Review: Constellations (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

darlinghursttheatreVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Aug 8 – Sep 7, 2014
Playwright: Nick Payne
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Emma Palmer, Sam O’Sullivan
Image by Gez Xavier Mansfield

Theatre review (originally published in Auditorium Magazine)
The only constant in life is change, and its only certainty is death. Nick Payne’s Constellations is an exploration into the ways we create and tell stories. Through its inventive format of repetition and shifting perspectives, it relays a tale that is remarkably simple, but because of its adventurous format, the work that results is profound and thought-provoking. The play discusses the nature of time, in relation to the way its plot unfolds and also to astrophysics. Its interest in non-linear temporal expressions is derived from academia, but it raises questions of life choices by actualising on the stage, abstract notions of parallel universes. We see two characters acting out unpredictable duplications of scenes, each time with different motivations and nuances. They prompt us to look at the ways we choose to react to things, at how we make decisions in daily life, and whether or not we are in control of the consequences that befall us.

The work is in part about mortality and its inevitability, but it is also about the elasticity of concepts like fate and destiny. In some ways, the message is an optimistic one, where existence can take a myriad of forms, and circumstances can be altered at some degree by volition. The idea of regret and redress also figures into its themes when we observe its characters, Marianne and Roland, moving through time in all directions, to revisit sequences and reinterpret them with fresh approaches. Payne’s script is as complex as the direction wishes for it to be, and Anthony Skuse is certainly unafraid to extricate depth while he builds a coherent piece that looks on its surface to be a love story. The conceptual aspects of Constellations are realised with exciting clarity, and it surprises with emotional textures that are beautifully rendered. The play moves us on levels of instinct, intellect and sentimentality; a rare experience at the theatre, and seriously rewarding.

Skuse and his cast have brought to the writing, thoughtful range and a vibrant energy that keeps us fascinated and engaged. The experimental style of Payne’s script is successfully restrained so that it is a presence that does not overwhelm. There is sufficient room for a cerebral connection, but we are also encouraged to feel the joy, pleasure, anger, fear and sadness that flows through the rich landscape of human experience being portrayed before us. Skuse’s brilliance lies in his ability to discover layers in the play that appear contradictory, and make them all seem simultaneously truthful. His work has a humorous charm that readily finds its way into lighter sections, and comedy often appears quite out of the blue, without ever feeling clumsy or contrived.

Acting in Constellations is demanding to say the least. The production has us fixated on the couple and gives them nowhere to hide. They have to perform countless transitions that are entirely unnatural, yet must create characters that always feel accurate and believable. Both players succeed wonderfully on these fronts, and furthermore, they are immediately endearing and we hang on to their every word. Emma Palmer is simply glorious. The actor feels so completely alive and truthful on this stage, we cannot help but be mesmerised by the way she develops her character from moment to moment. The production relies heavily on Palmer’s performance and she makes it a breathtaking one. The thorough commitment she gives to every quirky flourish and creative decision is evidence of an artist’s single-minded passion for her art form. Palmer elevates the show from abstract philosophy, and provides a palpable authenticity that is responsible for keeping our attention and emotions invested.

Roland is the supportive boyfriend, the selfish bastard, the saint, and the liar. Sam O’Sullivan is compelling at every stage of his portrayal, and even though his work can be at times a little quiet, he never fails to keep us engrossed as the regular guy who is not always Prince Charming. O’Sullivan has a comic flair that he utilises with refreshing competence whenever possible. The actors are individually strong and they work well together, but the chemistry between the two is sometimes unpersuasive, which means that sparks do not always fly when they need to. On the other hand, we feel a sense of weakness in the characters’ bond, which creates an ominous tension that points to the ever-present threat of their relationship’s possible demise.

Production design is understandably simple. There is something bare bones about the script, which the visuals reflect. The rawness of two people unveiling humanity with intensive honesty is matched by the minimalism of a stage that does not intrude. However, it is worth noting that the venue is fairly large, and allowing the full stage space to be exposed for most of the duration tends to take away from the intimacy that the acting strives for. Set and lighting could have helped reduce the vastness so that the characters are put in greater focus, and be in a position to achieve a stronger connection with the audience. Composer and sound designer Marty Jamieson also creates minimal work but its effect is deceptively powerful. Jamieson never draws attention to himself, but uses simple musical notes to indicate occasional shifts in dramatic tone. His work is sensitive, intuitive and tacitly sublime.

There is no subject more universal than death and illness. Constellations causes an interruption to our lives by making us look at the inevitable end. More than that, it encourages reflection on that journey to death, or to put it less morbidly, the play shines light on what we choose to make out of our every day on earth. Some of us look to the stars to find meaning and to prophesy, but the only predetermined thing that no one is able to escape, is the fact that nothing lasts forever. Each second is full of possibility, and fortunate are those who can uncover the magic that awaits in every twinkling breath.

Review: Bad Day Insurance (Old 505 Theatre)

old505theatreVenue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 6 – 24, 2014
Playwright: Lisa Chappell
Director: Drew Fairley
Cast: Lisa Chappell, Sarah Hynter

Theatre review
The quote, “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” has been attributed to different sources, including Nelson Mandela. In Bad Day Insurance, two elderly women spend their days in each other’s company, secluded from the world except for people on telephones who ask for insurance payouts due to having a bad day for all kinds of reasons. Esther and Mavis have to listen to these first world complaints every waking moment, and we soon get the impression that their state of torture would have been for a lot more than a few years. They are watched over by an invisible non-human entity named Boob, who exercises absolute control over these women, although we wonder if, like many of our gods, its existence is entirely in their minds. Esther and Mavis are grey haired and grey skinned, having waited an inordinately long time in their “call centre” (they sleep and work there) for an inscrutable something, or perhaps simply for their days at Bad Day Insurance to come to an end. They are trapped, and we wonder why. We wonder if they have imprisoned themselves and are punishing each other for something that had happened. We never hear the other end of the phone lines, and they do not ring on their own accord. The women verbalise a “ring ring” if a call arrives to taunt the other.

Lisa Chappell’s script is humorous, but its more striking feature is its strange darkness. The mystery and intrigue that Chappell creates is riveting, and her brand of empathetic absurdity brings out an unexpected compassion in the viewing experience. There are many loose ends to the piece, but meaningful details are peppered throughout so that our imagination is kept busy. We are entertained by a lot of silliness, but at the same time, we are completely engrossed on a cerebral level, seduced by all its somber resonances that point to something deeper that wants to be unearthed.

Performances by Chappell and Sarah Hynter are flawless. The actors are energetic, mischievous and magnetic, with a consummate professionalism that easily convinces us that all bases are covered. We are taken on a ride that involves laughter, surprise, curiosity, terror and poignancy. Under the directorship of Drew Fairley who provides a sensitive, nuanced third eye, the production they have created is a prime example of how showbusiness and art can collude to communicate something enjoyable, disarming and very clever. Talent of this calibre is a rare and beautiful thing, and to see Chappell and Hynter invent something that moves us on so many levels, is awe-inspiring.

Freedom is prized by everyone. It is not available to all, but in places like Australia, it is certainly within reach. Understanding how to attain that emancipation depends largely on an understanding of one’s own circumstances. Bad Day Insurance shows us that we almost never see the completeness of our lives. There are always annoyances, disappointments and pains that hold our attention, and we are always waiting for something to facilitate a release. Esther and Mavis have suffered an eternity. Prisoners of fear, despair and defeat, they have formed a hellish life, unaware of their power for creating better days for themselves. They fail to see that the locks enslaving them require keys that only they can manufacture. This is a show about our freedom, and it challenges us to seize it.

Review: Fragments Of I Am: 18 Scenes & A Song (The Nest)

fragmentsVenue: The Nest (Alexandria NSW), Aug 7 – 9, 2014
Devisers: Ryan Carter, Jes Dalton, Hayley Sullivan, Sam Trotman
Cast: Ryan Carter, Jes Dalton, Hayley Sullivan, Sam Trotman

Theatre review
A narrative requires a sense of coherence, and coherence can in turn, be subjective. Fragments of I Am: 18 Scenes & A Song is an experimental work without a clear overarching story, but what its three performers portray over nineteen scenes can be construed as something that forms a persuasive whole. There is nothing to prevent us from interpreting each performer’s work as singular characters, but we can also think of them acting in altogether different roles at each appearance, considering the drastic transformations that can happen from one moment to another. On this experimental stage, we are free to choose how we read, and what we deem to be relevant would probably be based on personal judgments, although it is noteworthy that in the freedom of form explored here, nothing is wrong and everything is right, no matter what approach we choose.

There is a lot of anxiety in the piece. The artists’ youthful need to explore meanings in life and art contains a sense of urgency and desperation that makes for thoughtful theatre as well as satisfying entertainment. Their interest in boundaries, confines and limits ensures an expression that feels fresh and creative, although the sense of transgression that one expects from such themes is slightly tame in this production. We anticipate something more in the vein of Gina Pane and Marina Abramović’s legacies but they never venture that far, perhaps this is where theatre and performance art diverge. We are impressed however, by the unorthodox warehouse-like venue they have chosen, and their barely-there wardrobe on the occasion of Sydney’s chilliest winter nights.

The cast’s execution of their own text and ideas is quietly accomplished. There is a sense of ease to the team’s presentation that results from having established clearly what they wish to achieve but their show feels strangely subdued. There is a wildness that feels too contained, although their depiction of mundanity is beautifully manipulated to look bizarre and alienated. The ordinariness of daily life is brought into question, and we are encouraged to examine our concepts of normality with a new distrust for things that are usually axiomatic.

The work is concerned with violence and human connection. Permeating all the action is a sense of loneliness that often results in brutality of some description. To make the statement that we are a species characterised by self-destruction is grim but honest. Asserting that our modern inhumanity comes from an inability to understand one another, is poignant and powerful.

Review: Joan, Again (Subtlenuance / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 5 – 23, 2014
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Kit Bennett, Jamie Collette, Ted Crosby, Kitty Hopwood, Lynden Jones, Sylvia Keays, Bonnie Kellett, David Kirkham, Helen Tonkin
Images by Katy Green Loughrey, Liam O’Keefe, Daniela Giorgi

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
Paul Gilchrist’s new script is deeply philosophical. It asks many big questions, all of which affects our lives, but most do not come easily into daily discourse. These are themes that can be difficult to communicate, for despite their universality, the diversity in beliefs often means that unexpected conflict may result. Also, these concepts of truth, religion, spirituality, death, identity, gender, kinship, time, and so forth, are constantly shifting and elusive, and therefore impossible to resolve. Conversation without resolution or agreement is always a challenge in polite society, which means that many of these piquant parts of life are left to the likes of academics and artists to explore at depth. Indeed, it is a responsibility of art to think about these matters, and to present to us, perspectives that may challenge our own.

Through the landscape of war, and the appearance of a woman claiming to be Joan of Arc ten years after her famed execution, Gilchrist’s play asks political, social and personal questions and unpacks modern day attitudes about, well, everything. The script is always loaded with meaning, and while it might be difficult to discover the author’s own beliefs in every line, we are consistently provoked to react with our own judgment and ideology. Not much happens in the story, but our intellect is exhausted by its end. The strength of the writing is in its ability to expose the incoherence and injustices of our world, without obvious agenda or tiresome pontification. Gilchrist’s work has many delightfully sharp lines that need to be revisited if only to commit to memory, but more significantly, it is concentrated with analysis and poignancy that speak volumes of truth that its characters struggle to navigate.

Gilchrist’s direction creates a dynamic theatre with distinct and colourful personalities that keep us fascinated. Moments of comedy and drama are executed with precision, so that the show varies regularly in tone, and is kept at a comfortable pace. Acting as both playwright and director allows a very specific interpretation of the text, but it also raises issues for performance. There is a lack of organic energy in the piece, and chemistry between players is laboured. The cast does not always find a mode of articulation that feels genuine. When interpretations are reproduced from preconceived ideas instead of more fundamental and experiential processes, characters are less unconvincing and their stories can become difficult to decipher. Gilchrist’s direction also needs to have greater confidence and commitment in his comedy that is too often underplayed, which is a shame as there is potential for much bigger laughs in his writing. By the same token, the profundity of his script needs greater emphasis as they can be quite elaborate. A writer mulls over their work over long periods, and to condense that vision into two or three hours for an audience that arrives with only a blank slate, requires a very fresh pair of eyes. Gilchrist expresses himself marvelously but one wonders if an intermediary would provide more effective elucidation.

Kit Bennett plays Therese, a young woman of very few words who suffers from the indignity of being tagged the “village idiot”. Her performance is remembered for a level of authenticity that her colleagues do not manage. Bennett encourages intrigue and empathy, forming a connection with the audience that is strangely persistent. She speaks little but her presence is always strong and her reactions meticulous. One wonders if it is the lack of lines that provides her the freedom to create something that is more personal and with more truth as an actor. Gilchrist has crafted a brilliantly complex role with Therese. She is surprising, almost disarmingly so, but her contradictions actually feel very realistic.

Joan is central to much of the narrative, and Sylvia Keays brings to it an ambiguous zen-like quality that works interestingly on levels of narrative and philosophy but we are left craving for a deeper understanding of her character’s psychology and motivations. Keays is at her most compelling when soliloquising, showing an excellent affiliation with the writing and themes. There is a defiance that seems slightly mild but her lack of aggression makes for a more textured and unanticipated experience of the character. Also charming is Lynden Jones whose subtle yet biting portrayal of Cardinal Theobald grabs our attention at every appearance. The irony in his lines could be performed more extravagantly but the creepy hypocrisy that seeps through Jones’ every pore is sickeningly irresistible.

Helen Tonkin as Isabelle, delivers a memorable and moving speech about lives lost at war. The play’s antiwar sentiment is strong. It discusses the damage worn by societies as a result of combat, and the meanings we derive from manufacturing war heroes. In honouring the dead and those who return victorious, we face the inevitably of assigning glory to destruction, but responding with an antithetical passivity and apathy is unwise. The pursuit of peace may be the greatest vocation of humankind, and the quest for it may never appear within easy reach, but there simply is no responsibility more noble, and no undertaking more necessary than the attainment of justice and fairness for all. |

Review: Macbeth (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 21 – Sep 27, 2014
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Melita Jurisic, Robert Menzies, Hugo Weaving
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published Auditorium Magazine Peace Issue 2014)
In the process of art-making, it is often the spirit of experimentation that elevates a work to heights of significance and esteem. Major theatre companies around the world with greater access to funding and other resources do not always prioritise innovation in their repertoire, often choosing instead to deliver entertainment that their patrons would readily embrace. The decision to stage a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a prominent actor in the title role, exemplifies the kind of tension that exists where a show’s anticipated mass popularity and the expectations that come along with it, threatens the commitment to artistic risk, in the trepidation of alienating audiences or indeed, underestimating their ability to relate to unconventional interpretations.

Kip Williams’ direction of the piece reflects an awareness of the diversity in his audience’s tastes. Shakespeare is left untainted and the celebrity actor is given ample room to flex his dramatic muscles for his legions of fans, but the stage is thoroughly explored around those prerequisites. Williams gives the crowd what they have come for, but also offers up fresh concepts and unexpected flourishes that prevent the production from ever appearing unoriginal or unambitious. Williams’ vision does not rewrite the 400 year-old play, and neither does it add significantly to its themes and ideas, but he uses the text to explore the nature of the art form in all its physical and emotive possibilities. The audience’s early excitement is further amplified, when we discover upon stepping into the venue, that our tickets point to seats located on the stage itself, and we are positioned so that the auditorium come into full view and our more familiar chairs have become the backdrop. The meaning of this radical reversion is open and unexplained, but it seems the director wishes to keep us close to the action by placing us directly on stage with the performers.

The production begins as though we are observing a casual reading, with the only discernible element of set design being a simple table (that seems to find its way into every rehearsal space). The cast appears in nondescript clothing, looking more regular than average Joes on the streets of Sydney. None of the grandeur of fictitious kingdoms, or the formalities associated with Shakespeare are present. Disappointment in the production’s minimalism is soon dispelled when the first murder takes place, and a series of fantastical effects begins to unfold. Supernaturalism figures heavily in Shakespeare’s writing, and the depiction of a world that is half earth, half hell is a striking gesture from Williams’ directorial hand. His ghostly atmospherics are deftly created by production designer Alice Babidge’s ingenuity, together with the adventurous efforts of lighting designer Nick Schlieper and the insidious talents of Max Lyandvert, composer and sound designer. It comes as no surprise that Sydney Theatre Company delivers a technically proficient show, but the stage craft in their production of Macbeth, shows flair and intuition in addition to expertise.

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth is absolutely captivating, perhaps unsurprisingly so. The role is wildly imagined and Weaving’s impressive range is exposed dramatically. The actor’s control of voice and body is confident and skilled, and his thorough exploration of the text translates into a dynamic performance that keeps us delighted and entertained. Acting on this stage is professional and committed, but characters are distant. We watch their stories with fascination, but we are not always emotionally engaged. Performances are thoughtful and calculated, but they do not always resonate viscerally, and can sometimes lack an intuitive energy. Weaving’s work in the “dagger scene” is clear in its motivations, showing us the onset of the character’s descent into madness, but the impending consequences that befall him do not translate with enough power. We do not sense sufficiently the grave danger that awaits him, but when emotions of regret take hold later in the piece, Weaving’s mastery truly shines.

The other famed soliloquy, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, is similarly underwhelming. Melita Jurisic plays her role with an alluring extravagance, but the heightened lunacy at her final scene feels almost too predictable after presenting a Lady Macbeth who had already seemed quite deranged from the start. Nevertheless, Jurisic’s intensity adds a sensational energy of avant-gardism that gives the production a sophisticated modern edge. Her anti-naturalist style fits beautifully with the show’s paranormal quality, and the toughness that she injects into the role keeps us mesmerised. Paula Arundell crosses gender and ethnic boundaries to play a compelling Banquo. Arundell’s work has a natural authenticity that helps create a character that is consistently believable, and her considerable stage presence gives Banquo an effortless palpability. Her star quality is pronounced even at the scene of the feast, where she plays an apparition, wordless and with little movement. There is an appealing stillness that she delivers, which our eyes very readily gravitate towards.

Williams’ use of space is a greater achievement than his use of Shakespeare’s script. His determination and love for theatrical experimentation is exhilarating to witness, and while his concepts might have been inspired by Macbeth, they can appear quite divorced from the text itself. Furthermore, the story and its characters often feel subsumed by the grandness of his aspirations. The narrative is a majestic one and it resists abatement. We want to be swept away by its drama and tragedy, but our indulgence in all the spectacle takes precedence and our senses struggle to form a meaningful reconciliation between form and content. This is a strong production with artistic merit emerging from all aspects and faculties, and although it connects more with our senses that it does with our emotions, what we see and hear is utterly breathtaking.

Review: Not About Heroes (RGP Promotions )

notaboutheroesVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 4 – 6, 2014
Playwright: Stephen MacDonald
Director: Carla Moore
Cast: Roger Gimblett, Patrick Magee

Theatre review

Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes does not glorify war. It pays reverence instead to art, friendship and the loss of young lives. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were English soldiers in the first World War, remembered for their poetry about horrors they had faced while serving their nation. MacDonald’s play uses their work and other historical fragments to create a narrative out of the men’s extraordinarily intense and close friendship, which was forged out of their shared passion for poetry and the trauma they had both sustained from being caught in the middle of battlefield devastation. In each other, they had found a partner in life and art who was able to provide support and trust, with a unique understanding of the other’s inner world. MacDonald’s depiction of the relationship is vivid, emotional and grand, sometimes even romantic, and although their intimacy never extends into a physical one in his rendering, we feel a depth between the two that is no different from those of most marriages or families.

The play includes many passages by the poets, cleverly selected and contextualised to express the development of the characters, their relationship and their experience of the war. Direction by Carla Moore gives the production an emotional quality that is affecting and very sentimental. We feel the love between Sassoon and Owen, and even more so, we feel for all the soldiers who have been sent to war and the masses who have perished over the years. Moore is precise with what each scene is to achieve, and the show she creates is consistently clear in its plot trajectories and in the sentiments it wishes to convey at each juncture. Her control over performance ensures that the actors always provide appropriate nuances, with a noteworthy emphasis on speech that allows every powerful word to resonate for the audience. The use of a screen enhances the effect of sections in the play that delve into details of war, with sobering and impactful results.

Acting in the piece is sensitive and authentic. Both players show an enthusiasm for the material at hand, and their attachment to it is conveyed impressively. Roger Gimblett plays Sassoon with a stateliness that efficiently paints a picture of a man with stature and experience, giving credence to Owen’s very early admiration. Gimblett’s use of voice is outstanding, and diction is a crucial asset for a play that relies heavily on the legacy of poetry from the era. The boyish Owen is embodied by Patrick Magee who imbues beautiful spirit and purity to his work, and his understated vibrancy makes an important statement about wasted youth. Magee has excellent focus and presence that allows his role to remain in balance with his counterpart who performs with greater gravity.  Gimblett and Owen are lively entertainers who have successfully identified light and heavy sections of the play, and they deliver accordingly with performances that are captivating and surprisingly dynamic.

This review is written on the day that marks the centenary of the first World War. With the advent of information technology, we are more aware than ever, of atrocities that occur around the world, where communities are decimated in the name of religion, ethnicity, and honour. The “war to end all wars” has long been revealed to be a lie. Not About Heroes is a reminder that life in all forms is precious, and all sacrifice in war is tragic. Peace is hardest to achieve of all that is worthy, but the pursuit of it must never be surrendered.

5 Questions with Bonnie Kellett

bonniekellettWhat is your favourite swear word?
I say ‘fuck’ a lot and ‘sugar honey iced tea’ (which is a nicer way of saying shit) – oh and I know it’s not really a swear word, but I really like ‘sod off.’

What are you wearing?
It was really cold this morning, so black boots, jeans, a pink fluffy jumper with diamantes and a beanie… with a diamante.

What is love?
Marrying my soul mate in November, not long now!

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Opera Australia’s Don Giovanni. I loved it – I studied it a couple of times at uni, so it was really great to see it live, 4 Stars out of 5!

Is your new show going to be any good?
I love it! Paul Gilchrist is such a talented writer – it’s very funny and very moving.

Bonnie Kellett is appearing in Joan, Again, with Subtlenuance.
Show dates: 5 – 23 Aug, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel

5 Questions with David Harrison‏

davidharrisonWhat is your favourite swear word?
The current favorite is ‘slunt’. My best friend Ashleigh can’t bring herself to say c-word but deems this an appropriate substitution.

What are you wearing?
An op-shop find – reversible Giants Baseball Jacket, grey t-shirt and some pajama pants that have cartoon pictures of peanuts on them with the slogan: “Go Nuts”. Yes these are my work clothes.

What is love?
In the paraphrased words of Jeanette Winterson: ‘You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signaled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant leap. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and
call it home. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.’ Essentially, love = space travel.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
I actually just saw Hedda Gabler at Belvoir. I think it was a really worthy experiment in theatre making and I respect and admire both Ash and Adena very much for their talent and courage in an artistic and social climate that doesn’t necessarily support their vision. I give it 4 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
I’m a big fan of shows with a lot of heart and compassion. I think that is what the writers and actors have all brought to the table and if we can deliver that to the audience, then we’ve done our job.

David Harrison‏ stars in Out Of Gas On Lover’s Leap, part of Sydney Fringe 2014.
Show dates: 10 – 14 Sep, 2014
Show venue: TAP Gallery
Image by Sally Flegg

Review: Four Places (Outhouse Theatre Co)

outhouseVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Jul 29 – Aug 10, 2014
Writer: Joel Drake Johnson
Director: Nicholas Hope
Cast: Amanda Stephens Lee, Jeremy Waters, Kim Hillas, Briony Williams
Image by Richard Farland Photography

Theatre review
Death affects everyone, but how each of us relates to it differs. People have different expectations about how terminal illnesses should be managed, also which individuals are to be held responsible for the well-being of the dying, and certainly our ideas about the “afterlife” are informed by a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. Joel Drake Johnson’s script explores life at its final stages for the average middle class person, with ruminations about fear, love, family and ideology.

Nicholas Hope’s direction keeps the action very subdued. Its naturalism is so thorough that we often feel like eavesdroppers, and the family that we observe are going about their business with as much mundanity as any other party of three at a casual dining spot. They talk about serious matters, but they rarely allow themselves to react too dramatically. These are not people very open with their feelings, even if one of them is a psychologist. They each have their own secrets, and they seem content with not knowing too much about each other’s. We see the mother character Peggy, wearing an over sized crucifix as a pendant, and we are tempted to associate the stifling oppressiveness with their religious and cultural background.

Peggy is played by Kim Hillas, who is believable and truthful in her interpretation of the script, but she is often too subtle. It is a rare joy to see a play with an older female as its lead character, but we long for greater drama and stronger comedy. The theatre can be a reflection of real life, but it is also storytelling, and we need embellishments in order that our empathy can be amplified and made meaningful. Amanda Stephens Lee has the unenviable task of playing Ellen, the psychologist daughter, who is also a widow still in mourning. The character is a repressed one, and the actor portrays effectively, the dread that is felt when having to manage one’s parents’ illnesses. The role of her brother is performed by Jeremy Waters, who does his best to prevent familial disquiet. We see the character’s frustrations even if his lines give little away, and Waters makes good use of each opportunity that allows some range to his work.

To connect with an audience, a story needs to locate its points of universality and give it emphasis. Four Places has themes that we can relate to, but its characters are not accessible to all. If we do not understand them, their problems become diminished. If they do not fascinate, we lose interest. Every person on a stage has a tale to share, but it is the artistic choices they make that determines how many will be able to hear them.

Review: Dark Voyager (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 24 – Aug 30, 2014.
Playwright: John Misto
Director: Anna Crawford
Cast: Eric Beecroft, Jeanette Cronin, Belinda Giblin, Lizzie Mitchell, Kate Raison

Theatre review
More than a geographical location, Hollywood is a mystical place. It exists in the minds of many in different forms, whether glorified or castigated, and it refuses to be ignored. Its movies have touched people the world over, and its legends are at least as well known as the stories they tell. John Misto’s Dark Voyager is about screen sirens of the previous century. Their legacies may not appeal as widely as the personalities on today’s tabloids, but for those who share Misto’s fascination, the intensity of their resonances have not faded with time.

Dark Voyager is partly historical biography, and partly fiction. Through the famed rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Misto has created a new narrative that brings together figures from Hollywood, the U.S. government, the press and the mafia, culminating in the demise of the era’s biggest star, Marilyn Monroe. Misto’s script is funny, lively and bitchy, fashioned after the way Davis and Crawford had wished to be seen. There is a lot of glitz, glamour and joking frivolity, but the writing does surprise with moments of poignancy that emerge to offer some balance and gravitas. Monroe’s presence is artfully crafted so that the show’s comedy remains even while we witness her tragic destruction. It might be an exaggeration to label the work feminist, but it does offer its heroines strong multidimensional voices, and brings to the fore some of society’s appalling mistreatment of these women (and women in general). Ultimately, the greatest achievement of Misto’s writing is the profusion of one-liners that tickle, sting and amuse.

Anna Crawford’s intelligent direction brings out all that is joyous and dramatic in the script. Her acute awareness of character chemistry and hierarchy, as well as her flair for spacial usage, has created an enthralling production that addresses our appetite for laughter, nostalgia and flamboyant theatrics. Crawford’s efforts in creating characters that are larger than life, yet psychologically believable gives the play a seductive quality that combines a sense of idolatry with a less lofty verisimilitude. These women are both feared and revered.

The production is designed beautifully, with Anna Gardiner’s dazzling set converting the venue into a luxurious Californian home, with furniture and fixtures that are appropriate to the period and social status being explored. Everything looks exquisite, extravagant and fabulously expensive, and the greed of its inhabitants become palpable. Lighting by Matthew Marshall is suitably colourful and dynamic. Marshall’s work is sometimes sensitive and sometimes daring, but it is always just right. The tone of the show varies frequently, and the lights are crucial to these emotive and atmospheric transformations. It must also be noted that the show’s stage manager Erin Harvey does a beautiful job of keeping technical aspects flowing invisibly and without a hitch.

An undeniable strength of this production is the accuracy at which the movie stars are physically presented. Hair and makeup by Peggy Carter is not at all heavy handed, yet all three women are materialised before our eyes with astonishing results. It may be convenient to imagine that the actors are cast for their appearance, but their work dispels that notion comprehensively. Jeanette Cronin as Bette Davis is formidable. Her performance is spirited, hilarious and frightening. She is relied upon to move the plot in its various trajectories, and the clarity and precision at which she achieves this, shows impressive skill and intuition. The liveliness Cronin brings to this stage is combustible, and her light is blinding for the entire duration.

Joan Crawford is played by Kate Raison who leaves us dumbfounded by the incredible resemblance she manufactures. In fact, one is often caught gawking at Raison’s face, but her efforts are much more than surface. The Crawford we have here is complex and unexpectedly human. We catch intriguing glimpses into her private world that reveals interesting aspects to her sexuality, ambition, and cruelty that Raison portrays with delicious cunning. Marilyn Monroe is most remembered for her beauty and glamour, both qualities that Lizzie Mitchell replicates effortlessly, and her splendid comic timing wins over many of the audience’s biggest laughs. Imitations of Monroe’s idiosyncratic voice and gestures are commonplace, but Mitchell’s depiction of her hidden and inherent sadness is unexpected and completely heartbreaking. This is where the show finds its soul, and although fleeting and subtle, it adds a much needed dimension of gravity.

Also wonderful is Belinda Giblin who plays a despicable entertainment columnist. Giblin has the power required to represent a woman of great wealth and stature, as well as delightful comedy chops that keeps her endeared to her crowd. Eric Beecroft is visibly young, in appearance and experience, but has great conviction and exhibits a good understanding of the play’s humour. This is a captivating ensemble with polish and energy that has identified in a new script, all the opportunities for engaging storytelling and a whole lot of fun.

Misto’s writing has many references to homosexuality. In fact, it attributes the success of the film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (and therefore, ongoing stardom of Crawford and Davis) to its gay audience. Indeed, this is a production with distinct queer sensibilities. Its comedy and pathos comes out of the realm of gay culture, and its longstanding adoration for strong and independent women, but it is not only for gay audiences. Dark Voyager is simply a play that will speak to bold and liberated women everywhere, and of course, to the people who love them.