By Tahli Corin
Directed by Janice Finn
Basement Theatre, Auckland | March 11-22
There is an episode of 30 Rock called ‘Alexis Goodlooking and the Case of the Missing Whisky’, where actress Jenna Maroney recalls that she, “like every blonde actress,” had starred in a procedural cop show called Goodlooking, where she played Alexis Goodlooking, who is “good looking and also good at looking for clues.” We see a clip of this show, where Jenna as Alexis says, “Maybe the perp’s in the system, unlike my husband’s killer, who got away, and it haunts me.”
It’s a parody that works because it’s a half-step away from the real thing; the reason why procedurals are so successful as a TV genre is because they work to a formula. It gives us a familiar protagonist: a cop who has a dark past, a cop who is a loose cannon but gets results, or in the case of Girl in Tan Boots, a cop who takes the case a little bit too personally. The formula introduces complications and twists where we expect them, and resolves them about five seconds after we figure out what has happened. Procedurals are a masterclass in structure and little else.
Girl in Tan Boots is unashamedly a procedural, with roots that lie squarely in the realm of Law and Order or any CBS one hour procedural in the last ten years. It follows a detective, Carapetis, trying to find a woman, Hannah, who has gone missing from a train platform. The characters are recognisable and so is the plot. Occasionally the play reaches back into the noir genre’s box of tricks to give us a direct address, but otherwise the experience of watching Girl in Tan Boots is like watching a rerun of Special Victims Unit—occasionally satisfying, but with the feeling that we’ve seen this before.
Where Girl in Tan Boots differs from these procedurals is in its surprising lightness, though this does not work entirely in the production’s favour. Whether the tonal mishmash lies in the script or in Janice Finn’s direction, it leaves the play an oddly weightless space. The scenes where the detective is interviewing Hannah’s friends come off more like a romantic comedy than the gritty noir or the ‘urban mystery play’ it is selling itself as, while there are moments that drew laughs from the opening night audience that certainly weren’t intended to do so. Crucially, the weight of the situation is never felt, whether in performance or by the audience, and even when we see the impact of Hannah’s disappearance on her mother, it doesn’t have the heaviness that we have come to expect of this genre.
Another reason for the lack of connection is the plot. While largely following a familiar formula, Girl in Tan Boots is reaching for a higher theme, engaging with ideas of female expectation in a modern world, and a woman’s agency within those expectations. All the characters are female, which provides an interesting perspective on a male-dominated genre. Occasionally the play hits the nail on the head, especially with the character of Antoninetta, who fills the role of femme fatale and immediately complicates the play whenever she’s onstage with her defiance of expectations and forthright approach to getting what she wants. At other times, though, the play can’t help but fall into the tropes of the genre, especially with Hannah’s three friends. Characters that should be characters, and appear at first to be full-bodied and three-dimensional, instead turn into narrative devices and plot twists, leading to an ultimately unsatisfying ending.
However, it must be said that the play’s adherence to genre tropes and clichés hits hardest in the characters themselves, and by extension, the cast. Our protagonist, Detective Carapetis, played with gusto by Catherine Wilkin, is a pile of well-trodden character notes. She’s a cop who lives alone, but who feels a great empathy with the missing woman and her desire to find love and to be noticed in the world; she works in the missing persons unit but is herself a missing person. In the script, this is all as subtle as a brick, but Wilkin’s attempts to weave these notes into subtext and backstory are commendable. The actress, with more impressive credits to her name than one can list, is a little miscast, but she provides an emotional core to the play where the script hasn’t. She even manages some final resolutions—storytelling devices that are otherwise cheap and dishonest—with what I can only describe as remarkable elegance.
The trio playing Hannah’s work friends, Jodie Hillock, JJ Fong, and Anoushka Klaus, are a mixed bag, and have not yet cohered into three believable friends, but Hillock and Klaus both get some large twists to play with and lend these an authentic grace. Hillock is especially convincing and complex in a role that could be easy to throwaway. As Hannah’s mother, Catherine Downes is less convincing—all quick turns and sudden emotions—but the character is even more of a cliché storm than Detective Carapetis, an overbearing mother who sits closer to sitcom than procedural.
Most impressive is Toni Potter as Antonietta, a genuinely complex character given life by a charismatic actor. The play stops in its tracks when she is onstage and becomes another creature entirely, brushing against the film noir it is trying to be, rather than the network TV show it is closer to. It’s a performance that leaves the play a more interesting watch, but it feels a little empty when she’s not onstage.
The cast are not helped by some confusing blocking, which has them lumbering awkwardly across the stage at points, and placed peculiarly at other times; there’s never a sense where the characters are in the world of the play, let alone where they are in the space, and it leaves us guessing where exactly the characters are where we should be focussed on other things.
The craft on display in Girl in Tan Boots is largely perfunctory, other than a genius use of walls that I won’t spoil, but credit goes to Dan Williams for that—it’s a flourish that punts the play closer to something more complex, but after its initial use it is left forgotten. Amber Molloy’s design helps to locate the play in a world that isn’t keenly felt otherwise, in script or production. Both set and lighting design are hampered by the unfortunate fact that the Basement Theatre, while an incredibly versatile venue, is not the right space for this play. A play that should feel important and tense instead feels light and loose in this quite intimate space. Moments that should be isolated are unable to be so, at least in this particular configuration; a larger venue could do wonders for this play and this production.
It’s hard to recommend Girl in Tan Boots. Other than seeing a showcase of local actors, some doing impressive work, it’s not any more rewarding than a rerun of Special Victims Unit. In its worst moments, it reminds me of that fake cop show Goodlooking, a hurricane of tropes and clichés. In its best moments, it comes close to Top of the Lake, a mystery with an undeniable feminist bent. Sadly, it sits somewhere in the middle for most of its seventy minutes, and in the middle is often not good enough.