Lally Katz in Stories I Want To Tell You In Person | Belvoir St (Pic: Heidrun Lohr)

Lally Katz is one brave heart. She’s had one other acting gig: as a rabbit. To take one’s writing to the stage, as a performer, rings a few warning bells. Or it would, if Katz’ writing wasn’t so damn up close and personal and if she didn’t have a larger-than-life personality which more than suffices for stage presence and substitutes for a “character”.

And that’s one of the most interesting aspects of this piece: the confluence between Katz the person and Katz the persona; it’s a fluid merge, which ebbs and flows through the monologue, but errs in favour of a persona. Well, you’ve gotta have a mask, I guess. Happily, it’s a pretty thin veil, it would seem. So what you see is what you get. Katz is the real deal, albeit a more energetic, engaged deal than one usually gets.

It turns out she and I actually have something in common. As she puts it, I’m Jewish, in the wrong direction. Our fathers are Jewish. “Hitler would have killed me, but some Jews don’t accept me.” Ouch! But true. An amazing thing, for a not-very-actor, is that there’s nary a stumble and if, at any point, she’s lost for words (not something I imagine would commonly afflict Ms K in the day-to-day), it doesn’t show; perhaps it’s easier to remember lines you’ve written.

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She steps out from behind a shimmering gold curtain, a kind of glitzy, oversized grass skirt of Ralph Myers’ design, lit to blind us, apparently, by Damien Cooper. Couldn’t quite discern the rationale, unless to emulate Katz’ sparkling personality or, perhaps, to evoke the kind of mystery Katz encountered (and describes, at such length) in numerous New York fortune-telling salons. Dunno. Much fun is had with marks, with a gigantic “STAND HERE” taped to the floor.

From the first, Katz exudes the life-force: Darth Vader’s invocation has sure worked on her. She begins at the beginning. She was born in Trenton, New Jersey. You can take the girl out of New Jersey, but you can’t take the New Jersey out of the girl. Least not all of it. Her speech still carries a heavy legacy. The best approximation to our ears is probably Fran Drescher, even if she hails from Queens. Anyay, from Trenton the Katz family moved to, of all unlikely places, Canberra (specifically, the suburb of Kambah), incredibly, via Miami. A least, even in winter, Miami has vice. Canberra just has ice (no, I mean as in frozen water). That kind of geographical dislocation is enough to induce psychosis. In LK, it did something similar, I guess. It turned her into a writer.

Her first big culture shock came at, as she puts it, “approximately eight-and-three-quarters years old”. She confided a diary entry to her next-door neighbour, Meagan Hannah. In it she proclaimed: “I love my mother; I love my father; I love my brother; I love myself.” These days, I guess, it might be regarded as a powerful affirmation, but not in Canb’ra, back in the day. And let’s face it, we still cringe a bit at American self-confidence. Though perhaps not as much as Fady Saab, who shook his head in disbelief, admonishing with, “I can’t believe you love yourself!”.

This anecdote exemplifies Katz’ congenial cleverness. After all, Stories is largely about the quest for love, not least of self. But she wraps pathos in leavening humour, to alleviate her pain and entertain. She has other instruments to massage away distress: literary tranquillisers, in the form of The Apocalypse Bear and The Hope Dolphin. They’re imaginary friends that hark back to her teenhood. On stage, the bear is made palpable, which is novel. No one expects to see a bear at Belvoir’s Downstairs space. Upstairs, sure. But not down.

The bear is a knight in shining armour. Well, hairy armour. A rescuer. A prince. The dolphin is much more elusive, as anyone who’s ever hoped and had their hopes dashed will fully realise. Perhaps it was personal torment that led Katz to move from being an innocent bystander or casual observer of what was happening to her to an active participant, inasmuch as she began to incorporate her experience in her writing. She lived it, in the sense of fully inhabiting it, eating, drinking and breathing it, so she could write it.

She jokes, “now I actually create situations and relationships so that I can write about them”. The eureka moment that precipitated this shamelessly utilitarian exploitation was an encounter with her Hungarian neighbour “the morning after the Rudd government got voted in”. Katz “went out on the street to see if the world looked more hopeful”. Anna Bojniak sounds eerily like my diminutive grandmother, of the same extraction. Tough. Blunt, to the point of brutal. Steel armour (unlike the bear). Heart of gold. (Actually, if I was in a generous mood, I’d probably donate the memories and anecdotes of Magda to Katz character factory.)

By now you’ll be getting, I should think, some idea of Katz’ capacity to spellbind and regale. There are plenty of twists in her tales, which have a fictional quality about them. By this, I mean the ordinary people she meets are rendered extraordinary. (Or perhaps she’s luckier than many of us and just meets extraordinary people.) In fact, everything becomes as vivid, larger than life and hairy as the towering Apocalypse Bear.

There are further encounters with Anna, close encounters with Katz’s boys, “the full Jew” and weird encounters with rivalrous New York psychics, Cookie and Bella. She portrays, invents, or reinvents these characters. It doesn’t really matter which. This is the point at which she shows how much of an actor she really is. Cookie might as well be called Crookie, given her ask for routine curse removal. Katz steps outside herself to give us the full nasality of a Queens drawl or, worse still, Staten Island twang. “COOKIE. I knew you’d come in here. ME. This impresses me.” As with Anna, her technique (and accent) may not be textbook, but she makes the character and situation so vivid we can see her there. Better: we’re there with her. Her incarnation of the morbidly obese, gruff baritone, Bella, is just as vivid.

“I still talk to Anna on the phone most days and she still gives me constant romantic advice. Please don’t send him the message. Don’t ring him. He don’t vunt you now because he is on the horse. Vhen he no more got the horse, then he need the donkey. You is the donkey! You make yourself donkey.”

Anna’s almost always right, no doubt. So was my grandmother. Almost. But not about this. Katz is no donkey. She’s a writer. An actor. And a horse. Eat your heart out, Black Caviar.

The details: Stories I Want To Tell You In Person plays Belvoir St’s Downstairs Theatre until May 26. Tickets on the company website.

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