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.

Review: The Girlie Show (Tunks Productions / The Old 505 Theatre)

tunksVenue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 18 – 22, 2014
Playwright: Wayne Tunks
Director: Wayne Tunks
Cast: Campbell Briggs, Thomas G Burt, Adam Carr, Mat Glessing, Prudence Holloway, Chantel Leseberg, Jack Marsden, Jacinta Moses, Tasha O’Brien, Billie Scott, Wayne Tunks
Image by Isobel Markus-Dunworth

Theatre review
The play takes place in the early 90’s, following the coming-of-age stories of five young Sydneysiders. It all begins when they meet at the front of a queue for tickets to a Madonna concert, and united by their common passion for the pop star, the group becomes fast friends. We then trace each individual’s growth in the few months leading up to the event, and witness them overcoming challenges, supported by the new-found friendships, and the strength of character inspired by their fearless leader (the “creamy smooth pop icon goddess”, Madonna). This sounds tongue-in-cheek, but Wayne Tunks’ The Girlie Show is an earnest tribute with a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach; not cool enough, but not cheesey enough either. Its familiar narratives feel authentic, and although put together with little sophistication, the production’s honest sentimentality does provide moments of poignancy.

The show is kept buoyant by strong performances from the likes of Billie Scott, energetic but with a dorky style of humour that works well within its context of zealous fandom. Along with effective comic timing, Scott’s ability to portray genuine emotionality brings a charming pathos to some of the more melodramatic scenes. Also memorable is Jacinta Moses in a range of maternal roles, simultaneously sensitive and strong, Moses is powerful in her scenes, showcasing excellent conviction and versatility.

Most of the play is about the gay and lesbian coming out experience, and harks back to a time when stories of this nature were prevalent and indeed, all the rage. The Girlie Show takes on that tradition, and even though it does not extend beyond the predictable scope of the genre, there is little doubt that there remains a need for these narratives to be made. In looking back at our youth, we can find the purity that is perhaps lost from today, and it is that purity that must be recalled in order that we may live in compassion, if we allow it to thaw out what was scared and cold.

Review: Arcadia (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 8 – Apr 2, 2016
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Richard Cottrell
Cast: Blazey Best, Ryan Corr, Honey Debelle, Andrea Demetriades, Jonathan Elsom, Georgia Flood, Julian Garner, Glenn Hazeldine, Josh McConville, Will McDonald, Michael Sheasby, Justin Smith
Image by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
Strong societies encourage each of their individuals to reach the greatest of their potential. Geniuses do not exist in vacuums; even though the uniqueness of their abilities easily becomes a source of isolation or detachment, they are part of communities that need to recognise the exceptional advantages they bring to the progress of our civilisations. In theatre, a conundrum exists with writers like Tom Stoppard. To produce a play such as his Arcadia, a team of highly accomplished talents must be employed in order that the density of his writing gets the best chance of finding elucidation, but that would necessitate considerable box office takings (at a time when government funding for the arts continues to plummet). Bringing Arcadia to the masses is a strange proposition. We are used to mindless sentimental tosh drawing in the crowds, but getting throngs into the Sydney Opera House for a night of intense intellectual exchange is, to put it mildly, ambitious.

Many will appreciate director Richard Cottrell’s sophisticated and vibrant take on the text, but there will be no shortage of viewers finding themselves entirely befuddled for its three-hour duration. The play is about mathematics, chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics and English landscape gardens in the early 19th century, quite a different set of interests from what we encounter in Australia’s everyday media. Perhaps this is an indication that the public is actually capable of ingesting more than sporting scandals and partisan politics, but more realistically, this is a case of either seriously overestimating our cultural climate, or a very daring effort at lifting our game.

Art must challenge, but when it does, it often alienates. Cottrell’s show is energetic and seductive. Its jaunty rhythm and charismatic personalities are engaging but whether they make Stoppard’s subject matter enticing, is debatable. We are impressed by the passion depicted on stage. Some audiences might be able to get involved with the idiosyncratic obsessions of Arcadia‘s characters, but more are likely to be swept along by the cast’s incontrovertible thespian devotion.

Key roles are marvellously performed with an infectious glee that for the most part, keep us within the action of the play. Andrea Demetriades is sensational as Hannah Jarvis, completely convincing and natural in her approach, and irresistibly compelling. What she presents is a model for the kind of acting that forbids the detection of any divergence between actor and character. Her conflation of the two seems effortless, yet there is no denying the theatricality that allows her to communicate intentions and emotions with brilliant clarity. Similarly delightful is Josh McConville as Bernard Nightingale, deliciously pompous and shrewdly sardonic, playing the role as an effective archetype but with a solid authenticity to keep us convinced and endeared.

Stoppard and his characters strive for a mastery of their domains. They locate and identify pieces to puzzles that will form a finished and satisfying picture to intellectual pursuits that inevitably become more complex as processes develop. Watching Arcadia asks of us that same commitment of attention and effort. It is not easy-going for the vast majority, but we can certainly jump back into the action whenever we find ourselves in moments of confusion, to continue on that chase for meaning. As a contender in the popularity contest that is the live theatre industry, this show is unlikely to be a crowd favourite, but as inhabitants of this city, we must hold deep gratitude that programming of this calibre exists, and is available to more than the privileged few.

Review: Year Of The Family (Tooth And Sinew Theatre)

toothsinewVenue: Kings Cross Theatre Kings Cross NSW), Feb 10 – 20, 2016
Playwright: Anthony Neilson
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Peter-William Jamieson, Brendan Miles, Brooke Ryan, Nicole Wineberg, David Woodland

Theatre review
Human sexuality is a fascinating subject. Each individual’s bedroom inclinations vary as widely as the way we eat our food. No two appetites are exactly the same, yet we think of sex as a universal experience, and its taboo nature means that we rarely discuss its nitty-gritty at depth, choosing instead to imagine simple paradigms that would apply to every person. In Anthony Neilson’s Year Of The Family, sex is anything but normative. Its characters indulge in secret intimacies, and as we observe the functioning of each libido, connections are made with the unfolding dysfunctions of their family lives. Neilson appropriates the theatrical quality of that relationship between family and sex for a text that is tragic, comedic, and many shades in between, to reveal the repercussions that can occur as a result of familial breakdowns. His writing is playful and dynamic, but also surprisingly delicate. It broaches difficult subjects, but refuses to be exploitative or sensationalist.

Richard Hilliar’s powerful direction brings intensity to a staging that seeks to simultaneously entertain and provoke. There is an adventurous streak reflected in the clever use of space, especially in scene transitions (with the help of Liam O’Keefe’s very effective lighting design), along with a relentless and captivating energy to his creation that makes for compelling viewing. Hilliar’s sensitivity to dramatic tension is the production’s greatest strength, and the results are very satisfying indeed.

The cast is uniformly lively and focussed, but some roles are interpreted with more resonance than others. Brendan Miles provides intrigue and an appropriate restraint to the mysterious Henry. It is an understated, and literally quiet, performance that offers a counterpoint to the other larger than life parts, but Miles leaves a strong impression with the presence and precision he brings to the stage. As the manic Felicity, Nicole Wineberg is responsible for the more euphoric portions of the show. The actor presents a wildness that alternates between comical and terrifying, and provides the production with its delightful yet volatile spirit, but the role could benefit from greater emotional complexity.

The people in the play are troubled. They are trapped in heartache, unable to be released from the past. They form their own re-enactments of broken histories in cathartic attempts to move forward, but are as yet unsuccessful. Nevertheless they continue to strive, even if wallowing is part of the process. It is fact that we do not choose our families, but debatable whether we can be free of them. There is little happiness in Year Of The Family, but it is us who must decide where and how the matter of choice figures in their respective narratives, and then in our own lives, reflect on the ways we are entrapped, voluntarily or otherwise.

Review: Perch (The Leaps / Belvoir St Theatre)

perchVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 9 – 21, 2016
Playwrights: Brian Carbee, Sarah Carradine
Director: Sarah Carradine
Cast: Brian Carbee
Image by Phyllis Photography

Theatre review
Brian Carbee plays two characters in Perch; an owl and a human. Their relationship is strange to say the least, and even though the poetic script does not engage in a conventional sense, it provides impetus for a show that utilises the considerable talents of its performer, revealing not only the wealth of experience Carbee possesses as a dancer, but also the eccentric and idiosyncratic qualities he bears as an artist accomplished in the realm of movement based art.

It feels as though the roles he inhabits are but conduit for an expression of self. We might not achieve a great understanding of what is being created on stage, there is certainly no doubt as to the kind of person involved in the creative process before our eyes. The work is about the artist’s presence, and it is his skill, flair and fluency that captivates. It is Carbee’s very own humanness that is the object of our appreciation, and the surreality of all the action he manufactures is the looking glass through which we are able to read, and feel, the existence of a living, breathing sentient being exposed to our audienceship.

Perch is a work about the camp sensibility and its manifestations in physical and verbal forms. Carbee portrays an overt flamboyance that simultaneously obfuscates and indicates the truths that are at play on his stage. Identity is explored through the creation of false otherness, almost as though reaching for exaggerated and illusory entities is key to the discovery of authenticity. When we define our alter egos, we give shape and meaning to ourselves, and because facing the self is exasperating, we luxuriate in something else, something seemingly separate that can tell us everything that we need to know about the universe that lies within.