Review: The Great Speckled Bird (PACT Centre For Emerging Artists)

pactVenue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), June 17 – 20, 2015
Playwright: Ryan McGoldrick
Director: Ryan McGoldrick
Cast: Ryan McGoldrick, Claire Stjepanovic, Steve Wilson-Alexander
Image by Sanja Simic

Theatre review
The show opens with three blank panels on the backdrop, and with Ryan McGoldrick talking about the desire to write. In The Great Speckled Bird, we are never quite sure if McGoldrick has anything to say, apart from exploring and putting into articulation, the creative process itself. Perhaps commencing from the conditions of a writer’s block, and then finding liberation as the key to releasing artistic expression (as opposed to the sort forcibly derived from hard toil), what McGoldrick creates is something ephemeral, nonsensical, and thoroughly whimsical. It is also beautiful, with minimal visual embellishment but the artist has a knack for communication that holds our attention with a gentle persuasion. He introduces a spirit of innocence and wonderment that we recognise instinctively, and should we choose to embrace it, represents a re-acquaintance with something that one would hope is universal and pure.

Musicians Claire Stjepanovic and Steve Wilson-Alexander share McGoldrick’s quality of playfulness, and their presence adds a dynamism that helps the work take flight. What they achieve is entertaining and joyful, and the story they tell, while fanciful, inspires personal thoughts about the origin of life, which is clearly a deep meditation no matter how one chooses to approach it. The collaborative efforts here are seamless and full of idiosyncratic character. Stjepanovic and Wilson-Alexander’s music is delightful, and splendidly performed.

Quirky and experimental theatre is the antithesis, and indeed, the antidote for big, serious productions that can often become too caught up in conventions and commercial expectations. Art should be aware of its audience, but it must not imagine a uniformity in its reception. It needs to address a diversity that reflects the social context that it comes out of, and not seek to perform only to one kind of people. There is a confidence in The Great Speckled Bird that believes in the ubiquity of viewers who are not of the mainstream, and it chooses not to speak down to anybody, even if we are only over-sized children caught up in the creators’ fantasy.

Review: Spring Awakening (Kore Productions)

koreproductionsVenue: The Factory Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Jun 15 – 17, 2015
Book & Lyrics: Steven Sater (based on the original play by Frank Wedekind)
Music: Duncan Shiek
Directors: Alexander Andrews, Sam Haft
Cast: Thomas G Burt, Jamie Collette, Abbie Gallagher, Hannah Garbo, Nathaniel Hole, Julianne Horne, Charlotte Kerr, Logan McArthur, Jonathan Nash-Daly, Damien Noyce, Jordan Stam, Mitch Thornton, Kaleigh Wilkie-Smith

Theatre review
Spring Awakening is concerned with how teenagers learn about sex, and how they deal with burgeoning adulthood. The musical is critical of how adults fail to provide adequate or appropriate guidance, and this low-budget production by young enthusiasts, provides an uncanny parallel between that central theme and the state of theatre in Sydney for emerging talents. We have a rich history of show business in this town, that boasts some of the world’s greatest practitioners, but they are missing from this staging. There seems an unfortunate chasm between generations, and on this occasion, a full scale production, although well-meaning, has been created from a wealth of promising but inexperienced individuals, who have naively chosen to tackle a beast much more formidable than they were ever able to foresee.

Sound issues are not chief of its problems, but its frankly shocking deficiencies from beginning to end have rendered the plot incomprehensible, and represents a complete disregard for any semblance of balance to harmonies being attempted by performers. Consolidating all the string sections in the arrangement onto a single violin is probably a matter of financial inevitability, but the results are often painfully lacking.

Efforts at creative spacial use by directors and choreographer help with energy and scene transitions, but execution requires a great deal of finessing. The story’s most crucial event takes place at a position on stage that only the very first rows can glimpse, further demonstrating the need for more experienced management on the project. The cast is a green one, with some discernible ability, but there is no cohesion in their conception of what is being presented. Key characters are sung by unremarkable voices, and the level of acting overall is regretful. One exception is Charlotte Kerr who shines in her solo as Ilse, with a beautiful and controlled voice that brings a moment of sobering polish to the show.

All of the very best have failed spectacularly in the public eye. Creative souls must not sit back and wait for the perfect opportunity before allowing themselves to put their passion into action. Many have perished without leaving a mark for fear of failure. The artistic process is very rarely without episodes of disappointment, but one cannot expect a masterpiece to materialise without first braving the wilderness.

Review: Re: Memory (Suitcase Civilians / Old 505 Theatre)

old505Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 16 – 21, 2015
Devised by: Jade Allen, Sepy Baghaei, Scott Parker
Director: Sepy Baghaei
Image by Liam O’Keefe

Theatre review
It is impossible to overstate the importance of memory and the extent to which it shapes our lives. Our beliefs, thoughts, behaviour and relationships rely on the flawless functioning of memory, and human experience rests upon its stability in order that everything can retain its meaning. Sepy Baghaei’s work attempts to excavate our capacity to remember, not to test its accuracy, but to provide a sense of the link between today and yesterday, by looking at how the way we are today is informed by and undivorceable from the past.

Attendees of her event are blindfolded for most of the hour. Our gaze is turned inward, and we are required to respond to voices and sounds by following prompts and answering questions. The show can be seen as two halves. One deals with how we relate to the physical world, and the other is entirely internal, where we examine personal emotions and psychology. The “facilitators” are confident and warm, so we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and at the moment we surrender control, the experience becomes fascinating and deeply interesting.

What Baghaei creates is thoroughly adventurous and quite wonderful, but finding greater depth is a challenge. This piece of theatre relies on attendees to become its only cast members, and with only a short opportunity of interaction (instead of months of rehearsal), we can only reveal and see so much. It feels like skimming a surface, where the most affecting and profound are surely hidden. Leaving Re: Memory feels very satisfying, almost gleefully so, but the experience should continue. It is a show that should keep playing long after we have exited its stage, but it is easier to fall back into the daily grind and leave behind those early stages of introspection. Nevertheless, there is no knowing yet, if the mind does keep working its magic independent of our intentions, after Baghaei’s gentle interrogations. |

5 Questions with Blake Erickson and Jay James-Moody

Blake Erickson

Blake Erickson

Jay James-Moody: When you only have three weeks to rehearse a full scale musical, what is your process?
Blake Erickson: Research, research, research. I draw on inspiration from a wide range of sources. Obviously everything begins with the text, but people are complex, so I start to think about the influences on a characters life. When I’ve done that I begin fleshing out a character starting with their voice. Then it’s all up to what happens in a rehearsal room, the wonderful thing is that it’s a different experience every time!

Do you find it easier or more difficult working with collaborators you have a long performing history with?
When you’ve worked with someone before it does take the mystery out of it and you do get to move straight to the work rather than the usual ‘getting to know you’ side of producing a show. That said, there’s nothing I love more than new collaborations. Old friends or new, it’s wonderful to be in a room with like-minded people working toward a common goal. The theatre is a bit magical like that.

How would you say the industry of music theatre has changed in the time you have been involved?
There’s so much more! When I started out less than a decade ago there seemed to be a dearth of new work, small shows, and independent works. That has changed considerably thanks to people taking risks and having the courage to actually create something – be it a venue, a company, a show, a song, a play, even a rehearsal space.

When being tasked with bringing a character named Velociraptor of Faith to life, where do you draw your inspiration?
Religion aside, the concept of ‘faith’ to me suggests an enormous amount of self-confidence and strength. I approached the character looking at performances that have impressed me due to their quiet intensity and power. The work of Frances Conroy, Meryl Streep, and Laura Dern (ironically enough considering her Jurassic Park pedigree) have been particularly influential.

What is the most compelling reason an audience should come and watch Triassic Parq?
When I sat down to read the script for Triassic Parq, it was (and remains) the funniest script I have ever read in my entire life. Now I’ve seen it on stage with these extraordinary performers at the top of their game, it remains the funniest musical I have ever seen in my entire life. How could you resist?

Jay James-Moody

Jay James-Moody

Blake Erickson: When Squabbalogic chooses a show to produce, what most informs your decision?
Jay James-Moody: “Is this something I’m going to want to watch 20 times?” is the primary drive. There are a few other motivations including “I’m desperate to see this and nobody else is going to do it” and “I haven’t seen anything quite like this before.” More selfish reasons are “Is there a part in this for me?”

A lot of actors send you headshots and bios when audition time rolls around, do you have any do’s and don’ts or general advice for those aspiring to work with the company?
If you write me an email and address me as “James”, I tend to frown on that. It’s also telling when we are approached by actors who actually haven’t seen our work. That says a few things. But I never mind someone getting in touch and letting me know they are interested in coming on board. In terms of auditions, I want to meet people who are authentic as people and give me the impression that we will have a good time together for a few weeks and aren’t going to be trouble. Folks who are team players. Your reputation on the grapevine also counts for a lot.

Who in the business would you most like to work with, but haven’t yet had the opportunity?
It’s an incredibly long list, and we have already been very fortunate to have ticked off a number of names. A few names that spring to mind: Michelle Doake, Genevieve Lemon, Sharon Millerchip, Mitchell Butel, Bert La Bonte, Peter Carroll…

What is “Australian musical theatre” to you?
Something that needs and deserve more attention and support – not people decapitating tall poppies with a ride-on lawnmower.

You win $10m on an instant scratchie, what do you do?
Start development on that 500 – 1200 seat theatre Sydney desperately need.

Jay James-Moody is directing Blake Erickson in Triassic Parq a comedy musical involving dinosaurs!
Dates: 17 June – 4 July, 2015
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Being Norwegian (Brevity Theatre)

brevityVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jun 9 – 21, 2015
Playwright: David Greig
Director: Alexander Butt
Cast: Katy Curtain, David Woodland
Image by Pollyanna Nowicki

Theatre review
Relationships are “challenging”, to say the least. Lisa and Sean are in Sean’s apartment, after having met in a pub not long before. Both are hopeful for something exciting, and greater than everyday life to happen. The strangers quickly reveal parts of their hidden selves to try to make the night a meaningful one, but they clash. Lisa is assertive, and Sean is disarmed. The awkwardness of creating new relationships is familiar to us all. We crave deep connections, but finding it can be difficult for most. David Greig’s Being Norwegian is a half-hour sojourn investigating that peculiar dynamic when two meet for the first time, both in search of the same but struggling to find commonality.

The natural discomfort of strange encounters is expressed well, under Alexander Butt’s direction. The eagerness for affirmation and the urgent need to gratify primal urges, libidinal and otherwise, are presented with accuracy and good humour. Butt finds pleasure in the cheekiness of the writing, and works at creating laughs through a varied range of methods, which prevents the show from the threat of becoming a one trick pony.

The characters are colourful and amusing, but they require greater complexity and texture for us to find identification, in order that their narratives and jokes may cut deeper. Katy Curtain and David Woodland are polished performers with strong presences that captivate with ease. Their comedic chemistry is confident, although the sexual energy they manufacture can feel hesitant. The work is often exaggerative in tone, but the players manage to portray a surprising authenticity in a way that only dedicated show folk can. Curtain and Woodland are at home on the stage, and we are delighted to be in their company. |

Review: Misterman (Siren Theatre Co / Red Line Productions)

sirenVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jun 9 – 27, 2015
Playwright: Enda Walsh
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Thomas Campbell
Image by Diana Popovska

Theatre review
Enda Walsh’s Misterman addresses the very contemporary concern of fundamentalist religiosity and its place within secular societies. The tension between the private and the public seems to be approaching its breaking point with our obsessive attention on terrorist activity around the globe. The principle of individuals keeping religious beliefs to themselves has always been precarious, and now we see every day, the violent trespass of those beliefs upon the lives of others. Thomas lives in a small Irish town, and like Travis in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, he becomes increasingly frustrated by the sins he perceives to be thriving around him. Further parallels can be drawn with other “outsiders” like Norman Bates and Carrie, and accordingly, Misterman appeals to our sentimental feelings for the underdog, as well as that undeniable dread arising from seeing the oppressed struggling at the end of their tether.

Beautifully imagined and directed by Kate Gaul, the intimacy of the venue is utilised to enhance the confrontational quality of the text. Her show is a bold one, with an abundance of creative devices invented to provide intrigue, interest and dimension to the monologue format. Subtleties of Walsh’s writing can sometimes be drowned out, but the intensity of what is being presented proves to be arresting, and we engage with the work thoroughly for its entirety. The holistic incorporation of design faculties demonstrates a sophistication that reflects a deep understanding of the nature and capacities of theatre. Set by Gaul, lights by Harley T A Kemp, music and sound by Nate Edmondson contribute much more than atmosphere. The way we understand the protagonist’s environment and his psychology happens through the accomplishments of this formidable design crew, and their exhaustive exploration of space and fantasy.

Thomas Campbell gives the performance of a lifetime in Misterman. His affinity with the material at hand, and the vast amount of depth he has discovered in the text and within himself, have conjured up a tremendous character, rich with life and poignancy. Campbell pushes hard and what he attains is glorious. The focus, energy, sensitivity and intuition he displays, is a rare gift to audiences that we must accept with a gratitude as sincere as what he puts on stage.

The play is about the way we break, and because we are all, to some extent, broken people, the work is accessible in spite of Thomas’ oddness and idiosyncrasies. The isolation and cruelty he experiences is exceptional but also familiar, and through his story, we can perhaps learn about understanding and compassion, which are necessary but often lacking. We don’t need much to survive, but the basic things don’t come easy. |

Review: Mother Courage And Her Children (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 6 – Jul 26, 2015
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht (translated by Michael Gow)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Paula Arundell, Tom Conroy, Lena Cruz, Michael McStay, Alex Menglet, Arky Michael, Robyn Nevin, Anthony Phelan, Richard Pyros, Hazem Shammas, Emele Ugavule
Images by Heidrun Lohr

Theatre review
It cannot be denied that war is a part of human nature. We can certainly imagine a world with no battles, but history proves that it is in fact inevitable, that people will fight, over religion, money and land, no matter how catastrophic the results may be. We are however, resilient and optimistic, with a survival instinct that does not easily give in to threats and destruction. Bertolt Brecht made the association between capitalism and war, in his seminal work Mother Courage And Her Children, first staged in 1941, during the Second World War. It is concerned with decisions made by individuals in the face of social upheaval at wartime, and characteristically, Brecht had aimed to encourage a specific way of thinking through the play.

Politics is always crucial to discussions and renderings of Brecht’s legacy. He made theatre with the intention of influencing his public about contemporary issues, and whenever productions are materialised today, it is still imperative that a political message is at the core of whatever transpires. Story and politics are intimately bound, and for Brecht’s writing, separation is quite impossible. Michael Gow’s translation provides a newer cadence to the text, but the poetic style of language requires a delivery that is sensitive to the ears of its audience, and the production fails to find a way to connect with our sensibilities and emotions.

Eamon Flack’s direction leaves us confused for long stretches of the show, with unclear depictions of characters, timelines and narratival details. There is a good focus on theatrics, which provides an energetic and colourful atmosphere, but we are never quite certain what the plot is trying to reveal. The iconic use of Brechtian placards are sorely missed in our periods of perplexity. The players engage confidently with each other, and their presences feel authentic, but not enough effort is put into including us in their interactions, which means that we are never able to gain insight into how and why things are happening. The experience is frustrating as events on stage often seem interesting, but we only have access to surfaces. The lack of depth in our understanding, coupled with an emotional detachment makes it increasingly challenging to pay attention as time passes. At 150 minutes, our commitment to participate as an engrossed crowd is thoroughly tested.

Performances in the piece have a quality of confidence and gravity that give the production an unmissable polish. The cast, including leading lady Robyn Nevin, seems well-rehearsed and they rise to the challenge of a show with complex transformations and frequent scene changes that can be wildly different in tone from one another. For the entire duration, the actors are in powerful command of all that happens on stage, even though they rarely create significant impact beyond that periphery. Speech is presented in a naturalistic manner, which is inappropriate for a script that is quite dense and florid. Without sufficient assistance with nuances of the writing, the lines seem to hurry past our consciousness, and characters begin to sound as though mumbling throughout their lives. Paula Arundell leaves the strongest impression in her role of Yvette, with an appealing vivacity that communicates more than the others. Arundell seems to project her portrayal with greater specificity to allow for audience connection, resulting in one of the more successful elements of the production.

It is an expertly designed show, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights and Robert Cousins’ set creating both an air of theatrical fantasy and wartime grittiness via a surprising minimal approach. That sophistication extends to Stefan Gregory’s delightfully intricate music compositions, which are probably the greatest achievement of this staging. Evocative of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s distinctive style, each interlude provides an opportunity for us to focus on the state of minds and affairs being explored, as they find articulation at a more lyrical pace.

We are in the midst of war when our governments and communities identify explicit enemies, whether asylum seekers, terrorists, paedophiles or drug dealers. As individuals in democracies, our ethical standpoints must always be examined. Bad things happen when good people do nothing, or if they submit to dominant ideologies that are unconscionable. We live in a time where dubious ethics are encouraged, in the name of things like nationalism, or the profit motive. Capitalism can provide an excuse for unjust behaviour, and fabricate permission for bad things to happen. Mother Courage should not be a divisive personality, but on this occasion, we cannot be sure that the right message is consistently delivered, or whether the spectators can even be concerned at all for the moral of her story.