Review: Cougar (Orange Tree Theatre)

Rose Lewenstein’s new play opens at the Richmond venue

Mike Noble in Cougar
Mike Noble in Cougar
© The Other Richard

Sex, love, power and climate change make for a heady, disorientating cocktail in Rose Lewenstein's new play Cougar, premiering at the Orange Tree.

The 80-minute piece follows the forays of Leila, a mid-40s jetsetter touring the world encouraging billion-dollar firms to be more environmentally conscientious through keynote speeches, and her 20-something lover John who travels in tow following a drunken initial fling.

Lewenstein's script is relentless – scenes flicker from identical hotel room to identical hotel room as bitty morsels and moments blend together and repeat. Time loses meaning and a rouge pseudo-apocalyptic glow settles across the stage as John and Leila's affair spirals from sexual to supportive to surreal – at one point Leila devours a steak, delivered by a blood-soaked unnamed young man in a foreign city, who proceeds to crawls out of Rosanna Vize's hotel room set without saying a word. Thrown together before violently bouncing away from one another, what is at first a thrill of a fling ends up as a destructive rollercoaster of a relationship.

In isolation, the elements of Lewenstein's script could feel jarring, but they're deftly strung together by some slick, inspired direction from Chelsea Walker, returning to the Orange Tree following Low Level Panic in 2017. Special mention must also go to Jess Bernberg's lighting design, differentiating between the changes in time in Leila and John's affair with subtly differing gels across a panoply of lights. Vize's staging, which allows the couple's detritus to build up (bits of steak, empty bottles and beer spilling over the fluffy carpet) adds to a creeping sense of disrepair. It's an assured demonstration of how a creative team can be vital in clarifying the ambiguities of a text.

Charlotte Randle delivers a solid turn as Leila – holding all the reins yet almost unable to prevent herself from letting go as John's sexual advances continue. Mike Noble, with less to do than Randle, gives an intriguing performance as John – mingling an innate swagger with a constant sense of disbelief that his new jet-setting lifestyle isn't some fantasy.

But Lewenstein's script has a habit of feeling disparate – the environmental lectures Leila orates to the audience never feel relevant to the romance she has with John. Some of the later scenes begin to mystify rather than intrigue, and the absurdity starts to drag. Cougar is an unusual beast of a play for sure, but wins points for its brisk pace and novelty – telling the tale of two people who devour each other in a world that is devouring itself. There's enough here to be excited for whatever Lewenstein serves up next.