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Sunday 27 January 2019

Herringbone @ KXT, Squabbalogic's comeback dissected by Matt

Herringbone, a potentially ambiguous name that alludes to a pattern could mean just about anything. I’ll be the first to admit that I had little idea what to expect from a “vaudevillian ghost story”. The title itself was intriguing, if not outright mysterious. Happily, I can say that I got far more than I bargained for in Squabbalogic’s Herringbone.

What made this play, Squabbalogic’s comeback after 2 years hiatus, so interesting was the multidimensional aspects that the play presents to its audience. On the surface, it is an orthodox, charismatically entertaining vaudevillian performance. However, underneath this orthodoxy hides a tale of deep implication, that amazingly is able to strike a balance and not present harsh judgement onto its characters for their otherwise highly immoral actions. In essence, on one level the audience is watching a performance not too dissimilar to the concert halls of New York or London in the early 20th century, however on another we take a deep overview of the broader surrounds that reveals a trove of elements that subvert and inform our humanity: desperation, revenge and self-indulgence. It is the reimagining of the vaudeville genre that makes this play a must see.

The performance is (with the exemption of the musical troupe) a pure vaudevillian delight, a one-man show performed by the immensely talented Jay James-Moody. It tells the story of a young George Nookin, who, upon winning a local Lions speech competition, is recommended to go to Hollywood to take up commercial radio and film opportunities. However, the apparition of the ghost Lou the Frog changes everything with murder, money and immorality. The script is able to masterfully bridge a tension between financial desperation, grotesque immorality, and greed through comedy. The performance of this oldish tale has a spectre of the absurd from the outset, with James-Moody coming onstage with an eerie white face and just a singlet and underwear as the older Nookin. In total James-Moody acts an eye-watering eleven different roles (Herringbone; Arthur; Louise; Grandmother; George; Lawyer; Nathan Mosely, the Chicken; Tailor; Howard; Lou, the Frog; and Dot), which marks a truly amazing ninety-minute monologue, interspersed in what can only be described as an unfolding decline in humanity is song and dance in the true vaudevillian tradition. These musical numbers (totalling fifteen) range from funny to grotesque, but nonetheless find a way to be endlessly entertaining and engaging. Indeed, some of the scripts more tired moments are helped enormously by the sudden song and dance that really helps the audience connect with what the zeitgeist of a particular scene is trying to convey.

Yet, a good script and a good actor is not everything in a production. I am glad to say that the elements around this play were very well executed. The musical troupe did an amazing job forming a distant yet very relevant part of the play as James-Moody would from time-to-time interact with their presence, which was very clever when it is common for musical elements to be not tangible or hidden away in most other productions. It was a true compliment to the purposes of the performance. The breaking of the fourth wall into the audience happens with reasonable regularity and as such the very intimate space served its purpose very well to great effect.

Ultimately, to call this a play would be very incorrect. I’m honestly not sure what to call it. Thus, seeing something so very different from what I consider theatre was a breath of fresh air. I commend James-Moody (Artistic Director of Squabbalogic), co-director Michael Ralph and the production team for pulling off a performance that is so remarkably different and untouched by many directors around the world. It’s good to see them back in action.

Thursday 24 January 2019

THE BIG TIME @ Ensemble Theatre, dissected by me

The Big Time. Everyone has an idea of what it means, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that can give an all-encompassing, objective statement defining it. I believe that's because everyone's 'big time' is different. Making the big time could mean getting married. It could also mean directing Hugh Jackman in an independent film. Or learning the floss dance when you are over 30 years of age.

The beauty of David Williamson's new comedy is that it addresses all of these perceptions of the 'big time' (yes, even the floss dance one). It's a deftly-woven tale from the man who draws the ire of innumerable high school drama students (I'm still getting over his 'if roots were hamburgers she could feed an army' line from The Removalists), standing as another great addition to his seemingly endless list of stage and screen credits. An apt performance by the cast, who need to jump through numerous comedic and dramatic hoops throughout the show, ensures that Williamson's words get much of the respect they deserve, even if at times it may not seem so.

It must be said that the play seems to take some time to explain each character before any real clear plot takes place. We learn of struggling writer Rohan Black's (Jeremy Walters) defiant self-belief, unmirrored by any other character, a while before his chance at a Netflix series presents itself. We hear about the ego battle between Logie-winning 'soapie' star Celia Constanti (Aileen Huynh) and theatre-is-the-only-true-art-form-have-some-goddamn-self-respect-Jesus-Christ-this-is-a-long-hyphenation-but-perfectly-sums-up-the-character-of Vicki Fielding (Claudia Barrie) long before we see it demonstrated as they continuously one-up each other for various roles in various projects. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the external force that is Rolly Pierce (Ben Wood) chugs along, losing his wife to a real estate agent, his daughter to her unborn child, and his car to some company called Uber whilst organising a high school reunion and the idea for Black's Netflix series. However, this shouldn't be viewed negatively. Rather, Williamson has given us time to understand, sympathise, and at times despise each member either for what they do or what they are forced to do by the customs of the industry they are in.

This discernment of this duality heaps another challenge onto the cast, and for the most part this (and the others) are strongly tackled. Walters, no doubt off the renewed high of The Rolling Stone's and The Flick's successes, flexes his range like Arnold at the 1975 Mr. Olympia. There's an internalisation to his characterisation that suits Rohan perfectly, partnered with a fight between earning respect and holding respect for the self that is highly engaging. His comedic timing is also strong enough to get the most out of his quips and deliberate pauses. Constanti and him are a fine pairing, if Constanti's alleged naivety can make Huynh's performance come across as not internalised enough at times. Fielding, who is mostly seen in the show's first half, also suffers from this lack of internalisation; Barrie tries to take us down her journey of unbridled arrogance, but gets a little waylaid as she attempts to balance desperation for recognition with a firm belief in her own talent, throwing out different signals to the audience that run the risk of going scrambled. Zoe Carides as agent Nelli Browne and Matt Minto as producer Nate Macklin provide fine supporting performances, appearing only sporadically but never dousing the flame of the show's leads. Yet, Wood's performance has to be the standout; his unpretentiousness, incredible mastery of the show's humour, and skill in jumping from comedy to tragedy in the same line make his debut for Ensemble one to remember. In a small cast crowded with talent, his onstage presence is the most welcome.

Ultimately, Williamson and Mark Kilmurry (whose direction has never failed to impress and still doesn't) have shown to me why I hold Ensemble to such a high standard. It's a disgrace this show is two hours, the second half so short, and the cast so good, but a disgrace I'll force myself to live with. Another great start to 2019.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Shanghai Mimi @ Sydney Festival, dissected by me

Wow. A highlight of SydFest 2019.

Borne out of Artistic Director Moira Finucane and Creative Producer Douglas Hunter's respective journeys into the 1930s Shanghai jazz scene, Shanghai Mimi is a brilliant mix of acrobatics, song, dance and storytelling that I am more than grateful I got the chance to watch.

Taking on the vibe of a jazz club in Shanghai, with the Riverside stage (notably extended by a small catwalk-esque piece leading into the what would normally be the centre of the first few rows of the audience) sparsely lit by the red of traditional Chinese lanterns, slow jazz instrumentals being performed by a gold-jacket-clad quintet tucked downstage right, and Musical Director/Pianist John McAll's calm announcement that 'the club will open in 10 minutes', there is something immediately soothing about the pre-show atmosphere. It's exactly how we would want to experience this kind of thing had we been in Shanghai nearly 80 years ago - relaxed, comfortable, and with a glass of wine by our side.

And it is this relaxation, comfort, and alcohol which sustains us through the actual performance. Every sequence performed by the glamorously-dressed Qinghai Acrobatic Troupe (the number of which I lost count) is done with the detail, precision, and ease which would be expected of a world-class dance group. Their ability to blend traditional Asian props, movements, music and stories with the grace and sophistication only a dedicated regimen can achieve makes the 70-minute show fly by. It almost looks too easy as the actors suspend themselves in midair, twisting their bodies and using one another for balance. One could swear that they too could keep over a dozen hula hoops moving simultaneously over all parts of their body, whilst also collecting more thrown to them at the same time. The sheer brilliance and skill of this troupe adds a complex layer of meaning to the art of acrobatics I was once blind to, and something that an audience quickly attaches themselves to as well. Credit to Acrobatic Director Sun Hao and Choreographers Simon Abbe and Wu Baoyong.

No more is this complexity recognised than in the skill of the show's singer Sophie Koh and dancer Ernest Ngolo. The former, draped in everything from a glittering gold dress to mink far too heavy for a Sydney summer's night, slips into the audience's expectations of her role so well that it's odd when she reverts to an Australian accent during moments of dialogue (though not in a negative way). Her voice is one that is almost too perfect for this situation, the interplay between English and Chinese lyrics holding an equal amount of power over the multicultural audience. As one of the show's unchanging features, the standard she sets herself is far met. The same is also true for Ngolo, a tall African man we see constantly throughout the show. Though with a more limited wardrobe, the lightness of his movements and ability to match the pace and tone of his voice to the backing music (which rarely stops) makes him an intriguing performer, often the centre of attention even when he likely shouldn't be. His main feature in the show, sharing the harsh story of his upbringing, is one of the rare points where the dancing and acrobatic elements of the performance do not weigh up.

Ultimately, Shanghai Mimi is the full package. The consistency and unity of the band, the dancers, the acrobats, and the singer is something I haven't seen in a performance before. As a gateway into the weird, wonderful worlds of jazz and acrobatics, as well as the stories and times that shape the lives of the people we see on stage, the only thing I regret is that I didn't see it sooner.

Friday 11 January 2019

Double Bill: Nosferatu @ Old 505/A Ghost In My Suitcase @ Sydney Festival, dissected by me

Wow! What a week of theatre. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Blanc de Blanc, Sydney Festival, and the 505. Looks like my wallet is empty, and so has the blog for some time. Hoping to get many reviews to you guys over this month.

I have somewhat mixed opinions about the Old 505's Nosferatu: A Fractured Symphony. On one hand, I liked the potential of the concept of reviving the partially-lost German original and applying it to an Australian context. There was certainly an originality to it that captivated me throughout the performance, but that potential was not always recognised in the script and direction.
The young acting quartet (adopting multiple roles over the 90-minute performance) try their best to make sense of the issues the play explores, from casual veganism to Australian anti-LGBT attitudes to our property market and truth-bending politicians, but at times lines and entire scenes fall flat. Jeremi Campese's opening monologue as Nosferatu (I think?) is more a web of pop culture references than a genuine introduction (and don't get me started on what his character does with a used tampon); Lucy Burke's drawn-out moments eating Maccas or watching porn seem somewhat unnecessary; and Annie Stafford's love of Negronis and alcohol showers are watchable but a little overdramatic. That being said, I don't believe it's not their fault; they're doing the best they can with the lines that they have, and give as good of an ensemble performance as they are allowed to. On a notable bright point, Lulu Howes manages to make most of her dialogue work; when she's involved in her main role, it's lovely theatre, from both a scripting and performance perspective.
From a design aspect, I feel a duty to remind all audience members to periodically check a small screen to the top right of the stage (displaying title cards from the German masterpiece). As the most consistent explicit link to the original inspiration, it sometimes slips into the background too easily, lost amidst its imaginative depiction on stage.
In the end, I think the play's biggest issue is out of its control; in a packed theatrical landscape, I fear it will get lost. Which, for all its shortcomings, is always the most disheartening aspect for a young team who can and should be making mistakes at this early stage of their careers.

A Ghost In My Suitcase almost suffers from completely opposite issues.
A short piece that should entertain kids and fascinate those fascinated with Chinese spirituality themselves, author Gabrielle Wang and playwright Vanessa Bates make the notion of Chinese ghost hunting highly accessible to an Australian audience thanks to the connection they develop with leading character Celeste (Alice Keohavong), an individual whose knowledge of China grows at the same rate as the audience. Keohavong's performance itself is one for the kids; they should love her. For the older viewer, there are more things to be appreciated in Amanda Ma's and Yilin Kong's performances as Por Por and Ting Ting respectively - I found them more intriguing as the more mature characters as a result of their strong characterisation, though at times their performances veered close to underdone. Never has a flatter 'yes' been spoken in response to a question if someone had died. Higher characterisation-based praise goes for Frieda Lee and Imanuel Dado as ensemble characters; they do what Nosferatu tried to, and give us extremely well fleshed-out cameos as scene-stealing minor characters. That being said, the entire cast is not only great to watch because of their Asian-Australian heritage (big up Crazy Rich Asians, a movie I still haven't seen), but also because of their physicality; the fluidity of their movements, particularly in 'hunting' sequences, is a testament to their effort.
To me where this show shines (literally) is its design. The use of multiple projectors to create multiple sets of the Chinese landscape, presented on stage via veiled blocks and veiled wooden scaffolds, is one of the strongest examples of something like this that I've seen. Bravo stage technician Matt McCabe and the entire set team, who takes us from airports to rivers to mountaintops and haunted houses seamlessly.
I wish, though, that there were more exploration of ghosts and spirituality in Chinese mythology. Where do ghosts go after their work is done? I wonder. What are the struggles of living as a ghost hunter? What was the purpose of Por Por's magic mirror (no Spiegeltent pun intended) or coin sword? I think the play makes some attempt to answer these questions but gets too concerned in its plot and the need to tie up loose ends to focus on my geeky questions. Oh well, looks like I'll actually have to read a book.
So where Nosferatu missed out, A Ghost In My Suitcase picked up (albeit haunted by its own minor lingering issues). A show as lovely as last year's Alice In Wonderland, though more ingenius in its set design. I would make a Ghostbusters reference to finish this review but it seems SMH stole my line. Thanks Joyce.