Picture: Mia Holton

Like an unexpected angry shout in a quiet room, this short, sharp play certainly grabs your attention.

The two-hander written and performed by Maitland Schnaars, with admirable support from Katya Shevstov, is a strong presence in the Fringe World theatre line-up.

First performed in 2010 by Schnaars and Samantha Murray for Corazon de Vaca and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, If I Drown I Can Swim is a lean, unadorned journey into the dark night of troubled masculinity.

As the medicine to the sugar of the comedy, cabaret and burlesque shenanigans elsewhere in the fringe program, this is sobering and unsettling stuff indeed.

At 55 minutes, not a second is wasted as Schnaars fluidly integrates personal stories of his own descent into the hell of psychiatric institutions with other accounts of beaten boys, abusive fathers, violent footballers and poets whose words arm them against the travails of the world.

Shevstov plays nurse, mother and lover to the disturbed Schnaars, whose central character is both one man and many men at once. All of them are blighted by dysfunctional relationships with their fathers, their sons, their wives, partners and themselves.

It might sound irredeemably grim and oppressive from an audience perspective but that is far from the case. There is a magnetic quality to Schnaar's performance and both actors do well in luring the audience into their on-stage world. Much is lost as this man tries to find himself but some form of redemption is at hand.

Directed by Joe Lui, the set, sound and lighting design is spare but affecting. A packed makeup table-cum-drugs dispenser turns out to be a hood-top barbecue once it is cleared of the debris of masquerade and abuse, and a dumbbell and football are swaddled like baby boys.

Big boys don't cry, the riff goes, but as this play asserts, a man disconnected from love and emotion is a hollow thing too easily filled with all kinds of junk.

If I Drown I Can Swim ends Saturday.

The West Australian

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