment.
The performers are all brilliantly cast and throw themselves into their two-part roles which include the actors behind the scenes as well as the on camera characters. Russell Fletcher as the has been star and patriarch Willy Loman is amusingly overbearing and annoying (in both characters) with a catchphrase and a relationship with his downtrodden wife Linda, played with a twinkle by Lana Schwarcz, that is reminiscent of The Honeymooners. Off camera Lana’s obnoxious animal rights actress character create’s more drama and fireworks with him than on. Jimmy James Eaton is a surprise standout as favourite son Biff (and manages to squeeze in one of his trademark funny raps) and Danny McGinlay has fun playing his little brother Happy as well as the actor who, thanks to Danny’s previous festival show is a drunken Ukranian. We get to see Director Damian Callinan on stage playing the wacky neighbour Charley and Denis Manahan does a fabulous job playing various important characters. Other actors who pop in for short cameos are Lucy Horan, Katharine Burke and Chris Masters Mah. There are some rough edges in the timing of dialogue but these will be improved as the run progresses.
Like Willy Loman’s hazy memories there is a very vague sense of the period this is set in, which actually works well, it mostly feels like 1949, then a modern reference turns up or a modern product placement, like an anachronism you might notice in MASH or Happy Days, shows that seemed to gradually forget which period they were set in. There are many clever digs at sitcoms, their clichés and wacky situations that are part of giving the audience a sense of the history of this long running successful sitcom at the same time echoing Willy Loman being haunted by his past.
My only issue with the production (apart from the line ‘A man is not a piece of fruit’ being absent which is a bit like doing Hamlet without ‘To Be or Not To Be’) was that the backstage shenanigans, though fun, didn’t really affect the TV performance and lacked focus and the comedic tension that would have come out of a situation such as the cast finding out the show is axed or one of the cast is leaving or this being the final episode which would have reflected the sense of doom and hidden secrets exposed in the play.
Death of a Salesman is about dysfunctional families, false fronts and the rot at the core of The American Dream so it fits a sitcom scenario perfectly. You may not know the play but you will get a sense of it from the play’s dialogue and a lot of laughs that come from clever zingers, groaners and sending up sitcoms. The Loman Empire – The Sitcom – An unauthorised satire of Death of a Salesman (note this is a recent name change) is the sort of creative, intelligently put together performance that makes Melbourne Fringe so wonderful and will no doubt be one of the highlights of 2014.
Loman Empire: The Sitcom An unauthorised satire of Death of a Salesman is on at the Northcote Town Hall at 8:15pm until September 28.