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Sunday 12 August 2018

Sport for Jove's Moby Dick @ Seymour Centre, lost in translation before me

Sport for Jove's most recent incarnation is a show you really want to like. Even for a man whose knowledge of Moby Dick is limited to the Simpsons parody and that one reference from Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, I could see that. The set, costumes, lighting and sound try to make the performance go the extra mile in typical Adam Cook fashion, bringing the whirlwind of voices, energy and bustle of an 1850s whaling ship to the Reginald stage. I never shy away from my adoration of Nigel Poulton's movement direction, particularly notable in last season's Prize Fighter at Belvoir, adding to this aforementioned energy and bustle. Yet, even for its visual strengths, the crux of the show is strangely missing; lost somewhere in the misguided acting of its cast and a strained chemistry between them that makes few performances bar Danny Adcock's Ahab and Tom Royce-Hampton's Ishmael believable.

It should be noted, first and foremost, that this is not a production of the original Moby Dick. Nor is it a product of the incomplete Orson Welles adaptation. Instead it is its own beast, attempting to distinguish itself by trying to represent the Pequod as a 'ship of state' - where the novel's 30 crewmembers (reduced to a cast of 10 in this show) represent the 30 states of America at the time. This, to me, adds a significant (and unnecessary) complication to the original story. Cook has but 90 minutes to not only tell a tale of blindness and loss, but also one of diversity and coming together. In his own words, he wanted to 'strike a balance between poetry, philosophy and narrative excitement'.

Instead, he creates a whale that big is simply too big to be killed by one harpoon.

There's no real way to do Mark Thompson's set design justice. Within a stage backed by four floor-to-lighting-rig wooden boards (hiding an impressive drum set), two ladders placed on each respective side of the performance space function beyond their literal means to become whales, barriers and planks. More often than not actors don't leave the stage but simply duck into peripheral view below lighting catwalks, resting on couches or simply sitting. You get a real sense of being on a ship and the kind of community that would typically come with it, complemented by immense Pirates of the Carribean-esque costuming (also on a side note if anyone's seen the most recent POTC film tell me if it's any good, I still haven't seen it) and some sophisticated azure/strobe lighting (bet that's the first time anyone's called strobe lighting 'sophisticated').

However, if I can't applaud the set enough, I certainly do have a limit with respect to the acting. The performance begins with a cacophonous collection of different cries from the same people, which creates just as much confusion from the audience as my explanation of it does. We see the same actors put on American, British, Australian and Irish accents constantly, making any kind of separation between them difficult. Not only does this force them to lose the clarity of their dialogue, making us wish they could just stick to one bloody persona, but also makes their performances sacrifice realism for making sure we understand that this play is not Australian. What also results from this big cast with little performance time is a lack of connection between them, making chorus scenes hard to watch as each actor understands their own objectives but not the objectives of others. Thus, songs of the sea delivered by the ensemble drag on; the stories they tell the audience lose the impact they could have had; and we are simply overloaded. No more is this lack of connection emphasised than whenever Adcock as Ahab talks to literally anyone, his delayed reactions and internalisation boosting his performance but creating awkwardness whenever he shares a duologue with black shipmate Pip (Rachel Alexander) or the under-utilised shipmate Starbuck (Francesca Savige).

What I also couldn't stand is the unequal character development. Royce-Hampton's Ishmael by far carries the cast - he sticks to one accent, holds the most belief in his lines, and creates a genuine chemistry between other characters and the audience (in times of fourth-wall breaking narration, which whilst intriguing in their experimental nature are too quick for the audience to fully appreciate). However, his role ends after the first half hour, becoming more and more insular as the play progresses. Hell, he even plays the drums or bangs on metal sheets in moments of intense action, creating incredible soundscapes as an actor but not even allowed to participate in such action as a character. Why? Why leave out the only character that the audience first connects with? Why delve into Pip's backstory in a 15-minute monologue (where again voice work and issues with belief plague her performance), only to have the audience never hear from her again after this? Why even include 3 characters the audience never really meets, shitting on your desire to represent diversity? It just doesn't make sense.

The play, and indeed the audience, finds itself understanding of the book's original theme of blindness. Except it's not blindness to reality, as I envision Herman Melville intending. It's a blindness to what the play is designed to tell its audience. There's simply too much going on for us to focus on one thing, let alone it all, and when we are forced to focus on something it is either irrelevant, ends just as quickly as it came, or overwhelmed by other stylistic factors. By all means come for the visual delights, but if you're looking for theatre that sets sail for one destination and sticks to it, perhaps wait at the dock a little longer.

Saturday 11 August 2018

Johnny Cobra's Floating Roadshow @ 107, dissected by (banh) me

Ah, how I've missed the 107. In many ways, it's like walking into my nan's place - saggy couches, artwork that's more or less there for the sake of being there, craft brews that mix coke, hazelnut and lager into a standard schooner, and an ominously vague but surprisingly appealing 'mystery house white'.

What I perhaps haven't missed as much was Tommy James Green, a man not much taller me, opening his own show in nothing but an unapologetic G-string. He had told me that his cast were 'tough little nuts' but my lord, those were some clangers of mf'ing steel.

Unfortunately, from that point on the ball dropped.

Tommy's latest hour of sketch theatre brings out some of his best-known work that dips its fingers into many pies - ranging from religion to cats, Santa to CD's, and flat earth to furballs. Yet even with its Short+Sweet alumni, there isn't much for all audiences to latch on to and take from the show, making it an hour of comedy that exhibits the comedic potential of its cast well but I struggled to connect with.

To me, the best types of comedy do three things: make you laugh, make you think, and make you remember them. For reference, my top 3 SNL sketches are Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song (yes it's not a real sketch but I'll be damned if it's not amazing), Wayne's World Driver's Ed (with Ed O'Neill), and Alec Baldwin's 'Schweddy Balls' segment. All of those are still relevant and immensely watchable (even though I'm not Jewish, don't drive, and can't bake). With them, I can sit and just marvel at the timeless naivety of the scriptwriting, adaptability of props and set pieces, and likeability of the characters. In JCFR, however, I'm left to drink 'mystery house white' until the performance ends or I pass out.

We've seen Adam and Eve's deception modernised in previous film, television and theatre shows before their role in the show's first sketch. Complete with sexism, a God that substitutes volume for comedic delivery in his over-used jokes 'I'm seeing Buddha for lunch', and a lycra-clad Lucifer that doesn't balance manipulative deviousness with the darker undertones upon which his comedy is based, it's been done before and done better. However, include a song about transitions that acts as a transition (that seems written last-minute but delivered angelically) and I'm in a good mood for the next sketch.

Segueing into a desperate St Nick and his little helper pleading for help with his fledgling toy business (which, we are told, DOES NOT exploit their workers or prioritise rich kids), we get a few laughs about milk and cookies, Shrek 2 and mall Santas, but these jokes are far and few between weaker punchlines that drag them down. Unfortunate. Transition with a juggling act though? Fire.

Lead from this into a Wilfred-esque piece where a date abruptly ends due to an annoying talking cat (again wearing clothing that placed significant emphasis on a crotch bulge seared into my memory for all the wrong reasons) and I, a proud dog man, am understanding but not empathic to the comedy of the situation. In fact, being subject to 14 minutes of cat-based humour with only a 1-minute duologue between man and dog is sure to make every basic bitch like me heckin' angery. I do believe this is the infamous 'Scratch' sketch, but all I was left to do was scratch my head and think about how much my dog was looking forward to seeing me at home. Combine this with a transition where we're forced to read cue cards (instead of having someone perform them in what could've been a well-acted bit) and I'm further left to miss Millie instead.

End with a sketch concerning the violent repercussions of not returning a Game of Thrones Season 2 DVD that underplays the effects of a rapidly-changing media industry and the performance seems dated and misguided, missing a chance to make a real statement about digitisation to instead explore how much British people love Mary Poppins among other things. It's comedy that might be enjoyed by the right audience with the right amount of alcohol, but beyond this niche perhaps not.

What's a real shame is the hidden gems in each performance that are funny but under-utilised. Shrek 2 is in many ways a treasure trove for comedy, but its presence in the second sketch is short-lived. The henchman-sweetheart of the final sketch 'Johnny the C*nt' has a name sure to make any woman swoon but its comedic potential just isn't employed after the first two minutes of the performance. I was left wanting more but getting none.

Ultimately, I was made to laugh - but not to think or remember. And even the laughter was only on occasion. I just feel I was the wrong audience member for a show like this. If you're in Redfern, in your late 20s-early 30s with nothing to do and own a cat, drop by. But otherwise, let this Floating Roadshow float right away, all G-strings and crotch bulges included.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Webster's Bar/Hell's Canyon @ The Old 505, dissected by (the new) me

Today we've got a double bill - a quick writeup of Webster's Bar in Newtown and a longer piece on an actual show.

Lovely place Webster’s. Putting forward a traditional Western vibe, with country music, bare brick walls, and an extensive collection of American and international whiskeys/bourbons/spirits, it’s easy to get lost in the fantasy of the place. Too bad your wallet doesn’t. A basic Schnitty (whose salad dressing actually made me want to eat it for once) and whiskey combo (1792 port cask) set me back $40 - a fortune for someone my age and income level. Perhaps the $14 pizza may have been better. I did like the fact the food was brought to you, and quickly – buzzers are such a buzzkill. The menu, also, is very clear about the differences between American, Japanese, and other bourbons/whiskeys - I’m not an expert on this so found it very helpful when deciding tipple of choice. In essence, come for the drinks, stay for the drinks. I was in and out in 20 minutes.

Anyway, to the show.

Hell’s Canyon is a show that demands a lot from its two-person cast. Rambunctious sexual deviant Caitlin (Isabelle Ford) and timid self-proclaimed loser Oscar (Conor Leach), for reasons initially confusing to the audience, go from hooking up in a park to making a blood pact which sees them run away from home. As the play unravels, and Caitlin’s backstory is slowly revealed, the motives behind this escape become clearer. Guided by a mix of self-hatred, self-loathing and Nesquik, the duo take us on a journey of emptiness, companionship, and deception, where running away from one’s issues creates more problems than it solves.

Or, rather, they attempt to. Ford, as Caitlin, needs to be everything at once – delicate and commanding, frightened yet fearless, manipulative but controllable. However, a sense of her vulnerability comes too late into the performance (in part due to the script, which often struggles to emphasise this aspect of her character). The early emphasis on her tough-as-nails persona, no thanks to her constant use of the sophisticated phrase ‘dick cheese’, makes it difficult for our perception of her to change; particularly in moments where the lights transform ultraviolet and she flashes back to her past, describing amphetamine-induced hallucinations of fantastical landscapes, which requires a naivety to her character we just don’t buy. Leach’s Oscar is a likeable, witty character who comes into his own in an engaging manner; but unfortunately, his development is rendered a subplot in the whole story. Ultimately, we never get a complete sense of emptiness between the two until the last 15 minutes of the hour-long performance; the need to escape their lives and get ‘sucked up into the Earth’ has some dramatic impact, but could have been stronger had unnecessary dialogue been removed and characterisation fleshed out more.

That being said, there’s something oddly alluring about Tyler Ray Hawkin’s set/lighting design alongside other lighting designer Martin Kinnane that makes the play shine (literally and figuratively). Each character, at various points in the play, interacts with a brick wall that separates backstage from onstage. For Oscar, it’s his canvas for a rudimentary chalk outline of Caitlin, and for Caitlin a place to lean, close her eyes, and begin her flash-back sequences. However, as the lighting changes ultraviolet at these points, a perfect UV outline of her body appears. A gash under the right knee methodically drips ultraviolet ink. These drips aren’t quick nor slow, but incredibly well-timed to the pacing of Caitlin’s monologues in these moments. It’s addictive to watch and incredible to behold. Bravo.

All in all, Hell’s Canyon is much like a real canyon - a bit too long and drawn out. Whilst one does get an appreciation for the play three quarters into it, the $40 ticket gets them in the red before the show has even started. The script and acting undulate to make this experience a hike instead of a stroll, but some brilliant design choices save the day by giving us a lovely view along the way.

~ Pick up tickets at ~

Wednesday 1 August 2018

Shit On Your Play - The Return

Boy, it's been a while.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. For too long the theatre scene has cruised by, enjoying season upon season of relaxed reviews, confused critics, and dumbfounded displays of 'art'. But it's time to bring back the truth to media. Put the Play back in Shit On Your Play.

Now, as you may have guessed, I am not Jane (as nice as that would be). So I suppose first thing's first, hello! I am Manan. I've been writing reviews for some time now and have had the privilege to know Jane and her work. I am a gin enthusiast but love an old fashioned. I wish I was better at golf. I did one trial shift as a barback and nearly cried. I once wanted to be the first man to sail the Bermuda Triangle unharmed. Now, I hold the lofty task of running things on this great blog. A blog that returns control of Sydney theatre to the people.

Much like things used to be, I welcome your comments. I look forward to sharing with you what's going on in Sydney. We'll cover plays (as is obvious), occasionally a bar or two, perhaps some visual art, or even music - so get ready for more. I'll be using Facebook and Twitter like never before to increase this discussion.

So without further ado, let's get to it. Catch me at the Old 505 this Friday for the opening of Hell's Canyon, PACT next week for SheShakespeare's Macbeth, and Moore Park in 2 weeks time for the Pop-Up Globe's opening night of Macbeth.

Oh Sydney, we're going to have such a wonderful few seasons together.

~Also, whilst Jane and I sort out the handover process, bear with me as I change a few details on the site. As Terminator tells us, machines are scary, unpredictable things.~