Review: The Glass Menagerie (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 20 – Nov 2, 2014
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Harry Greenwood, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe, Rose Riley
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
Tennessee Williams refers to The Glass Menagerie as a memory play. The work is semi-autobiographical, inspired by events, people and recollections from his own life. The making of art often involves the search for an understanding of the artists’ self and their immediate environment, through the expression of subjects that are familiar and intimate. Williams’ story examines the home life he had shared with an overbearing mother and a “crippled” sister. Seventy years have past since its initial staging, but their life together remains intriguing and poignant, covering timeless and universal themes that resonate with audiences today the world over. Film adaptations from India and Iran in the last decade demonstrate the wide appeal of the play’s premise and characters.

Williams’ language is romantically evocative of the American South in the 1930s, with old fashioned values that seem quaint and charming to our modern sensibilities, but that same regressiveness in attitude can prove to be harmful, as witnessed in the Wingfield family’s tribulations. Amanda has a definite, and narrow, view of the world and expects her children’s adherence to her every imagined obligation to society. It is a small mind that rules the household, and its painful repercussions are felt by all its members, including the matriarch herself. Eamon Flack’s direction is punctuated by inventive touches, but it is his effective exploration of the original’s concepts that strikes a chord.

A key feature of the production involves two large screens flanking the set, and several video cameras on tripods positioned on the periphery of the stage. Close ups of live action are periodically projected in black and white, shifting the audience between modes of theatre and cinema. This mechanism is slightly gimmicky, but it enriches the viewing experience by allowing an intrusion into more private spaces. Sean Bacon’s work on video design manages to bring elegance to the technology, finding a beautiful balance between stage and screen, rarely causing conflict or confusion for our eyes. Flack’s decision to have faces enlarged for our viewing pleasure enhances emotion and empathy for the piece, but it also brings into doubt the strength of performances that require that augmentation.

Also intensified in Flack’s direction is Tom Wingfield’s homosexuality. Before Williams’ lines are able to reveal the source of Tom’s disquiet, we observe from the very beginning, actor Luke Mullins’ purposeful flamboyance eagerly presenting an image of repressed and hidden gayness. The negation of that obsolete taboo inherent in the text, is an interesting and politically appropriate move for our times, and we are glad to see Tom, our narrator, approach us with fresh honesty. In terms of dramatic structure however, the build up of frustration and tension resulting from his gradual and inevitable disclosures is thus omitted.

Mullins is delightfully spirited in the role. He finds many opportunities for playfulness that helps maintain an electric atmosphere, regardless of moods being portrayed. The staidness of his home is placed alongside a confident showmanship that ensures entertainment in spite of the play’s many grim turns. Within the script’s shrewd treatment of secret sexuality, Mullins exercises a surprising range of nuance that conveys as much as Williams had tried to conceal.

The role of Amanda, the Wingfield mother and faded Southern belle, is played by Pamela Rabe who excels at locating authenticity in a highly dramatised character. Obsessive concern becomes comprehensible in Rabe’s depiction, thereby giving the tale its emotion and meaning. The woman’s severity leads to her own anguish, both qualities delivered by the actor with firm conviction. Amanda’s neurosis is strangely subdued at the play’s early stages, which slightly dampens the drama surrounding family dynamics, but when her hysteria sets in, its theatrical effects are quite wonderful.

Rose Riley’s interpretation of Laura is a fascinating one. Her family believes her to be disabled, but we do not see much evidence for it. The ambiguity surrounding Laura’s impairment sheds light on the changes in attitude over time that societies hold for notions of health and normalcy. Riley puts on an intense but introspective performance and her best moments occur when the camera catches her face in tight shots, revealing very strong and genuine outpouring of emotion. She is the perfect counterpoint to the loudness of her mother and brother, but a lengthy scene with a romantic interest Jim (Harry Greenwood) is unduly quiet and both actors’ subtlety leaves a blemish on an otherwise dexterously paced show.

Set design by Michael Hankin manufactures a sense of claustrophobia with the very small Wingfield home. An unbearable pressure exists together with their poverty, and their dysfunction becomes logical. The aesthetics of the production is fairly muted, with an emphasis on accuracy over theatricality, but Damien Cooper finds opportunities with his lighting design to implement instances of creative flair that add sensual and shifting textures to the plot.

Tom, like his father and his author, escapes oppression in search of a greater truth. The most significant of America’s patriotic qualities is freedom, and The Glass Menagerie gifts us a portrait of its opposite. Enslaved by archaic beliefs and antiquated values, the play’s characters endure a continuance of suffering and painful delusion. Today, the story looks to be a relic of a bygone era, but in fact, that same denial of liberty persists in our personal and social spheres, albeit in insidiousness. The play’s optimistic conclusion sees Tom taking action to remove his psychological shackles. The act seems at once desperately painful, and plainly simple.

Review: Wouldman (The Old 505 Theatre)

wouldman1Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 17 – 28, 2014
Playwright: Justin Buchta
Director: Justin Buchta
Cast: Justin Buchta

Theatre review
Wouldman is like a super hero. His costume is made of wood and in it, he would do many things. Justin Buchta’s very unique one-man show is an amalgamation of many disciplines and forms. There are influences from mime, dance and mask work. He even does yoga and attempts auto-fellatio (simulated). There are songs and poetry, and stories are sometimes narrated but the show is not at all narrative driven. It is abstract, almost dadaist, with segments that flow into each other, some chapters more decipherable than others. This is a fascinating show that is frequently funny and amusing, with an expansively creative approach to communication.

Buchta is an extremely energetic performer, who uses his solid presence to give the production an air of impulsiveness. He seems to leave many elements to chance, creating an atmosphere that is consistently surprising and alive. Buchta keeps us thoroughly engaged even while he bewilders us with his avant garde antics, and we respond with a complex mix of thoughts and emotions. The show’s style of ambiguity is an inviting one that can be challenging at times, but always with sufficient frames of reference to construe meanings.

The artist’s creativity is characterised by a sense of boundless freedom, one that does not require adherence to conventions and expectations. Buchta is concerned with the act of expression itself, and meanings are left to fashion their own lives. This is an art that encourages open hearts and minds in order that interaction can occur. Justin Buchta proves himself in Wouldman to be risky and fearless, but it remains to be seen if his audience is equally gallant.

5 Questions with Louise Fischer

louisefischerWhat is your favourite swear word?
Bumshitfart – it’s a good one, ask my father.

What are you wearing?
A red frock. It’s our Theatre Manager’s significant birthday and I intend in wobbling that tailfeather.

What is love?
The thing that gets you into and out of trouble.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Matilda Waltz at New Theatre as part of the Fringe Festival, lots of stars. Written by the Assistant Director of Harvest and a lovely slice of Australian history following a matriarchal line.

Is your new show going to be any good?
God this is tough to answer without sounding like a wanker. It will be good because I was lucky enough to get the cast I wanted and a design team I adore. It means I can sit back and collect wine fines* and let them do all the work.

*Wine fines are the punishment meted out to actors for any infringement including being late for rehearsal, giving cheek to the director or hamming it up. This type of behaviour modification hits actors where it hurts and provides the director with a nice supply of Pinot Noir (hint to actors of Harvest who may read this).

Louise Fischer is directing Harvest, at the New Theatre in Newtown.
Show dates: 7 Oct – 8 Nov, 2014
Show venue: New Theatre

Review: The Matilda Waltz (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 19 – 27, 2014
Director: Sam Thomas
Playwright: Deborah Mulhall
Cast: James Bean, Adrian Adam, Carla Nirella, Morgan Powell, Michael Sutherland, Sonja Donohoe, Adam Gray, Katrina Rautenberg, Roberto Zenca

Theatre review
The Matilda Waltz is the story of five generations of women in Australia, commencing with siblings Vera and Ida Templeton in 1894. We follow a series of their love lives, which all result in daughters being born (yes, they are all heterosexual and, spoiler alert, they all choose Caucasian husbands). The play is narrated by icons of Australian-European literature and fine art, Banjo Paterson and Russel Drysdale, but it is unclear how much of the piece is a work of fiction. The women are not weak characters, they all have purpose and some even display ambition, but Deborah Mulhall’s writing defines each of them against the men who they chance upon. Romance and reproduction is big with the Templeton ladies, it seems, but in the space of a hundred years, they do not come in contact with any indigenous characters or later migrants from non-European regions. We do however, see one of the women venture into “Nam” to almost get killed by the Viet Cong.

It can be frustrating watching actors play different roles and not realising that fact until several scenes later. Chronology in much of the first half is also unclear. Sam Thomas’ direction is not without flair, but important details are neglected, which makes for a confusing experience. Fortunately, there is good work to be found in the revelation of each narrative that unfolds. Characters are not explored with much depth (the play is abridged for the Sydney Fringe schedule), but they are interesting and quite colourful. Virtually every scene features two characters in dialogue, and Thomas creates good chemistry on the stage between all cast members.

The actors are attractive and committed, but the script does not offer them enough to exhibit great skill or talent. The young men of the cast are utilised like boxed up Ken dolls, all gorgeous to look at but without space to flex their acting muscles. We only get to see powerful emotions from a couple of the women but those moments are so fleeting, they seem almost frivolous. Carla Nirella is animated and humorous as the uptight Ida, providing some laughs in the early sequences. Also charming is Sonja Donohoe who manages to find some range and subtlety in her scenes. Adrian Adam plays Drysdale and the American diplomat Richard with a confident presence, and he works hard to bring some fire to the production.

Encapsulating a century into 70 minutes is challenging. To create short stories out of entire lifetimes is not meaningless, but requires greater imagination and innovation. Australia’s recorded history is by some accounts, the longest in the world and we have much to choose from, and our persistent obsession with the recent European settlement needs to subside.

Review: 4 Sydney Fringe Shows (PACT)

pactfringeVenue: PACT (Erskineville NSW), Sep 24 – 27, 2014
Images by PACT

All The Single Lad(ie)s
Company: The Cutting Room Floor
Writer: Zoe Hollyoak
Director: Scott Corbett
Cast: Braiden Dunn, Verity Softly, Jack Walker

Fire Twirling
Company: Circaholics Anonymous

Devisor: Coleman Grehan
Cast: Coleman Grehan

Composer: Mary Mainsbridge

Theatre review
The night begins with All The Single Lad(ie)s, a play about gender politics, featuring a woman and a man in a BDSM fantasy scenario that turns sour, with interludes by a drag queen Tammy Packs who gives lectures on gender in between performing the greatest hits of Beyoncé Knowles. The production and its concepts lack complexity, but actor Verity Softly’s performance is committed and energetic. The production discusses the futility of a feminism that wishes to usurp debates about gender and sex, and explores the meaning of power and consent against the backdrop of a scenario extrapolating sexual domination and rape. Its perspective is aggressive but feels one-sided and therefore, a little convenient.

In the courtyard outside, members of Circaholics Anonymous perform a series of stunts and sequences featuring the art of fire twirling. There is a power to the flames that affects the crowd on a visceral level, beyond the visual. The team present many thrilling moments where the act gets too close to danger, eliciting cheers and yelps from its audience. The show does not have a strong sense of narrative, and things can feel repetitive at times, but there is a hypnotic quality to their performance that can prove captivating especially for the very young. The cast needs to find greater charisma to allow us to connect with their personalities, but they are well-trained and energetic. Their amazing skills do not fail to impress.

Coleman Grehan’s Him is a performance art / dance piece inspired by the Japanese Butoh discipline. Grehan uses his body, saliva and paint to illustrate human emotion and experience. Beautiful moments involving audience members painting directly onto Grehan’s body are impossibly tender and poignant, proving the efficacy of visual and time-based art over the use of words in representing humanity. Music is integral to the magic of the piece, and while they are not created specifically for the presentation, each track is selected with great sensitivity and circumspection.

Bodyscapes features Mary Mainbridge with cords hanging off her clothing, singing and dancing behind a translucent screen. Her body is used to operate “a movement-controlled instrument called the Telechord”, and computer graphic imagery is projected onto the screen that keeps her partially obscured. The visuals are fascinating, and confusing. To the side of the space is another screen displaying a different set of image projections, and three men in collaboration, illuminated only by their computer monitors. The synergy of technology and human is wonderful to observe, and Mainbridge’s brand of intelligent dance music is simultaneously ethereal and sophisticated.

The temporary division of the PACT space into three small studios is very well conceived. The program is at its strongest when there is a focus on the avant garde, and on this occasion, the intimacy of the tiny black boxes are perfectly suited to each unconventional production. In its 50th year, the centre for emerging artists remains a vital part of our artistic landscape.

Review: Gruesome Playground Injuries (The Kings Collective)

thekingscollectiveVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 23 – 28, 2014
Writer: Rajiv Joseph
Director: Anthony Gooley
Cast: Aaron Glenane, Megan McGlinchey
Image by Kate Williams Photography

Theatre review
The beauty of love is most potent when its departure is close at hand. Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries is about a relationship defined by absence. Its characters spend short periods together, sharing brief moments of intensity through each significant age, and then disappear from each other’s lives for years after. Kayleen and Doug’s romance is an eternal flower that does not bear fruit. They do not become partners, spouses or lovers but their bond grows stronger with each passing year. Their story is a tragic one, and Joseph’s script is filled with poignancy, shifting from the very light to the deeply sorrowful, constantly alternating between laughter and tears to tell a moving tale that no person can react with indifference. The events may not have happened to any of us, but we understand all the feelings involved, and this is a production that allows us to luxuriate in all the joy and pain that the couple has experienced.

The outrageously accident-prone Doug is played by Aaron Glenane, whose magnificence in the role cannot be overstated. His authenticity is immediate and thorough, and whether performing slapstick or catastrophe, he always remains believable and compelling. The brightness of the actor’s energy gives the stage a liveliness that captivates us, and his warm presence creates a likability in his character that holds our empathy from scene one to the end. Glenane is perfect in the part, and his work here is impeccable. Also engaging is Megan McGlinchey who takes on the role of Kayleen with a fierce sense of commitment and remarkable focus. McGlinchey is less effective in sequences that require her to portray her character’s later years, but the honesty in her acting provides an integrity to her work that sustains our empathy even when her narrative is missing the purity of Doug’s. The actors form a formidable pair, with an extraordinary chemistry between them that makes the production gleam with magic.

Anthony Gooley’s direction places emphasis on extracting brave and extravagant creative choices from his cast. The piece has a sense of grandness in the volume at which it portrays human emotion that comes from the sheer corporeality that is presented before our eyes. What Gooley has delivered is more than an accurate implementation of Joseph’s writing, it is an amplification, one that is dramatic, powerful and uncompromisingly visceral. The story spans thirty years, and the sentiments represented are correspondingly deep. Passion is conspicuous on this stage, and the director’s efforts at making its presence felt are commendable. The inventive use of space shows creative flair, and along with an accomplished design team comprising Toby Knyvett (lights) and Tyler Hawkins (set and costumes), visual design is noticeably elegant. The variation in atmosphere between scenes is efficiently and sensitively executed, with imaginative input from sound designers David Stalley, David Couri and Philip Orr.

This is an exceptional production that showcases brilliant acting, tells an exciting story, and issues a reminder of what heartbreak feels like. Love cannot be explained in words, but it can be enacted in the theatre, as Gruesome Playground Injuries does, to enormous satisfaction.

Review: The Motherfucker With The Hat (Workhorse Theatre Company / Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

workhorseVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 19 – Oct 19, 2014
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Adam Cook
Cast: John Atkinson, Troy Harrison, Megan O’Connell, Zoe Trilsbach, Nigel Turner-Carroll
Image by Kurt Sneddon

Theatre review
Few would claim to have experienced a perfect childhood. We sustain damage from the carelessness of parents, the cruelty of peers, and the dysfunctions of society. In The Motherfucker With The Hat, characters are seen to grapple with their individual histories, some trying to overcome agents of hindrance, and others submitting to destruction. Through themes of infidelity and disloyalty, we observe the way mistreatment of friends and lovers is rationalised, and through those betrayals, the demons that people carry within are exposed in the play’s violent narratives.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script is colourfully detailed. Interchanges are deep and revealing, and dialogue is relentlessly exciting. The characters speak the language of New York’s lower classes, with a rich idiosyncratic flavour derived from a passionate city and its spirited residents. The story is a compilation of altercations between personalities who do not shy away from confrontation. They express an exhaustive gamut of emotions, which makes for excellent drama, but whether their sentiments encourage empathy, depends largely on the audience’s ability to relate to each character. Direction of the work by Adam Cook is suitably rambunctious. The show is a lively one, always able to provide something amusing, even controversial, to spark the senses. Even though his work can at times feel emotionally distant, Cook extracts consistently brilliant performances from his cast.

In the role of Jackie is Troy Harrison whose spectacular presence anchors the production in a wild and turbulent space that resonates with an unusual authenticity. Through an extraordinary complexity, Harrison conveys a sense of profundity to the proceedings, in which his commitment to creating both entertainment and meaning is clear. Harrison’s portrayal of aggression is not always effective but the vulnerability he displays is powerful. Zoe Trilsbach plays Veronica, an unapologetic addict dependent on alcohol, drugs and lies. The actor has a fierce dynamism that gives her character a willfulness, and she paints an intriguing portrait of hypocrisy and delusion with the character’s determination. There is a vehemence to Trilsbach’s voice and physicality that gives accuracy to the play’s social context, and grants a fascinating insight into the role’s mental and emotional states. It is certainly an outstanding and memorable performance.

Supporting players too, are impressive. Nigel Turner-Carroll’s comedy is confident, mischievous and unpredictable, adding a necessary lightness to the production with the part of Julio. The role of Ralph experiences the greatest transformation in the plot, and John Atkinson’s depiction of that journey is delightfully dramatic. Both Atkinson and Megan O’Connell, who plays his wife Victoria, deliver very solid and captivating soliloquies that stay with us for their intense and palpable humanity. The couple’s desperately flawed relationship is presented with an unflinching honesty that is quite chilling.

Production design is marvelously conceived. The many set changes are handled with great elegance, and every setting is sensitively constructed. Dylan Tonkin’s set and costumes, and Ben Brockman’s lights are not attention-grabbing, but their work allows us to be transported effortlessly to a land far away. Composer and sound designer Marty Hailey is responsible for the urgent pulse that drives us from one explosive scene to another. His music is a metaphysical representation of the story’s progression, and a perfectly executed dimension of the show that finds beautiful harmony with its more tangible elements.

The play talks a lot about sobriety. It is concerned with how a person can grow and improve, through the search for honesty and self-awareness. Julio is the only character in the piece who does not suffer from addiction issues, and he is presented on stage as the only one who finds happiness and fulfillment. He is also the clown. There is an artifice and implausibility to Julio that signifies the absurdity of completeness as a state of being. To err is human, and to struggle, it seems, is evidence for being alive.