Review: Edmond (Two Peas)

twopeas1Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 15 – 26, 2015
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Glen Hamilton
Cast: Tara Clark, Cheyne Fynn, Naomi Livingstone, Oleg Pupovac

Theatre review
David Mamet’s Edmond is a despicable human being. All the worst qualities a person can have are found in one awful character, who happens to hate everything and everyone, including or maybe, especially, himself. It is a simple premise for a play but a confronting one. Mamet’s conceit is extreme, almost cartoonish in its approach, which is necessary for preventing the play from ever becoming realistic and hence, plainly unbelievable. There is a tendency for the work to portray Edmond as being an everyday person, and for us to be able to identify with characteristics that he displays, but it is arguable whether the context is too alienating for audiences to be able to connect in a meaningful way.

Direction of the production is slightly surreal, and also slightly quirky. It understands the fantastical quality of the text, but does not explore its concepts with enough theatricality to prevent the play from being weighed down by a conventional realism that struggles to provide drama and excitement that could elevate a script that is persistently bleak. The repetitiveness of the plot induces a numbness in our response, which the direction allows to take effect instead of finding ways to shock us with every subsequent scene as the writing intends. In the title role is Oleg Pupovac who shows good conviction and focus, but the decision to play Edmond as an essentially unassuming guy is questionable. One is reminded of Mary Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho, and the effectiveness of its flamboyant style in establishing a quality of enthrallment within the outlandish and disturbing environment being portrayed. Although uncomfortably mild, Pupovac’s interpretation does create an interesting juxtaposition between normalcy and atrocity that is quite remarkable. The rest of the cast is required to play a large assortment of undesirables, which paves the way for a very playful stage, and correspondingly, it is when performances are daring and wild that we become engaged. Naomi Livingstone’s versatility and vibrancy help her breathe life into her characters, and her animated expressiveness strikes a resonant balance with Mamet’s writing to deliver several memorable moments.

Edmond builds to a conclusion that attempts to make sense of its own overwhelming violence and insanity, but the production seems to deflate before that crucial point, and what should have been a significant revelation is lost in an air of ambiguity. Without a pointedly communicated moral, we are left to consult our own values to achieve an understanding of the preposterous situations that had been witnessed, which means that new perspectives are probably not gained by many. Audiences are willing to participate in stories that involve challenging content and ideas, but we expect a greater than usual pay off in their aftermath. There are lots of horrible people in Edmond, and it is undeniable that the same horrible behaviour exists in real life, but encountering them voluntarily at the theatre needs to be more purposeful than catching a glimpse of silver lining.

Review: Of Mice And Men (Sport For Jove Theatre)

sportforjove2Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jul 9 – Aug 1, 2015
Playwright: John Steinbeck
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Andre de Vanny, Andrew Henry, Anna Houston, Anthony Gooley, Charles Allen, Christopher Stollery, John McNeill, Laurence Coy, Terry Serio, Tom Stokes
Image by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
Lennie’s intellectual disability in Of Mice And Men reveals the forgotten innocence inherent in all of humanity. His experience of the world is one that everyone can identify with, but the virtuous purity that he exemplifies is utterly absent from our daily adult lives. Unlike Lennie, we have grown too complicated and are often dishonest in the way we treat one another and ourselves. Few of us can remain idealists, and even though John Steinbeck’s play inspires the longing for a simpler and truer existence, the inevitability of its demise is also exposed. We question the corruptness that we allow in, and meditate upon the dynamics in our communities that instigate these unfortunate states of affairs. Most people are good, but when we come together, bad situations easily arise. Of Mice And Men looks at a group of men, bound by poverty and by dreams, and their journey towards a calamitous fate.

This production, directed by Iain Sinclair, is a near flawless rendering of Steinbeck’s 78 year-old text. Beautifully realised by a brilliant design team (Michael Hankin is production designer, with Nate Edmondson on sound, and lights by Sian James-Holland ), the show feels rich with authenticity and provides our senses with a satisfying approximation of how Northern America must have been at the Great Depression. Sinclair’s consummate control of atmospherics delivers a transportative pleasure that pulls us into the emotions and actions of characters that are a world away from our current realities. Each personality is conveyed with compelling idiosyncrasy, and chemistry between every actor in every scene is calibrated just right, so that stories and events are convincing and splendidly detailed.

The cast is uniformly strong, with a sense of egalitarianism in the ensemble that supports the play’s themes of camaraderie and community. Andrew Henry is sensitive, tender, and unquestionably touching as Lennie. His work is performative but also heartfelt, so that the audience’s engagement with his creation is much more than skin deep. Instead of applying a basic treatment to a simple character, Henry’s approach is meticulously inventive and the results are as entertaining as they are moving. The other leading man of the piece is Anthony Gooley, who fills the stage with charisma and a magnetic energy that is impressively dramatic. In the role of George, his empathy for Lennie is depicted powerfully, which is key to the plot’s effectiveness, but the final scene requires greater pathos from the actor for a more explosive conclusion. Charles Allen and Laurence Coy play smaller roles but are individually captivating. They generate theatrical magic with deeply nuanced interpretations of identity and sentimentality, both enthralling in their moments of eminence.

Classics resonate through the years because they encapsulate something true and universal that time is unable to diminish. Of Mice And Men represents our belief in justice, and the right of all persons to seek improvements for their circumstances. It appeals to our need to define right and wrong, and that desire to understand the differences between. Most of all, it serves as a reminder that we should strive to be better people, and to avoid the complacent and inferior, even if it requires going against every tide.

Review: Ghost Stories (Sydney Opera House)

ghoststories1Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jul 8 – Aug 15, 2015
Playwright: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Director: Peter J. Snee
Cast: Tim Franklin, John Gregg, Lynden Jones, Aleks Mikić, Ben Wood

Theatre review
Horror movies have existed since the dawn of film technology in the 1890’s. It is a genre of storytelling that has always existed, and as such, should be thought of as integral to the way we communicate as a species, yet live theatre does not seem to have embraced that particular mode of presentation. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories adopts for an assembled crowd, the tradition of telling scary tales of the paranormal, with the intention of fascinating our senses and entertaining us. The work aims simply to frighten and thrill, so the script is tailored precisely for that purpose. It does not add much else to the experience, but its unpretentious simplicity helps it achieve an unusual show format that is refreshing and often very scary indeed.

Peter J. Snee’s direction cleverly manipulates all audio and visual cues in the venue to create the familiar sensations one derives from the horror genre. Unlike film though, we seem to require less extreme stimuli to respond with fear in live theatre. Thankfully, Snee does not push our limits too much, and the experience he provides never becomes unbearable. His design team (comprising Phil Shearer on production design, Christopher Page on lights, and Lana Kristensen on sound) does an excellent job of fulfilling its brief of creating a relentless air of skin-crawling foreboding that keeps tensions high, and when appropriate, shock us with powerful effects that literally make us jump.

There is a glaring lack of gender and ethnic diversity in the piece, but its all male cast is an accomplished one, with Lynden Jones’ performance as Professor Goodman providing the show with an inviting and dynamic energy. The actor is charmingly compelling, with an ability to turn the outlandish contexts believable, and a warmth that engages us for the entire duration, even when the plot starts to lose its resonance in its final moments.

Ghost Stories is a rare form of entertainment in the live arena, but it certainly does what it says on the bottle. The scares diminish with time, perhaps because of our acclimation to the production’s provocations, but on the occasions that it is effective, few things are quite as electrifying. There are many ways to have frivolous fun at the theatre, but choosing a night of horror over yet another musical is more than a novel option.

Review: Love And Information (Sydney Theatre Company / Malthouse Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 9 – Aug 15, 2015
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Marco Chiappi, Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Zahra Newman, Anthony Taufa, Ursula Yovich, Alison Whyte, Harry Greenwood
Images by Pia Johnson

Theatre review
Caryl Churchill’s Love And Information is a 90 minute play, composed entirely of very short sequences that look to be extracts from a wide range of stories running the gamut of genres in conventional theatre. Each independent bite-sized piece, not matter how small, provides enough for us to make sense of events taking place in the moment, but the scenes do no immediately relate to one another. Except, it is human nature to make meaning regardless of what is being scrutinised, and we form voluntary interpretations about the things we see. In the case of Churchill’s very fascinating work, we are seduced into intellectual overdrive, almost like reading a mystery, piecing together clues that may or may not be, to find a consolidation of significance. A great work of art is one that helps its viewer see a true picture of themselves, and their place within a social universe. The moral of Churchill’s stories is a fluid one, and we take from them what is intimate to us as individuals, and as such, it can be seen that the writer has used abstraction to successfully facilitate a kind of self-awareness in the viewer’s sense of being and identity.

The work makes a statement about contemporary times, and our environment of obsessive information technology. If modernity is sick, attention deficit disorder would be one of its chief ailments. We are incessantly seeking out information from all sources, like an addict with no ability of discernment. We find out small bits about everything, with no regard for relevance, and certainly no capacity for any depth. As our social and physical spaces become increasingly congested, our attention is compelled to be dispersed into a multitude of directions, all of the time, and this might be a case of “resistance is futile”, as we cannot be sure if we have any choice in the matter, or if indeed, we are able to withdraw into any alternatives. The play talks about choices, especially the lack thereof, and toys with the concept of hiding as a solution, but it is clear that we are what we are.

Director Kip Williams gives us all that we wish from a stage production, in spite of a missing story. The production is emotionally appealing, as it carefully emulates the sentimental journey of a narrative-driven plot, with all its intrigue, comedy, surprises and poignancies. Williams makes us respond accordingly even though there are no characters to follow. The thoroughly experimental nature of the work is no impediment at all to a satisfying experience for any audience with even just a minutiae of sophistication. Additionally, the work’s cerebral aspects might be unusually dynamic, but they are accessible to most. The production is an engaging one that inspires questions at every step of the way, and we read it at any level of competency that suits us personally.

Lighting designer Paul Jackson gives each distinct chapter and verse, a personality and beauty that captivate us, while assisting our subconscious to understand all that is being conveyed. Our visual attention is masterfully controlled so that we are kept firmly within the unusual plot trajectories that unfurl. Music and sound by The Sweats are a key feature that binds each aspect of the production to present a surprisingly coherent whole. The soundscape dictates the pace of the piece from beginning to end, and tells us quite directly how to respond at all times in our participation just outside the stage’s fourth wall. The technical proficiencies of Love And Information is extraordinary. There is nothing else that calls for as many scene and character changes, with what must be over one or two hundred entrances and exits, all flawlessly executed with an unbelievable fluency and grace. Stage Manager Lisa Osborn’s abilities are truly remarkable.

Also proficient is the diverse cast of eight, every one unique in appearance and style, yet tightly unified in the vision they aim to concoct and the energy they bring to the stage. The accuracy required of them both in terms of the technical and the artistic are simply unbelievable and they deliver with astounding dexterity. Predictably, the funnier actors leave a greater impression, and while Glenn Hazeldine’s comedy is only allowed flashes of brilliance in a play with lightning speed transitions, the actor never misses with any of his punchlines no matter how subtle. Anita Hegh too, is memorable for creating laughter at will, and her effortless charm is one that grabs hold of our attention and convinces us of everything being communicated. The play has philosophy seeping through every pore, and Ursula Yovich gives them a sublime gravity, whether the topic be death or infidelity.

A distillation of the theatregoing experience would probably reveal two fundamental elements; entertainment and meaning. When art is challenging, it helps us discover new things and prevents our existences from turning empty, but entertainment is always the easier ticket to purchase. While not mutually exclusive, they rarely meet as equals. In Love And Information, the two come as an explosive package. Philosophically and intellectually enthralling, it is similarly exciting and joyful from a perspective of pure amusement. There are better sources of fun and frivolity of course, but here is a rare and monumental leap in the evolution of the theatrical arts. If this is experimental, the real event that it paves way for, will be nothing less than revolutionary. |

Review: Grace (Pulse Group Theatre)

GRACE 1Venue: Pulse Group Theatre (Redfern NSW), July 7 – 26, 2015
Playwright: Craig Wright
Director: Billy Milionis
Cast: Joseph Addabbo, Dudley Hogarth, Jeremy Shadlow, Nikki Waterhouse

Theatre review
Fanatically religious people are probably the most grating of all. Their narrow-mindedness and refusal to engage in intelligent conversation are frustrating, and their need to convert others’ beliefs to match their own is most infuriating, and sometimes dangerous. At the centre of Craig Wright’s Grace is Steve, an evangelical Christian man who relies on a blind faith that reveals itself to be nothing more than stupidity. Wright’s story is surprisingly textured, but much of the dialogue comes across cheesey and tends also, to be quite long-winded. His characters are initially interesting, but they prove to be too simple and obvious, and his humour lacks an acerbic bite that the themes require.

The production is not a sufficiently dynamic or imaginative one, but it is clear to see that focus is placed squarely on the craft of acting, and the cast is accomplished on many fronts. Dudley Hogarth appears in only two scenes but is memorable for the intense sentimentality that he moves us with. The performances are intent on finding authenticity, but guided by a need to establish a thorough naturalism, scenes can be uncommunicative even though an atmosphere of honesty is always present. Actors often look like they are performing at each other, and without a more presentational style, the audience is not consistently engaged. There is a lot of effort put into exploring emotions of characters, which often translates with too much self-indulgence. The cast seems to feel their stories powerfully, but they need to include us in those narratives, and not keep those ideas and poignancies to themselves. We might not be written into the text, but the audience is present, and we must be integrated further into the theatrical experience.

Like the “Christian Freaks” of the play, the production is lost in a single-mindedness that prevents us from getting closer. Like the zealots too, there is a passion on this stage that impresses. One of the messages in Grace is about diversity and plurality, and the importance of a generous spirit in our social lives. Congregating at the theatre remains an important element of any civilisation. For an hour or two, we are joined to find a moment of unity and peace, and hopefully leave with greater optimism about the world we temporarily occupy, but it is those on stage who have the greater responsibility of turning the mundane into magic, all in extraordinary style and exceptional grace.

Review: The Typists (Company Of Rogues)

companyofroguesVenue: Exchange Hotel (Balmain NSW), July 8 – 24, 2015
Playwright: Murray Schisgal
Director: Hannah Strout
Cast: Jena Prince, Goldele Rayment
Image by Maylei Hunt

Theatre review
Work should not only be about survival and paying bills, but for those of us in the 9 to 5 lifestyle, being caught up in everything that is menial and petty, the meaning of life can become quite abysmal. No child grows up wishing for endless days of nothing but toil, yet the vast majority fall into all-consuming occupations that are neither enriching nor satisfying, beyond the monetary payments it offers. Murray Schisgal’s The Typists is a 1963 anthropological examination of modernity that more than stands the test of time. It might even be seen to have gained relevance over the years. The context of the writing is painfully realistic, but its approach is absurd, twisted, and ridiculously funny. Schisgal tells a lot of obvious truths, making us come face to face with the conundrum that hovers around us everyday.

Hannah Strout’s inspired direction of the piece is thoughtful, dynamic and wonderfully captivating. She finds impetus from the themes being discussed, and uses it to manufacture theatrical sequences that appeal to our minds and senses. Strout’s creation is an engrossing show that speaks intimately to each person’s lived experience. We are fascinated by the spectacles she builds on stage, but more than that, what seems bizarre on the surface resonates with a surprising depth. The marriage between the madness being presented and the irrationality of our daily truths, is a sensational meeting that is thoroughly exciting, while being undeniably and palpably dark.

Beautifully lit by Kevin Ng, the production is a resourceful one that creates atmosphere and punchy tonal variations with a minimal technical structure. Space is cleverly transformed to serve the purpose of the narrative and to establish a language of dramatic flamboyance. Kirby Medway’s music is often seamlessly introduced to evoke emotional responses, and to maintain the show’s comedic quality as well as its heightened style of expression. Also accomplished are performances by Jena Prince and Goldele Rayment, both artistic and earnest in their focus, even though early scenes are initiated with a stiffness that takes more time than necessary to warm up. Nevertheless, the duo make a very funny team, but it must be noted that their attention never strays away from the poignancies of the piece. Prince and Rayment’s passion for the work is genuine, infectious, and very engaging, making attendance of the play very pleasurable indeed.

People are never fully conscious of their actions and behaviour, and it takes artists to step on the brakes and bring to the fore, all that is left in oblivion. The Typists warns against wasting life and time. It is a wake up call that applies to everyone who forgets to examine choices made in the past and the present, and questions our failure to take charge of the future. In all its hilarious pessimism, the show makes the point that fate is in our hands if we decide to take its reins.

Review: Ladies In Lavender (Ensemble Theatre)

ensemble2Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 3 – Aug 15, 2015
Playwright: Shaun McKenna
Director: Nicole Buffoni
Cast: Gael Ballantyne, Penny Cook, Sharon Flanagan, Lisa Gormley, Benjamin Hoetjes, Daniel Mitchell
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Shaun McKenna’s Ladies In Lavender is a 2012 stage adaptation of an original short story from 1908, and a more well-known 2004 film. It is a gentle story, with characters of an advanced age taking centre stage, allowing us to take a look at the experience of growing old and learning about a time in life that most of us will arrive at. Janet and Ursula are sisters in an English country town, lonely and isolated, but not without a zest for life and a sense of humour. We observe the nature of desire for the elderly, and consider the differences and similarities between young and old, when dealing with infatuations and relationships in general.

Direction of the piece by Nicole Buffoni is charming and lighthearted, with a respectful attitude towards its senior characters that encourages us to look at them with more complexity than we might usually do. The show is slightly low in energy, with a languid tone that can seem repetitive, but its personalities are endearing, and we follow their journeys with interest. Buffoni makes good use of the text to create a show that is entertaining at many points, although not all moments feel authentic within a presentation style that tends to be fairly surface. Both leading ladies display good commitment on stage, but we require greater dynamism and depth from their performances in order for the production to be more emotionally affecting.

Supporting actors Gael Ballantyne and Daniel Mitchell provide eccentric colour, and both deliver consistent waves of laughter with accomplished comedic skills, keeping us amused and delighted. Benjamin Hoetjes plays Andre, a young man who finds himself stranded and unwittingly, the instigator of some domestic destabilisation. Hoetjes has a convincing innocence that is crucial to the plot’s effectiveness, and his charismatic effervescence helps us understand the affections of the women around him. The actor’s abilities on the violin cannot go unremarked, as the kind of versatility he possesses as a multi-faceted performer is quite extraordinary.

There is something too quiet and mild about this production. We long to witness the passions inferred in the story, but they are portrayed too subdued. Life develops differently for each individual, and every person’s place in the world is never replicated, but one hopes that all who pass through this existence catches glimpses of the many highs it offers. At the theatre too, we want to come in contact with amplified realities and the feelings that come along with them. Ladies In Lavender is essentially about celebrating life and mortality, and we should remember to be overjoyed at being part of it all.