Review: Hot Brown Honey (Sydney Opera House)

hotbrownhoneyVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 22 – 26, 2016
Creators: Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Lisa Fa’alafi
Original concept: Candy Bowers, Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, Lisa Fa’alafi
Director: Lisa Fa’alafi
Cast: Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Juanita Duncan, Lisa Fa’alafi, Ofa Fotu​, Materharere Hope “Hope One” Haami, Crystal Stacey
Image by Dylan Evans

Theatre review
Six women take to the stage in a sensational update of the cabaret format, to confront big political issues of the day, and to entertain in the most spectacularly decadent ways possible. The women’s mantra is to “stand up and make noise”, and although deadly serious with their message, Hot Brown Honey‘s sense of humour is always an underlying and critical presence that keeps us engrossed even when the going gets tough. At the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia and body fascism, the stars create theatrical representations that are crucial to our nation’s discussions about justice and equity as applied to women of colour in particular. On a relentlessly vibrant and glamorous stage, we see stories that allow identification, but also confrontational statements that speak directly to those of us in positions of privilege. If live theatre’s most valuable feature is its dimension of danger that comes from the unpredictability of conscious individuals sharing space, then Hot Brown Honey is a triumph of magnificent proportions.

These women are powerful, emotional and aggressive, each with blinding talents gloriously showcased in sequences that aim to simultaneously seduce and repulse, with the formidable MC Busty Beatz bringing harmony and cohesion to the night. The programme features some of the most jaw-dropping beat-boxing ever to be heard (by Hope One) and massive notes from Ofa Fotu’s classic torch songs interpreted with acerbic irony, against a backdrop of musical production irresistible from start to finish, comprising mainly of hip hop, soul and funk influences. There are subversive stripteases, same-sex orientated twerking, mesmerising bridal aerial silk acrobatics, all passionately imbued with social commentary to deliver a show memorable for being uniquely dignified and progressive. Hot Brown Honey is wild and vivid in its expression of feminine disobedience and unapologetic with its pointed perspectives on cultural colonisation, giving voice to an under-represented but large segment of our population, and reshaping the way we think about identities for the purpose of empowering every darker skinned woman and girl.

Where power imbalances exist, politeness serves to deepen those inequities. When we let sleeping dogs lie, our problems become further fortified. The six ladies of Hot Brown Honey will disrupt and antagonise, using their bodies, minds and spirit to create pandemonium where a faulty establishment resides, but they have also made room for conversation, and participation therein is not exclusive. The subjects broached here are difficult ones, which means that many of us will try to avoid them, but this is a Pandora’s box that we desperately need, and some very loud noises have initiated the process. We can run but we cannot hide, from this yet another new wave of feminism, and the tenacious efforts currently under way for a paradigm shift.

Review: Straight (Brilliant Adventures)

brilliantadventuresVenue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 16 – Jul 2, 2016
Playwright: D.C. Moore
Director: Shane Bosher
Cast: Danielle Cormack, Sean Hawkins, Simon London, Madeleine Jones

Theatre review
Lewis and Waldorf are old friends from university days, reunited several years after their lives have taken different turns. While intoxicated, they decide to make an amateur porn film with each other. Lewis is married, with a history of just 2 sexual partners, and the happily single Waldorf is more experienced with 71, but neither have had encounters with men. Based on the 2009 film Humpday by Lynn Shelton, D.C. Moore’s Straight is about transgression. It explores issues around the constraints of sexual identity, along with an investigation into boundaries of friendship, and takes a look at the rules of monogamy in modern marriages.

Taboos are confronted with a vehement directness in Straight, which locates our cosy assumptions of human sexuality and puts them through a series of thorough and provocative interrogations. The script is a gripping one, made even more enthralling by director Shane Bosher’s very effective delivery of plot tension and believability for what is actually an absurd context. A brilliantly awkward sense of humour permeates Moore’s consistently nuanced writing, but the production has an air of unrelenting seriousness that compromises its potential for comedy. The mischievous Danielle Cormack delivers the biggest number of laughs as Steph, and leaves an excellent impression even though the actor only appears once in an early scene. Also noteworthy is Madeleine Jones who performs the role of Morgan with excellent psychological accuracy and a sharp intuition.

Lead role Lewis is played by Simon London whose thoughtful and intelligent approach creates a character that we are able to connect with, in spite of his quite incredible decisions. Sean Hawkins is the charming Waldorf, who keeps proceedings buoyant with an unpredictable and aggressive energy. The two turn up the sexual heat in the show’s crucial moments, creating an exceptionally libidinous stage that many will find titillating, while some others will be left embarrassed. Their work demonstrates pure conviction, but it is the ambiguity of their characterisations that inspire the biggest questions.

Art is eternally preoccupied with sex as a topic because it is universal, and one that can be examined extensively, and ceaselessly. The diversity of individual experiences and the plurality of our beliefs mean that new perspectives can always be added to the ever-expanding discussion and hence, comprehension of the nature of sex. We however, live in societies that suppress these interchanges, so we become accustom to presuming an uniformity in our hidden sexualities. We fool ourselves into thinking that we know how other people do sex, and furthermore we often place those same limitations on our own individual sex lives. Straight is about people who give themselves a chance, and who dare to go into the unknown, in the voyage of self-discovery that we call life. It is about defining identities by first experiencing what one is not, before settling on what one is.…

5 Questions with Karina Bracken and Jace Pickard

Karina Bracken

Karina Bracken

Jace Pickard: Why should people come and see Flame Trees?
Karina Bracken: For the uncommon, yet most excellent, combination of free parking AND being a champion of independent theatre.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
When I was 11 years old (also intuited by Psychic Elizabeth years later).

What are your interests outside of acting?
Conducting extensive independent studies on Chocolate Cafes, daydreaming, discreetly changing the ringtone on other people’s mobile phones (always amusing when people realise that that quacking duck is actually an incoming call – everyone should try it), tap dancing, talking to myself with a different accent (currently it’s Indian with an English influence) and recycling.

You are playing a police officer in Flame Trees, would you want to be one in real life?

There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in the arts, what’s your take?
Oh man! Why would you ask me this? It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?!

What I can say is that I am grateful for those people involved in the casting process who are not attached to a particular type or look, but are open to the idea that a character could be portrayed by a variety of physical appearances.

And I guess my thinking is influenced by my own family which has a little diversity of its own going on – my Indian born cousin is married to a Japanese woman, my brother’s wife is Polish, my Indian born mother has fair skin (and has been asked if she’s Italian) and my sister (who is the same colour as me) gave birth to a fair haired, blue eyed boy.

Also, I really dig the idea of subverting audience expectations. I personally would love for the opportunity to play a character with an Irish accent and not have it explained.

Jace Pickard

Jace Pickard

Karina Bracken: What is Flame Trees all about?
Jace Pickard: Ten years ago, a girl named Tess confesses to lighting a bush fire in her home town that killed her best friend and sent her to prison. Cut to the present day and Tess has now returned to redeem herself and make peace with those she has betrayed and left behind including her brother, her Aunty and her ex-boyfriend.

What makes you laugh?
Oh God, I laugh at most things. Even when no one has even said anything, I may just burst out laughing because I’ll be thinking of something in my head. I swear the cast think I’m insane. I can safely say that if you quote something from The Simpsons, I’ll be on the floor in laughter. I think when it comes to doing gritty drama like this production, you need to have comedy in the room and not take everything so seriously or you will just crash and burn. I am so thankful that I can have a laugh with this cast. There is so much positive energy in that room, you could never feel drained or upset when leaving a rehearsal.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m hoping in ten years to be doing various projects nationally and internationally within the industry. Acting is very much my passion and I love doing it but I also love to write and produce. I have produced two feature films now (Lead Me Astray and Remember Redfield) and have recently finished writing a feature I hope to put into production early next year. Heck, I might even direct this time around. I have a great team behind me and we will continue to make films and entertain an audience. I’m sure within ten years time, you’ll be able to find those films (and hopefully many more) on DVD shelves or on Netflix/Stan/Presto etc. Honestly, I just hope I am still doing what I love and that is working in this amazing industry.

What is like working with the cast of Flame Trees?
What I love about working on a project is how much of a family you become with your cast and crew over the few months you spend together: Isabel Dickson (Tess) and I bonded over the fact that we both went to the same acting school when we were at callbacks and when I was auditioning with her, I knew she had the part. She is very professional and natural and it has been amazing working with her. Karina Bracken (Monica) is my other partner in crime. Both Tess and Monica play a big part in Andy’s story and it has been so much fun to work off one another in tackling very dramatic scene. There was one scene that both Karina and I did recently where all I wanted to do was run up and hug her because it was so intense. Rebecca Clay (Val) leaves me in awe every time I watch her do a scene. When working on group scenes where all the cast are together, she just gives me so much to work with when our characters are playing off one another. I am so jealous I don’t have a one on one scene with her because she is astonishing. I love pouring Ryan Bown (Matt) a fake beer every time we do a scene and I do love all my scenes with Ryan. Matt is Andy’s bro and it is so easy to treat Ryan like a brother on stage and off because he is so easygoing and lovely. Simeon Yialeloglou is our brilliant director who is so on the ball with staging this entire production. What I love about Simeon is that you can clearly see he has put the work in to making something beautiful and I really hope we are doing a great job at helping him achieve his vision.

I have saved the best for last: Wayne Tunks, the writer and producer of Flame Trees, who is also playing Nathan, Tess’s older brother. I had seen casting calls for Wayne’s previous shows in the past and I had very much wanted to work with him so I was very stoked when I landed the role of Andy in his production. He is such a nice and inspiring person to work alongside and I swear to God, you need to try his cakes. They are mouth-watering. We recently did a scene where Nathan hugs Andy and I am not supposed to respond to it, which took all my might not to hug him back because man, he gives the best hugs! Haha.

I don’t have one bad thing to say about these group of people. I am very honoured to be working with such amazing talent.

Tell us a joke… I like really dumb jokes.
I read these ones online recently: How do fish get high? Seaweed. A man was hit in the face by a can of Coke. Lucky it was a soft drink. How can you get four suits for a dollar? Buy a deck of cards.

Karina Bracken and Jace Pickard are appearing in Flame Trees by Wayne Tunks.
Dates: 15 June – 2 July, 2016
Venue: The Depot Theatre

5 Questions with Francesca Savige and Damien Strouthos

Francesca Savige

Francesca Savige

Damien Strouthos: Do you scrunch or fold your toilet paper?
Francesca Savige: I scrunch-fold. It’s a metaphor for my whole life.

What has been your worst moment on stage in a past show?
General dire moments of insecurity aside, I had one incident of corpsing on stage that was was so inappropriate and unprofessional that I’m too embarrassed to go into detail. I regularly laugh in rehearsals (Anthony Gooley is making me giggle a lot in rehearsals at the moment) but I usually pull myself together for performance. This unspeakable occasion was out of control.

Who do you think will win Origin 1 next week?
Whether you mean football, electricity or Darwin, I lose.

What excites you about our production of Inner Voices?
The play, the director, the cast, the design the venue. Pretty much everything. That’s not me pimping for publicity, it’s fact. But if I had to pick one thing, it’s the brain stimulus. I’m loving good theatre that’s prompting discussions lately. I’m still reeling from Sport for Jove’s Taming of the Shrew, and this play is giving me plenty of delicious food for thought.

Where do you find the humanity in our show where there are no plain ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters?
John Bell was the first director of Inner Voices in 1977, and in his intro to the Currency Press script, he writes that “There is a compassion in the play – not for Ivan himself but for his situation”. I think that’s the humanity in the whole play- we can all relate to the destruction of innocence, to abandonment and isolation… At least those of us who have been lost in shopping centres and put on leash. (Yep. Me too, Damien)

Damien Strouthos

Damien Strouthos

Francesca Savige: Having been on tour quite a lot over the past few years with Henry V and Romeo And Juliet for Bell Shakespeare, do you have a best and worst tour memory?
Damien Strouthos: Best and worst memory are probably one. Henry V 2014, performance in Sale, Victoria. A viral corpsing moment that effectively stopped the show (standard) during the last scene thanks to a Mathew Backer line fluff. 7/10 actors uncontrollably convulsing with laughter isn’t the best way to end a 2.5 hour Shakespeare. Or maybe it is. I had my fist half way down my throat trying to stop whilst we were meant to be signing a 3 part harmony of “I vow to thee my country”. To this day, mention to any of the actors from that company the phrase ‘Sale, Henry V‘ and you’ll get a good yarn.

What are you most enjoying about rehearsals at the Old Fitz at the moment?
$3 beers and working with some people I really admire.

Have you previously encountered Louis Nowra on page, stage or in person? And if so, what was that experience like?
I’ve read a few of his plays, never performed in one. Which is odd as Inner Voices is arguably his most obscure. The experience on working on it so far has been totally challenging in a good way. I haven’t met him but he hangs out at the Fitz a lot so I hopefully will get the opportunity to ask him why he put a bloke in a bear suit in scene 7.

Can you draw on any personal experience for your current role as the Russian infant King who was kept imprisoned for 23 years, with minimal human contact and communication?
My mother lost me a in a shopping centre once when I was too young to describe who I belonged to. I was also one of those kids who wore a child leash (there’s not really a better name for that?) so yeah, I totally understand oppression and isolation.

To be honest, I tend not to use my life in my work too much unless I’m really not hitting something emotionally. Just being informed by the given circumstances and using the words on the page and trying to be truthful. Without knowing it, your life informs your work I think.

If you could speak only one word for 23 years, what would it be?
I’ll just pop that there.

Francesca Savige and Damien Strouthos are appearing in Inner Voices by Louis Nowra.
Dates: 15 June – 9 July, 2016
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: The Olympians (NIDA)

nidaVenue: NIDA Parade Theatres (Kensington NSW), June 11 – 18, 2016
Playwright: Stephen Sewell
Director: Jeff Janisheski
Cast: Saxon Blackett, Callan Colley, Laura Djanegara, Megan Hind, Imogen Morgan, Wil Ridley, Louis Seguier, Emele Ugavule, Ross Walker

Theatre review
We take sport very seriously in Australia. Billions of dollars have been generated from the industry, and countless personalities have attained national iconic status over the years. Stephen Sewell’s The Olympians attempts to deconstruct the sporting hero, with a story set in the Olympic village of the 2016 Rio games. It is a piece of writing highly critical of sporting and popular culture, using a narrative about a fallen star lost in sex and drugs, appealing to the same need in our audienceship that keeps tabloid journalism in business. Its characters are familiar but caricatured, and although hugely ambitious in scope, the play would probably be more effective if scaled down to its simple essence. Greek tragedy meets television realism in The Olympians for a curious exploration of dramatic form, but the play would make a stronger point if its many subtexts are trimmed down to a more succinct articulation of its thoughtful message.

Direction by Jeff Janiesheski is equally adventurous and imaginative with its approach. The very generously sized stage poses a challenge that Janiesheski responds by delivering amplified theatrical expressions for every scene, resulting in a work that can often feel too obvious with how it chooses to communicate, leaving little room for nuance or irony. The production’s humour is rarely effective but energy from a tireless cast and vigorous lighting effects by Ross Graham help retain our attention. Lead actor Wil Ridley shows good precision and discipline as the dishonoured Porter, especially proficient in some of the play’s more heightened sequences of sentimentality. Imogen Morgan is memorable as Jess, a bimbo type who encounters the goddess Aphrodite. Morgan’s ability to convey consistent authenticity in her role sets her apart in a group that seems to work more intently on exterior presentations than on emotional efficacy and psychological believability.

In an arena where individuals are ruthlessly pitted against each other, the sporting field allows only one winner at a time. Perhaps it is the idea of making concrete the abstract concept of “the best” that gives sport an allure that art has been unable to compete with. Awards are given out in artistic communities the world over, but there is nothing definitive about the good and bad in art, and certainly, the judgements we may bestow upon them are almost never more than irrelevant privileged perspective. People are drawn to the certainties of sport, and the creation of winners and losers in its equations. The nature of art resists that singular objectivity. Great art dismantles systems of segregation and exclusion to speak with universality as though at the Olympics, except all are to emerge victorious.

Review: Inner Voices (Don’t Look Away Theatre Company)

dontlookawayVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jun 15 – Jul 9, 2016
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Phil Rouse
Cast: Annie Byron, Julian Garner, Emily Goddard, Nicholas Papademetriou, Anthony Gooley, Francesa Savige, and Damien Strouthos
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
Ivan VI lived 23 short years in Russia, but in Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices, his destiny is transformed dramatically to tell a story about how kings are made, and how countries are ruled. Originally published in 1977, Nowra’s words in the play remain fresh and humorous, and although its political edge seems to have worn with time, Inner Voices‘ punk sensibility is still evident today in its iconoclastic characterisations and anti-authoritarian outlook.

It is a very exuberant production that Phil Rouse has directed. Notwithstanding our unfamiliarity with its context, the unrelenting and spirited acerbity of his style keeps us engrossed. The thoroughness at which the text’s comedy is explored, is not only endlessly amusing, it also helps provide depth of meaning to an outlandish narrative. Thoughtfully designed, the production’s aesthetic values are textured and powerful. Anna Gardiner’s set and Katelyn Shaw’s sound design are especially remarkable in the degree to which they are able to consistently add surprising dimension to the play.

Inner Voices‘ cast of seven is an exceptionally dynamic bunch. Ivan is played by Damien Strouthos, whose uncanny ability to portray eccentricity is a perfect fit for the quirky role. The actor takes the opportunity to showcase excellent range in a part that goes through several significant transformations, and we see various facets to Strouthos’ talents, all equally accomplished. Anthony Gooley is absolutely memorable as Mirovich, with razor sharp wit and a flamboyant theatricality that knows no bounds. Enthralling and hilarious, Gooley is outstanding on this stage and we are kept amazed by the genius inventiveness he injects into every line of dialogue.

It is the eve of another federal election in Australia, and we think about the likely candidates who will rule us for another three years. Inner Voices reflects our prevailing cynicism, and exposes the falsities associated with the state of our politics and governments. We want truth and honesty from those who represent us, but we have become all too aware of the hypocrisies and cunning that are required for people to attain positions of power. If good people cannot win in a broken system, all we have are at best, compromised and substandard. Nowra’s play does not offer us any solutions, but it certainly is a reminder that we should want to do better.

Review: Our: Land People Stories (Bangarra Dance Theatre)

bangarraVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 16 – Jul 9, 2016
Choreographers: Stephen Page, Daniel Riley, Beau Dean Riley-Smith, Jasmin Sheppard
Cast: Waangenga Blanco, Deborah Brown, Luke Currie-Richardson, Tyrel Dulvarie, Tara Gower, Rikka Hamaguchi, Elma Kris, Yolanda Lowatta, Rikki Mason, Leonard Mickelo, Daniel Riley, Beau Dean Riley-Smith, Tara Robertson, Nicole Sabatino, Jasmin Sheppard, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Glory Tuohy-Daniell
Image by Wendell Teodoro

Theatre review
Three separate works are featured in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Our: Land People Stories, each with a distinct flavour but unified by discipline, culture and history. Independently striking in style, they tell different stories of the Indigenous experience through the medium of dance at its most progressive and adventurous. Sumptuously designed by the formidable trio of Matt Cox (lights), Jennifer Irwin (costumes) and Jacob Nash (sets), the production is a feast for the eyes, brilliantly polished, with a level of sophistication that any theatre company would be envious of.

Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq is an analysis of the 1816 massacre of D’harawal people at Appin, 75km south of Sydney, and Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s complicity in the incident. It is an expression of British imperialism, specific to the carnage of two hundred years ago, but also serves as representation of the ongoing invasion of Aboriginal land and peoples that our society struggles to rectify. Imagery of death, sorrowfully depicted, provides the piece with an intense poignancy, and Daniel Riley’s performance as the governor amplifies its question of humanity by bringing an unexpected complexity to the tale.

Miyagan is about kinship, inspired by the cultural heritage of the Wiradjuri nation, of which its choreographers Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley-Smith belong. Mythology is given redefinition. Through this new manifestation, age-old stories are offered new life, and we see current generations relating to those ancient themes and ideas from a time and space that is real and personal. The dancers experience those narratives in their flesh and in their minds, and the audience shares in their ephemeral theatrical inhabitation of the Wiradjuri ethos. Also remarkable is music by Paul Mac, sensitively blending traditional with contemporary sounds, for a perfect accompaniment to an exciting movement vocabulary that contains more than a hint of hip hop.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu is one of Aboriginal art’s biggest stars, and her story is put to dance in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa. Inspired by her paintings and set to oral stories thoughtfully incorporated into the soundtrack of the 44 minute epic, we are presented a work about the wondrous relationship between woman and nature, as observed through the life of the respected Yolngu elder from the Gumatj clan of North East Arnhem Land. Dancer Elma Kris is deeply endearing in the lead role, full of vital spirituality and an irresistible stage presence. The ensemble’s cohesiveness and their unity of message are a hallmark of the company, and luminously apparent in the piece.

In Australia, we rely on Indigenous cultures to give our art its soul. There is nothing that can replace history and age when we wish for art to be rich in essence and meaning, and it is people like those in the Bangarra company who are uniquely able to bring to materiality something bigger than economics, politics and even science. Theirs is a philosophy that is beyond the constraints of time, and speaks only with truth and depth. What they put on stage is sacred, but how the audience chooses to interpret is an important part of that equation, and it is that very act of listening that is crucial to the path of our collective civilisation.