Review: The Maids (Phable Productions)

phableVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Apr 27 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Jean Genet (translated by Bernard Frechtman)
Director: Angelo Samolis
Cast: Jessica Saras, Chantelle Von Appen, Louise Harding

Theatre review
The women are suffering an acute case of cabin fever. They are maids who live and work in their employer’s home, cut off from the world, with only bitter resentment as company. Fuelling each other’s appetite for destruction, they go about their days imagining scenarios of retribution towards their Madame, a lady of leisure whose narcissism makes her increasingly unbearable to the weird sisters.

Jean Genet’s ideas in The Maids are provocative, but Bernard Frechtman’s translation, although poetic is not particularly theatrical. The language’s floridness does not lend itself easily as dialogue, and even though director Angelo Samolis ensures that meaning is conveyed in a broad sense, it is a challenge trying to find nuance in the text. We follow the plot, but are unable to explore its controversial concepts at much depth. The three actors are energetic and focussed, with an adventurous approach to physicality that provides buoyancy to the production. Design aspects are simple but thoughtful, with an appealing visual aesthetic achieved through a fairly minimal touch.

There is good work in how the show conveys emotions, but we receive little in terms of psychology. The women go on outlandish rambles without providing sufficient insight to hold our interest. The maids do not appear to have a hard life, but their jealousy has become overwhelming. Without resources or ability to withdraw themselves from their predicament, their journey becomes a downward spiral into disaster. People can create lemonade out of lemons, but we can also make the worst out of any situation. We observe the characters in the play make poor decisions, but also wonder how else they could have lived.

www.facebook.com/PhableProductions

Review: Spring Awakening (ATYP)

atypVenue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 27 – May 14, 2016
Book and Lyrics: Steven Sater (based on the original by Frank Wedekind)
Music: Duncan Sheik
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: James Raggatt, Jessica Rookeward, Josh McElroy, Alex Malone, Patrick Diggins, Kate Cheel, Joe Howe, Bardiya McKinnon, Henry Moss, Caitlin Rose Harris, Taylor Howard Anthony, Alexandra Fricot, Julia Dray, Lochie Kent, Julian Kuo, Thomasin Litchfield, Richard Sydenham
Image by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
Teenagers discovering sex is among the most intense experiences that a person can go through. It is simultaneously delightful, frustrating, embarrassing and intractable, full of complexity and obsessive power in the way it dominates one’s body and mind. Adolescence is difficult and the consequences of sexual miseducation can be catastrophic, yet offering appropriate guidance and accurate information remains a challenge. Recent debates over the “Safe Schools” initiative to broaden the consciousness of high school students beyond a heteronormative scope and traditional religious values, have revealed conservative and harmful beliefs about sex that persist in Australia today. The story of Spring Awakening is over a century old but is based on those same tensions that still exist in our inability to be honest with the young about the pleasures and responsibilities associated with their sexualities. This 2006 musical incarnation is an edgy expression of the subject that exposes how we fail the young and the dire consequences that follow.

It is a spirited production, helmed by promising young performers. Watching them explore ideas around sex with exuberant openness, without a modicum of coyness or shame, is a truly remarkable experience. Each individual brings a confident presence and as a group, the ensemble delivers a passionate and bold staging that demonstrates their enthusiastic appreciation for the themes of discussion. Jessica Rookeward impresses as the naive Wendla, with a convincing and tender performance made prominent by a strong singing voice. The cast is emotionally compelling, but the overall standard of singing is adequate at best, which tarnishes their otherwise strong work. Choreography is effective in its ability to bring energy and excitement, but can sometimes be overbearing for the intimate space. Set design is kept minimal, with lights employed to do all the heavy lifting of conveying time and place. Damien Cooper and Ross Graham, co-lighting designers, contribute greatly to the vibrancy and variety of visuals. Direction by Mitchell Butel highlights all that is appealing about his zealously youthful actors, and creates a show with great optimism in spite of its dark narrative. There is a tendency to favour pathos over humour, which makes the production feel excessively heavy, but it achieves a beautiful authenticity that helps with the story’s poignancy.

The talents in Spring Awakening are in control. They surprise us with their maturity and their strength of resolve in taking over a stage to communicate what they believe to be real and valuable. We must never underestimate the capacities of our youth, and we must certainly never forget that much of our weaknesses have not yet befallen them. They need our protection but they deserve the truth. Our social problems, especially those pertaining to discrimination, are a product of ignorance that we continue to harness through false information and archaic belief systems. Spring Awakening represents the struggle against oppressive orthodoxies, and for the truth that sets us free.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: The Cherry Orchard (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 26 – May 28, 2016
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by David Mamet)
Director: Clemence Williams
Cast: Alex Bryant-Smith, Sarah Chadwick, Finn Davis, Miranda Daughtry, Bella Debbage, Jasper Garner Gore, Brett Heath, Cecilia Morrow, Nicholas Papademetriou, Eliza Scott, Josephine Starte, Sam Trotman, Benjamin Vickers
Photography © Bob Seary

Theatre review
Ranevskaya is at the brink of losing her family estate. She is understandably distressed but does nothing to prevent the worst from happening. All her people go about their usual petty business, unable to find ways to remedy the situation. In David Mamet’s adaptation, the aristocracy’s complacency is a representation of lives not irrelevant to how we live today, especially in our era of unprecedented wealth. Our fearless leader very famously said not too long ago that “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian,” indeed we are a nation that finds itself in possession of so much, yet we are no longer known to be a progressive people; we are stuck in old ways, overrun by new waves of conservatism.

It is a big cast of characters in The Cherry Orchard, and in this case, depicted by individuals with diverse strengths that never seem to find cohesion. They all tell their own stories, but insufficient attention is paid to appropriate tensions for its central concerns to engage. The show is often a confusion of personalities and intentions that never become interesting, and we find ourselves left struggling to make sense of who these people are and what they are trying to say. It is acceptable that plays can involve portrayals about the meaninglessness of existence, but they should at least find a point and drive it through with some level of conviction. Nevertheless, it is a good looking presentation, with Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set and costumes bringing to the stage an air of wealth and decadence, and Benjamin Brockman’s lights providing structure to sequences that would otherwise bleed into one another with little rhyme or reason. It must be noted however, that the use of sound is counter-intuitive and completely confounding in the way it works against the emotions and energies that actors try to harness. Even though pleasantly performed, the music is almost always a bothersome distraction.

Firs is the very old servant, senile but charming, played memorably by Nicholas Papademetriou who, with accidental irony, brings the most lively presence to a lustreless experience. His decay symbolises the dismantling of the old Russian order, but also serves as reflection on how we think of the poor today. Although at the very bottom of the pecking order, Firs had felt part of the family and was reliant on their care all his life, but eventually finds himself forgotten and abandoned. His plight is a poignant indictment of Australian society today, where we seek to diminish the indispensable ones who prop up the rich and the glorious. We continually find ways to redistribute money away from the have nots, blissfully unaware of the damage caused by advanced capitalism, but as the roots are left to rot away, it is only a matter of time before the magnificent plantation begins to crumble.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: There’s No One New Around You: A Tinder Musical (Sydney Comedy Festival)

tindermusicalVenue: The Factory Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Apr 27 – 29, 2016
Book: Keira Daley, Mark Simpson
Music and Lyrics: Keira Daley, Steven Kreamer, and Mark Simpson
Director: Beth Daly
Cast: Keira Daley, Mark Simpson
Image by Gina Jenkins

Theatre review
Online dating is a modern phenomenon, and Tinder is the current leader of a very saturated app market. With reports suggesting 50 million users, its increasing presence in our storytelling is not at all surprising. There’s No One New Around You by Keira Daley and Mark Simpson is probably the first musical to be staged that is entirely about Tinder, compiling anecdotes, impressions, inventions and humour, relevant to the uniquely contemporary experience. Its songs and jokes may not always be fresh or edgy, but there are many moments of cutting social commentary that keeps us excitable and engaged. In the show’s efforts to find verisimilitude, the audience is offered realistic reflections of our attitudes towards romance, sex and loneliness that can be powerful, perhaps embarrassingly so, in its accuracy. The characters we see are very silly, but they are unquestionably real, and whether or not one is familiar with the phone app in question, their thoughts and behaviour bear a closeness to modern life that cannot be denied.

The production is assembled with minimal fuss, and our attention is placed squarely on the two performers playing out stand-alone scenes that make light of all the absurdities associated with dating in the digital era. Daley and Simpson are perfectly exuberant, and very well-rehearsed, hitting every mark they have set in a playfully conceived but ultimately simple vehicle of entertainment. Adding an extra dimension of comedy is a film element crucial to the show’s effectiveness, cleverly edited by Simpson and seamlessly integrated with the live action. There’s No One New Around You is about clichés, and although there is nothing new in what it says, its observations are thoroughly amusing.

Humans cannot go without food, but our voracious appetite for love and affection reveals what it is that truly provides sustenance. Science tells us that eating and drinking keep us alive, but we know that life cannot be without intimacy and connection. We worry about technology keeping people apart, and lament the disintegration of community at the hands of accelerating capitalism, but the need to reach out and find affirmation refuses to be dampened by increasingly utilitarian ways of thinking about life. Even as electronics and money continue their never-ending encroachment into our persons, we will not abandon love and lust, but they will morph into new forms appropriate for the times. There is clearly no elegance in courtship Tinder style, but whether it can deliver any old fashioned romance, is anybody’s guess.

/www.tindermusical.com

Review: Belleville (Mad March Hare Theatre Company)

madmarchhareVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Apr 30 – May 12, 2016
Playwright: Amy Herzog
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Josh Anderson, Taylor Ferguson, Chantelle Jamieson, Mansoor Noor

Theatre review
Whether or not one believes in “happily ever after”, there is little doubt in the truth that relationships are never completely smooth-sailing. When people are bonded together, what keeps them from breaking up are not always snowdrops and daffodils. Amy Herzog’s Belleville is about the poison that can fester in romantic unions, observed through a married American couple, Abby and Zack, disquieted and displaced in Paris. We see them trying to make things work, but the only thing they share is a chronic anxiety about being together, the causes of which the playwright keeps concealed until the end. In our efforts to explain the mystery of their circumstance, we access our own understandings of how things can go awry between two people who have grown so close, thereby reflecting an unfortunate universality of the experience.

It is a play full of intrigue and danger, brought to the stage by director Claudia Barrie who creates a disarming tension from the unrelenting but subtle details of the couple’s relationship collapse. Their unnamed dysfunction is made palpable by Barrie’s flair for manufacturing suspense, and our minds are kept racing in response to the mysterious plot. The production is confidently designed by a team who taps into the undercurrents and subtexts of the writing, to address the less deliberate parts of our consciousness. The characters struggle to say what they mean, but their feelings are manifest in the atmosphere that we share. Performances are committed and thoughtful, with all actors proving to be dynamic and entertaining, although some moments could be less tentative. Abby is played by Taylor Ferguson who does a marvellous job of expressing physically what her role is unable to put in words, and Josh Anderson’s volatility as Zack keeps us on tenterhooks, wondering if and when he is going to reach a point of nervous breakdown.

Paris is the city of love, and many dream of its enchanting and exotic perfection, without ever having stepped foot in it. Indeed, Paris represents a kind of quixotic approach to romance that is fundamental to its appeal. We want what we have never experienced, certain of the fulfilment it will deliver without knowing what it actually contains and entails. Abby and Zack arrive at their point of difficulty because of decisions made on a basis of weakness, conformity and resignation. They went after something they knew nothing of, and find themselves stranded in a space of destruction and hopelessness. If they get out of it alive, they can leave ignorance behind and head into the future with brighter minds, but if they remain trapped, the end can only be calamitous.

www.madmarchtheatreco.com

Review: Blink (Mercury Theatre)

mercuryVenue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Apr 20 – 24, 2016
Playwright: Phil Porter
Director: Oleg Pupovac
Cast: Jane Angharad, James Smithers
Image by Jade Jackson

Theatre review
It is a love story about two unusual people. In truth, each person walking the earth is a unique creature, yet we often think of romance as a singular invariable experience. Sophie and Jonah’s relationship in Phil Porter’s Blink feels like a strange union, but only because we have come to expect little from depictions of intimacy. When taking time to observe the way people are and how we connect, we come to realise the infinite permutations of the human bond. The play feels theatrical and dramatised, but we perceive an unmistakeable honesty in its unconventional narrative. The characters are damaged, as we all are, so of course they are going to conduct their lives in slightly obscure ways. This is no Barbie and Ken fairytale, but a realistic representation of our freedom to love, and an insightful expression of how we should apply our own rules to our own intimacies.

The work is fast-paced, almost frantic in its energy, which although entertaining, can detract from more meaningful lines that require time to reverberate. Director Oleg Pupovac creates an endearing connection between the two on stage, affectionate yet distant at the same time. There is inventive use of physicality that engages us visually but more detailed work on light and sound design would enhance the presentation further. Performers are charming and enthusiastic, with strong presences that hold attention. Jane Angharad’s emotional restraint gives a sophistication to Sophie, and the gentleness with which she approaches her work translates into an effortless believability. James Smithers’ is the more vibrant of the pair, endearing with a very quirky edge to his constitution. There is an adventurous spirit to the way he explores the text that keeps us drawn into Jonah’s way of looking at the world.

There is little that can be cherished of a lonely life. Romance may not be available to all, but the need for human contact is undeniable. Sophie and Jonah find ways to make sense of their union, and although strange from the outside, their continuous redefinition of the form that their relationship takes, demonstrates the way organic beings must strike a balance as things change. Love means a myriad different things, probably because of the infinitely different needs of each individual. We may all breathe the same air, but what fills our heart is as varied as wavelengths in a spectrum of visible light.

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Review: The Tragedy Of Antigone (Ninefold / PACT)

ninefoldVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Apr 20 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Eamon Flack (after Sophocles)
Director: Shy Magsalin
Cast: Aslam Abdus-samad, Bodelle de Ronde, Dave Buckley, Erica J Brennan, Gideon Payten Griffiths, Kiki Skountzos, Pollyanna Nowicki, Scott Parker, Victoria Greiner

Theatre review
Antigone’s story is about defiance. Motivated by love and duty, she goes against the law of the land to do what she believes to be unquestionably right. Contradicting the wishes of Creon (who is Queen in this rendition), Antigone goes to bury her dead brother believing in the superiority of God’s will over the ruler’s whims. Based on Eamon Flack’s recent adaptation of Sophocles’ classic, The Tragedy Of Antigone is concerned with the place of government in the life of individuals, its impositions on our liberties and the spirit required for an authentic and dignified existence.

Director Shy Magsalin’s work is transcendent, compelling and powerful. Her gloomy atmospherics, beautifully established by Liam O’Keefe’s lighting design, transport us to our protagonist’s living hell where we discover a world of struggle and suffering. Greek tragedies are often less about psychology than they are about principles, and in this case, Magsalin’s ability to connect emotion with her play’s virtuous propositions is key to the production’s effectiveness. Precise and disciplined choreography permeates every movement on the stage, but strong impulses underlie all its physical contrivances for their symbolism to convey with poignancy.

Nine very well-rehearsed performers form an ensemble that does an outstanding job of finding cohesiveness, nuance and energy, for an intriguing interpretation of a meaningful but challenging text. Leading lady Erica J Brennan is full of passion. Attacking her role with impressive accuracy and tremendous focus, the actor’s tough presence provides a remarkable soulfulness to a heroine who is staunch and courageous in constitution. Equally accomplished is Pollyana Nowicki as Tiresias, the blind clairvoyant, equal parts ethereality and gravitas. Nowicki’s portrayal is macabre, mysterious and flamboyant, contributing significantly to the show’s exciting but dark sense of extravagance. It is noteworthy that the use of voice is especially potent in the production, with actors demonstrating excellent versatility and dynamism in the way they wish to be heard.

Love can move mountains, and as we see in The Tragedy Of Antigone, it can make women out of girls. Fearlessness may not be a rare quality in any of our legends, but it is hard to deny the importance of gender representation in Antigone’s tale. In an economy obsessed with action heroes, women characters principally defined by bravery, are desperately few and far between. This is theatre that we need, not to coincide with the current trendiness of feminism, but because it offers a kind of inspiration that would be of benefit to anyone. Believing that women can fight, and must fight, with the best of them, is a form of liberation crucial to people of all genders. Everyone has the potential to achieve the best of humanity. It is whether we allow ourselves and others that freedom, that will determine the extent of our evolution.

www.ninefoldensemble.com