Review: The Ultimate Lesbian Double Feature (Old Fitzroy Theatre)

ultimatelesbianVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 23 – Mar 4, 2016
Playwright: Zoe Brinnand
Director: Lucy Hotchin
Cast: Kristen Adriaan, Kristina Benton, Joseph Lai, Tamara Natt, Shamita Sivabalan, Lana Woolf
Image by Sarah Walker

Theatre review
Zoe Brinnand’s half-hour plays Love In The Time Of Sexting and The Party traverse past and present in their examination of feminine desire and lesbian politics, to reflect a modern sensibility about queer identities in contemporary Australia. What the playwright presents is sassy, bold and funny, but most memorable for its celebratory spirit and a knowing rejection of tragedy and victimhood that tend to figure prominently in literary works about gay life.

Attempts at plot coherence are somewhat perfunctory, but Lucy Hotchin does a marvellous job of engineering amusing and lively episodes, while challenging conventional representations of gender and sexuality. The women in the work are neither consistently feminine nor masculine, and that fluidity extends to the way their libidos find expression. They are not one thing, and refuse to be restrained. Indeed, it is the freedom manifest in all their thoughts and actions that keeps us seduced and fascinated. Strong performances by Kristina Benton and Francis Lai bring excellent vibrancy to the production, both introducing a quality of passionate abandon that connects well with their audience.

The Ultimate Lesbian Double Feature may be radical but it is not pedantic with its world view. It is an inspiring work that can liberate, but one must remain open to the daring propositions it expounds especially when they seem much too boundless in relation to our prohibitive real lives. Theatre must spark our imagination, and provide a vision of what things might be. Utopia will always be found in the stories that we tell, but it is when they feel close to home that they are at their most powerful.

5 Questions with Lucy Goleby and Contessa Treffone

Lucy Goleby

Lucy Goleby

Contessa Treffone: What is Unfinished Works about in one sentence?
Lucy Goleby: It’s the story of a successful artist, her agent, and an architect student with artistic ambition wrestling with the question of whether good art demands self-sacrifice and suffering.

Frank was originally written to be a male role. How have you found playing a role specifically written for a man?
It’s been a fascinating process. Although we changed the pronouns on day one, it’s taken me a while longer to wean myself off relying on a hyper-masculine energy. Male roles are inherently different from female roles and yet this is where I think we’ll eventually reach gender equality in performance – by writing complex and contradictory characters who are human first and gendered as a changeable afterthought.

Isabel has a bit of a talent crush on Frank in the play. Who is someone you have a talent crush on?
I think we all have a talent crush on Meryl Streep. The woman is superhuman in every way.

Rumour has it you are quite the jack of all trades. Tell us three hidden talents of Lucy Goleby, in 15 seconds, go!
1) I recently assembled, and now work at, a treadmill desk. 2) I play an excellent game of hide and seek. 3) I mend most things with dental floss.

Who would win in a battle, one hundred duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?
I’ll go with the 100 duck-sized horses – the more brain power, the better!

Contessa Treffone

Contessa Treffone

Lucy Goleby: What excites you about Unfinished Works?
Contessa Treffone: 1) The people. There is way too much talent in the one room not to get excited. 2) Creatively exploring the fundamental questions that I believe any artist asks themselves everyday; What is good art? And how does one make good art? 3) Deborah Galanos’ rehearsal snacks.

Who would play you in the biopic of your life?
Abbi Jacobson or Kristen Wiig. They can battle it out for the role.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
Eliminate guns and plastic.

If you could claim any piece of art or invention as your own, what would you choose?
It would be so delicious to say that I actually painted Gustav Klimts, The Virgin. Or to be the brain behind batteries that store solar energy would be pretty brill!

What temptation can’t you resist?
Sean Connery and good gin. Preferably together.

Lucy Goleby and Contessa Treffone are appearing in Unfinished Works by Thomas De Angelis.
Dates: 23 Mar – 2 Apr, 2016
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: The Killing Of Sister George (G.bod Theatre)

gbodtheatreVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 24 – Mar 4, 2016
Playwright: Frank Marcus
Director: Peter Mountford
Cast: Deborah Jones, Sarah Jane Kelly, Natasha McNamara, Helen Stuart
Image by Richard Hedger

Theatre review
Sister George is a real piece of work. A radio star adored by many who know only her fictitious persona, George is insufferable for those who have to be in her actual presence. Fame gets to people’s heads, and our protagonist is a self-obsessed monster who uses and abuses all in sight, especially her doll-like lover Childie, a feeble woman struggling to discern love from exploitation in their codependency in 1964 London.

Under Peter Mountford’s direction, the sexual nature of that relationship is emphasised. Homosexuality is not swept under the carpet, and we are confronted by the overt BDSM quality of George and Childie’s union with its depiction of consensual and subversive eroticism. Although fascinating, there are issues with plot consistency as a result, and the production is a couple more days from being well-rehearsed. The show does however, pick up pace gradually for an experience memorable for its thorough unconventionality.

In taking on the responsibility of playing George, Deborah Jones is required to portray villainy in a way that is both repulsive and compelling. Jones does not quite reach that level of starry charisma demanded of her role, but it is a believable performance which brings up the right issues of contention and asks appropriate questions regarding power imbalances in same-sex relationships. Natasha McNamara’s work as Childie is authentic and complex, with a conflicting duality that provokes us into considering the meaning of love, and the many scandalous forms of its manifestations.

The women in The Killing Of Sister George explain the way they treat themselves and each other, but they do not explain their lesbianism. Peter Mountford has ingeniously reached back 52 years to find a text that allows an expression of gayness that is above the need for justification, and beyond our tired boundaries of sexual differences. This is no “tragiporn” that feels emburdened by its mere existence to make itself accountable to some vague authority of social expectation, but gives voice to real personalities who rarely find their way into our run-of-the-mill narratives. It is a juicy story about love, sex, power and fame, except believe it or not, there are no men in it.

Review: Romeo And Juliet (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 20 – Mar 27, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Cramer Cain, Justin Stewart Cotta, Michelle Doake, Michael Gupta, Angie Milliken, Kelly Paterniti, Hazem Shammas, Tom Stokes, Damien Strouthos, Jacob Warner, Alex Williams
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Youth is wasted on the young, but romance is best experienced at a tender age. Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet is the most romantic of stories, which by the same token, would mean that it is a play that can seem completely ludicrous to some. A pair of teenagers meet at a party, decide to get married hours later and over the next few days go through hell and high water to stop their families from prying them apart. Human attraction and the sexual impulse are often mysterious, but instantly recognisable when present. In Peter Evans’ iteration, we see an abundance of sophistication and polish, but chemistry is in scarcity.

The production’s first half sees several energetic performers providing effective comedy and lively interaction. Notable supporting players include Michelle Doake and Damien Strouthos who delight with flamboyant theatrics that help us engage with nuances of the plot, while delivering surprising swells of laughter. Stars of the show Kelly Paterniti and Alex Williams bring passion to the narrative, but we are never quite convinced enough about the relationship to invest our emotion into their dilemma. In the tragic second half, an unravelling seems to occur, and we become even less involved in the lovers’ plight despite their catastrophic fate. Kelly Ryall does marvellous work with music, and even though wonderfully executed throughout, does not help the concluding melodrama take flight, and the greatest of love stories leaves us cold.

Juliet and Romeo are in love with strangers. Like many things in life, their connection defies logic but are indisputably real. Something magical happens between the two, but we are not privy to it. They are overwhelmed and moved to extremes, while we observe with slight curiosity, wondering how it is that innocent love can fade without warning. Time does strange things to people, but we must be there to witness its power. Our protagonists have seen little, but we can find solace in the fact that they had only ever experienced purity, if nothing much else.

Review: Little Shop Of Horrors (Luckiest Productions / Tinderbox Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Feb 18 – Mar 19, 2016
Book & Lyrics: Howard Ashman
Music: Alan Menken
Director: Dean Bryant
Choreography: Andrew Hallsworth
Musical Direction: Andrew Worboys
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Tyler Coppin, Esther Hannaford, Brent Hill, Scott Johnson, Dash Kruck, Josie Lane, Kuki Tipoki, Chloe Zuel
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
When Roger Corman’s original film of Little Shop Of Horrors appeared in 1960, it was seen mainly as a science fiction comedy about aliens from outer space invading planet earth, a popular genre believed to represent the USA’s anxieties about the spread of communism in the middle of the twentieth century. By the time of its evolution into an off-Broadway musical in 1982, and the many subsequent revivals, Little Shop Of Horrors had taken on greater poignancy. It is now ironically a story about the horrors of capitalism, and the insatiable voracity of money. Seymour’s sacrifices for fame and fortune begin cautiously but they are soon beyond his control, and Audrey II literally takes on a life of its own to usurp much more than Seymour had ever intended. It is debatable if economies anywhere were ever as innocent in purpose as our protagonist, but Audrey II is a clear and unexaggerated parallel for the seemingly incessant threats of financial crises that we are warned about in the daily news.

Dean Bryant’s vision for this 2016 staging is wildly imagined and beautifully realised. There is great sophistication to be found alongside his exuberant showmanship, offering a night of sensational entertainment, the quality of which is admittedly rare. Bryant’s boldness in attitude meets with the material’s unbridled extravagance for a production that enchants and excites. Although fundamentally a very dark tale, its theatrical executions here aim for a wide appeal, ensuring that musical enthusiasts and general audiences alike would be equally captivated. Aided by a phenomenal team of designers (most remarkably Owen Phillips’ set and puppetry by Erth Visual & Physical Inc), the show is a visual feast resulting from daring dreams and big ambitions that the intimate space has very clearly failed to hamper.

Thoughtful casting brings together a group of vivacious personalities who fire up the stage with vibrant humour and immense energy. There are bigger voices to be found in the industry for sure, but prioritising characterisations over technical ability pays off in spades. Brent Hill is an endearing Seymour, with a convincing purity that connects well with his audience. Leading lady Esther Hannaford’s comic timing is outstanding, and the Audrey that she manifests is a real and irresistible joy. It is a coupling that we cannot resist championing for, and that ensures the plot’s effectiveness from start to end. Supporting players Angelique Cassimatis, Tyler Coppin and Scott Johnson too, leave excellent impressions with brilliantly funny performances in their respective roles. It must be noted that sound designer Jeremy Silver’s achievements in finding the perfect sonic balance for the show is quite an accomplishment, helping the ensemble provide an engrossing and exhilarating experience that will prove to be unforgettable.

Revisiting classics is always a tricky exercise. Having to live up to standards set by two classic films and innumerable stage adaptations, is without a doubt a formidable task, but this version of Little Shop Of Horrors is quite possibly the best rendition that this generation can hope to see, and maybe for several years thereafter. It exceeds not just expectations, but also our fantasies of what the show could possibly look like before our own eyes. The artists have created a work of great spirit and surprising poignancy, and along with a good deal of wonderful singing and dancing, this is a show that will have you suddenly falling in love with musical theatre all over again.

Review: The Ritz (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 5, 2016
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: David Marshall-Martin
Cast: Les Asmussen, Meagan Caratti, Samuel Christopher, Jarryd Clancy, Ricci Costa, John Edwards, John Farndale, Lisa Franey, Ivan Hui, William Koutsoukis, Adam Kovarik, Rosane McNamara, Marty O’Neill, David Ross, James Smithers, Barton Williams
Photography © Bob Seary

Theatre review
It may be argued that there was only a small window of time in LGBT history, when stories were being published and told in theatres about vibrant queer experiences. The emergence of the gay rights movement alongside the sexual revolution of late 1960’s opened the doors to artistic expression that began to take queer lives out of the closet, but before much momentum was able to be achieved, the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980’s signalled the return of oppressive powers, and although LGBT stories continued to be produced, they were turned much darker to reflect the sombre times of death and community destruction.

Terrence McNally’s The Ritz first appeared on Broadway in 1975, and although its protagonist Proclo is heterosexual, the action takes place in a gay bathhouse in Manhattan, with a host of vivacious gay men providing the core structure to its narrative, along with an endless stream of campy punchlines. Their proud and exuberant sexuality is its central appeal, in fact Proclo’s story is almost ancillary, existing only as an excuse for the rambunctious humour to unfold. The infamy of pre-AIDS bathhouse culture finds itself represented here in all its shame-free glory, in the form of a classic American farce (admittedly not to everyone’s tastes), complete with accents, stereotypes and show tunes.

Director David Marshall-Martin brings to the production a potent nostalgia that many will appreciate, and an energetic madcap style of comedy perfect for the script. The old-fashioned quality of the show takes some getting used to, but it does get increasingly charming through the course of the evening, aided by the bawdiness of the writing that Marshall-Martin is able to present with a surprising edginess, despite its use-by date.

Leading man Les Asmussen is an endearing and effervescent presence, with an ability to communicate and connect with his audience effortlessly. The actor’s strong instincts ensures that on-stage chemistry is consistently buoyant, and his generous nature as a performer keeps us engrossed. Similarly engaging is Samuel Christopher in the role of Chris, an extremely flamboyant character who has a joke ready for every situation. Christopher’s comedic skills are a highlight of the show, leaving a lasting impression with bold choices and immaculate timing. Also very funny is Meagan Caratti, who embraces the boisterous tone of the show to deliver some of its biggest laughs. Her passionate commitment is paralleled by an emotional warmth that allows her character Googie to become one of the more believable personalities in this outlandish presentation.

The style of The Ritz might not be innovative, but the portrayal of unbridled joy by its community of gay men is refreshing. We might be in a new century, but we remain burdened by the darkest days of AIDS and its indelible negative impact on sexual freedoms. The rampant sex and promiscuity of The Ritz was a result of emancipation that was meant to be celebratory. Its intention was to welcome a new era of equality and acceptance, but we now look at those behaviour as an archaic oddity. It is a vision of pride that we have lost, replaced by something less assertive, maybe even slightly ordinary.

Review: The Blind Giant Is Dancing (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 13 – Mar 20, 2016
Playwright: Stephen Sewell
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Michael Denkha, Ivan Donato, Andrew Henry, Emma Jackson, Russell Kiefel, Genevieve Lemon, Geoff Morrell, Zahra Newman, Dan Spielman, Yael Stone, Ben Wood
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant Is Dancing premièred in 1983, long before the internet and social media had become a central part of how we understand and engage in politics. Armchair activism had yet to be discovered, and participation in our country’s big issues required more than clicks on neglected polls and petitions, or furious rants of 140 characters. If any action was to be taken, we had to put money where our mouths were, and the stakes were much higher than risking the closure of troll accounts on Twitter.

The play looks at how the working class was embroiled with trade unions and other organisations in a fight for protecting their rights, at a watershed period where capitalism’s subsumption of the economy was fiercely under way. We watch the moral descent of an idealist in Allen Fitzgerald as he climbs the ladders of power, observing the seemingly inevitable corruption that occurs as an individual finds their way into positions of power. It is a deeply pessimistic and cynical statement about the world that director Eamon Flack has successfully transposed to twenty-first century Australia. Industrial relations continue to be a key issue, and we are probably more aware than ever before, about the vulnerabilities of our democracy. The details in The Blind Giant Is Dancing might be outdated, but its concepts are resolutely relevant, and its ideology remains powerful.

With its zealous political dissections, aficionados would probably find the work irresistible, but there is much in the production that appeals to the layperson. Its central concern regarding tensions between the personal and the political, are fluently expressed, especially in scenes that move the plot into realms of the domestic. Allen’s personal life allows us to relate to his story more intimately, as he negotiates abstract principles and beliefs, against the real matter of daily life. The conflicts that arise from trying to put into being, imagined and utopian ideals for larger social contexts, prove to be problematic as we witness those precepts failing in the Fitzgerald household. It is his broken relationships with family and lovers that we empathise with, and the meanings behind that destruction, which are most poignant.

Dan Spielman is convincing as Allen, with a commanding stage presence that places him comfortably at the centre of all our attention. He connects well with the audience from the start, and we stay compelled until the bitter end. His portrayal of the complex role is intelligent, confident, and quite affecting. Although disappointing, we see his flaws and misjudgements as human, and Spielman’s honesty as a performer helps us realise the accuracy of the grim situation in which we find his character. The role of Louise is played by Yael Stone, sensitive and intricate, with excellent conviction behind the fiery personality being depicted. Louise is perhaps not as well-written a character as her male counterparts, but Stone’s ability to locate emotional authenticity assists with our all-important suspension of disbelief to make her narrative work.

This is a production of high quality, polished and consistently thoughtful. The cast does a marvellous job in creating a succession of explosive scenes that grips us for its entirety (the three-hour duration whizzes past), and the designers impress with adventurous and effective work. Sound design by Steve Toulmin in particular, provides an epic grandeur, recalling period drama pieces of a similar ilk that trace the familiarly ominous ascension of political figures.

The Blind Giant Is Dancing warns us of many things, but provides no solutions. The darkness of its revelations feel real and in spite of their grave severity, we are offered no recourse. What happens after the curtain call is anybody’s guess, and also a crucial estimation about the utility of theatre. The show interrogates all our personal lives, and after receiving its indictments, the process will continue in each individual beyond that evening of attendance. If an artist is unable to produce the answers, the best they can do is to ask the questions, boldly and fervently. What we wish to happen thereafter can only then be, a question of hope.

Review: The Punter’s Siren (Blood Moon Theatre)

blancmangeVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Feb 17 – Mar 4, 2016
Playwright: Gina Schien
Director: Stephen Carnell
Cast: Jacqui Robson, Laura Viskovich
Image by Phyllis Wong

Theatre review
Originally conceived as a one-woman play, Gina Schien’s The Punter’s Siren is presented here with an additional actor giving life to the monologue’s secondary character. Instead of letting the protagonist evoke our imagination, the siren is literally materialised on stage by Laura Viskovich, who although says little, is a formidable presence. This creative touch by director Stephen Carnell represents a meaningful gesture that gives power to the play’s sexuality, as though coming out of the closet, its homosexuality lies not only in words, it is irrefutably in existence.

Jacqui Robson’s 50 minutes on stage as Helen, the punter, is scintillating. There are moments where our attention struggles to find focus with an ancillary actor by her side, but her energetic precision never fails to keep us on track with her narrative, engrossed and atingle with excitement. Robson delivers moment after moment of splendid comedy, ranging from subtle impulses that take us by surprise, to loud displays of humorous passion. Her tenacity is relentless, and although the ride she takes us on is ultimately a predictable one, it is full of amusement and exhilarating joy.

The sole driving force of Helen’s story is lust. In Schien’s play, a woman’s libido takes centre stage and its temperament is an aggressive one. Undisguised, unadorned and unashamed, it is her wild desire that gives propulsion to every action in The Punter’s Siren, forcing us to confront the anomaly of its honesty, and we are left wondering what it is about our culture that insists on keeping the universal and everyday truth about strong feminine sexuality, veiled and concealed. Immodesty is star of the show and we are thrilled.

Review: Ladies Day (Griffin Theatre Company)

griffinVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 5 – Mar 26, 2016
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Matthew Backer, Wade Briggs, Lucia Mastrantone, Elan Zavelsky
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is not a promising start to the play. There is a lot of old-fashioned talk about “how gays have different lives from straights”, “how many shades of gay are there”, and “look, there’s a gay man enjoying himself in a dress in a country town”. We are reminded that Priscilla happened 22 years ago and that things have thankfully moved on a considerable amount. Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day does however, take a turn for the better when its central concern begins to take shape. Sexual assault is a tricky subject for art because it can seem to lack complexity, and making work about the topic can often feel somewhat obvious, as if preaching to the choir, but Valentine’s script finds surprising nuance, and provides new insight to help us gain a deeper understanding of the victim’s experience. The structure of the play can be further refined, but there are strong elements to be found. For every scene that feels excessively derivative, we discover riveting moments in later sections where its superficial conceits are shed to reveal the devastating honesty that lies beneath.

Darren Yap’s direction gives the production an enjoyable texture with sensitive and regular transformations in atmosphere, and its amplified emotions make for a compelling dynamic range that keeps us attentive. Sound and music by Max Lambert and Roger Lock add great drama to the piece, and quirky interludes of song give the show its character. All four actors contribute powerful performances, with Lucia Mastrantone’s incredible vulnerability leaving the greatest impression. Through her depiction of suffering, we observe that it is often the strength that emerges from pain that is truly moving. Mastrantone is passionate, articulate but also subtle, elevating her relatively simple roles into something altogether more substantial. Similarly compelling is Elan Zavelsky as the sad and bitter Rodney, with a quiet intensity and meaningful introspection that keeps us captivated. Strangely miscast as a man past his prime, the clearly attractive and youthful Zavelsky’s depiction of desperation is nevertheless committed and very accurate.

It might not be very elegant at Ladies Day, but its concluding moral is a surprising, sobering one. At the theatre, we tell the truth through fabrications because our minds can prefer them over facts. We are receptive to stories if they are told well, regardless of how veracities are achieved. From the storyteller perspective too, it is often through analogy and metaphor that truths can be better portrayed, especially when actualities evade expression. Facts are hard to capture, but our humanity can hear the truth ringing no matter what guise it takes.

Review: Alpha (Old Fitzroy Theatre)

oldfitzVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 9 – 20, 2016
Created and performed by: Tamara Natt, Sebastian Robinson
Director: Sebastian Robinson

Theatre review
Tamara Natt and Sebastian Robinson meet in Alpha, a juncture at which poetry and physical theatre are combined to explore two queer identities and their place in the world. Along with the electric guitar and vocal accompaniment of Milla O’Sullivan, rhymes and rhythm are the key currency of the piece. Natt and Robinson’s bodies and voices fill the stage to connect with dormant sensibilities of the audience, making us look and hear with parts of our selves seldom employed, to discover the alternatives of our parochial existence, and to look beyond the fences we erect.

Natt and Robinson alternate between vulnerable and defensive in what they choose to present. We are drawn in and pushed away, as the piece fluctuates between impenetrability and its desire to excite. Gender and sexuality are often brought into discussion, with the subversion of female/male and gay/straight binaries taking centre stage. It offers new things as well as concepts that might be described as derivative, but it comes as no surprise that tried and tested elements should feel more effective. Like any work that rejects narrative, Alpha can be challenging to the more logical inclinations of our minds, but both performers are charismatic and spirited, with a tenacious grit that keeps us seduced.

We are not used to shows of this type, because we only allow poetry to be a cursory presence in our lives. We can make sense of it, but we prefer meanings pre-packaged and ready-made for our cultural consumption. We want to remain idle in audienceship, and leave creativity to the artists, but this distinction can be disrupted when artists find courage to prioritise their authenticity over the need to accommodate conventions. In Alpha, investment of the self is required for any significant interpretation to occur, and it is the installation of a universal I as first person that gives it purpose.