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Friday, 31 October 2014

ENSEMBLE’S ‘BLUE/ORANGE’ dissected by me

Although my incessant squirming throughout the show because I find the seats at the Ensemble profoundly uncomfortable (and I probably have ADHD), Joe Penhall’s ‘Blue/Orange’, directed by Anna Crawford, is a very engaging examination of the bureaucracy of psychiatry and the relationships and consequences of those who practice and fall victims to it.

‘Blue/Orange’ starts with an excited Christopher (Dorian Nkono), about to be released after a 28 day stint in mandatory psychiatric care against his case worker’s advice, Bruce (Ian Meadows) and thus begins a conflict with his supervisor Robert (Sean Taylor). Politics abound and status shifts see us embroiled in not only questioning Christopher’s mental health but the sordid power-plays of those meant to be caring for the mentally ill. It’s a damning reflection on medical and office economics, authority, factionalism and an interesting form of psychological warfare.

This is a strong cast and they deliver Penhall’s script with professional ease. Crawford allows the humour and nuance to emerge amongst the satire and drama of the unfolding events. The beautiful interplay between Meadows and Taylor as their relationship turns sour and dimensions of character escalate as we see them journey from professional discussions into professional assassination. Nkono’s Christopher also finds a grounding in his energy and focus that allows his actions and character to show great conviction and make us question the nature of his illness and let us dance on the precipice of diagnosis until the play’s natural conclusion allows us to swing more definitely in one direction.

There is plenty of tension in this wordy play and yet each phrase captures the essence of action inherent in the intentions of each character.  Tobhiyah Stone Feller’s set, especially expressed in the ink blot style Rorschach test, glowing with a blue/orange hue from Christopher Page’s lighting design (see what they did there- clever indeed) thrusts us into the psychology of this play and to place our own symbolic meaning on its context and what we see when we look at the visual world of the mise-en-scene provided to us in that moment.


‘Blue/Orange’ should be another crowd pleaser for Ensemble and this one has plenty of substance and appeal and is backed up by a great production in cast, design and direction. If you haven’t made the trip to the Ensemble yet this year, this is the one to get to. No test required and no mandatory detention or therapy needed post show. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

ACT IV’S ‘FIVE WOMEN WEARING THE SAME DRESS’ dissected by me

At the Tap Gallery, the show really starts in the foyer. Not officially, of course, but between the shelves of second hand books, the eclectic seating, the ragamuffin accessories and collectables and a proprietor who happily converses, monologue-style, with all who enter, make me feel as if the play on offer actually runs second billing to the pre-show entertainment. Last night I learnt, in this order, all about Lucy, the chimpanzee, who wanted to have sex with humans and thought she was human and was released, disastrously, back into the wild and that the council have ruled that the performance space at the Tap must close in a week as the permit has been revoked. I realise that Alan Ball’s play ‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ might be the last show we see at the Tap and pray it serves its space well.

Act IV, boasts it “is a female-run company with a passion for thought-provoking theatre, exploring and celebrating stories about being a woman”. It is an admirable mission indeed. Employing director Deborah Jones to take the four founding members of the company with the rest of its cast into the world of Ball’s play (from Six Feet Under and American Beauty fame) was a much bigger mission that didn’t always work but for the most part, captured the witty essence of Ball’s work.

‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ tells the story of five Knoxville bridesmaids, dressed in the taffeta glory reminiscent of bad weddings in the 1980’s and 90’s and as each of the bridesmaids take solace in the bride’s younger sister’s room, they reveal their desires, celebrate their identity, bemoan their situations and bitch tirelessly about their dislike for the bride, about men and sometimes about themselves. One of Alan Ball’s early works, it still contains the humour and depth we see in his later work but a little less defined and its ending still relies on the presence of a man coming to the rescue of a woman, insinuating that women don’t really know what they want. It’s a little anti-climatic but there’s a lot there that takes it beyond its ending.

There’s a considerable amount of ‘acting’ happening on stage and if you can see it, it’s not quite working as a believable piece of theatre. The reality is that these founding members have been miscast for this play and so as their characters, they don’t always capture the complexity of their characters and lack conviction. Add to that, there’s a mistimed rhythm that drags out the dialogue and allows gaping holes between lines that are as large as the taffeta sleeves on those dresses. It means that the first half in particular feels contrived, rehearsed and static. Jones needs to try to overcome some acting issues by pumping out the pace of that action and not allowing all the ‘face-acting’, props-playing and staring off into space that make us acutely aware of the limitations of her cast.

But there are times when the play steams along and is relatively engaging (except when the air conditioning is off and I’m sweating like the sixth bridesmaid in taffeta). By far the strongest of the cast is Eleanor Ryan as Mindy, lesbian sister to the groom. She had belief and integrity in the role and managed to find the comic timing without overworking it. Kaitlin DeLacy (Meredith) had moments, especially when accessing the high emotions like anger but didn’t find the tension and conviction needed in her revelation to make that work quite as well. Mel Ryan(Trisha) also found moments of subtlety but the lack of sexual tension between her and Nadim Accari (Tripp) was disappointing, given its importance to end the character's journey. But for the most part, they carried the play and gave their audience of friends and family a show that they enjoyed.

Production values are always going to be compromised at the Tap- it’s essentially a four day run in a lounge room space with limited technological resources. But designers Gloria Bava (costumes) and Tristan Carey (set) create more than ample opportunities to allow the visual effrontery of those dresses to tell us everything we need to know about the bride, the wedding and its desired effect of humiliating the women and the space in which they find themselves.

I have to commend Act IV for attempting to find plays that allow women to take the stage and deal with gender issues and equity. But they do need to keep honing their craft if they want to sustain that vision beyond their network of supporters. ‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ goes some way to delivering that ideal but still has some way to go.


Monday, 27 October 2014

GRIFFIN THEATRE’S ‘EMERALD CITY’ dissected by me

There’s nothing more I enjoy than a trip down the memory lane of the 1980’s. The decadence, the fashion, the music, the hedonism, are all traits that are recorded in pictorial glamour of my own teenage years during that decade. And when I say glamour, I mean downright tragic choices burned into the pages of my photo albums.

Griffin’s production of David Williamson’s ‘Emerald City’, with its Ken Done surround set-scapes, pays homage to the hits and the colourful brush strokes of themes such as the portrayal of money over morals. Encapsulating Sydney at the time, the play features its own tragic choices of an era that couldn’t sustain itself and lived on a diet of pills, pomposity and speculation. Williamson’s ‘Emerald City’ is the story of Melbourne couple Colin (Mitchell Butel) and Kate (Lucy Bell), who move to Sydney for work and struggle to adjust to Sydney’s ruthless pursuit of the dollar over integrity and each have to make choices about how to survive and adapt. Amongst that, they meet Mike (Ben Winspear), whose lack of talent is no hindrance to his ambition and he soon overleaps obstacles of expectations by selling out the Australian Identity to acquire the Australian Dream of that ‘place near the harbour’. Described as ‘part love letter and part hate mail to the harbour city’, it is indeed both of those things.

This is classic Williamson which means that there is plenty of wit and plot intrigue but there’s a little something missing in regards to emotion. Williamson is the sledgehammer of political playwrights. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in humour and social satire. There are genuine moments of laughter that come out of this play, even if the relationships feel more transactional than truthful. 

Butel and Bell bring an air of Melbourne superiority to their characters and tackle the tension of the clash of cultures and the status transition of their marriage with the skill of actors who have been at the top of their game for a long time. Winspear’s Mike was not so deftly portrayed. Replacing Marcus Graham in the last stages of rehearsal (does anyone else have a problem imagining Graham as Mike?), Winspear’s strained accent felt like he was pushing too hard. Director Lee Lewis should have helped him pull back as Mike is already ‘overpainted’, like a Done harbour portrait, and it meant that the gruff confident idiocy of Mike becomes a caricature of himself in a world where he was already bordering on that anyway. It’s too much and at times, hard to watch. Jennifer Hagan’s Elaine captured the comedy and has some of the best lines. Pity Hagan didn’t always land them and there were some flustered moments when it looked as if the actors were line grabbing to get back on track. Kelly Paterniti as Helen read as a young casting choice and gave an interesting dramatic interpretation to the seedy superficiality of Sydney when the ingĂ©nue lusted after by the men of the play looks barely legal. But Williamson at least gives some intelligence and depth to his female characters in ‘Emerald City’ and the direct audience addresses do go some way to expressing vulnerability and intentions as the plot unfolds.

The first thing that does catch your eye as you walk into the space is the Ken Done design, done by the Done himself. It’s as colourful as you remember and captures the Australian kaleidoscope of light, bright, gaudy glamour of the era. Sophie Fletcher’s costumes, by contrast, try to tone down the excess of the era by giving a stylish sense of the time- lacking in pretension and playing to the alternative artsy intelligence of Melbournian orphans in the social cyclone of Sydney. Whilst the costumes don’t speak specifically of the time, the set well and truly does all the work and allows for a subdued design vision in other areas.

Lewis has given a faithful rendition of a Williamson classic and apart from refining some of the bigger and brasher choices that push the play into one-dimensional -stereotypes (more Warwick Capper than Christopher Skase), she’s made a good fist of it.


It’s good to see the season finish with an old-school Australian play that reminds us of our canon of classics and our theatrical and social history.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

STC & MALTHOUSE THEATRE’S ‘CALPURNIA DESCENDING’ dissected by me

When I saw Sisters Grimm perform ‘Little Mercy’ last year, I thought it was brilliant. Their ‘Summertime in the Garden of Eden’ at Griffin- terrific. So I eagerly awaited ‘Calpurnia Descending’, currently playing in Wharf 2 at the Sydney Theatre Company and no one was more surprised than me as I sat agape for the first fifteen minutes wondering if the parody inherent in their ‘gay DIY drag-theatre’ was now a (very pretty) pony that I have seen ride around the stadium one too many times.

The play deals with the reappearance of the once thought dead Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis) by young and hopeful starlet/telegram girl, Violet St Clair (Ash Flanders). It quickly captures an era of a late 1930’s New York kind of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis rivalry as the ‘ladies’ fight for the attention of director (Peter Paltos) and the starring role in a play about the women of Julius Caesar, aptly named Calpurnia Descending. And no Broadway show is complete without producer, Max Sylvestri (Sandy Gore), debt-ridden and desperate and some intrigue about the fate of the show. 

There were times it was genuinely entertaining and times when ‘Calpurnia Descending’ felt distinctly clunkish. As a live action theatre show, it doesn’t quite work. The ham-acting has a short shelf-life and after the establishment of plot and character, you wonder what else it has in the tank. And then the emergence of a giant dancing rat telling people to ‘stay in school’…well, ‘you dirty rat’ is the closest I can come to trying to explain that. But then through use of live action film, ala Hollywood black and white movies, broadcast onto the scrim for us whilst the real action is happening behind the curtain, the play literally takes off.

‘Calpurnia Descending’ works as a film in the environment of live theatre. It’s a strange contradiction in terms, to sit in a theatre and watch the action, hidden from view, unfold as a live video feed. The acting conventions of the Sisters Grimm are perfect for this- hysterical hyper-realism, melodramatic mayhem.

Ash Flanders is exceptional at drag. Hedda Gabler he ain’t but frocked-up-innocent-scream-queen, that’s his forte. I found Flanders the strongest thing about the show but Gore’s Sylvestri was also very good. Paltos plays the romantic interest with great awe and energy and Paul Capsis ran hot and cold for me. His classic drag skill is indisputable but maybe I just prefer more fish than fierce (oh I feel so RuPaul just saying that). I think you either love Capsis or perhaps his work doesn’t sit well with you. It’s drag on steroids and I could drive a truck through the gaps in dialogue and high drama so I think I just prefer the subtlety of Flanders in this regard. However, once we hit the film portion of the night, Capsis comes into his own and he drives that truck all the way to the end. He’s not afraid of the grotesque and for that I am grateful, even if I don’t always love it.

Jed Palmer’s sound design is exceptional in creating life beyond the screen and capturing the atmosphere of the parody of place and genre and Matthew Greenwood’s animation with Matthew Gingold’s design provides a lovely blend of contemporary commercialism with old world horror.
Declan Greene’s writing and direction truly knows how to shock in the most matter-of-fact ways and loves to leave its audience with sometimes more questions than comfort. But it’s still a breath of fresh air in many ways in its lavish experimentation of style and form and the techniques employed. But to have to keep reinventing the wheel to keep it fresh is an enormous pressure for the Sisters Grimm and I hope they continue the drive. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

NEW THEATRE’S ‘HARVEST’ dissected by me

It’s been a long time between reviews but the traveller has now returned and is ready to answer the call.

Last week I headed to the New to see Richard Bean’s ‘Harvest’, directed by Louise Fischer. You are probably more familiar with Bean’s later play, ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’, which is a lovely interplay of 1950’s rock and roll and commedia style playfulness, complete with audience interaction, bumbling farce and the decimation of an audience ‘plant’ as a reinvention of Goldoni’s ‘Servant of Two Masters’. ‘Harvest’ doesn’t have the control or flair of ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’ but it attempts something epic- 100 year in the life of Yorkshire farmer, William, as he journeys from young WWI soldier to legless (a war injury) pig farmer to ruthless wheelchair bound vigilante. Fill that with a large cast of bit players who feature in different parts of William’s life- his mother, his brother, his love interest, his nieces, the local squire, the German prisoner of war, the local lads who try to rob his house- well, it’s like a musical without the music or a melodrama without the melo. Sounds outrageous?  It is and its black comedy is scattered throughout the narrative but unfortunately not always mastered in rhythm and timing, especially in the first hour, when this harvest had spent just too long in the sun and was a tad overripe.

But apart from some very, very dodgy accents and missed comic timing and a desire for this play to reach its conclusion quicker than what it did, there are a few bright moments in this long play that are worth mentioning. Jeremy Waters (William) had to carry the load of this play and although there were times dialogue was declaimed and overdone, I felt like he was doing his best to compensate for his more inexperienced counterparts who struggled to get lines out and land delivery. Waters certainly has energy and skill in finding the mischievousness intent in our protagonist and damn straight, I wouldn’t mess with him, wheelchair or not.

Peter Eyers as Lord Agar/Young Agar was probably my highlight of the night. The play came to life once he entered, wrapped in his outlandish fur jacket and doing his dance of the Eskimos. Proficient in accent, gesture and attitude, Eyers was the first to capture the earnest comedy with the expert playing of English farce like an unleashed episode of John Cleese in ‘Fawlty Towers’. Benjamin Vickers was the other highlight as pig farmer Titch, suicidal and sociopath, Vickers made his rogue the most lovable of the night.

There’s some nice soundscapes to create the world of rural Yorkshire for us- from clopping horses, birds and other sounds of nature from Alistair Wallace and Tony Youlden has accentuated this with a tightening of light as the decades progress, from the lightness of the early years to a vague dim wash and deepening shadows at the end. Bethany Sheehan’s set was functional and as non-descript as you’d want for a set that has to span a hundred years. Plenty of nooks and crannies to add theatrical interest and reminiscent of my grandmother’s old kitchen in its dirty muted sunshine yellow cupboards and drawers. Small changes like the radio, updated to indicate time shifts, kept us alert to the progressing narrative. But what ‘Harvest’ truly needed was some professional accent coaching.


I think Fischer has given the cast all the tools (minus accents) and as the season progresses, this show will tighten and if they can shave off the lag in delivery, this could be worth viewing. At the moment, it’s hard going at times. There’s a lack of subtlety when it’s needed and some relationships, like William and Maudie, lack conviction. 

Kudos for the ambition of the show but it’s not reaping all that it sows. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

PACT FRINGE DOUBLE - THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR 'ALL THE SINGLE LAD(IE)S + HIM dissected by Hayley

Spring is a happening and so is the wonder that is the Sydney Fringe Festival. So I bounced on down to PACT to catch a double bill of The Cutting Room Floor's- 'All the Single Lad(ie)s' and Coleman Grehan's 'Him'.

I really love the courtyard at PACT. The atmosphere is chilled and welcoming. They serve wine in plastic picnic cups. I like this. No pretensions here.
So when the theatre opened almost half an hour later than it was meant to, I barely noticed the time as I moseyed on into All the Single Lad(ies).



All the Single Lad(ie)s


I take my seat in the almost completely packed theatre. White Ikea furniture frames the stage. A rack of dresses in various shades of white hangs from the ceiling. We are greeted by a drag queen who would become our MC and inner voice for the 50 minute duration. Although her red dress a little too tight and heels a little too high, she assures us she knows what she is doing and for a minute I believe her. Then she starts with the anti-feminist rhetoric. I am immediately defensive. Although she does make the point of targeting “radical feminists” I have to admit, I don't think the women's rights movement has come far enough that we should be worrying that the balance has tipped the other way. If the day does come that men's rights are frequently abused, I will sash-up and Mister Suffragette for the cause. But that time is not now. I fold my arms across my chest and wonder how far this will go. Thankfully it's not long, the MC does a Beyonce number and leaves the stage.

We are then catapulted into the world of a small boutique shop and the lone shop attendant getting a little too into the shops soundtrack. To briefly recap the narrative; a man uses a gun to hold up the shop attendant only to have the gun turned on him. He is consequently tied up by the attendant, and after one bout of consensual sex, he is trapped in the store and used as her plaything, long after he was willing to consent.

I don't think this piece is intentionally anti-feminist. It possibly would have had more impact if it had attempted to tell the story outside the context of gender, instead of just reversing the genders, a gimmick that is used far too often.

Periodically our MC returns to perform more drag, which is fun, but her insights into gender theory were mostly confused and often miss the mark. The performance uses very little subtlety with its themes of consent, power and gender roles.

However Scott Corbet's direction was superb, the use of split focus during the rape scenes made something that is essential unwatchable, less painful. The performances where all solid, especially Verity Softly's performance as the shopkeeper. There is something about her that is just so watchable. She has an incredible emotional depth for someone so young.

So I guess “All the Single Lad(ie)s just felt a little confused. I feel like it had good intentions, but possibly would benefit from some more thorough research in gender theory. It's a shame because I think perhaps it could have been more than just a vehicle for soapboxing an idea that perhaps doesn't really deserve a platform.

So I walked back into PACT's courtyard, feeling confused and a little disappointed, eagerly checking out the program for the next show.


Him


So as a rule I am not a huge fan of performance art. I've got this bee in my bonnet about things that I consider are potential 'wankery'. Maybe it is a throw back to my rural upbringing. Although I am a huge fan of experimental film makers such as Matthew Barney and Jan Svankmajer, so maybe my line of what is wankery and non-wankery is a little ambiguous. I think I can narrow my definition of wankery down to this: if I feel the form is obscuring the meaning, due to self indulgence, I chuck it in the wankery basket. You can be as self indulgent as you like, as long as you aren't pitching it as entertainment and asking me to pay to see it.

Reading the program I begin to worry that Him, was going to be largely a piece of wankery. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised. 'Him' uses the Japanese form of dance theatre, Butoh, as a medium to tell the story of a past relationship and it's collapse. For the uninitiated (as I was) Butoh is traditionally performed with an artist, or artists, fully painted white, using hyper-slow movements to tell a story.

I've never seen any Butoh before so I can't comment on whether he nailed it or not. I can say that I enjoyed it. Coleman combined his spit with pigment and painted his body to demonstrate the emotional stages of a previous relationship. It felt deeply personal and I felt connected to Coleman Grehan during the whole performance. Grehan's performance can only be described as beautiful. The sound design (also created by Grehan) complimented the performance perfectly.

I left this performance feeling refreshed. It was short, about 30 mins in total, which was perfect for my Gen Y attention span.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

GRIFFIN INDEPENDENT & WHITE BOX THEATRE’S ‘UNHOLY GHOST’ dissected by Rhiona

The loss of a parent: something we have all faced or will face in years to come. It will never seem fair, or right, or time. No matter the circumstance, it will incite a myriad of emotions – some we didn’t even know we could feel. Unholy Ghost navigates through a world of grief and through this, emerges a familiar portrait of life – one pervaded by absurdity and unexplainable occurrences, at times endearing experiences and at others, heartbreaking ones.

Campion Decent’s remarkably real play highlights the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of a dysfunctional family. The play follows the story of a middle-aged playwright (James Lugton), who is faced with the imminent death of both of his parents. Lugton performs with warmth and confidence and interacts with the audience with ease. He is playful and conversational, bridging us to his story.

One cannot dismiss the Mother (Anna Volska) and Father (Robert Alexander), whose individual stories and performances reduced me to tears. They encapsulated the foibles and eccentricities of their characters - the slightly racist remarks, the irrational behaviour and the terribly frustrating conversations, all the things that mean nothing when we have to finally consider a parent’s eventual passing.

There were moments that played upon the sensitivity of the subject matter and at times it was all snatched out from under us. It was this cyclical and lifelike approach to the writing that made it so successful. 

Director Kim Hardwick brought the absolute best out of Decent’s writing and Michael Huxley’s sound design added sentimentality to the play, with glimmers of music in the opening scenes, recurring later in a bittersweet reprise. 

The production design by Martin Kinnane was a downfall though - the red velvet carpet felt kitsch and unnecessary. Also, the bubbles, disco lights and 80s music at the end wasn’t exactly the ending I was hoping for. It seemed to dismiss the sadness, undermine the reality and upset the natural course of the drama. It sort of flung it all away in one grand gesture of “carpe diem” when so much of the play seemed to assert a different attitude.

Having said that, it is poignant writing and it undeniably resonates with us all – it reminds us of the fragility of life, and rationalizes the complex and, at times, incomprehensible relationships we have with our parents.  Unholy Ghost is a beautiful trinity of mother, father and son; past, present and future; devastating, delightful and delicate.