Ella Caldwell and Ngaire Dawn Fair in Roam | Red Stitch Theatre (Pic: Jodie Hutchinson)

Red Stitch has a reputation as one of the country’s leading independent companies, which is not a surprise considering their fetish for tackling the uncomfortable and pushing boundaries. Roam, an ambitious new play written by Adam Cass, developed through the excellent Red Stitch writers’ program, continues this laudable tradition.

The opening night, also the world premiere, saw the tiny auditorium filled to the brim with supporters but there was some (unintentional?) mystery about this production. The little I learnt from information online and the skeletal press release was totally inadequate for what is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of original techno-theatre I have seen all year.

The play starts with a domestic on the tiny stark bare stage: Johnny and Julia (played with utter conviction by Tim Potter and Ella Caldwell) are in love, but troubled. Johnny has been “let go” from his boring office job after throwing a tantrum. Julia is trying to deal with the death of her father and a needy mother whom she just can’t face.

This emotional backdrop is carved with realistic well-written banter, and Caldwell’s Julia with her subtle yet intense gestures, once imploring then exasperated, made me want to know more about the roots of the growing conflict between this most ordinary of Melbourne couples.

Johnny increasingly withdraws into a life of social media and online porn while Julia becomes isolated and confused. When Johnny meets a young girl from eastern Europe in a chat room he is quickly drawn into Roam, an online game set in the ancient world. Soon, the seductive possibilities of his heroic new life begin to blur the line between what is real and what is fantasy.

Director Gary Abrahams, with a shockingly clever use of video and computer graphics, is able to realise the reality/fantasy tension that lies at the very heart of this play. It’s a brilliantly conceived vision and Abrahams has pulled off something I have never seen done as well in theatre before. At one point I thought this is what watching a live version of The Matrix: Reloaded would be like, only better written and with humour.

We first glimpse the “young girl” (played by Ngaere Dawn-Fair) in her Estonian bedroom on video-cam avoiding her parents gaze as she connives, for her own childish reasons, to lure Johnny into Roam. Dawn-Fair is totally convincing as a child toying with the avatar body of a Goddess, and relishing in the budding sexual power she has over older men.

Dawn-Fair prowls the stage in numerous guises, a coquettish Lolita one moment, a statuesque Amazon the next. I was particularly impressed when, as the computer voice, she recites in staccato voce, what seemed to be an entire section from the White Pages — what a feat of memory! This is an incredible performance from an actor stretching the audience and bringing them with her to the absolute limits of believability. Looking remarkably like the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones (in her better days), Dawn-Fair’s swashbuckling avatar dominates the theatre at times and despite a silly faux accent, it works.

But it would be wrong to single out just one of the actors for this extremely tight and well-acted production. All three performers were excellent having to bring to their characters not only emotional depth, but also physical stamina. This show takes the audience on what feels like a physical journey through the depths of the internet.

I can only hazard a guess at the huge amount of work behind the technology side of this show, but undoubtedly the artists behind the technology, including David Nelson, Michael Watson and Daniel Nixon, succeed in somehow bringing the characters full internet experience to audience via the tiny stage, which incredibly morphs slickly into a gigantic, almost infinite vista into the minds of these self-obsessed characters.

I applaud writer Adam Cass for using this relatively simple story to intelligently explore some of the most difficult and interesting contemporary questions to emerge from our growing digital life: the nature of reality, online attraction, power relationships and most controversially, is sex with an avatar “abuse” when one of the partners is a minor? The law says it is, of course, but how to draw the line when the avatar is in the form of an adult, playing in what is ostensibly an adult-only gaming world?

While the ending could be criticized for being too conventional, overall this is an ambitious play that deserves to be shown far and wide and in bigger venues. I am confident that will happen. It’s exciting to first witness a play that eventually could be the toast of international festivals like Edinburgh and the like. Adam Cass has won awards before and Roam is another feather in his cap.

The details: Roam plays Red Stitch Theatre until November 9. Tickets on the company website.

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