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Sunday 23 September 2018

The Ghost Train @ Genesian Theatre, dissected by Kat & me

I do hope I'm not the only one who's going to be upset when the Genesian Theatre's days are up. Their production of The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year was good fun, their old-timey-wimey aesthetic unmatched, and their ability to cast actors who look exactly as you would expect their characters to is very strong. In many ways it feels like a theatre stuck in an earlier time, exaggerating romanticised and stereotypical notions of the performing arts in a weirdly wonderful way.
I think this idea of sticking to the past is what dictates many virtues of their production of Arnold Ridley's The Ghost Train. It's an entertaining 'stranded with strangers' comedy-thriller that creates amusing moments of incredulity through its emphasis on melodrama, with beautiful stage and costume design to boot (no pun intended). Yet, this constant need to conform is also the harbinger of its vices - excessive over-acting, tumultuous vocal work and varying degrees of chemistry between the cast make this train journey a real bumpy ride.
As always, the cast physically embody their characters almost too perfectly. Kieran Foster as Charles Murdock, young, tall, brown-haired and handsome in his navy suit, alongside Nicole Wineberg as his blonde, leggy, upper-class wife-to-be Peggy, fit the mold of a young couple deeply in love to a tee. John Willis-Richards as the irritable Richard Winthrop, with his broad shoulders and Tom Selleck-esque moustache, is a perfect foil to foster's dainty Charles; so too is Zoe Crawford as Richard's brazen wife Elsie to Wineberg's somewhat modest Peggy. Tristan Black, making his play debut as train conductor Teddie Deakin, the glue that held the characters together, and all the other supporting cast are exact caricatures of characters, visually giving the audience exactly what they expect to see.

Again, Genesian delivers in the aesthetics department. Set and Costume Designer Ash Bell gives us 1920s England in all its colourful, silky, well-dressed glory. Every bowtie, brogue and brooch is as symbolic as it is stylish, from late entrant Julia Price (Julia Campbell’s second-half character) deceptively pure white clothing to (also late entrant) Dr Sterling's (Elizabeth MacGregor) underwhelmingly simple garments slightly offset by a blooming pearl necklace. The eerie platform set was well formed, with all its dust covered wooden furniture, balking floorboards, and murky windows. Ash really grasped the true facets of a ghostly atmosphere from which the mystery manifests. Bravo Bell.

Coming to the actual performance, we start to experience some delays.

One must question why a clearly boring script was allowed to take effect without much consideration for the entertainment quality that is expected in light of today’s theatrical standards. The comedic elements, limited to slapstick style and melodramatic components, were just a bit too over the top for a (presumably) sophisticated audience. This is best seen in Campbell's entire first half performance, where she plays the outrageous octogenarian Ms Bourne (also, if anyone can tell me what her closing lines were at the play's end that would be much appreciated).

Traditional English accents are largely adhered to, but Peggy, Bourne and Sterling (whose pacing and lack of energy gets exhausting at times) do occasionally slip back into the convict tongue. By contrast, one can't hear half of Fal Vale station attendant Saul Hodgkin's (Mark Langham) dialogue - his attempted British accent was difficult to understand and, like a real English transport manager, the artificial sounds around him (which drop in and out very uncomfortably) completely drowned it out.

I hate bringing up technical errors but I think the two separate times the performance was interrupted by radio coverage of last night's NRL semi-final needs to be noted too (not only because I'm a Souths fan).

If it weren't for Deakin's comical physicality (best seen in his polite but uncomfortable interactions with the handsy Price) or his role in the completely unexpected plot twist, Willis-Richards' nuanced portrayal of macho and resourceful Richard Winthrop, and the blink-and-you'll-miss-them reactions between the Murdocks (the subtle blowing of a kiss, perfectly-executed synchronised lines or the way one's engagement with other characters non-verbally brings out the jealousy of the other), it would require significant trackwork to travel through the 2-hour performance.

Ultimately, the play is full of twists and turns (train track pun intended). With a finale that I didn't see coming (but apparently more woke audience members did), it did what it was designed to do. Yet, whilst it carried us on a reasonably suspenseful journey, it nonetheless was lacklustre, never seeming to fully pull-out from the old-school platform when it was probably the better thing to do. If you’re waiting for the next train to take you to a performance of theatrical genius, then perhaps Fal Vale Station is the wrong place to terminate.

Thursday 13 September 2018

Luna Gale @ Ensemble Theatre, dissected by me

I think it's incredibly easy to write a review for a show you hate. Every single flaw lasts in the memory, overshadowing the relative strengths (and there are almost always strengths). They can individually be picked apart, examined, and discussed with incredible clarity - leaving little doubt in the mind of you, the reader, as to the performance's relative value. Hell, that's the whole point of this blog: if I don't keep it real, why even bother writing?

On the flip side, writing a review for a show you loved is hard. It's difficult to capture in words the simple pleasure of watching a well put-together show. Strengths cannot be considered individually like flaws, since the essence of what makes a performance good is not one stand-out feature but rather many features working together symbiotically. Words can never really do a good play justice - it is something that requires in-person viewing to grasp.

Which is why it's so damn hard for me to write this review of Ensemble's Luna Gale.

There's little doubt that the play comes with high expectations. It makes its Australian premiere and comes from Olivier-nominated/Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Rebecca Gilman. The cast and production crew have by far some of the most experience (and award nominations) I've seen. Ensemble, like any theatre, hates to put on a bad show. It's very safe to say all these expectations were met, courtesy of Susanna Dowling's world-class direction.

Entertainment Renaissance woman Georgie Parker leads her actors with a deeply nuanced understanding of her character, social worker Caroline, and all her complex and inter-weaving undertones. As the sole connection between meth-heads-turned-parents Karlie (Lucy Heffernan, making her Ensemble debut) and Peter (Jacob Warner) and Karlie's heavily Evangelical mother Cindy (Michelle Doake) in a grueling legal battle for Karlie's daughter Luna Gale, her stage presence is illuminating. That being said, the cast can hold their own too. Minor characters Cliff (Scott Sheridan, also an Ensemble debutant), Caroline's complicated superior, Pastor Jay (David Whitney), and foster care 'graduate' Lourdes (Ebony Vagulans) possess both the comedic and dramatic skills needed to contribute strongly to this production without exhausting the audience, echoing (and at times even outdoing) the major characters in this respect. Bar the fact that Lourdes' ultimate fate is quickly glossed over after the intermission, leaving the play little chance to explore what happens if the system fails, and Warner's performance as Peter is initially weak, Gilman's strong script is only enhanced by the acting of this cast. The gradual reveal of each character's respective situation keeps us continually engaged, portrayed with stunning accuracy.

Throw in professional vocal work (courtesy of dialect coach Nick Curnow) and a deceptively simple Simone Romaniuk set (where viewing mirrors, bookshelves, and coffee machines seem to disappear in the blink of an eye) and we're really in Iowa. The long, drawn-out words, synthetic office environments, and general muteness of the American Midwest is all there, letting us focus on the actors. I've actually been to Iowa, and this is a damn good representation. Even the bloody music between scene changes is worth mentioning - I don't know what a marimba actually is but sound designer Marty Jamieson makes it addictively good.

Ultimately, this play is something else. No amount of writing can give the cast and crew the credit they deserve. This is simply good, dramatic theatre, for any and every reason. Though I wish the script had given us more on Lourdes, there's so much else it sinks its teeth into. I'm interested to see how it copes with the likes of STC's Accidental Death of an Anarchist (which I've been told is also amazing), but if there's any show currently on that deals with guilt, shame, God and the greater good better, I'm yet to see it.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

It's Not Creepy If They're Hot @ Sydney Fringe Festival, dissected by me

As is inherent in the name, the Sydney Fringe is a mixed bag. It takes a considerably lucky and calculated pick to find the right show that blends everything together in a cohesive, logical way. But is that the point of the whole festival? Maybe plots are supposed to be unusual. Maybe characters based on real stereotypes are supposed to be out of place when put on stage. Maybe, just for a short while, we can enjoy the ability for theatre to be weird.

After the first 40 minutes of 'It's Not Creepy If They're Hot',  it's probably a bit too weird.

The 2-hour play sets itself up nicely: North Shore 19-year-old Liv (Victoria Boult) is having a birthday party. As her friends trickle in and out of her cliched teenage-girl bedroom (adorned with party photos and the like), where her inebriated work colleague John (Max Seppelt) lies passed out on her bed, we get a glimpse into the thoughts, actions, and interactions between the troubled young cast. It's something like a modern Australian version of Friends, albeit with upper-middle-class first-year university students -apparently code for excessive ketamine and cocaine snorting, 'thot' music (which is, in my limited understanding, promiscuous music that empowers one by virtue of its promiscuity), and tumultuous friendships. As an introduction to the cast and production in general, it's very well-scripted; credit to young playwright Rosie Licence. Scenes are well timed, performances comedic (particular shout-out to Joseph Ingui as ketamine using/dealing Adam), and themes just evident enough to keep the university-aged audience engaged (who probably related to it more than me, if I'm being honest). Bar some blocking and vocal projection issues, it's entertaining theatre.

Unfortunately, the performance takes an abrupt turn before the intermission. Before this, long-haired Connor (Tom Osborne) has nearly hooked up with Liv. John has come to and left the party. Liv has had a big fight with Claire (Sophie Colbran). The other half of the cast hasn't been seen for a while. Under a now crimson light, and with no warning, the entire cast enter the Bondi Pavilion stage and scatter themselves across it. A digital projector begins playing an SMS interaction between two of them, as they describe how to take the perfect selfie. Liv (for some reason) strips and demonstrates this. Every now and then they turn to face different parts of the audience during this moment. As this explanation finishes, the first half is complete.

Doesn't make structural or logical sense? Yep. It doesn't. It just sort of...happens. Hell, it feels like the show is over - there's nowhere for the characters to go, no easy way to lengthen the script. Everything up until that point had reached a natural conclusion, in a reasonable 60-minute performance time.

But the show goes on. How I wished it hadn't.

The second half starts before Liv's party, then moves back to a week before Liv's party, at another party. Here, the scenes are overly long duologues that each highlight a specific element of youth culture that we've pretty much heard before - girls obsessing over guys, guys liking drugs, and girls being drunk, hungry, or both. There's very little cohesion between any of them, making me want to call these scenes vignettes (instead of poorly-related plot points). Again the play revolves around Liv (paying little attention to rest of the cast bar Henry and Claire), but now with her new (or is it old?) love interest James (Lewis Ulm) - both performances as confusing and misguided as the entire half. The once-relevant humour becomes tacky, lines about loving chicken McNuggets and useless Arts degrees contributing little to the progression of the story. The house-party music, which has been droning on in the background with little purpose for the entire play, drops in and out at unnatural times and could probably be done without. Another abrupt moment of absurdism (where the projector can't be seen clearly and the actors difficult to hear over a loud static sound) and a confusing ending linking the sea to an escape from one's youth drowns out the only truly impactful performance in the play - Sophie's teary monologue about her fear of becoming 'the girl who was raped' and told everyone, instead of keeping it to herself. A shame it was lost amongst so much tediousness, for her and the show.

Ultimately, INCITH provides a good starting hour of theatre, but little else beyond that. Characters quickly seem extraneous, the story slowly directionless, and 'Why am I watching this?' thoughts popping up in one's head more often. If you're a uni student looking for a relatable piece of theatre, or want to pretend like you are/can relate, you'll find exactly that. But if you're more a Grandpa Simpson type, where 'I used to be with it. Then they changed what it was. Now what I'm with it isn't it, and what is it seems weird and scary to me', this will not be your cup of tea (or snort of ketamine).

Monday 3 September 2018

The Merchant of Venice @ Pop-Up Globe, dissected by me

If you've been on social media at all over the past few months, there's a chance you would've seen videos about the much-hyped Pop-Up Globe coming to Sydney this month. Like Katharina Grosse's installation at Carriageworks earlier this year, from those videos it seems like a chance for every basic white girl to express their 'artistic side' to their Instagram followers - without taking in a deeper understanding of the sheer magnitude of the whole concept. Even better, they could capture a Boomerang of themselves clinking wine glasses with the Globe stage in the background, a subtle indication of their 'cultured selves' (do people still Boomerang?). Yet, when you ask them what they liked about the show, all you'll hear is 'the costumes were nice' or 'the lights were pretty' (which, admittedly, they both are).

Or perhaps you haven't read about it; in which case, allow me to explain - right now, in Entertainment Quarter, there exists a life-size near-perfect rendition of Shakespeare's (second) original Globe Theatre. A process of academic research and brilliant aesthetics, PUG founder Miles Gregory has recreated the world-famous Thames-based playhouse down to the wire - in-the-round stage, open-air theatre, and (carpeted) groundling pit included. Bar some modern instruments and lighting schemes, everything is natural - actors battle the sounds of nature without microphones and a cold breeze continuously freezes the audience (or at least those who decide not to purchase a substantial dose of mulled wine). Debuting in New Zealand (with a brief stint in Melbourne last year) and featuring an all-male, nearly all-Australian and New Zealand cast, Gregory wants his shows not to be 'dusty Shakespeare' but rather 'Alive. Like a party'.

In director David Lawrence's Merchant, we definitely feel like we're in a party. What we don't feel, however, is the power of the play's more poignant moments.

This party atmosphere hits well before the play begins. In Sport for Jove style, the audience enters the Globe to the cast loitering around on stage, cheesy but cheery medieval music warming us to the whole experience. It takes some time to accustom oneself to the 4 cross-dressed actors on stage, particularly the burly red-robed Jessica (Sonny Bill Williams-esque Maori actor Reuben Butler) and the scene-stealing Nerissa (Thomas Wingfield, a clean-shaven and paler Russell Brand), but since the PUG looks to re-enact the gender restrictions of Elizabethan theatre we eventually learn to roll with it. It makes for some great humour later on, particularly when Jessica embraces the much shorter Lorenzo in an overly passionate kiss.

From then on, the performance is a mix of vibrant costumes, incredibly funny fourth-wall breaks (including yours truly singled out as a French suitor rejected by Portia), and even the occasional dance break (special shout-out to Jason Te Kare as the Prince of Morocco and his fascinating band of North African dancers/guards). Where the play shines most is its exploration of Portia's romantic subplot - Patrick Carroll puts on an incredibly immersive gender-bending performance in his/her search for love, disguise at the court, and subsequent dealings with Basanio (Josh Cramond) - which reaches its peak in the play's final scene, as the men and their wives bicker over the importance of the rings the former have given 'away'. For those new to Shakespeare and those accustomed to it, it really is good old fun - similar, I feel, to the way Shakespeare intended his theatre to be.

Unfortunately, such great humour distracts one from the performance's more dramatic themes. Build-ups to punchlines are sacrificed for the punchline itself, with the actors racing to get through their lines (looking at you again Te Kare, but not for good reason this time). Voice work is all over the place, to the extent where it borders on the Merchant of Auckland than the Merchant of Venice (notably in Butler's and Asalemo Tofete's performances as Jessica and Tubal respectively). Worst of all, we miss out on the tension between Antonio (Jonathan Martin) and Shylock (Peter Daubé). The latter never quite seems to balance the hatred but humanity within Shylock, giving a boring performance lost in the middle of the two. The audience is subsequently unable to understand the importance of his ring, the loss he feels at the play's end, his hatred for Antonio, or the intended impact of his 'hath not a jew eyes' monologue; it fades away in order to emphasise the party vibe, leaving us to hate Shylock simply because our pre-show knowledge of the play dictates he has to be hated. Because of this, the audience can't entirely connect with Antonio either - though he picks up in likeability and characterisation later in the play, again it seems like the subplot has overtaken the main one in this show. For someone who has not only studied the play, but has a deep passion for the issues it raises, in this respect I feel like I missed out.

That being said, if all you're looking for is two hours of good humour, entertaining comedic theatre, and some decent mulled wine, then pick up some dirt cheap groundling tickets. It would be better with a stronger intellectual challenge, but then again - nerds have never been fun at parties.