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Review: WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH MARY JANE? at Holden Street Theatres

Review: WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH MARY JANE? at Holden Street Theatres

One Woman's Cautionary Tale Of A Silent But Deadly Disease

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 15th September 2022.

The new company, Freefall Productions, is presenting a solo play, What is the Matter with Mary Jane?, primarily written by Wendy Harmer, and co-written by Sancia Robinson. It documents Robinson's long fight against Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia. It is directed by Tony Knight, former Head of Acting at Australia's prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), and is performed by Stefanie Rossi, recipient of the Adelaide Critics Circle Emerging Artist Award for 2018.

Knight and Rossi are well known to Adelaide audiences through their wonderful earlier works, with Marc Clement, as STARC Productions, a company that staged many works over five years at the much-loved Bakehouse Theatre, before it was bought and closed by the Pentecostal church next door. The play was first produced by the Sydney Theatre Company in 1995. It hardly needs saying that Knight's direction is always insightful and goes to the heart of whatever play he touches.

Rossi began an unexpected international career in 2018, when recruited to perform with visiting English company, Smokescreen Productions, at the Adelaide Fringe, being then invited to go to the Edinburgh Fringe with them. In 2019 she performed again with them at the Adelaide Fringe, and with another English group, Oyster Creative, once more travelling to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe. Then COVID came along, putting the brakes on everybody's careers. Overseas companies will, we hope, be returning for the 2023 Fringe.

The publicity tells us that "It is a cautionary tale about a silent but deadly disease that consumes so many in our society and which is not as openly discussed or acknowledged as it should be for the psychological illness that it is." As such, this is an important work that has been enlightening Australians and audiences overseas since 1995.

Rossi uses her own name in the performance, but it is Robinson's story, even though she immerses herself so deeply into her character that one might easily think that it was she who had been through the illness. That's what great acting is all about.

Rossi, as her character, explains that she is now 35, and recovered, but she looks back on herself as a chubby sixteen-year-old with a negative self-image. She plays herself at various ages during the work. As the teenager, she smiles and jokes about her weight, making fun of her own body, masking her pain. Body shaming by others, and her own low self-esteem, make her want to be thin, to achieve the unrealistic image projected by films, television, and magazines of what is considered a beautiful woman She turns to dieting and exercise, going further and further, eventually to dangerous extremes.

The play is divided into scenes, Rossi writing the names on a whiteboard at each change. Some tear at the heartstrings, and some bring laughter. In one scene, she is full of suspicion, then anger, when her mother serves a meal of fish, adding eggplant, and a dash of oil on the fish. She is furious that her diet is being sabotaged by her mother. In another, she makes excuses for being unable to attend a party, because there will be food, and she needs to hide her illness from others.

She sees a psychiatrist and is diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, but is not entirely honest with him. She is pleased, though, that her condition has a name, and is recognised as a mental illness. It is when she is hospitalised, her body a wreck, that she makes changes. Unfortunately, she turns to binge eating, and then throwing up; Bulimia. This phase she tells about as if it is a television advertisement, displaying the best food on which to binge, which will come up again without anything being absorbed. It is hilarious, and tragically sad.

Sancia Robinson did, of course, eventually recover, and co-wrote and performed this play, a play which Stefanie Rossi has now made it her own in an exceptional performance that is highly physical, dancing, contorting herself, and throwing herself around the stage, and, at the same time, extremely demanding, emotionally. She goes from laughter to tears, sadness to joy, despair to fury, joking to bitterness, and more. Her performance is more than equal to, and even exceeds, the powerful and moving script. Such was her superb work that some of the audience were clearly affected by the dramatic path of the central character, silently leaving the auditorium, still stunned.

If you have seen Rossi perform before, you should need no urging from me to hurry to this production. If you haven't, then you have been seriously remiss and should remedy that immediately. This is definitely one of the most remarkable things that you'll see this year.

Sound and lighting design is by Stephen Dean, a highly experienced and respected technician. He was the resident designer and technician for the Bakehouse Theatre, and has worked with STARC on all of their productions, as well as with many other companies in Adelaide and interstate. He has skillfully captured the many moods of the piece.

Make sure that you see this production, but book quickly. This is one that people will be talking about for a long while.

Rice Pudding
A. A. Milne

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She's crying with all her might and main,
And she won't eat her dinner - rice pudding again -
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I've promised her dolls and a daisy-chain,
And a book about animals - all in vain -
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She's perfectly well, and she hasn't a pain;
But, look at her, now she's beginning again!
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I've promised her sweets and a ride in the train,
And I've begged her to stop for a bit and explain -
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She's perfectly well and she hasn't a pain,
And it's lovely rice pudding for dinner again!
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

The production supports the work of Butterfly Foundation, the national charity for all Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, and for the families, friends, and communities who support them.

From This Author - Barry Lenny

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