Review: On The Border Of Things Part One (PACT)

Venue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Jan 17 – 20, 2018
Creators: Cong Ai Nguyen, James Nguyen
Cast: James Nguyen
Image by Carla Zimbler

Theatre review
In part one of On The Border Of Things, James Nguyen talks about his travels in search of family and his discovery of personal histories. It all begins with the memory of his uncle Cong Ai Nguyen who had left home for a nomadic regional life, working in transient jobs at disparate locations for over twenty years. James’ need to reconnect sparks a three-year odyssey that takes him to country Australia and also to Vietnam, and we catch him as he drives into Sydney, probably momentarily, to talk about his findings.

Essentially a one-man show, with a storyteller proficient in visual arts who rejects the approach of a conventional acting piece, The Border Of Things has a startling immediacy rarely encountered. When our theatres are working well, we are able to come in touch with truths of the world, and here, the first-person narrative is taken to a new level of intimacy. Artifice is stripped away, for an account of adventures recalled not from rehearsals but from actual experience.

James Nguyen’s investigations into the Vietnamese diaspora and his exploration of our farmlands, creates a potent combination that all Australians should find relevant. Discussion points about the migrant experience, along with diverse notions of home as personal and universal conceptions, as well as the meaning of land in relation to commerce and colonisation, all find consolidation and resonance through the Nguyen family’s tales.

The presentation concludes with a short documentary film, as sensitive and tender as the monologue prior, with a quiet melancholia permeating its depiction of new bonds being formed, as uncle and nephew reunite on farms in country Victoria and South Australia. We get a sense that both are black sheep, each able to see himself in the other’s eyes. To know oneself, questions must be asked, and the answers come best, from those we identify with the most. Our protagonist has had to travel afar to reach someone close, but it is evident that the rewards are joyous, and profound.

www.pact.net.au

Review: Tonsils And Tweezers (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 12 – 27, 2018
Playwright: Will O’Mahony
Director: Michael Abercromby
Cast: Travis Jeffery, James Sweeny, Megan Wilding, Hoa Xuande
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Will O’Mahony’s black comedy Tonsils And Tweezers centres itself on two young men, who share not only a very close relationship, but also the unyielding malaise of modern masculinity. We see them bond as outsiders in school, and witness how that relationship shapes the adults that they try to become.

The narrative might be fairly simple, but the plot is a deliberately beguiling one that ends up delivering more confusion than it intends. We sense an emotional crescendo being constructed thoughtfully as each scene progresses, but its inability to have us sufficiently identify with either Tonsils or Tweezers, takes us to a conclusion that never manages to be more than lukewarm.

The actors however, are full of conviction and reliably entertaining. Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande are the leads, both authentically present and impressive with the gravity they bring to the stage at crucial junctures of drama. Even more appealing, are supporting players James Sweeny and Megan Wilding, memorable with the scintillating humour they are able to introduce throughout the piece. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but it is a cast that we are glad to have spent time with.

Director Michael Abercromby takes us through the play’s many blunt atmospheric shifts with admirable elegance and efficiency. Lights by Liam O’Keefe and sound by James Yeremeyev have a tendency to work slightly too literally, but are highly effective with the way time, place and mood are calibrated for our subliminal comprehension. Patrick Howe does remarkable well as set designer, creating a space beautifully sleek in its minimalism, whilst portraying a cold brutality that is consistent with emotions relevant to the text.

In Tonsils And Tweezers, the Australian man’s problem with self-expression is, characteristically, looked at, but not looked into. The inability of our boys and men, to articulate and to understand their own feelings is, as the play points out vigorously, clearly detrimental, but how all this transpires, is all but neglected. We know the effects of toxic masculinity, but are yet to examine it in a way that can bring us satisfactory solutions. The dismantlement of old structures that we continue to live within, is necessary but strenuous. Some have begun work on that process, but more will have to come on board, if we wish to truly progress.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com

5 Questions with Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande

Travis Jeffery

Hoa Xuande: Before you read Tonsils And Tweezers, going purely from the name, what did you think the play would be about?
Travis Jeffery: I had absolutely no idea what the play was about before I read it. I love the title, but the only thing it gives away is two of the characters names, and even that’s not crystal clear. Will O’Mahony is a very intelligent human and writer so I gathered the title wasn’t going to be literal, but the thought did cross my mind that ‘hey maybe it’s just set at the dentist’.

What kind of kid were you at school?
I was the funny chubby kid at school. Or at least I tried to be funny, I was definitely chubby. My passport photo was taken in 2009 when I was around 107 kgs, these days when I whip it out at the airport I occasionally get laughed at… at least I’m getting laughs 😦

What are the similarities or differences between you and your character?
The importance of friendship is definitely something myself and Tonsils have in common. My friendships are one of the most important parts of my life, whether it’s on or off stage it’s wonderful knowing you have people that will be there for you, including you, Hoa Xuande. At the heart of Tonsils And Tweezers is two best friends trying to help each other work through something traumatic, it’s their friendship that drives the play.

What do you think your character’s name actually is and why?
Interesting question Hoa, lets go with Peter. Purely because in one of the rehearsals James Sweeny, who plays Max, called me Peter when he wasn’t cut off in time. Or maybe his name really is just Tonsils, like Cher!

Where do you go to get your dance moves?
I learnt my moves at the school of hard knocks! Don’t be fooled into thinking I woke up one morning and they were there. Years of hard work and dedication has been put into my skills. Hitting the D-Floor rain, hail or shine to keep my moves in peak condition. Actually to be honest I was born with absolutely no rhythm so dancing is incredibly hard for me, come watch the show and see for your self.

Hoa Xuande

Travis Jeffery: What do you enjoy about Tonsils And Tweezers and Will O’Mahony’s writing?
Hoa Xuande: I’ve had the chance to work with Will twice now on his plays, including the original development of Tonsils And Tweezers, and the thing that really sticks with me about his writing is how frivolous and fun his plays are until it drops you into the deep end and puts you into an emotional mess. Without trying to sound smart he creates these ideas and clues along the way, which ironically makes his plays really clever. In Tonsils And Tweezers we just get to be silly and play until we hand the audience the play’s actual intentions and emotional truth. It’s really fun to do that every night!

What’s the biggest difference between this production and the original?
The biggest difference between this production and the original would have to be the pace between the two shows. The original was put on as part of a double-bill of theatre at the Black Swan State Theatre Company in Perth so we had some time constraints so Will, who also directed the piece himself, really got us to rapid-fire the text. I mean, we really spoke quite fast! But this production has allowed me to just re-discover the text and give the play a little more ‘breathing room’ so it’s nice to be able to just take your time a bit more in this version of the production and make new choices that you hadn’t previously thought about before. It’s just been great to be able to do the same text again but in a different way!

This question has 2 parts! Part 1: What do you like most about rehearsals? Part 2: What do you like most about working with me?
Haha, well… early on in rehearsals, it was interesting to re-discover the play with Travis and Michael and because I had done the play before, I thought, “Nah, I’ll be right.” But as they kept mining the text and discovered things I had completely missed before, I found myself questioning what I actually knew and what my choices were in the previous production and whether I had even understood the play in the first place. So stepping through the play once again in these rehearsals has actually been quite a refreshing feeling. Travis, mate, I like your can-do attitude! Strong choices even if they might be wrong, or always wrong, haha! Nah, actually that was me every day!

Is it true you only own one white shirt and wear it every day?
False, my friend, I actually own more than one white shirt. Three, to be precise. One of which is being used in the show right now! But I choose to wear my ‘rehearsal’ white shirt every day for rehearsal purposes. FYI, it does get washed every week, I think!

Did you ever have a nickname that you hated? Do you have one now?
I’ve had plenty of nicknames or more like mis-pronunciations of my name that’ve probably turned into a nickname at some point in time. The strangest reading of my name once was ‘hon’ and I was like, ‘Interesting, don’t know where the ‘n’ came from but I’ll take it!’ It’s pronounced ‘hwa’ by the way, like a karate chop! That phrase has become attached to my name every time I introduce myself now, haha! But no, never really hated any nicknames. Do I have one now? Don’t know, probably, but Xanadu’s been making the rounds because it looks similar to my last name!

Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande can be seen in Tonsils And Tweezers by Will O’Mahony.
Dates: 12 – 29 Jan, 2018
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: There Will Be A Climax (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jan 9 – Feb 3, 2018
Playwright: Alexander Berlage and The Company
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Toby Blome, Oliver Crump, Duncan Ragg, Geneva Schofield, Alex Stylianou, Contessa Treffone
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Six clowns in tuxedos are on a constantly revolving stage, wordless but full of shenanigans. We can be certain that Alexander Berlage’s There Will Be A Climax has a strong inner logic. It is abundantly clear that the ensemble knows exactly what they are doing at every moment. What it all means to the viewer however, is quite a different matter.

We can interpret the show to be a meditation on the process of attaining zen, but to approach the production with excessive intellectual interest would probably disappoint. The show is either very funny or curiously macabre, depending on one’s own constitution.

It is a visceral experience, extremely energetic, often impressive with its inventiveness, although with a tendency for monotony in its dogged pursuit for amusement. A more daring approach to lighting would deliver a less predictable outcome, but it is has to be noted that Nicholas Fry’s work on set and costume design is beautifully imagined and cleverly executed.

The cast is a wacky bunch, and very crowd-pleasing; some actors seem more interesting than others, but the team’s ability to share limelight is admirable. There is a lot of trust and generosity amongst the six that gives the show an extraordinary sense of balance and sturdy confidence.

Much of the enjoyment relies on the uncompromising precision being performed, and we feel our attention being manipulated with great rigour, by something incredibly well-rehearsed, but for all its boisterousness, too little of There Will Be A Climax is left to chance. Its artistry, although wonderfully exuberant, can feel too safe. At the theatre, wildness contained, is misplaced politeness. The crowd has been persuaded to listen, but more needs to be said.

www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: My Name Is Jimi (Belvoir St Theatre / Queensland Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 5 – 21, 2018
Playwrights: Jimi Bani, Jason Klarwein
Director: Jason Klarwein
Cast: Dmitri Ahwang-Bani, Agnes Bani, Conwell Bani, Jimi Bani, Petharie Bani, Richard Bani
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Jimi Bani hails from Mabuiag Island, in the near Western part of Torres Strait. His show My Name Is Jimi, is about culture and tradition, and the resolve to keep the uniqueness of his Wagadagam tribe alive and thriving in the modern age. True to form, the production features performers from his own family, across four generations, illustrating the essence and the importance of what is being relayed.

Small communities are always at risk of losing their identity. The young is seduced by external forces, through cultures of technology and consumption determined to establish a conformity, as required and dictated by Western capitalism. We see Jimi’s son Dimitri devouring the smartphone like any other youth, gradually losing touch with the real kinship that surrounds him.

Ambitiously directed by Jason Klarwein, the work is complex and detailed with its depictions. We learn not only what it is, that Jimi is keen to preserve, but also why and how these traditions have come to be of such value. Folklore and dance feature prominently, to inform and to entertain, but perhaps most importantly, as a demonstration of ancestral pride. There is exquisite humour in the piece, alongside its inherent warmth and poignancy.

Jimi Bani’s naturally commanding presence wins us over from the get-go, allowing us to empathise with his story effortlessly, even though his circumstances are admittedly far removed from many of our daily realities. Dimitri shares his father’s humour, delivering memorable moments of comedy. Agnes and Petharie are the senior women providing music, in ethereal, glamorous and dignified fashion. Conwell and Richard are Jimi’s brothers, appropriately sharing the weight of the show, as nimble sidekicks, particularly effective with their live camera work for filmic projections called upon to represent legends of the land. Especially noteworthy is Justin Harrison’s work as sound and projection designer, beautifully transcendent and crucial to the success of My Name Is Jimi.

Family can mean different things to people, but there is no denying the emotional hold it can have over each of us. Watching Jimi and his loved ones cultivate their extraordinary closeness, is reassuring, but also challenging to those who seek a radical independence in today’s climate of rationalism. It is now normal in many societies, to find definition for the self as an entity distinct from practices of the past, especially when one identifies weaknesses and problems associated with those customs. Jimi’s emphasis on language however, is noble and inspiring. Words contain so much, and they allow us to connect with histories when we choose to. Times will change, but forgetting the past, will only hamper any effort to progress. As we seek to become better, a link with earlier experiences is invaluable. Talking with those who had come before necessitates a bridge, and understanding cultures, especially one’s own, is often more rewarding than we can imagine.

www.queenslandtheatre.com.au | www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Fag/Stag (The Last Great Hunt / Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 10 – 27, 2018
Playwrights: Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Chris Isaacs
Directors: Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Chris Isaacs
Cast: Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Chris Isaacs
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Corgan and Jimmy are best friends who live the easy Australian middle-class existence. Fag/Stag sees them fumble and struggle through episodes of triviality, as young men with few legitimate worries, save for the difficulties of having to negotiate the perils of modern masculinity. Without the burden of work and children, nothing very serious ever happens to them, yet anxiety and pain are constants. Their concerns are often silly, but we nonetheless understand that first-world problems are real, for we recognise those symptoms to be genuine, and identify with what is being presented through the creators’ admirable honesty.

Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs create an amusing hour examining the privileged lives of our young white men, straight and gay. Fag/Stag is a dynamic work, compelling and entertaining, even though its persistent earnestness seems somewhat misplaced. As writers, directors and performers of the piece, Fowler and Isaacs seem never to be critical of Corgan and Jimmy, but it is evident that much of the problems the boys encounter, are a result of their self-absorption. The characters do nothing for society, spending all their days inside their own little inconsequential dramas.

Fowler is more vibrant and animated an actor than his counterpart, tenacious with every nuance, eager for his audience to gain a deep understanding of his Jimmy. Straight guy Corgan is suitably restrained, played sensitively by Isaacs whose portrayal is memorable for its sense of familiar authenticity. The pair is tremendously endearing, and warmly comedic in their depiction of a very close friendship. We like them, and many will allow ourselves to be convinced of the hardships being proclaimed.

White men may be in positions of power, but it is questionable if things are necessarily easier for them. Sexism is detrimental to all genders. In many ways, we can see that Corgan and Jimmy have it easy, but all of that convenience adds up to an aimlessness, that causes meaning to be elusive. We watch them suffer, as a result of having nothing substantial to live for. They turn to each other, for comfort and support, and for affirmation that something of value and import, can ultimately be discovered.

www.thelastgreathunt.com

Review: Green Day’s American Idiot (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 11 – 14, 2018
Music: Green Day
Lyrics: Billie Joe Armstrong
Book: Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Mayer
Director: Craig Ilot
Cast: Kaylah Attard, Kyla Bartholemeusz, Erin Clare, Connor Crawford, Linden Furnell, Phil Jamieson, Alex Jeans, Nicholas Kyriacou, Vidya Makan, Phoenix Mendoza, Phoebe Panaretos, Christopher Scalzo, Maxwell Simon, Ashleigh Taylor, Kuki Tipoki
Image by Ken Leanfore

Theatre review
Comprising songs by American punk rock band Green Day, American Idiot is a musical, or a rock opera to be slightly more precise, that showcases the band’s unquestionably popular songwriting talents. Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool and Mike Dirnt are Gen X’ers who have found an audience with their brash but commercial sound, and like many successful music artists today, exploring a jukebox musical with their pre-existing catalogue is now par for the course.

While it is somewhat refreshing to have the punk genre incorporated into this almost always contrived genre of show, a stronger book is required for American Idiot to speak to those who are less than fanatic about the band’s oeuvre. We see characters go through the semblance of a plot, but glean no detail from any of their stories. Cheesy choreography and unimaginative use of projections, cause the show to further alienate.

The adaptation of music is however, fairly effective, with dramatic arrangements helping to sustain interest. It is a committed cast of varying abilities, most memorable of whom is Linden Furnell in the central role of Johnny, exquisitely confident in his multidisciplinary approach to the production’s quite exacting requirements. His effortless blend of rock and broadway, along with a physical agility, provide us with a sense of impressive polish and professionalism. Much less comfortable on the musical stage is Phil Jamieson, who although exhibits good presence from his years as a rock musician, is visibly disoriented in this switch in performance style.

It is certainly one for the fans, but there is no reason for the bar not being raised higher. There is excellent energy and poignant intent in each of the songs being sung in American Idiot, and when presented appropriately, there is plentiful opportunity for a wider crowd to connect. The talent here is evident, but greater diligence is necessary for a show that could speak to more, with better clarity and at a more affecting depth.

www.americanidiotlive.com.au