Review: Blonde Poison (Strange Duck Productions / Red Line Productions)

BP2 CREDIT MARNYA ROTHEVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jul 28 – Aug 15, 2015
Playwright: Gail Louw
Director: Jennifer Hagan
Cast: Belinda Giblin
Image by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
Stories of Jewish experiences during World War II continue to appear on our stages and screens with an urgency that refuses to be eradicated. The sheer volume of narratives means that there is a tendency for characters, emotions and perceptions to be conflated into a certain uniformity, providing impressions and understandings of a time that seem to vary little. Gail Louw’s Blonde Poison is a true story based on the life of Stella Goldschlag, a provocative character with incredible complexity, and whose involvement with Nazi Germany offers a powerful and controversial extension to our increasingly superficial memories of those horrific times. Louw’s writing however, fails to live up to the scintillating potentialities of the protagonist’s tales. The use of a realistic monologue format seems to restrict the amount of tension and drama that lies dormant in Goldschlag’s recollections. The shocking and duplicitous nature of her history holds the promise of a much more explosive presentation than Louw’s plot structure allows.

Direction of the work is a conservative one that dares not to depart from the script and its flaws. Jennifer Hagan’s faithfulness to the text leads to a thorough illustration of the author’s ideas, but greater gumption is required to fill in the blanks, and to elevate a play that needs more flair. Performance of the piece however, is marvellously captivating. Goldschlag is played by Belinda Giblin who is completely masterful on this stage. Her clarity of intent, along with her intelligence and agility (both mental and physical), deliver an impressive portrayal that is equal parts dynamic and intimate. Her emotions are expansive, immediate, and highly legible, but the decision to refrain from eye contact with the audience, along with the staidness of the script, prevents the work from making a connection that matches the poignancies of the actual events in discussion.

Humanity is at its most striking when revealed with its contradictions and imperfections. There is much ugliness in Blonde Poison that expose us to our own fallibilities, but it is too quick to forgive. We need to feel the gravity and realise the repugnance of the dark sides of our selves, before the light can resonate. Villains are indispensable, for they show us the truths within that we fail to acknowledge. Stella Goldschlag ultimately did arrive at confrontations with her own demons, and in those moments of malevolence on stage, poison tastes sweet, and we want more. |

Review: Metafour (Glorious Thing Theatre Co)

gloriousthingVenue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), Jul 30 – Aug 15, 2015
Playwright: Samuel Beckett
Director: Erica J Brennan
Cast: Aslam Abdus-Samad, Bodelle De Ronde, Victoria Greiner, Sophie Littler, Pollyanna Nowicki, Gideon Payten-Griffiths
Image by Stephen Godfrey

Theatre review
Encompassing four short plays by Samuel Beckett; namely Quad, Rockaby, Come And Go, and Catastrophe, this exploration into Beckett’s experimental work is a daring venture into some of the most abstract writing for the theatrical space. Whether entirely composed of stage directions or of barely coherent dialogue, this is a collection of pieces that requires an examination of a practitioner’s relationship with conventions and ingenuity. Beckett uses time and space as language, without the aide of stories, to find a mode of communication that necessitates original thought from all participants. We confront the nature of theatre, and of art, to contemplate how the stage operates, and also how our psyches and senses work in the creation and reception of art.

The only certainty in theatre should be the very presence of an audience in a space that is activated in any capacity by artists. Beckett’s writing is interested in the essence of that connection, and the creative mechanisms that become available when people converge at showtime. Erica J Brennan’s direction embraces the ephemeral quality inherent in the text, to create an experience that compels us to pay attention to the erratic movement of time in the production, through fascinating sequences, bewildering moments, and periods of boredom. The work is a risky one that can alienate, but the discovery of theatrical qualities beyond entertainment and sentimentality, in its sophisticated deconstructed form, is valuable. The encounter is often meditative, hypnotic and mesmeric. Our approach as spectators is an unusual and stimulating one, and even though the discomfort and challenges it presents can be disarming, what endures is striking imagery and unique sensations that are rarely encountered.

Being present is key to the appreciation of Metafour, and being there is its main point. The meanings that the show imparts are difficult to articulate, but their subliminal existence is powerful. There are forms of art independent of words, and it is their visceral effects that demonstrate their relevance. At its best, this presentation of Beckett’s work opens minds and advances cultural milieus. At its worst, it numbs our senses, but we cannot resist returning to the impressions it leaves behind, for a repeated experience of their mystery. Time is made elastic, and the show continues to linger.

Review: Rosie, Ruth, & Susan (Smoking Gum Theatre)

smokinggum1Venue: M2 Gallery (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 29 – Aug 3, 2015
Playwrights: Finn Davis, Charlie O’Grady, Lucinda Vitek
Director: Lucinda Vitek
Cast: Finn Davis, Charlie O’Grady, Lucinda Vitek

Theatre review
The idea is simple.Three artists create a verbatim work of theatre from interviews with a grandmother. The temptation is to lead the conversations to specific points of interest or contention, and then manufacture tension and drama as you would a conventional work of fiction. Rosie, Ruth, & Susan resists those expectations, and lets the conversations be, with minimal embellishment introduced into the resulting script.

Staging the work in an art gallery allows an intimate proximity that produces an unusual theatricality. We are encouraged to observe the performers from a more active perspective than one would normally adopt in an auditorium type setting. Our focus shifts between tepid tales and the delicate presences recreated by the cast. It is widely believed that elderly women are among the most invisible of society, and the sensation of sharing space with their vitality so tenderly portrayed is unusual for many. Finn Davis’ performance is particularly captivating as Rosie, who looks back at her younger days as a university student and doctor in the early-mid twentieth century. There is no mistaking the sincerity of the piece, but it is needlessly mild, and opportunities for more obvious applications to socially important concepts like feminism and ageism could be expressed more powerfully.

We must always listen to our elders, because their wisdom is invaluable and irreplaceable. The youth can often be preoccupied with arrogant pride, and mistakes are made because of that all-too-common know-it-all attitude. On personal levels, we may make erroneous decisions about careers and relationships, but on a larger scale, nations go to war and commit the same aberrations as previous generations had done. Technological progressions give the illusion that humans are constantly advancing, but we are clearly unable to prevent similar atrocities from repeating at every era. “Careful the things you say, children will listen,” Stephen Sondheim advises, but when we stop listening, the consequences are dire.

Review: Space Cats (Brevity Theatre)

brevityVenue: Bondi Pavilion (Bondi NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 7, 2015
Book: Samantha Young
Lyrics: Samantha Young
Music: Matthew Predny, Emele Ugavule
Director: Samantha Young
Cast: Olivia Charalambous, Skyler Ellis​, Gautier Pavlovic-Hobba, Aaron Tsindos, Samantha Young

Theatre review
Laika the dog, left Russia in a spacecraft and finds himself on a planet where the Queen Cat reigns supreme. She is on a mission to rid her world of everything undesirable, and has slaughtered everyone, except for her minions, Bruno and Mars, and one final offender, Bin Cat, who sits in prison waiting to be executed. Clearly the Queen has no tolerance for any sort of behaviour that may contradict her own, and it is the themes of compassion and understanding that provide this mini-musical its impetus, along with temperate but well-meaning ideas about governance and social diversity.

Samantha Young’s work as writer and director is subversive, but her tone is relentlessly light and joyous. The show is a euphoric application of the musical genre, using its shallow and frivolous propensities to excellent comic effect. Original songs with lyrics by Young and music by Matthew Predny and Emele Ugavule are inventive, always with a cheeky attitude, but they are not uniformly strong. It is understood that this one night presentation is a preview of sorts, with a more refined “end product” to eventuate in the near future. There certainly is a great deal of potential and promise in this outrageously quirky germination of a production that seems to have many effective elements in place, awaiting further development and polish.

The cast of five is a compelling ensemble, with excellent chemistry and a cohesive humour that projects a confidence generously outweighing the prematurity of their material. Aaron Tsindos’s camp sensibility is a highlight at many points, delivering waves of laughter with a Kenneth “Carry On” Williams style of flamboyance in his role of Bruno. Playing Laika is Skyler Ellis who tunes his portrayal of earnestness from sincere to corny with intuitive accuracy, and whose singing voice impresses quite effortlessly. All performances are delightful, with a clever blend of energy and irony for a tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes raunchy, approach that many would find irresistibly amusing. Space Cats is about love, with passion emanating from every one of its facets, and although the production is missing finesse at many points on this particular occasion, we leave the auditorium convinced that love can actually conquer all.

Review: Bitch Boxer (Someone Like U Productions)

bitchboxerVenue: District 01 (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 21 – 26, 2015
Playwright: Charlotte Josephine
Director: David Mealor
Cast: Jordan Cowan

Theatre review
Much of the success of Charlotte Josephine’s script is due to our inherent sexism. It is because of the way we conceive of girls and women’s lives that the play takes the form that it has, and for the same reasons, that it is received so powerfully. It makes use of our prejudices to create dramatic tension, and one would garner a guess that if its monologue personality is transposed to male, its overall effect would be quite drastically altered. Hence, we are reminded that genders are not thought of as the same, but in spite of perceived differences, it is the notion of equity that feminism wishes to achieve. The work is not a subversive one, in fact it contains elements that are much closer to the work of Walt Disney than to Germaine Greer’s. The Bitch Boxer in question is Chloe, a young athlete who has obstacles to overcome that are not particularly unique, and whose passion lies in a traditionally male arena. It feels like a princess story, and her efforts at beating the boys at their own game, figuratively, locks Chloe’s narrative firmly into a patriarchal structure that it cannot, or possibly will not, escape.

Execution of the production is brilliantly spearheaded by its star, Jordan Cowan, whose level of conviction on stage matches her role’s fierce ambition in the boxing ring. Her performance is vibrant, exciting and captivating, with a relentless and fearless enthusiasm for involving the audience by addressing us directly at every available opportunity. Her warm and welcoming presence is perfectly suited to the show’s most intimate setting, which director David Mealor is astute in establishing, so that Cowan’s best qualities are the event’s overwhelming strong suit. On the other hand, although Cowan’s ability to portray her character’s mellower sides, such as her sensitivity, tenderness and sorrow, is clearly accomplished, we only witness those moments in quick flashes. The direction of the piece is intent on maintaining a fast pace and keeping things high energy, which makes for a very dynamic encounter (aided by Will Spartalis’ remarkable work on sound and music), but it does not depict sufficient emotional depth for us to identify with Chloe’s experiences at a more contemplative and meaningful dimension.

The artistic community often talks about sport and art as a dichotomous pairing, and artists lament the ubiquity of the other in general Australian discourse. It is truly unfortunate that art is rarely held in the same regard as its incongruous opposition. The social and personal benefits that could be derived from a more prevalent culture of art in our societies is unquestionable, yet we refuse to allow it to flourish. Additionally, the gender imbalance in the sporting world is a blindingly obvious problem that persists and seems never to be resolved. In the theatrical arts however, we can boast of participation from women of all tribes and backgrounds, and the need to make heroes of these talents is an urgent one that cannot be understated.

5 Questions with Libby Asciak and Erin Clare

Erin Clare

Erin Clare

Libby Asciak: Do you have any little rituals you do before each performance?
Erin Clare: The great thing about Heathers is its iconic 80’s theme and styling. I really feel like I’m stepping into a different character every time I apply copious amounts of blush to my cheeks, temple and forehead. It’s bizarre, but it really helps to be able to transform into another person visually. The hour call is really the time to exercise the outrageous fashion faux pas about that time and I love it. I like to watch Pat Benatar’s clip “love is a battlefield” because it is a gift to my soul- sometimes if I sit really still I can feel my hair getting frizzier just watching it.

How well did you know the musical Heathers before starting rehearsals?
If there’s anything the fan base of Heathers has taught me- is that if you know Heathers, you absolutely love it. I hadn’t heard of the show before the Hayes announced it, and after hearing the opening track I realised it was something very very special. Anyone who I spoke to raved about the show- and much like the movie; it has serious cult status for very good reason. Before rehearsals I listened to the soundtrack religiously, and of course watched the film, but it really is such a hidden gem that anyone in musical theatre should listen to.

What’s your favourite moment in the show?
In our production, without giving anything away, the incredible Lucy Maunder who plays Heather Chandler has a moment with a set of keys that I am obsessed with. To quote another fan I may have had a borderline “religious experience” at how hilarious it is. Within the show there are a lot of razor sharp moments that switch from belly laughs to tragedy within seconds and I think it is incredibly well written in that regard. One favourite moment for my character is my suicide attempt, which is always so fun to play and leaves me minty fresh for the rest of the show. That makes absolutely no sense unless you come watch so I guess you will just have to buy a ticket now.

If you weren’t cast as Heather Mac who else would you like to play?
I would cut off my limbs to play Martha, what a beautiful role! She truly is the heart of this piece and just so brilliantly delivered by Lauren McKenna. I would also love if it were at all possible to play J.D. His song “Meant To Be Yours” is an amazing roller-coaster of someone so beautifully insane and he has such an amazing part to play within the story. Incidentally I also enjoy a smart trench coat.

If you weren’t in the performing arts industry what would you be doing?
I’ve been so incredibly lucky to be able to know exactly what I wanted to do from a really young age. I think if I wasn’t in the industry I would be complaining to friends and hairdressers about wanting to be in the industry. We are really blessed to be doing what we are doing and part of something really exciting. If not for my aversion to technology I’d love to write a column for an arts publication but I’m still deciphering Windows 98.

Libby Asciak

Libby Asciak

Erin Clare: After learning you had landed the role of Heather Duke, how did you begin to prepare for the role?
Libby Asciak: Before auditioning I had only watched sections of the movie and off-Broadway show so I went back to the movie where it all started to find out what made this movie such a massive hit in the 80’s.

Word on the street is that you make the world’s best rocky road. Do you have any other baking specialities?
I’m not even gonna lie my rocky road is the bomb and I have a lot of pride attached to it haha. I literally throw in all of my favourite things, add some chocolate, add some peanut butter and you cant go wrong! I love cooking but I’m actually not a crazy baker as I cant eat egg which is in so may of the yummy baking recipes.

What is your favourite thing about playing Heather Duke?
I get to play a bitch. I definitely wasn’t a Heather in high school. I loved my music and dance and being in the design studios so that didn’t really make up to be the standard of a Heather sadly. It is so amazing to be able to turn the tables and play the girls who made me feel so insecure and made me feel like I wasn’t enough. Now I can show them how it’s really done!

If you had the choice between a green or red scrunchie, which would you prefer?
I love a red lip which makes me go more towards the red so I can at least match hehe. However, at Westerburg High I don’t think I can live with the pressure of being in control of the red scrunchie.

What is your favourite scene in either the movie or musical and why?
I’m gonna go with the musical and I think my favourite scene is when Heather Chandler pops out of the locker and says the very famous line “F*ck me gently with a chainsaw.” The audience go crazy when Lucy Maunder (Heather Chandler) says it and she plays it so brilliantly.

Libby Asciak and Erin Clare star in Heathers, the musical.
Dates: 16 July – 9 August, 2015
Venue: Hayes Theatre

Review: Listen! I’m Telling You Stories‏ (PACT Centre For Emerging Artists)

pact4Venue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), July 20 – 25, 2015
Director: Katrina Douglas
Cast: Courtney Ammenhauser, Alicia Dulnuan Demou, Amber Jacobs, Carissa Licciardello, Jessica McKerlie, Tasha O’Brien, Mitchell Whitehead, Steve Wilson Alexander, Dubs Yunupingu
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
Presented by a group of young artists studying the theatrical arts through the exploration of spacial awareness, physical training and team rapport, Listen! I’m Telling You Stories‏ is an earnest demonstration of their journey as apprentices of performance. Each creates a short vignette offering varying degrees of insight into their life and mind, but it is not the content of what they have to say that is actually fascinating. The show is a cohesive and sensitive amalgamation of nine lives brought together temporally, and we witness their creative energies in motion, all focused on generating something purposeful, at least from their own perspective. What results is a succinct work, under an hour, that is more about practice than communication. Their approach is a sincere one, and although engaging for its duration, no great resonance is sustained beyond the curtain call.

There is a beautiful uniformity in the ensemble’s voice and attitude for the piece. Our attention goes to a singular entity of the whole, even though disparate elements are always present in the work’s intelligent plurality. Direction by Katrina Douglas brings out the strengths of her performers and successfully balances the individual with the group, so that the piece always feels even. The work of designers, Amber Silk (lighting) and Peter Kennard (sound) are prominent features that give the production polish and depth, in the absence of a compelling script. Our eyes and ears are ingeniously and constantly surprised in the show, and the sense of wonder provided by the team is a notable achievement, but there is nothing that seems to be able to connect on a more meaningful, or perhaps emotional, level.

On many levels, Listen! I’m Telling You Stories‏ appears to be experimental, with inventive modes of expression a distinguishing feature. At the same time, there is a safeness to the production’s artistic choices that keeps it from being more exuberant or idiosyncratically memorable. Artists in training need to understand rules and gain skills that will help them attain their visions for the stage, but often it is in the calculated abandonment of those standards that something spectacular can materialise.