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Trog and Clay (an imagined history of the electric chair)
Published on Saturday, 27 August 2011

3 stars

C Venues - C eca (venue website)
14-29 Aug, 5:25pm-6:35pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parental Guidance. Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

It’s probably an urban myth, but it’s an oft-told story just the same.  Thomas Edison invented the electric chair, the legend goes, as an act of industrial propaganda: to demonstrate the perils of the alternating-current electrical system promoted by his rival, George Westinghouse.  History records that Westinghouse carried the day, but this show uses the “War of the Currents” as a jumping-off point for a surreal narrative, played out in the shadow of the ever-present chair.

The title characters, Trog and Clay – itinerant pedlars who get caught up in Edison’s plot – are by far the strongest part of this interesting production.  It took me a while to get inside Trog’s singular mind, but once I’d figured out what made him tick, every deadpan one-liner (and every lift of his expressively inquisitive eyebrow) was a pure joy.  The simpler Clay, meanwhile, is the voice of our conscience; it’s she who points out that electrocuting dogs – a thing that Edison actually did – might earn a few dollars, but only at the cost of a soul.

Her moral voice is needed, amidst the comically outrageous plot.  In this imagined version, Edison doesn’t just invent the electric chair, but contrives an excuse to use it; he orchestrates a murder, as part of a bizarre love quadrilateral involving him, Westinghouse, and the murderer himself.  It’s poppycock of course, but it hangs together enough to draw us along – though I didn’t feel there were quite enough ideas to sustain the full 70-minute running time.

The condemned convict, who could be a figure of either horror or sympathy (after all, he’s about to be fried) actually seems a little two-dimensional; and the courtroom scenes which frame the plot didn’t sit that easily with the rest of the play.  Still, there are some serious points made among the humour.  Highlights include a hilarious deconstruction of the historic belief that you could identify a murderer by the way they appeared, and a telling reminder of how the debate over capital punishment has moved on.  The now-barbarous electric chair was seen as a humane punishment, we learn, if the alternative was to be hanged.

The dialogue degenerates a little into amateur psychology at the very end, but there are some striking, chilling images along the way.  Overall, I felt this play experimented with being many things – a thriller, an education, a farce – and in the process, didn’t quite achieve any of them.  But it’s still an intriguing idea, backed up by some quality characterisation.  And the history it imagines is an entertaining one.

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