REVIEW: Samo Is Dead

In Samo Is Dead, a “motif of modern youth speaks to a more universal idea of spiritual connection”, writes Harrison Dumesich

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Dillusional or inspired? Insane or genius? Stupid or Brilliant? Certain works of art capture acclaim, while countless others gather dust. In a world of instant gratification and easily attainable ‘micro-fame’, Samo is Dead shows us the danger of seeking the ends before the means. Written by Jodi Rabinowitz and directed by Sophie Bryant this student production (granted by University of Sydney’s “Bright Ideas”), strikes a good balance of poignancy and charm. It features stellar acting, beautiful production and an acute take on life as a young person.

The story of Luke’ internal strife and his relationship with Beth, is one I can relate to, from both perspectives. As Beth minds the counter, Luke broods over his notebook in a café alone as he has probably seen in a movie or read in a book, he is absorbed in his work, but in my opinion, he is more absorbed in the romance of the ‘tortured artist’. Luke is the classic case of a young guy with a comfortable suburban life, that longs to be a gritty savant artist, like his hero and sole inspiration Jean-Michelle Basquiat.

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Basquiat was a street artist based in New york and ‘SAMO©’ was part of a conceptual amalgamation. ‘SAMO’ which is based on the phrase “same old shit” is a comment on Basquiat’s frustrations with religion, politics, consumerism or whatever he felt was “bogus”. SAMO is also a call to a new religion, promoting a stoic response to “bogusness” and to connect to like-minded youth. A famous line written on a wall in West Broadway was “SAMO as an alternative to mass produced individuality.” Basquiat once said “I can’t stand around screaming at people to change, so I write it on the walls.” This resulted in his unique style of Greco-Roman style social commentary that was infused with his unique form of poetry.

Basquiat became a pop-culture star in the 80’s and represents a prominent irreverent counter-culture for young people. Luke’s obsession and subsequent appropriation of his hero is the driver behind his actions and his feelings about being an artist. The play has a language about Luke’s internal and external relationships through the use of dialogue, visuals and blocking. These different modes harmonize to create a chord that results in a both salubrious and disturbing story.

Beth is a skeptic of Luke’s all-consumed artist shtick. Luke comes to the café and does his work not because he likes ‘the unique shittiness’ but because he wants a sounding board for his over-developed ego and highly derivative views on art and its philosophical implications. Jodi Rabinowitz wrote Luke from direct experience with “Most of his dialogue (being) either things that people have said to me or are based on a verbatim conversations.” Luke is unapologetically verbose and pompous when he speaks to Beth and without a hint of self-awareness. The way Luke speaks at first reads as a sort of absurd humor leaning into overt pretentiousness, but as the play progresses, we find that Luke is sincere in his self declaration and it leads him to become destructive with himself, Beth and his interaction with the world.

Beth is the ‘straight-man’ in this play, responding to Luke courageously and with no qualm for his propped up ego. Beth has her own set of problems and her loneliness is equal and opposite to Luke’s, she is maybe a more mature and cynical reflection of Luke. She wants something better for herself but doesn’t want to be judged for trying, saying “I could live in a skyscraper in New York, high enough so that people couldn’t do that throaty laugh at me – Hu Ha Ha Ha”. Her fear of judgment is why she is intrigued and annoyed by Luke, who seems too assured.

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As Luke pursues a friendship with Beth, we see his home life as the two of them ‘hang out’ as his place. As an ice-breaker, Beth decides to take acid, and invites Luke to join her. Here we see the true naivety of Luke, who has never really done drugs before. The acid trip is when Luke is introduced to a manifestation of SAMO, in true Shakespearian style, this ghost of SAMO appears to Luke in the form of an looming, ominous who recites the words of Basquiat. The more Luke unravels the more we see this man, which indicates Luke’s psychological erosion.

Luke believes the ghost is a devine intervention in Luke’s life, with him saying “I didn’t believe in God, until he chose me” the idea of being the ‘chosen one’ is funny, as Luke’s pop-culture education of Avatar and The Matrix in the like bleeds through, and his lack of theological allusion or lexicon of references limits his interpretation. The plot of the play isn’t the only vehicle for understanding the characters, director Sophie Bryant and artistic director, along with a large production team uses lighting, blocking, props and set design to develop pathos and reality.

The lighting during their acid trip scene creates the perilous and sinister feeling that punctuates the moment for Luke’s mind, The mural of a skeletal man with red glowing eyes seems to represent the invasion of SAMO into Luke. The skeletons bones are broken and geometric on one half and whole and big on the other, the skeletons head has an outline of a quaff hairstyle, indicating a young Luke’s shell of inhabitance. The art of the set represents the dichotomy of location and mind, with the mural bridging the gap. One half of the set is Luke’s room, littered with artifacts, books and the walls strewn with words. The room represents Luke’s isolation and obsessive monument to his hero. The other half is the café and it represents Beth’s resignation to the mundane, and her interest in Luke comes from boredom and attraction.

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The two halves are never completely inactive, when Beth has discussions with her hiree and old friend Holly during Luke’s two-day absence, we see Luke in bed. While Holly and Beth argue and discuss Luke is scribbling and scrawling in the dark as the looming ghost torments him. The café has vibrancy in its barrenness, like a dessert. It’s dormancy and emptiness allows Beth, Holly and Luke to go wild and be unfiltered. The doorway acts as a means of punctuating feeling and creating a border. One moment that outlined the Paranormality of the ghost, is when he doesn’t respect the use of the door to leave the café, which is a clever use of blocking and stage production to illustrate the nature of the character. These different modes of storytelling are important layers, that assist the understanding of the different characters and their motives.

As the play progresses, similar patterns emerge and the tone shifts based on Luke’s progression through his art driven madness. Luke and Beth’s relationship goes from quarrelsome strangers to confidants to strained by Luke’s controlling and irrational behavior. Holly offers a comedic relief with her bubbly if not a bit bimboish demeanor and reveals in Luke his underlying ambition, saying things like “yeah he dated Madonna” (referring to Basquiat) and in response to Holly’s wondering if Luke will become a famous artist he says “yeah obviously the fame and fortune comes with that but that’s not what it’s about”, when in reality the truth for him is the exact opposite.

Holly attests to seeing it too, but is really just trying to win Luke’s favor and this leads Luke to questioning his position as ‘the chosen one’, this leads to his unraveling and towards a shift in the tone. The resolution of the story comes after a 20-minute intermission, with the climax coming towards the end, when Luke’s philosophical passion drives him to the point of violent action.

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Samo is Dead makes a statement about youth and the real issues of drug’s, identity and toxic relationships. It identifies the need for validation and it’s more destructive connotations in a world where feeling enough means fame and fortune. The play’s motif of modern youth speaks to a more universal idea of spiritual connection and its two main characters reflecting opposite attitudes in dealing with the numinous as well as the baleful aspects of humanity. I hope to see more works like this from Rabinowitz and commend the efforts of all involved.

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James NewboldComment