Rebel Without a Cause by James Fuller, based on the screenplay by Stewart Stern from an adaptation by Irving Shulman from a story by Nicholas Ray. Free-Rain Theatre directed by Anne Somes. Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre, May 1-17, 2008, Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Pay What You Can Wednesdays 6.30pm, Matinees Saturdays May 10 and 17 2pm. Bookings 6275 2700.
The stage adaptation of this 1955 film is a comic strip version, a storyboard designed to show the key bits of the plot and make sure we get the message that teenagers must break parental bonds. In an America where mothers keep handguns and classmates sport flick knives as a matter of course, young men’s lives are at risk as they establish their independent pecking order. Jim wins his Judy, while gangleader Buzz and oddball Plato die.
Director Somes rose to the challenge of making this unlikely material work. Avoiding naturalism, stylising the action - down to almost choreographed staccato movement even including scene changes, using exaggerated New York accents, projected images and dramatic background music, set in lots of symbolic black and contrasting red, Somes stirs our emotions and builds a surprising level of tension in the final scene despite the absurdity of the situation as, next to Plato’s dead body, Jim hugs his reconciled parents and introduces Judy to them. With dancing and singing, it could almost have been West Side Story, except that would have made it a parody.
Is the play still relevant? Perhaps. The simple clarity of this production makes us think. Rebel Without a Cause could mean that Jim and Judy had no real reason to reject their parents’ behaviour. Yet we see parents who reject their children’s behaviour, or can’t talk to them sensibly about social realities. Or the title could mean that if you are going to rebel, you should have a definite aim to achieve - a cause celebre. But all Jim can say is that although he has everything and is “well fed”, he just feels like a “tiger in a cage” and has to escape. Is this all that a wealthy society can offer? To escape with no idea of what to do next, except fall in love, become parents and go round the cycle again, is a bleak view of life.
Or maybe to binge-drink or, tragically, take 14 people out on Sydney Harbour in a stolen unsuitable runabout at 2am? Is that the best we can offer fifty years later? Maybe Free-Rain’s showing us Rebel Without a Cause does have a point. It makes us think.
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