Review: Superheroes (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 25 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Mark Rogers
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Gemma Bird Matheson, Claire Lovering, Aleks Mikic
Images by Prudence Upton
Theatre review
Superheroes by Mark Rogers tells the stories of two women at opposite ends of the world; Jana is near Sarajevo, and Emily is near Sydney. Their lives are different as can be, but on this one stage, we cannot help but draw parallels, such is the nature of being human. We create meaning from things we observe, and make distinct each personality whom we encounter, focussing quite naturally on how they are separate, but in this strange juxtaposition of experiences within Rogers’ text, we are additionally compelled to find ways to see ourselves as a unified species. We examine microcosms in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and a more privileged Australia, finding ways to understand the people that we are, wondering if vastly different environments mean that we are necessarily disparate, or essentially one and the same.

Rogers’ scintillating writing is brought to life by Shari Sebbens’ dynamic and vigorous direction. The show brims with passion, offering emotional intensity from start to end. Claire Lovering is exquisite as Jana, delivering a deeply considered and precise portrayal, of a woman unable to emerge from the trauma and conflict that has shaped her community. It is an unequivocally profound performance by Lovering. Emily is played by Gemma Bird Matheson, memorable for her exuberance and an enjoyable sense of rawness she introduces to the production. It is an extremely likeable presence that she brings. Aleks Mikic takes on separate roles as male counterparts to the leads, succeeding on both counts, with his uncanny ability to convey authenticity whilst dispensing generous measures of natural charm.

Also noteworthy is lighting design by Verity Hampson, efficient yet refined as it helps us navigate movements in time. Production designer Renée Mulder exercises restrained elegance for her work on costumes and set. David Bergman’s sound and music are dramatic but unobtrusive, surreptitiously manipulating our emotional responses as the plot unfolds.

Even in the most ordinary of lives, courage is paramount. Even the most cowardly, have known moments of bravery in order that they may survive. In these challenging times of 2020, we are startled to realise the strength and resilience each can possess. The most noble of us however, have the capacity not only to stay afloat, but to keep making the best choices for the sake of all, when self-preservation seems the order of the day.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Wonnangatta (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 21 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Angus Cerini
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Wayne Blair, Hugo Weaving
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We see in Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta, two men in various states of distress, coming to grips with the murder of a friend. The story takes place in the remote Victorian Alps, one century ago, inevitably taking the familiar tone of the Australian gothic fable. Our obsession with the landscape, and the nature of our mateship, come to the fore as the characters wrestle with isolation, despair and terror. Cerini’s writing is remarkably visceral in quality, allowing for ample manifestations of mood in the theatrical form to activate various aspects of our imagination.

Production design by Jacob Nash is sparse but highly evocative, featuring a structure reminiscent of a meandering cliff, that works in conjunction with Nick Schlieper’s lights to convincingly shepherd us into the abyss of Wonnangatta‘s haunting realms. Music and sound by Stefan Gregory provide valuable demarcations that shift our perceptions of time, in accordance with the men’s increasing bewilderment.

Actors Wayne Blair and Hugo Weaving bring undeniable charisma and gravity to the experience, although multiple blunders with collisions of their dialogue prove distracting. Director Jessica Arthur introduces a gradual crescendo to tension levels that sustains our interest, and it becomes evident that the performance is at its most enjoyable when the duo invests in the kinetic poeticism of the writing. An emphasis on the narrative’s linearity can however, work against the strengths of the show. We want to indulge in the despondent beauty of its netherworld, but often find ourselves trying to pay attention to details that detract from its more ephemeral pleasures.

Stories about our forefathers tend to involve hardship, and in 2020, that resonance is certainly apparent. There is a constant sense of foreboding in Wonnangatta that relates so directly to our lives today, as though fear, misery and anxiety are the most fundamental features of our humanity. We are reminded that survival is what we have to do. For decades, many have lived with lofty ideals, thinking that the meaning of life relates to so much more, than keeping alive to welcome the morning. It is a humbling moment, one most of us could do well to appreciate.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Distorted (Fixed Foot Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 10 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Xavier Coy
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Michael Arvithis, Xavier Coy, Emma Louise, Poppy Lynch, Lex Marinos, Tristan McKinnon, Kate Rutherford, Jack Walton, David Woodland, Sheree Zellner
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Xavier Coy’s Distorted comprises short episodes, involving ten main characters, all of whom are connected, and all of whom have less than joyful lives. They look like people from any Western city, who have struggles that look ordinary, yet none of which can be easily dealt with. Life is hard, by Coy’s estimation, but what he presents is perversely delightful. There is a veiled humour to the despondent scenarios being enacted, that feels like a bitter irony acknowledging that our complaints can only ever feel haughty when there are roofs over heads, and no shortage of food in bellies.

In Distorted, we observe the all-consuming nature of these personal problems, whilst forming a perspective that reveals these frustrations to be ultimately inconsequential and somewhat narcissistic. Director Richard Hilliar does an excellent job of depicting both the accuracy of these egocentric experiences, and a wider view that it all amounts to little. The show is captivating in every moment, with Hilliar’s knack for drama keeping us mesmerised.

Stage design by Hamish Elliot is gracefully rendered, and effective in facilitating the quick scene changes that happen throughout the duration. Jasmin Borsovsky’s lights too, help us instinctively navigate spacial transformations, as do Martin Gallagher’s sounds that work with our subconscious to make sense of the many abrupt shifts in time. A strong cast performs the piece, with each character believable and realistic. The team tells a cohesive story, remarkable with the even focus they provide so compellingly, to have us invest in every little detail that is being conveyed.

Most of the people in Distorted find the world a difficult place, but they do little to seek to change it. One of them spends considerable time in psychotherapy, where he tries to find ways to fix himself, even though the play gives no evidence of the young man suffering any illness. We have become conditioned to always think that it is the individual who needs improvement, that when things go wrong, we need to fix ourselves, without ever questioning if it is the external environment that requires interrogation. Happiness must come from within, but when we encounter anxiety and exasperation, we must not forget to transcend the self, and identify first, the structures we operate under that are determined to beat us down.

www.facebook.com/fixedfootproductions

Review: Cusp (ATYP)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 11 – 28, 2020
Playwright: Mary Anne Butler
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Stevie Jean, Josh McElroy, Nyasha Ogden
Images by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
In a Northern Territory rural town, three young people are about to leave their teenage years behind. Unlike many of their counterparts in big cities, Elvis, Maddie and Rosie have no time to waste. Mary Anne Butler’s Cusp tackles the worlds of those who do not have the luxury to slowly figure things out. It is a story about class and poverty, an exploration into structures we have to operate under that are manifestly unjust and inadequate, yet are rarely questioned. At seventeen or eighteen, characters in the play have to deal with matters as severe as pregnancy and incarceration, with little support and guidance from those who should know better.

Butler’s scintillating dialogue keeps us engrossed in the personalities she introduces. Director Fraser Corfield brings sincerity and honesty to the play, creating a show with genuine resonances, even though its staging can at times feel static and visually repetitive. Lights by Jessie Davis and sound by Brad Fawcett are sensitively designed, for a remarkably elegant style of presentation.

Three impressive actors bring passion and conviction to their roles, all of them adept at having the audience spellbound. As Rosie, Nyasha Ogden is a captivating presence, warm and very believable as the Indigenous girl trying to reconcile wishes of her community with personal desires. Stevie Jean depicts Maddie’s loss of innocence with a charming boldness, effective in helping us contemplate how a very young woman can exercise her agency. A memorable Josh McElroy is detailed and delicate as Elvis, a familiar juvenile type with troubling anger issues.

The sentence “some people get better choices to choose from” is uttered twice in Cusp. There is overwhelming evidence that wealth inequality in Australia has risen to an unprecedented level, with the general population experiencing over half a decade of stagnating wages, while constant reports of GDP growth fool us into thinking that the country is being managed well. We continue to think of ourselves as an egalitarian people, but are simultaneously, completely comfortable with ignoring the fact that only a small percentage is reaping the rewards of a strong economy. The rest of us are stuck with the indoctrination, that if life is not working out well, we only have ourselves to blame. We are in fact kept in the dark, whilst the few who are much better off, steal everything they can, in broad daylight.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: Everybody (Cross Pollinate Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 6 – 21, 2019
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Gabriel Fancourt
Cast: Kate Bookallil, Caitlin Burley, Annie Byron, Giles Gartrell-Mills, Isaro Kayitesi, Mansoor Noor, Kate Skinner, Samm Ward and Michael Wood
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The idea is to think of that one thing you can take with you, when you die. Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins talks about the most common of denominators. A woman named Death has come knocking, and is asking Everybody to bring along one other, to meet their maker. It is worth pointing out that Everybody is played by any one of five actors, determined at each performance by lottery. As we watch ourselves shuffle off this mortal coil, leaving behind all things material, we are urged to consider a certain distillation of being, that occurs in the final hour, and come to a conclusion of what it is that might accompany the departure of each spirit.

It is a cleverly structure play, featuring thought-provoking and immensely enjoyable dialogue. Its raison d’etre may ultimately feel somewhat prosaic, but the journey Everybody takes us on, is a very satisfying one. Dynamic work by lighting designer Morgan Moroney and sound designer Felicity Giles, ensure that the production is consistently energetic and vibrant. Set design by Stephanie Dunlop makes effective use of space, with a simple solution that keeps us all engaged with every stage activity.

Gabriel Fancourt’s direction delivers a show that entertains from start to finish, able to position a compelling sense of theatricality alongside earnest explorations of the text’s philosophy. A charming cast, including five brave performers who allow a nightly act of chance decide their fate, collaborate on a presentation unique to the live form. When playing the part of Everybody, Isaro Kayitesi is tremendously impressive, with a glorious combination of vulnerability, complexity and authenticity, that she renders with apparent ease. Giles Gartrell-Mills is our usher, comfortably authoritative in the role, but also disarming with a sincerity that he exudes quite naturally. Death is a comical character when portrayed by Annie Byron, whose unremitting joviality brings splendid contrast to the grim notions that she embodies.

God is omnipresent in Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing, but Nature scarcely gets a mention. In 2020, it is our natural world and environment that has become a major factor in how we conceive of mortality and the future. Perhaps God has all along been indivisible from Nature, yet so many of our minds have learned to have them separated. There is a lot of truth in saying that we create God in our image (and vice versa), and for those of us who think of God and Nature as different, this must be the day of reckoning, the final opportunity for us to come to grips with the fact that it is us who are at the mercy of Mother Earth.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

Review: The Bridges Of Madison County (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 6 – Apr 5, 2020
Book: Marsha Norman (based on the novel by Robert James Waller)
Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Neil Gooding
Cast: Michael Beckley, Anton Berezin, Beth Daly, Kate Maree Hoolihan, Zoe Ioannou, Katie McKee, Ian Stenlake, Grady Swithenbank
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
When we encounter Francesca, she is a housewife in 1960s Iowa, with 2 kids and a husband, seemingly happy to be on a farm living the simple life. A fortuitous meeting with photographer Robert however, reveals that she does want more. The Bridges of Madison County is one of the most famous of American romances, a novella by Robert James Waller that has sold over 60 million copies since its initial publication in 1992. Francesca’s struggles about fulfilling her duties as wife and mother, are presented as completely incongruent with what might be a greater happiness. For a moment, she experiences exhilaration with Robert, but must weigh the consequences should she dare to follow her heart.

This musical version, first created in 2013, features strong songwriting by Jason Robert Brown, but its individual numbers, although delightful, do not necessarily add up to a satisfying plot for the show. Direction by Neil Gooding is able to suffuse a sense of intensity to the emotions being depicted, but the general pace for its storytelling is unsatisfying. Design and technical aspects of the production are on the whole accomplished, with Phoebe Pilcher’s work on lights noteworthy for bringing valuable flamboyance to the staging.

Performer Kate Maree Hoolihan plays a very sentimental Francesca. Her interpretation tends to be simplistic, but proves ultimately to be a moving one. Ian Stenlake looks every bit the National Geographer photographer and love interest Robert, but some of his singing at crucial points are not quite up to scratch. Although evident that the couple works hard to find chemistry, the attraction between the two is never really convincing. Beth Daly and Michael Beckley however are memorable as Marge and Charlie, quirky neighbours who bring occasional but very needed humour to the staging.

In the song “Almost Real”, we hear Francesca talk about her relationship with Chiara, her sister in Naples, who “would open her legs just as easy as speaking.” In her efforts to separate herself from that negative perspective of a free woman, Francesca spends her life doing what she thinks is the right thing, but it is clear that all she does is dedicate herself to being a subject of conformity. Although an indisputably credible character, the writers of Bridges refuse to allow Francesca the gratification she craves, and deserves. We are made to think that to be a good mother, Francesca simply has to give herself up, and that we must all realise, is a lie.

www.goodingproductions.com

5 Questions with Jack Walton and Sheree Zellner

Jack Walton

Sheree Zellner: When friends ask you, “What is Distorted about,” what do you tell them?
Jack Walton: When I think about Distorted I often see it as is a fractured story about fractured people. We get to glimpse into key stages of people’s deepest relationships as well as witness the most isolated moments in their lives. So much of the play is flavoured with this brilliantly witty humour but then you get to have these beautiful, intimate moments of just living with these people as they go though things like addiction, mental health, pregnancy and loneliness.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about yourself through playing the role of Alex?
I feel like there’s a new discovery after each run but what sticks out to me is just how much I value the key people around me. When I think about the people I’m closest there’s a bond that I also see Alex discover with his girlfriend where they each allow their best and worst versions of themselves be presented to one another which creates all kinds of drama but it’s also the kind of relationship that you don’t always fully appreciate until it’s at risk of being taken away.

Without giving too much away, what is your favourite scene or character from Distorted and why?
There’s a great scene near the middle of the play where my character and Poppy Lynch’s character have this wild screaming match. It’s hilarious because what they’re arguing about is so ridiculous and off topic but under the surface we start to see a new side to their relationship. That’s definitely the scene I feel most free in as well, there’s no point where you can hide from the audience so you just have to dive into it head first.

What do you think people will take away with them after seeing Distorted?
Each character in the play has some surface level identity. Some kind of stereotype that people would attach to them passing by on the street. I think what’s so great about Distorted is that it gives the audience a chance to see the humanity that lies below these assumptions. You suddenly have more empathy for people when you get to see their story in front of you. So in short, if there’s anything an audience could take away from this show I hope it’s some version of empathy.

What was your initial reaction after we did our first full run of Distorted?
I was exhausted! I have most of my scenes with one other actor so I didn’t actually get to meet most of the cast until we all came together for our first run. Having not rehearsed with everyone in the room before that point I was really impressed with how everything slotted into place. Usually doing a first run of any production is pretty bumpy but because this play moves at a such lightning pace everyone was switched on and ready to pounce onto whatever cues were thrown at them. There was a great sense of achievement after that run.

Sheree Zellner

Jack Walton: Distorted has such a distinctly energised writing style. How does it feel to perform something that is always so active?
Sheree Zellner: I love the energetic style of Xavier Coy’s writing, really keeps us on our toes, there’s always something happening onstage and off, it’s a great lesson in keeping the ball in the air at all times. For my 62 year old brain that’s got to be a good thing! Thankfully I love to be challenged and there’s always Berocca… Seriously though, because the writing is so energised, it informs our performances naturally, so it’s like getting caught in a theatrical vortex.

What do you find exciting about playing with new works?
Being involved from the ground up is so satisfying because we are the first ones to put our stamp on these characters. We’re not following in others footsteps, we’re making the first forays into the lives of our characters and everything we experience as actors in creating these characters is completely original. For an actor that’s pure gold, we’re a very fortunate ensemble.

Why do you think people value relationships so intensely?
Generally speaking I’d say that it’s about connection. I think it’s something we’re always looking for in every aspect of our lives, at home, at work, on social media. Connection can bring out the best and worst of humanity and I think we see that very clearly in Distorted. This play really shows all aspects of how we connect, the lengths we go to for connection and the lengths we go to when we want to avoid connection because it’s too painful. Our director Richard Hilliar has been instrumental in bringing those connections, or lack thereof, into sharper focus. He’s been so unwaveringly supportive, we’re all very thankful for that.

What have you found most challenging about rehearsing Distorted?
Ha ha, how long have you got! Well let me see… firstly my character Louise is a bit of a hot mess and her way of coping with her issues is not something I’m familiar with at all on a personal level. Let’s just say that the research was very interesting! Then of course, as an actor I have to find my way of playing that, of inhabiting her world and her views. Also as an older actor I have to keep my focus laser sharp for every second of this play, whether onstage or off. I’ve got notes pinned to walls everywhere so I don’t forget anything!

This play has changed a lot since we got the initial script. How has your view of your character changed/developed?
It’s changed so much since the initial script, but one thing was very clear to me after that first table read, which is that I was going to have to just surrender to each development. After deciding on backstories to suit, Xavier then reworked all the scenes incorporating the original scenes, but adapting them to suit and expanding exponentially on our characters, as did Richard in the rehearsal room. The changes and developments just kind of happened, and my views about my own character Louise became a part of the whole ‘surrender’ philosophy. Looking back I am amazed by the process and how much I’ve learned from it. This season of Distorted is going to be a wild ride, that much I do know!

Jack Walton and Sheree Zellner can be seen in Distorted, by Xavier Coy.
Dates: 10 – 22 Mar, 2020
Venue: Old 505 Theatre

Review: Good Mourning (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 3 – 8, 2020
Playwright: Sonia Dodd
Director: Hannah Armstrong
Cast: Gabrielle Aubrey, Coen Lourigan, Madelaine Osborn, Ben Rodwell

Theatre review
Told from the perspective of an 8 year-old, Good Mourning by Sonia Dodd is about a young family dealing with the impending death of a parent. The four children have to grapple with a diagnosis that can only be described as traumatic; their father has advanced cancer with only three months to live. It is however not a grim story that we discover. The family finds uplifting ways to spend their remaining time together, cherishing their precious days and doing what children do best, to find the light under any circumstance.

At just forty minutes or so, Dodd’s writing is concise but satisfying, with an honesty that circumvents sentimentality, for a discussion on grief that always feels authentic. Hannah Armstrong directs this story based on her own experiences, inventive and effervescent in style, surprising us with the optimism and entertainment she is able to provide. Also noteworthy are Rhys Mendham’s efforts with lighting design, successful at providing consistent visual variation to a very bare stage.

The ensemble is charming and well-rehearsed, beautifully cohesive with all that they present. Gabrielle Aubrey, Coen Lourigan, Madelaine Osborn and Ben Rodwell play a range of characters, each one spirited and cleverly imagined. Their portrayal of the children’s innocence is especially effective, able to tell a sad story without excessive despondency, thereby encouraging us to think about death and mourning in a healthy manner. The very definition of life means that we must encounter loss. Learning to cope is essential, and knowing how to live with vibrancy after saying goodbye, is crucial.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 29 – Apr 4, 2020
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Tony Cogin, Jack Crumlin, James Evans, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, James Lugton, Jane Mahady, Lisa McCune, Robert Menzies, Aanisa Vylet, Sophie Wilde
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Having very recently lost his father, the young prince is understandably grief-stricken. Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s quick remarriage to the new King Claudius, almost as a form of distraction, but when the ghost of the dead king arrives to reveal that it was his own brother Claudius who had killed him, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with fury. More than a revenge story, Shakespeare’s Hamlet examines the meaning of death, from the vantage point of a man obsessed with bereavement.

It is a handsome production, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights giving a glamorous finish to the staging, and designer Anna Tregloan’s 1960’s costumes adding a sense of whimsy. Tregloan’s cyclorama depicts a beautiful Danish snowscape, but an awkward house-shaped frame sits centre stage, doing little more than to confuse with its lack of purpose. Video projections by Laura Turner helps us empathise with Hamlet’s tragic circumstances, as does Max Lyandvert’s restrained music compositions.

Director Peter Evans’ conservative style may not deliver anything unexpected, but his rendition is likely to appeal to fans of Shakespeare who favour a more conventional approach. Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson is insufficiently charismatic as the lead, but displays clear dedication to her craft. What she offers as the Danish prince is not always convincing, due in part to her slight stature, although there is no questioning her conviction and focus for the role. The two problematic women in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia, are played by Lisa McCune and Sophie Wilde respectively, both performers able to convey a certain level of power and integrity, in spite of Shakespeare’s intentions to portray them as useless. Robert Menzies leaves a strong impression as Polonius, animated and entertaining as the court’s chief counsellor.

In the twenty-first century, it is easy to take issue with the representation of women in Shakespeare’s work. We are far less likely to accept as reasonable, the extremely unbalanced way in which gender is expressed in his oeuvre. The current trend of placing women actors in key male roles does, to some extent, soften the blow of insults to half of humankind, but the strategy is rarely if ever, able to comprehensively address the gender problem that figures so centrally in all of Shakespeare’s narratives.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au