Review: Flame Trees (Tunks Productions)

tunksVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Jun 15 – Jul 2, 2016
Playwright: Wayne Tunks
Director: Simeon Yialeloglou
Cast: Ryan Bown, Karina Bracken, Rebecca Clay, Isabel Dickson, Jace Pickard, Wayne Tunks
Image by Isobel Markus-Dunworth

Theatre review (of a preview performance)
Wayne Tunks’ Flame Trees is a lot like soap opera. Its characters are highly emotional, and all their families get entangled in the melodrama, which involve moral conflict, infidelity and bushfires. Unlike the most popular tv shows of the genre however, we do not have years of history with the personalities of Flame Trees, and consequently, their grievances are of little concern to us. Causing further alienation is the lack of authenticity that comes from the play’s desperation to arrive at heightened emotion without first engaging us appropriately with the high stakes that it sets up for itself. The script is unoriginal, and hollow where it attempts to induce passion, but is thankfully fast-paced in getting to its conclusion.

Staging of the work is appropriately cheesy, with every creative decision going with the conventional and obvious. Actors put on unnatural voices and indulge in extravagant eruptions of passion and anger, in service of a narrative that is devoid of depth and often unbearably silly. The cast shows conviction nevertheless, and is fairly well-rehearsed, with Rebecca Clay leaving a good impression by finding nuance in her role despite its inherent incoherences.

Emotion must emerge from meaning, and it is a storyteller’s responsibility to locate resonance with the audience. A work can achieve a lot with its surfaces, but without truth at its foundation, big gestures on the exterior will only appear pretentious and absurd. Going to the theatre is a sacred event for communities to share and connect. Commerce will no doubt be a part of its equation, but it must never be the overriding factor, or our participation will only leave us empty and resentful. Theatre is not the idiot box, and the audience deserves much better.

Review: The Block Universe (Or So It Goes) (The Old 505 Theatre / Cross Pollinate Productions)

crosspollinateVenue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Jun 6 – 25, 2016
Playwright: Sam O’Sullivan
Director: Dominic Mercer
Cast: Briallen Clarke, Jacob Warner
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Andrew the philosopher tells his love story the only way he knows how. He believes that our time in the world is predetermined, and that our past does not simply disappear but exists in a different realm. He tries to access history to relive happier times, but finds his intellectual idealism unable to provide the comfort he requires. Sam O’Sullivan’s The Block Universe is about a man’s heartache, and his fascination with time. The play takes the thematic opportunity to build upon itself a thoroughly interesting structure, based on Andrew’s theories of determinism, for an unusual plot trajectory that depicts time in an unconventional manner. The boy-meets-girl story that it contains is however, nothing out of the ordinary, and although charming in its mundanity, is insufficiently dramatic for us to engage more deeply with Andrew’s anguish.

The play is directed with an understated elegance by Dominic Mercer, who brings surprising clarity to the text’s philosophical interests. Isabel Hudson’s work on set design is thoughtful and artistic, providing ease of functionality to actors and evocative symbolism to the audience. Further visual sophistication comes from lighting designer Alex Berlage, who creates a large number of scene transitions and a wide range of atmospheric manipulations with little resource other than sheer ingenuity. Equally accomplished is Alistair Wallace’s work on sound that guides us through the play’s complicated timeline with a penetrating sensitivity that accompanies its auditory dynamism.

The stars of the show are its captivating actors, both charismatic, and thoroughly authentic with what they present. Playing Andrew is Jacob Warner, vulnerable and truthful in every moment, with a subtlety that draws us in but delightfully energetic in his stage presence. Briallen Clarke impresses with a performance full of nuance and intensity, while maintaining excellent humour in her very vibrant interpretation of Kristiina. The duo’s chemistry, and the timing that results, is flawless and the relationship they portray is utterly believable.

Our emotions are shielded from Andrew’s heartache in The Block Universe. We see him crumbling before our eyes, but the play prevents us from responding with feelings, choosing instead to elicit an analytical acknowledgement of his pain. Indeed, philosophy and analysis can often ease our suffering, and the transference from heart to brain, can be an effective means to dealing with loss and mourning, but as demonstrated by Andrew’s experience, the solution is only temporary. There is no escaping the fact that matters of the heart need to be treated at the origin of their hurt, and Andrew will not be able to think himself out of his troubles. If we refuse to address the real issues that eat at us, we will be trapped in a perpetual cycle of agony, obstructed from resolution and emancipation, blocked from salvation and peace.

5 Questions with Lauren Dillon and Caroline Levien

Lauren Dillon

Lauren Dillon

Caroline Levien: In The Heidi Chronicles, we bump into Heidi intermittently over the course of three decades. What were the challenges in portraying a character over from the age of 16 to the age of 40?
Lauren Dillon: I guess the biggest thing for me was having to make the connection between each year that we see Heidi and figuring out what happened that influenced her life, her state of mind and social standing in those blocks of time that we don’t see on stage. She goes through some pretty significant changes and they also happen during quite iconic political movements in America so wrapping my head around all of the historical context has been a big part of this also. It’s a challenge to find the subtle changes that are necessary to show the evolving nature of a person as they grow older, while also keeping everything true to that character. Also slightly terrifying trying to remember what I was like as a 16 year-old!

Through the play, Wendy Wasserstein tracks the waves of feminism through her character’s respective journeys. We see it through the nurturing women’s rap groups of the 60’s-70’s, the open protests for equal representation, women’s collectives, and finally the 80’s: ‘beating men at their own game’ and the rise of the business woman. In light of this journey, where do you think feminism stands today?
Somehow the topic of feminism can still make for extremely volatile discussion along with misinterpretation and confusion. I see fantastic initiatives where women who live in countries that are closer to gender equality are now also fighting for the basic equal rights of women in situations where they are still oppressed, politically or socially. I see really positive steps on the global stage towards acknowledging that feminism is about gender equality on the whole and how it not only benefits women but men as well. Yet there are still those who think that Feminism is a dirty word espoused only by man-hating witches, and some of the vitriol out there, especially online, is really quite upsetting and disturbing. The battleground is not only in the public arena, it’s still very personal and I think young people now are looking for ways to take it in to their own hands. It seems feminism has accomplished much yet there is ongoing work to do to tackle the anti-feminism ignorance that still exists.

We meet Heidi through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. As an actor, what era has been the most fun to revisit?
Hhmmmm…. That’s a tricky one. They’re all so great and full of fantastic music, political changes, fashion and social movements. I think I’d have to say the 60’s and 70’s though, as these are the years where Heidi has a lot of her political/ feminist awakening and becomes a little rebellious. Plus I have to admit that watching youtube videos of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Fleetwood Mac is very satisfying ‘research’.

What have you most enjoyed about working on this production of The Heidi Chronicles?
I’ve really loved working with our awesome cast and crew. Everyone brings their own slice of magic to the room, and is also really supportive and encouraging of each other. I’m inspired by everyone each time we rehearse as I’m learning from people who’ve been doing this longer than me and also watching great choices and incredible work ethic from others. There have been a lot of laughs in the rehearsal room, and some fabulous reminiscing on the past from our Director – lots of great stories and insight. Plus our stage management team are the business!

What do you hope audience members will take away from this production of The Heidi Chronicles?
I hope that the audience will have a really enjoyable couple of hours watching a play that’s got a heap of women in it and not your typical linear structure. I hope they will have the opportunity to reflect on what’s changed in the world since this play was written – but also what hasn’t and see if that moves something in them. I also hope they have a bloody good laugh – there’s some comedy gold in there!

Caroline Levien

Caroline Levien

Lauren Dillon: The Heidi Chronicles was a Broadway hit & Pulitzer Prize winner in the late 80’s – what keeps it relevant today?
Caroline Levien: So much. In a way I wish it was less relevant if it meant that we had come a little further as a society in terms of what we ask and expect of women.

The Heidi Chronicles really tracks the various waves of feminism from the 60’s-80’s and explores a wide variety of themes including ‘sisterhood solidarity’, sexual liberation, gay rights and ‘having it all’ to name a few.

I feel like the subject of feminism is something that has been tarnished a bit and I cringe when I hear women say they don’t need it, as though it’s the new F word and can’t be uttered. On the contrary: It should be studied, celebrated and reinvented. Heidi’s journey through the play highlights the ups and downs of the movement as it changed through the eras. Was it perfect? God no. These social and civil movement rarely go smoothly because what they are doing is shaking up the status quo- there are no rulebooks for how they are supposed to run so in each era the play visits, we see how the ideas have changed: from ultra supportive Consciousness Raising Rap Groups in the 60’s all the way to the rise of the Power Women of the 80’s and the corrosion of the early notions of ‘solidarity’ in favour for emulating traditional male roles in the pursuit of success- shoulder pads anyone?

The Heidi Chronicles looks at these changing incarnations of ‘feminism’ and does so with a certain humour and intelligence that I hope resonates with audiences today, and ask them to study where the role of women’s equality sits in our current era. I imagine most people will recognise that we still have a long way to go.

What are some of your picks of songs that were released in the years Susan features in the play?
Tough one. I’m a big fan of the 60’s and 70’s music so I’d probably have to pick The Kinks. Although my favourite Janis Joplin song happens when I’m off stage so I am free to rock out. Lucky me.

What have you most enjoyed about working on The Heidi Chronicles?
The ensemble. We have some wonderful people working on this production and it’s been such a pleasure to watch and learn from the other actors and the lovely work that they bring to the floor. It’s a challenging play, charting a whole lifetime in two hours, so having a great supportive group of actors and creatives is such a blessing.

There are several scenes in the play where you get to eat/ drink – what’s your pick of the food/ beverage options?
I seem to be either constantly eating or drinking wine in this play. Tough call but it’s got to be Jill’s peanut butter and granola cookies. The breadsticks are pretty fabulous too.

Do you quietly have a favourite character from this play? Come on – spill the beans…
I love all the characters for various reasons. I love my own character, Susan, for her ballsiness and confidence which at times feels so far removed from me as a person and actor, but if I had to pick a favourite I would have to chose Heidi. Her journey speaks so clearly to me that it’s almost eerie. A woman in a world that is constantly changing in ways that she cannot control or fathom, stoic in her beliefs in a society with a very mutable moral and social compass, people coming and going and morphing in front of her, leaving her with no solid ground to stand on. Jesus it’s like an extract from my diary!

The woman in a tempest of a changing world. For me, Heidi is an ‘everywoman’.

Lauren Dillon and Caroline Levien are appearing in The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein.
Dates: 7 June – 9 July, 2016
Venue: New Theatre

Review: A Man With Five Children (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

darloVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Jun 3 – 26, 2016
Playwright: Nick Enright
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Jemwel Danao, Chenoa Deemal, Charlotte Hazzard, Jody Kennedy, Ildiko Susany, Anthony Taufa, Aaron Tsindos, Jeremy Waters, Taylor Wiese
Image by Helen White

Theatre review
Like the “Up Series” from British television, Gerry in Nick Enright’s A Man With Five Children begins documenting the lives of five Australian seven year-olds in 1964 with his camera. Initially revisiting the group once a year, he becomes increasingly embroiled with his subjects, and the films he produces begin to lose their objectivity. The nature of Gerry’s art and his relationships are constantly transforming. We think about his responsibilities as film-maker, the validity of his work, and consequently, our collusion as a public that encourages intrusions of this nature. Enright’s play is highly sophisticated, with a big number of themes running through its stories, all thoughtful and sensitive, but its admirable complexity comes at a sacrifice of dramatic tension and focus. Several plot twists are revealed too abruptly, and its ambition to feature all five children with equal weight creates a narrative structure that our emotions struggle to find suitable empathy for.

The work is directed with excellent ingenuity by Anthony Skuse whose combination of live action and film expresses beautifully the way time and space is intertwined in the text (Christopher Page’s lights and Tim Hope’s AV design work together in perfect harmony for a presentation that will be remembered for its precise and elegant aesthetic iterations). Humanity is at the foreground, and Skuse’s remarkable compassion for every character is clear to see, but the ambiguous interpretation of Gerry’s traits and motives is ultimately too mild for its audience to respond with greater passion. Actor Jeremy Waters’ solid stage presence anchors the show appropriately with Gerry’s experiences, regardless of the character’s dubious attributes. It is a performance with power and sincerity, and although not a likeable role, we cannot help but be impressed by Waters’ professionalism and the obvious refinement of his craft.

The cast of nine forms a cohesive and engrossing ensemble. Every scene is lively and authentic, and every line of dialogue is delivered with wonderful conviction. Jemwel Danao plays the innocence and tragedy of Roger to great effect, creating the most poignant moments on stage with an approach that is unique in its subtlety, but also emotionally rich. He speaks directly to our sentimental sides, bringing us back to the play’s tender heart amidst its complications of ideas and incidents. Similarly heartbreaking is Jody Kennedy as Zoe, the girl who believes herself to be “ordinary”. The actor takes her character through many distinct transformations, each one striking in their accuracy, and is consistently charming with every portrayal. The “five children” perform to us not only in the flesh but also through the camera lens, and it is noteworthy that their work on screen is equally accomplished.

The media has played a major part of our lives for decades, but its increasing ubiquity from year to year cannot be understated. A Man With Five Children first appeared before the era of social media, so its major concerns are dealt with in ways that are perhaps slightly outmoded. Gerry is in a position of power that influences lives, in a way not dissimilar to how our own lives are being manipulated by corporations that seduce and insist on our reliance. On the surface, it is a love-hate relationship, but the play leaves little doubt as to the damage that any media can cause when we invite it into personal realms. Gerry’s children would have escaped his domination if their parents had not volunteered their participation but we can scarcely withdraw from the gaze of the modern world through the prevalence of smartphones and their infinite applications. There was a time before screens, and we all fall into the trap of yearning for those simpler days, but the truth is that humans have never been pure and life has never been easy. We have to identify the challenges of our times and their prevailing evils, and do our best to turn things for the better, even in the knowledge that the next malice is just around the corner.

Review: The Heidi Chronicles (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 7 – Jul 9, 2016
Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein
Director: Alice Livingstone
Cast: Sarah Aubrey, Matt Charleston, Lauren Dillon, Caroline Levien, Olivia O’Flynn, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame, Darren Sabadina, Benjamin Winckle
Photography © Bob Seary

Theatre review
Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles first appeared at the end of the 1980’s when American women were beginning to crack the glass ceiling, and when second-wave feminism was approaching its last days. The play examines the life of Heidi Holland from high school to middle age, beginning in 1964 through to 1989, charting the progress of white middle-class women through those three decades of the second-wave. Another thirty years (almost) have past, and we wonder how much has progressed since. “Can we have it all?” remains a question that only one of the genders asks herself, and the ambiguous conclusion to Heidi’s story confronts our contemporary sensibilities, leaving us to meditate on our place in society today.

Director Alice Livingstone presents a vibrant production that wears its heart on its sleeve, with an unmistakeable affection for the play’s nostalgia guiding us through Heidi’s years of development. It is a work painted with broad strokes, and although nuance is not always delivered, the staging of each scene is crisp and impactful. Refreshing and inventive use of space, along with Livingstone’s choice of projections help elevate the visual content of its otherwise basic design aspects.

Performers demonstrate an earnest conviction that encourages us to get involved with their stories. Leading lady Lauren Dillon does not seem to possess sufficient maturity for the portrayal of Heidi’s life in later sequences, but her confident presence stands her in good stead with the audience, and her passionate interpretation of a crucial monologue gives the poignant work its heart and soul. Darren Sabadina and Sarah Aubrey leave remarkable impressions with their exuberant and adventurous approach to their respective roles, both detailed with their characterisations and humorous at every appropriate opportunity. There are moments in the show of great chemistry between actors, but also scenes in which people do not seem to connect. Nevertheless, this production of The Heidi Chronicles is consistently enjoyable, and many will find its explorations meaningful.

Heidi lives a feminist life because she is in charge of her own destiny. The rules are her own, and she does not seek approval for her decisions. No one lives in a bubble, and we all find inspiration from other lives, but self-determination for every individual should be afforded and supported by our civilisations. A feminist does not have to look a certain way or prescribe to any particular doctrine, but she needs to be aware of her power, where it comes from and the battles that were fought for it to exist.

Review: The Big Dry (Ensemble Theatre / ATYP)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 2, 2016
Playwright: Mark Kilmurry (from the novel by Tony Davis)
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Sofia Nolan, Rory Potter, Noah Sturzaker, Richard Sydenham
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Three children are stranded and left to their own devices in a dystopian future. An endless drought has hit Australia, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. The Big Dry is about our abuse of the environment and the consequences that our children have to bear when the struggle for survival becomes abject and savage. They rely on each other to stay alive, and their bond becomes the centre of their universe. Tony Davis’ story is dark, but we respond with a natural thirst for hope, even though it gives us no indication of salvation. Mark Kilmurry’s adaptation gives mother nature a tremendous dominance, but its humans are insufficiently captivating, with dialogue and personalities that pale by comparison.

Stars of the show are lighting designer Benjamin Brockman and sound designer Daryl Wallis, both of whom use their considerable technical skills to tell a story of cruel and imminent tragedy. Brockman introduces a boundless variety of moods and spatial transformations with inventive hues that impose upon the stage, a brutal power evocative of harsh climates and their impact on our planet’s living creatures. Wallis is responsible for the show’s tensions, offering the audience a glimpse into the apocalypse with a series of clamouring and sinister rumbles that send our nerves shivering with foreboding. Young actor Sofia Nolan puts on an accomplished performance as Emily, demonstrating good focus and intensity. Her work is energetic, with a healthy dose of sincerity that helps endear herself to the audience.

The production depicts calamitous events but is itself moderate in temperament. We never quite connect with the characters, and even though we understand the high stakes involved, its scenes are unable to lead us convincingly to a suspension of disbelief. Its concepts are strong and universal, but its drama feels distant and elusive. To convey the pressing need for societies to escalate individual and political action on climate change is not an easy task, with habits of modernity firmly entrenched in all our lives and necessary sacrifices proving too difficult even to contemplate. Ecological messages are hard to take, especially it seems, when the ugly truth is revealed. The Big Dry is not a walk in the park, but to expect an easy ride from its subject matter is probably more than a little unwise.

Review: All My Sons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 9, 2016
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Anita Hegh, John Howard, Bert LaBonte, John Leary, Josh McConville, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Jack Ruwald, Chris Ryan, Contessa Treffone
Images by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
Joe Keller’s wealth is a result of monumental sacrifice. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is about the cost of money, and the naivety that can come with human greed. Joe makes the decision to choose financial success over a clear conscience, thinking that his riches will be able to shield him from the damage that he causes. There is a willing ignorance at play in Joe’s story that many of us understand. We think that the pluses that come with money are powerful enough to contain the inevitable minuses, and it is that misguided optimism that brings about a series of calamitous consequences to Joe’s family and his neighbours.

It is intoxicating drama and a powerful moral that allows the play to maintain its resonance through the decades. Miller’s interrogation of the American dream (now international), along with themes of money, family and war, have not faded with time in their impact, in fact, our engagement with the ideas in All My Sons seem to be more intimate than ever. Soldiers once sent off to war in blazes of glory, are now seen as individuals we need to protect at all costs. Ideologies once used to justify deaths in battle, are now tainted with commerce, corruption and oil. Great riches from hard work have now exposed themselves to be hollow corporations trading in fraud. These very contemporary concerns are paired with classic melodramatic storytelling, for a masterpiece that still packs a wallop in 2016.

Kip Williams’ direction keeps focus on the play’s essence. Almost minimal in style, our attention is not to stray from its characters and dialogue. There are no bells and whistles to fill the vast auditorium, just a family drama that gets increasingly turbulent. Personalities are clearly defined, and relationships are dynamically formed. Williams sets the pace of the production at lightning speed to help ensure that tension is sustained, and that the audience remain engrossed. The intriguing qualities of Miller’s plot are perfectly engineered to keep us hooked on the story, but the venue’s size makes it a challenge communicating emotional intensity without performers having to perform at the extremes of their sentimental capacities. We follow every interchange that happens on stage, but our feelings become involved only when scenes become passionate.

The more energetic of the cast leave a greater impression. Chris Ryan’s ability to portray heightened agony gives the production its gravity, and the actor’s remarkably lucid depiction of his character Chris Keller’s loss of innocence, provides a soulfulness to the production, especially effective at its moving conclusion. Eryn Jean Norvill plays Ann Deever with great charm and an authentic complexity that adds surprising texture to the show. Norvill’s vocal and physical emulation of 1940’s American style is a delight, as is the vibrancy of her stage presence. In the role of Joe Keller is John Howard, imposing and confident, every bit the patriarch of the tale, but seems to fluctuate with concentration levels. Although powerful and nuanced, the actor has a tendency to be subsumed when action becomes frantic on stage. Young actor Jack Ruwald is memorable as Bert, lively and with a genuine sense of impulsiveness that is deeply endearing.

We cannot expect friends and family to be perfect, because every human is flawed. People will make mistakes, but how we forge ahead with them is the basis of how we live each day. The Kellers survive on love and lies, but the two prove to be ultimately incompatible. Where there is love, truth must triumph, but the ugliness that surfaces stands every chance of dissolving what we hold precious. All My Sons might be about family, marriage, betrayal and deception, but it is fundamentally a cautionary tale of greed’s destructive nature. Forgiveness and understanding can mend many wounds in our relationships, but the scars that are left behind are permanent and inescapable. Joe’s abominable sin cannot be undone, and its repercussions are tragic and endless.