Review: I Am My Own Wife (Oriel Group / Red Line Productions)

orielVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 5, 2015
Playwright: Doug Wright
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Ben Gerrard
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
There is something unique about representing queer life on stage. Like many minority groups who have experienced persecution, LGBT stories need to create a legacy from hardship and struggles, so that injustices are prevented from recurring, and also for future generations to understand the histories from which they emerge. Unlike issues around ethnicity and religion that can have greater levels of visibility, LGBT identities have a tendency to be subsumed by a sense of normativity. The more gender and sexual diversity becomes accepted, the more it disappears from public discourse. A tension exists between the attainment of equality and the loss of nuances in individual differences.

Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife documents the controversial life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German museum curator and transgender celebrity, through the tumultuous years of the Third Reich and East Berlin. The play takes the form of a monologue, but does feature a multitude of minor characters, including the playwright himself. As von Mahlsdorf’s story unfolds, we are reminded of Wright’s presence as an interpretor of events, and correspondingly, the ambiguities between truth and fiction in the details being uncovered. The writing is full of charm and humour, with a plot that intrigues at every juncture. Vividly descriptive, we find ourselves immersed effortlessly in its slightly alien but seductive narrative.

Direction is provided by Shaun Rennie, whose outstanding use of space keeps our senses engaged and active, astutely controlling our perceptions of the show’s frequent contextual transformations, in terms of personalities, time and place. Excellent work on lighting by Hugh Hamilton and a subtle but highly effective set by Caroline Comino add greatly to the quality of unpredictability of the viewing experience. Nate Edmondson’s complex sound design is executed with impressive refinement and is noticeably adventurous with its concepts.

The play could however, benefit from a graver exploration into the darker aspects of von Mahlsdorf’s story. There seems a reluctance to portray her duplicitous nature with a stronger sinister edge, and we are kept somewhat distanced by that jovial artifice, perhaps just the way she would have wanted. Ben Gerrard is marvellous in the production. The speed and clarity at which he alters voice and physicality to depict all his different characters, whilst maintaining psychological accuracy and an air of authenticity through every change, is astounding, and very satisfying theatre. The actor exhibits wonderful commitment, along with an exquisite creativity that is remarkably intelligent and sensitive.

I Am My Own Wife entertains and fascinates. It is strangely lighthearted, given the brutalities that appear in the text. The production should hold more poignancy in its observations of war, Nazism and queerness, but as though borrowing from Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s strength of character, unpleasant parts of the story are diminished with an unconscious ease. There certainly are lessons to be learned here, that may pertain to personal identity or to social concerns, but they require an investment of thought and attention. Alternatively, a very pleasant jaunt is offered by the show, with resonances that last until the inevitably enthusiastic curtain call. |

5 Questions with Caitlin Berry and Beth Daly

Caitlin Berry

Caitlin Berry

Beth Daly: What movie would Little Edie star in if she were around today?
Caitlin Berry: Edie would be the most sensuous Bond girl you’ve ever seen! She would also star in the opening credit song; lots of daring silhouettes.

Edie is very eccentric, what is your most eccentric quality?
She is indeed. Caitlin is not as eccentric, but I’d say I have the loudest laugh at a party and I like to count tiles when I’m in a bathroom. I also (stupidly) get superstitious around show time; no new shoes on the table, or saying “the Scottish play” backstage.

How did you create your younger version of Edie when there is no documented footage?
When Edie was filmed in the 1975 documentary, she was still very childlike and playful. I don’t think her youthful energy ever lessened. I can only imagine it was more intense when she was 24. I researched the era very well, and made sure I took note of the times Edie spoke about her younger years. Drew Barrymore also does a great interpretation of Little Edie in the HBO series, which I used as a reference too, when imagining my own Edie.

What draws you to Grey Gardens the musical?
This musical is so beautifully written. The music captures the era and the writing serves the women very well. It’s very special to be part of something that is based on real life events. Their story is stranger than fiction, and deserves to be told.

What’s your favourite thing about working with Beth?
Beth is a hoot. She is very warm and funny in rehearsals. We share the same dorky characteristics, and can both poke fun of ourselves with ease. My favourite thing about working with Beth is also that it’s never happened before! Beth and I have known each other for many years and had always hoped there would be a day we could share the stage!

Beth Daly

Beth Daly

Caitlin Berry: What bits of Beth can we see shine through Little Edie?
Beth Daly: My marching skills definitely – I was Physical Culture champion girl for 7 years running. Finally I get to use it! And I think I can be just as cute as Edie.

What clothing label would Edie pioneer in this era, and why?
No doubt recycled clothes re-invented. And she would have an absolutely fabulous line of capes for the staunch woman!

How do you get your head around playing two different characters? What helps you get into each one?
I love that each women is so physically and vocally different. So I walk around as each one saying a key phrase for each. For Edith: “Sing… me? Twist my arm, blackmail me, threaten my very life, and who knows? You might get a verse of something!” For Edie: “I’m extremely organised, I’ve got everything under control, kid.”

What would you say to Little Eddie, if you could?
Let’s put on a cabaret together!

Are these women tragic or heroic?
Both. I feel the depth of the tragedy of what could have been, but I revel in the power of these two women to stay true to themselves and make the best of what comes their way.

Caitlin Berry and Beth Daly are the two Edies in the Grey Gardens musical, by Squabbalogic.
Dates: 18 Nov – 12 Dec, 2015
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Dot Dot Dot (The Old 505 Theatre)

old505theatreVenue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Nov 10 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Drew Fairley
Director: Gareth Boylan
Cast: Matt Bell-King, Gerard Carroll, Lucy Miller, Natalie Venettacci

Theatre review
Dot Dot Dot involves a Victorian era prostitute getting high, a psychic medium speaking with ghosts, a serial killer on the loose, and a newspaperman with dubious intentions. The ingredients are certainly spicy, but the concoction is not always an easy one to digest. In its efforts to provide both entertainment and social commentary, the play struggles with its balancing act, and falls short on both counts. There are interesting characters and fascinating scenarios to be found, but for a show in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre, its plot struggles to deliver the tension and intrigue it sets out to achieve.

The cast of four is not sufficiently cohesive, but actors are individually accomplished. Lucy Miller is captivating as Babette, with a solid and seductive presence that helps sustain our attention. There is a quality of natural and sultry darkness in the actor’s approach that gives the production its eerie, Gothic flavour. Equally appealing is Matt Abel-King, whose portrayal of young men in the late 19th century provides a sense of accuracy to the time and space his characters inhabit. Abel-King is a charming performer, with a whimsical edge that enlivens the stage.

The play talks about democracy today, and the impact upon it by the disparity in power and wealth of our classes. Our media landscape is being sequestered slowly but surely, by a rich few, and their insidious control over the information we receive has unquestionably changed the way we perceive and live our lives. Political decisions are made through a semblance of democracy, but what we believe to be true, and therefore the way we exercise our voting rights and consumer decisions, are largely doctored by the powers that be. It is a grim situation we find ourselves today, and there seems no solution in sight, except for a healthy dose of cynicism, and prudent vigilance.

Review: Orlando (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 9 – Dec 19, 2015
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl (based on the novel by Virginia Woolf)
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Matthew Backer, Luisa Hastings Edge, Garth Holcombe, John Gaden, Jacqueline McKenzie, Anthony Taufa
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography was published in 1928, when discussion of sexuality was made in hushed tones, and inseparable from notions of gender identity. If a person loved a woman, they had to take the form of the masculine, and the reverse was true. The centrepiece of Orlando‘s story is a man’s magical transformation into a woman, wistfully described but scarcely explained, though by simple deduction, one could perceive more than an indication of sexual fluidity, and a desire to explore what is now known as sexual orientation. It would be remiss however, to reduce the work to be simply about sex, for its interest in fluidity extends to the whole of a person’s identity, or how one sees themselves, along with how society conceives of that individual.

Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 stage adaptation can be understood as a feminist piece. Orlando’s life as a man is depicted with an extroversion that is concerned with the character’s appetite and discovery of the world around him, but as a woman, she turns introspective and we are presented with constant interrogations about her place in relation to things as the fairer sex. In other words, maleness is seen as an unquestionable natural state, while the feminine requires persistent justification. In dramatic terms, Ruhl’s work is poetic, sublime theatre that uses all the capacities of language to excite, provoke and enchant, and to tell a fascinating story that is strangely engaging in spite of its contextual distance.

It is a humorous text, gentle in its approach, but always charming and amusing with its renderings. Director Sarah Goodes executes that subtle comedic tone with great sophistication, and although the production is seldom laugh-out-loud funny, her brilliant wit is deeply endearing. There is clever use of space, with a relatively small ensemble establishing an active and visually dynamic stage. Comprising two flights of mobile staircases and concentric revolving platforms, our eyes are kept busy and no time is wasted on scene changes, but the production is not strikingly lavish. It makes occasional reference to the well-known Sally Potter film of 1992, but that extravagant beauty, still fresh in many of our memories, is absent from this staging.

Our focus is placed squarely, and appropriately, on the title role’s narrative, but the show features a charismatic four-man chorus that helps with a lot of heavy lifting. Matthew Backer, John Gaden, Garth Holcombe and Anthony Taufa play a wide range of roles in all gender states, and provide commentary in song and narration that moves the plot along in spirited, gay fashion. Backer in particular, is impressive with his fervent embrace of the show’s vaudeville style of presentation, taking the opportunity to showcase delightful comic timing and a flair for exquisite camp.

In the role of Orlando is Jacqueline McKenzie, keeping us spellbound with a delivery that will be remembered for its intelligence, precision and unrelenting effervescence. It is noteworthy that the actor’s interpretation of Orlando’s personality does not alter significantly with the sensational gender transformation. Whether in male or female costume, McKenzie maintains a singular essence, reflecting a modern and enlightened attitude toward the construction of gendered identities. Her unfaltering energy gives life to two solid hours of stage time, every minute compelling and whimsical, keeping us engrossed in the development of Orlando’s extraordinary narrative with her captivating confidence.

The word “transgender” was recently announced as one of Collins’ dictionary’s “Words of the Year”. As Western societies begin to better understand the way we live out our gendered lives, we can recognise that a new dawn in civilisation is imminent, where people will no longer be persecuted for the way they express their gender, and individuals are free to adopt any form of gender identity they wish to inhabit. Hardly anyone bats an eyelid when Orlando emerges as a woman after living thirty years as the opposite sex. We may not share her aristocracy, wealth and power, but we can appreciate the nonchalance surrounding her transformation, and indeed realise the curious irrelevance of something that convention considers so crucial to how we understand life. Feminism is about achieving equality, and in equality, all that we think separates us, can be vanquished.

Review: Mortido (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 7 – Dec 23, 2015
Playwright: Angela Betzien
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Toby Challenor, Tom Conroy, Colin Friels, Louisa Mignone, Renato Musolino, David Valencia
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
At the centre of Angela Betzien’s Mortido, is a wretched life. Jimmy is a soft and kind soul, misguided by family and exploited by every person he trusts. Emerging into adulthood from a background of poverty and addiction, the only barometer he possesses for a better life is a need for acceptance, along with our definitive measure of success, money. Without the support of anyone who has Jimmy’s own interests at heart, and with no education to speak of, his fate is sealed, and doomed. The story is a dark one about the underbelly of Sydney, and how our affluence is built upon the perpetuation of an underclass, kept aspirational and concurrently ignorant.

Betzien’s script is highly ambitious and vast in scope. It encompasses themes of family, money and addiction, set against historical contexts, to explore attitudes and machinations of our current sociopolitical environment. The play looks at our problems with narcotics and poverty from micro and macro perspectives, refusing to diminish their complex enormity for convenient storytelling. What results is a piece of writing that is detailed and intricate, but also challenging, for audiences and theatre makers alike.

Director Leticia Cáceres does well at providing the production with tension and intrigue, but the plot’s clarity suffers from that tautness of pace. In its second half especially, too much is revealed too quickly, and our minds struggle to process every poignancy. Each revelation is an important one that contributes, not only to our appreciation of each character’s circumstances, but also to our understanding of the real world. Many of the story’s elements will resonate deeply if given the chance, but the show seems to rush quickly past and we are left wondering if we had learned everything that is worth knowing.

Nevertheless, Mortido is gripping, and very exciting, with each scene holding surprises, frequently overwhelming with its keen portrayal of brutality, both physical and psychological. Composer The Sweats and Sound Designer Nate Edmondson do exceptional work with their manipulations of atmosphere. The production relies heavily on its sounds to control our responses, and the precision at which it guides our emotions through every sequence and transition is remarkable. A disappointing contrast does occasionally occur however, when it takes a back seat, leaving the actors to their own devices, and we begin to feel the emptiness of space.

There is plenty of impressive acting to be found, including the very young but very compelling Toby Challenor, whose immovable focus on each task in every appearance, belies his tender age. Colin Friels plays several disparate characters, displaying a good level of versatility and enthusiasm, but is probably most effective as Detective Grubbe and El Carnicero. The star’s presence is undeniable and the intensity he brings to the stage has an effortless drama that is absolutely captivating. The central character Jimmy is performed by Tom Conroy with a faultless vulnerability. For all of Jimmy’s regrettable mistakes, we are always on his side, hurting for his every adversity and hoping that a twist of fate appears. Conroy excels in the role, successfully depicting Jimmy’s personal difficulties as well as the social connotations of a problematic life. We understand the responsibilities that are due young people like Jimmy, and realise how we have failed those who share his disadvantage. Also noteworthy is David Valencia as the enigmatic Spanish-speaking El Gallito, memorable for his simultaneous delivery of danger and ethereality, and an aggressive sex appeal that electrifies the stage.

The title of the work refers to our human tendencies toward self-destruction. It is a discussion about weakness, and along with that, we encounter ideas surrounding ethics, responsibility and social harmony. Mortido is a cautionary tale about the seduction of death, and the perils involved when allowing lives to be less than honourable. It confronts the inequity that exists in our wealthy cities, and our complicity in maintaining that damaging status quo. We can always identify good from bad, but we do not always make the right decisions.

Review: Roadkill Confidential (Lies, Lies And Propaganda)

liesliesVenue: Kings Cross Theatre Kings Cross NSW), Nov 11 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Sheila Callaghan
Director: Michael Dean
Cast: Alison Bennett, Sinead Curry, Michael Drysdale, Jasper Garner Gore, Nathaniel Scotcher
Image by Emily Elise

Theatre review
Trevor is not a happy artist. She watches the doom and gloom on the news to stay in touch with things so that her very high profile work in the field of visual art may be relevant to her public. In fact, her studio is highly secretive, maybe she is insecure about the unfinished product, or maybe she is trying to control the reaction to her controversial art. Meanwhile, a government agent is investigating her, and everything begins to look sinister. Sheila Callaghan’s Roadkill Confidential is however, no straightforward cop drama. It is an abstract and often surreal piece of writing that celebrates the dramatic art form by prioritising the stage’s unique abilities of relating to its audience. Beyond the use of a narrative to satisfy, the play features sequences that resonate independent of characters and stories. Its free form allows actors to create moments of wonder, in service of theatre and all its possibilities.

Michael Dean’s exuberant direction is concerned with creating an experience that fascinates and intrigues. The show’s plot is not always coherent, and we leave with uncertainty about the moral of the story, but there is much to get involved with at every step of the way. Lights by Richard Neville and Mandylights, along with Benjamin Garrard’s sound are playful and dynamic elements of a production that is determined to deliver whimsy and extravagance. Creativity is in abundance here, and there is little that holds it back from making its ubiquity felt in every nuance.

Performances are suitably colourful, from a committed ensemble, unified in style and tone. The charming Michael Drysdale plays the unnamed agent with a quirky flair, and a confident physicality that brings life to the stage. His work needs better polish to reflect a more precise grasp of the text, but Drysdale’s execution of the show’s anti-realistic scenes are consistently amusing, and memorable. The artist Trevor is depicted with admirable strength and vigour by Alison Bennett who introduces an alluring severity to the mysterious role. Her piteous neighbour Melanie becomes a force to be reckon with under Sinead Curry’s surprising interpretation. The actor’s flamboyant approach and magnetic presence provide her character with excellent entertainment value, and offers good balance to a show that has a tendency to bewilder.

There is no discussion about whether Trevor’s new work will be understood, yet its effects are gravely anticipated. We need to talk about theatre in a similar way; to allow it to do more than just telling stories. There is no fear of abstraction in this production of Roadkill Confidential because it believes in affecting its audience in a more inventive or perhaps, sophisticated manner. At the theatre, we share a space for a couple of hours, and when we go our separate ways, we will depart having grown a little. It is by that amount of extension that we can measure an artist’s worth.

5 Questions with Toni Scanlan and Jamie Oxenbould

Toni Scanlan

Toni Scanlan

What characters do you play in Good Works?
Toni Scanlan: Mrs. Kennedy – who is a working class woman with a strong connection with Catholisism and who has a daughter who challenges and disregards the social and religious expectations of the church.
Mrs Donovan – initially from a poor background and is now a social pillar of society. She is a glamorous, controlling woman who completely understands her role in her adopted community.
Sister John – A nun.

Nick Enright , the writer of Good Works, is a theatre legend. Did you ever meet him or work with him?
I met Nick through a couple of his friends who became mine – which inadvertently led me to being cast in his first production of Daylight Savings at the Q Theatre. I remember saying to him after the first read of the play on that Monday morning, “Don’t worry Nick I’m a better actor than I am a reader”. He just laughed this warm wonderful thing. Nick’s are the best “deathbed anecdotes” I have ever heard. Told to me by two of his closest friends. I’ve been telling them now for some time. They make me feel less worried about dying!

What’s you earliest memory of performing?
Earliest memory of performing was at the drinks party Mum held at home for the Chairman and bosses from the “shipping and export” department at Wesfarmers. This is the 60s. Mum’s high heels, shorts, mid-drift top and castanets. Humming a Spanish tune. This was my idea – my mother was completely unaware of what I was about to do.

Name your 3 most memorable shows, either as audience or performer?
1. Richard III performed by a Georgian Company. I was at Drama School in London. This was at the Round House. The play was, of course, spoken in Russian, I had never read it and it was the clearest Shakespearean play I have ever seen to this day.
2. An Evening With Erik Satie. In the tiniest theatre (max 30 people) on Isle de Cite, Paris – one man, one girl, a piano and 50 minutes. Heaven!
3. All My Sons was a major thing for me. I’ve now performed in a few plays by Arthur Miller and they are all up there with, arguably, some of the best work Ive done but there was something about this production… the cast and the director, Iain Sinclair, it was incredibly special and I will never forget it.

What’s your dream role?
Easy. Bessie Berger from Awake And Sing by Clifford Odets. Any takers?

Jamie Oxenbould

Jamie Oxenbould

You play several characters in the play, can you briefly tell me who they are?
My characters are Alan – a friend of Tim, one of the two central boys, who we meet in a gay bar in 1981. Iain Sinclair (our director) described him as a gay Mr Miyagi (Karate Kid reference for those in the dark). Brother Clement – who is a homophobic, sadistic teacher at the country Catholic boys school where our two central boys meet. Barry Carmody – who owns the local pub. A bit of a boofhead, besotted with Rita the firecracker barmaid and also partial to giving boys a beating. And Mr Donovan – the town’s lawyer and church elder who represents the puritanical, patriarchal side of rural Australia in the 1960’s.

Nick Enright , the writer of Good Works, is a theatre legend. Did you ever meet him or work with him?
I did meet him a few times. And I also worked with him acting in The Three Sisters at the Old Fitz many years ago. A true gentleman, a bit cheeky and a very charming actor. He was an icon of the industry and I would have loved to have been taught by him at some stage.

What’s your earliest memory of performing?
I did a play called Charlie’s Aunt at high school. I must have been about 16. It was a very corny farce and I got my first taste for laughs. I’ve been on the hunt ever since.

Name your 3 most memorable shows, either as audience or performer?
La Fura Dels Baus. A Spanish company that toured here in the 80’s. Just wild anarchy and visceral madness in the Hordern Pavillion. There were chainsaws and blood and weirdness. You had to run out of the way of the performers or risk injury. To a youngster starting out in theatre it was a real eye opener. Nicholas Nickleby – The STC did it in the 90’s (?). It was about an 8 hour production with a massive cast and just a fabulous piece of storytelling. I laughed and cried for the whole Dickensian ride. As a performer I would say Fully Committed at the Ensemble Theatre. It was the first one man show I did and basically after doing that you lose your fear of doing anything.

What’s your dream role?
Either King Lear or Mary Poppins. I’m going to go with Mary Poppins.

Catch Toni Scanlan and Jamie Oxenbould in Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of Good Works, by Nick Enright.
Dates: 31 October – 29 November, 2015
Venue: Eternity Playhouse