Review: Hitchcock’s Birds (Edgeware Forum)

edgewareforumVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 27 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Laura Johnston
Director: Laura Johnston
Cast: Laura Johnston

Theatre review
Even though Alfred Hitchcock’s films were usually about male protagonists, it is his leading ladies that remain unforgettable. In Hitchcock’s Birds, Laura Johnston presents a compilation of anecdotes, ranging from the cautiously dubious to the downright objectionable, by a series of legendary blonde bombshells who had worked with the master of suspense. Misogyny in Hitchcock’s films is a common topic of discussion, so the insight that Johnston’s one-woman show wishes to provide, will not be new to many. It is however, wonderfully nostalgic, with characters and a performance style that harks back to the golden age of 1950’s Hollywood, and because “they don’t make them like they used to,” this is a production that will appeal to many who continue to hunger for that old world glamour.

As actor, Johnston is most effective in sultrier and heavier sections. At home in the skin of the femme fatale, she brings excellent theatricality to the likes of Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak. Zanier personalities like Doris Day and Janet Leigh on the other hand, can seem less confident, and slightly laboured. Even though Johnston does well in creating different voices and mannerisms for her various roles, it is clear that Hitchcock’s penchant for archetype does not make it easy for a greater sense of differentiation between each woman, and the use of slide projections is required to help us identify the stars being depicted. Hitchcock’s Birds is a strong concept and there is good work to be found in the way mood is manufactured for this staging, but its duration is too brief for our emotions to engage at a gratifying level of intensity.

Hitchcock’s is a man’s world, and the women in it must play by its rules or risk condemnation. When workplaces are patriarchal, as so many continue to be, its women must choose whether to obey, withdraw or defy. Whichever option is selected, it is uncommon that power imbalances are ever subverted or given redress. Film in Hollywood and everywhere else, is still dominated by men, but theatre is an alternative to the art form that is currently experiencing a vigorous progression towards gender equity. It is only when we tell our stories, on our own terms, that empowerment for our sisterhood can truly begin to materialise.

www.edgewareforum.com

Review: Side Show (One Eyed Man Productions)

oneeyedmanVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Sep 23 – Oct 16, 2016
Book & Lyrics: Bill Russell
Music: Henry Krieger
Director: Richard Carroll
Choreography: Amy Campbell
Musical Direction: Conrad Hamill
Cast: Daniel Belle, Gabriel Brown, Laura Bunting, Kerrie Anne Greenland, Michael Hart, Bree Langridge, Lachlan Martin, Joshua Mulheran, Elenoa Rokobaro, Berynn Schwerdt, Timothy Springs, Hannah Waterman
Image by Kurt Sneddon

Theatre review
Daisy and Violet Hilton were conjoined twins who in the 1930s, caused a sensation in the American vaudeville circuit. We meet them in the musical Side Show, as their ascent to fame begins, and encounter the highs and lows of the women’s irrefutable difference, in a world determined to treat them as anything but normal. Its plot is unconventional, and for a musical to have at its centre an unpredictable story, is remarkably refreshing. Instead of distinct good and bad categories as is common for the genre, characters exist in spaces of grey, resulting in a tale that surprises with its realism. The songs are beautifully composed, with unusual depth and textures that forsake formulaic writing in favour of accurate representations of human emotion.

Laura Bunting and Kerrie Anne Greenland are the splendid twins, with a persuasive sisterly closeness that keeps us firmly on their side. Bunting plays the extrovert Daisy with an alluring effervescence, while Greenland uses an earnest approach to tug at the heartstrings. Both are excellent singers, although Greenland’s very big notes are undeniably scene-stealing. In the role of Buddy is Gabriel Brown, who impresses with nifty footwork, along with a striking presence, for a character memorable for his exceptional charm. Director Richard Carroll successfully introduces a dignified air to the “freak show” context, but the production often seems too stagnant and minimal in its use of space. There is an admirable restraint in Carroll’s rejection of creating scenes that are overly sentimental, but the show would benefit from greater amplification of its more humorous elements.

Side Show is an elegant work that is respectful in its portrayals, but there is a persistent gentleness that can make it feel somewhat distant. Art must always be aware of cliché and do all it can to avoid it, like it does on this occasion, but the temptation to resort to the tried and tested is always present. The musical format has a strong tendency towards the “garden-variety”, mainly due to commercial pressures, but also because of the seemingly inherent limitations of the genre. There are few avant-garde musicals for good reason. It is a theatrical form with rules that cannot be broken, and that insists on subjugation of its artists, but for some of those who do give in, the rewards can be spectacular. True fulfilment might have been elusive, but Daisy and Violet had a taste of fame and fortune by giving the crowds what they want, and that is a level of success many could only ever dream of.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Late: A Cowboy Song (Ladylike Theatre Collective)

ladylikeVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 27 – Oct 1, 2016
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Sarah Dunn
Cast: Andreas Lohmeyer, Annabel Mathieson, Eliza Oliver

Theatre review
The simpler the story, the deeper we can delve into the nature of being human. We have a tendency, in life and in art, for complication. Believing in the more the merrier, we cloud up our transient existences with illusory fixations that distract from the truth. Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song takes the shortest distance between two points, and in the process, deconstructs some of the biggest myths that govern our every day. It questions the meaning of things like marriage, reproduction, money and work, central tenets that dictate how we live from minute to minute. We see Mary fall pregnant and marry Crick, who goes to get a job to provide for the family. It all happens without thought and passion, completely automatic. Their lives take shape as though controlled by an external entity, until they chance upon something else that truly moves them.

It is a funny play, though not always overt with its humour. Delightfully sarcastic, with a distinctly queer sensibility that informs its representations of gender, sexuality and relationships, Sarah Dunn’s work as director is very charming indeed. Mary is played by Eliza Oliver who brings nuance and poignancy to the piece, through an understated style that encourages understanding of her character’s peculiarities. Less quiet with his presentations is Andreas Lohmeyer whose eccentric approach provides great amusement, along with an intriguing but bizarre aura appropriate to the subversive material being explored. The eponymous cowboy is a mysterious figure, with Annabel Mathieson cast against type to bring focus to the text’s interest in exploring issues of identity and conformity.

Who we think we are, may not always be an accurate estimation of the person who walks the earth, but that self-perception must always be allowed to change. To know oneself can be a difficult process, but what is infinitely harder, is to pretend to be someone else. Mary and Crick try to come to terms with their own desires, but arriving at that state of honesty proves to be an elusive privilege. The cowboy is completely out of place, but what they experience, is a serenity and fulfilment that many others fail to attain. It is human to want to fit in, but it takes courage to stake one’s claim for a share of the world, without playing by all the stupid rules.

www.facebook.com/ladyliketheatrecollective

5 Questions with Zoe Jensen and Alex Malone

Zoe Jensen

Zoe Jensen

Alex Malone: Threnody is mostly written in verse. Why do you think Michael has written it like this?
Zoe Jensen: I can’t speak for Michael, but my thoughts on this are that it is primarily a story-telling device and one that he has always been particularly interested in. Verse mythologises the mundane by tricking the ear into false expectation, once you establish that push and pull of the play’s rhythm you can disrupt that effectively. It also speaks to an inherent pattern in our bodies, one that some of us suspect echoes in the universe. That’s what the play’s about anyway, a shared song through all people.

We all play different characters in the play. Who’s your favourite character to take on?
I love playing Robert Mason – a navy man out celebrating his daughters 13th birthday at a strip club – because I finally get to showcase my excellent ‘man voice’. Though I’ve harassed my dad, brothers, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, male friends, male teachers etc over the years with this ‘man voice’, I have never been given the opportunity to do it on stage and I am absolutely thrilled.

If you could meet any woman dead or alive who would it be?
Awesome question! I’m going to answer both of these because it’s so good.

Dead: I would love to have a cup of tea with Ruth Park in her Norfolk Island home. Her novels were my saviour growing up, and they still are today. I would love to collaborate with her on turning her magical stories into films.

Alive: I would also love to PART-AY hard with Madonna! She is such an absolute Ledge, and the Queen (sorry Beyonce) and I adore every album she has ever released. We would be best friends and there would be so much champagne.

In the play, Virginia has her first drink. What was the first drink of alcohol you ever had?
Apart from the little sips of Drambuie my Mum forced on us at Xmas dinners, my first proper drink was some old red goon. I was fourteen and staying at a friends house and her parents went out for dinner leaving us alone for a few hours. We decided to try some of their red goon, had two cups each, pretended we were drunk and then got bored and went to bed. In the morning we both also tried to outdo each other with our hangovers. Obviously fake as well. Ahh those were the days.

This is the second time you have worked with Michael this year. How do the two shows relate or differ?
Though the two shows are quite different in style/genre (Bright Those Claws was a quick-paced farcical comedy, Threnody is a poetic tragedy), I think they are quite similar in regards to theme. In fact these same themes come up very often in Michael’s work! Both plays deal with a kind of dark spirituality and both ask a lot of religious questions, primarily to do with the ambivalence of God. Both of the lead characters are tragic romantic figures whose descent we witness throughout the course of the show. This figure is surrounded by characters who seem to have a story-telling compulsion, which infects us as performers! We are so excited to tell this story!

Alex Malone

Alex Malone

Zoe Jensen: What do you think Sydney audiences will enjoy the most about Threnody?
I think audiences will really enjoy this play because its sexy, rude, funny and written in verse. It’s not often, or ever really, that you see plays written in verse that aren’t classics. The language is clever, poetic and performed by six really great actresses. What’s not to like?

Why do you think our director has cast all-women when there are both male and female roles available?
The thing that’s most prevalent in Threnody is the female chorus. Five girls tell the story of a young girl, Virginia, and narrate her encounters as she leaves her house for the first time. Even though all of us transform into other characters (male and female) and interact with Virginia, the chorus of women propel the story. This provides a female insight into how she feels and why she makes the decisions she does, and most importantly, how she perceives the other people she comes into contact with.

One of your characters in Threnody is an old grumpy male bus driver, how do you relate to him?
I don’t! I’m not old, male, and I’ve never driven a bus but if you see me before my morning coffee I am grumpy! I’m having a lot of fun playing someone so different to me. I think I want to get my bus license now though…

When was the first time you went to party and what was your experience of it?
I can’t remember exactly what or when my first party was but I remember a New Years Eve party near the end of High School. I think it was Toga themed and little Seventeen year old Alex drank way too much vodka. We’ve all been drunk in a toga at some point…

How do you relate to the strong ‘loss of innocence’ theme in Threnody?
I think young kids today, especially girls, find themselves constantly under social pressure to grow up faster than kids in past generations. I know I definitely felt pressure to look and act a certain way when I was going through school, and that was with technology that was nowhere near as advanced as it is now. I think this play really highlights the loss of innocence as we follow Virginia’s first encounter with a man and with society. Threnody also focuses on the contrary opinion of keeping kids too sheltered and what that might do to their development. Threnody is paired on the Old Fitz stage with Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, which is also about kids growing up fast. I think this is a really important subject to be discussing and seeing on our stages.

Zoe Jensen and Alex Malone are appearing in Threnody by Michael McStay.
Dates: 27 September – 8 October, 2016
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: Pedal & Castles (House Of Sand)

houseofsandVenue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 20 – 24, 2016
Creator: Eliza Sanders
Director: Charles Sanders
Cast: Eliza Sanders

Theatre review
Pedal and Castles are a pairing of individual pieces that demonstrate the genius talent of Eliza Sanders, whose boundless exploration into performance and theatre creation that deliver experiences that are full of joy, surprise and wonder. Amalgamating the clichéd triple threat of singing, dancing and acting, Sanders redefines the stage artist into a singular agent with capacities limited only by imagination. Her multi-disciplinary skills are showcased perfectly in both works, along with the most inventive approach to writing and choreography for a style of show that is striking for its effortless originality and distinctive sense of beauty.

These are not simply stories, but abstract expressions that find a purpose in time without the reliance on logic and narrative. In tandem with brother Charles Sanders’ direction, the siblings’ ability to move us, to cease our attention and connect with our emotions, without the use of anything remotely formulaic or conventional, is evidence that a purity of intention and an instinctive acuity are at play here.

Eliza Sanders’ physical presence is that of a dancer’s, all discipline and agility, but her personality refuses to be subservient, the combination of which results in a powerful state of being that puts on stage, the very vibrancy of life itself. Without the distraction of reason, we are in direct contact with a living, breathing and in this case, enthralling, organism, whose various representations of our complex existence, draw us into a state of sharing, listening and acknowledgement, that seems to make life that much more meaningful. Observing Sanders is to be at one with nature, and the resonance she provides, is akin to the excitement one receives when enraptured in the vision of early spring’s blossoming flowers.

Where there is no need to ask why, we abandon the past and the future, to stay firmly in the now. Eliza and Charles Sanders are important artists who give us an alternate view of the world. Knowledge and experience are limitless, and in art, we can find catalysts to help us grow. The language in Pedal and Castles is not a translatable version of the familiar, but a different course of communication for arriving at somewhere new. The danger of becoming small and narrow is ever-present, but when art does its job well, we are shown the way to emancipation, and we must take every step that leads us there.

www.houseofsand.org

Review: Remembering Pirates (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

darloVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 16 – Oct 16, 2016
Playwright: Christopher Harley
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Robert Alexander, Fraser Crane, Emma Palmer, Simon London, Stephen Multari
Image by Helen White

Theatre review
The stories we tell can either be fictional or factual, and things that happen in our lives can be real or imagined. These concepts reflect our reliance on dichotomies, and a tendency to think of the world in black and white binary terms. Christopher Harley’s play is certainly not just one thing or another. It might be about dreams, faith or rationality. It could also be about family, childhood and illness. A strange narrative, with a simplicity that allows us to interpret and understand it however we choose. Remembering Pirates is hard to engage with. Its characters are distant, humourless, and with emotions that seem plastic despite their intensity. Without a doubt, fantastic ideas can be detected in all of its dramatic moments, but we react with nonchalance, maybe because its need for mystery causes it to keep too much hidden from us.

There is much to admire in how the production works with both surreal and naturalistic elements, blurring the boundaries between the two, to formulate a world that keeps us guessing. Its dreamlike atmosphere is created well, albeit somewhat monotonously. The play has the potential to grow very ominous and menacing, but its sojourns into darker territory are few and far between. Actor Simon London leads the cast with impressive presence and commitment. His effortless charisma keeps us from becoming too alienated from the peculiar protagonist, successfully retaining our attention through his several mystifying junctures.

Delusions are purely solitary experiences. When two people share the same, it becomes reality. Truth is a shifting entity in Remembering Pirates, and we often find ourselves kept outside of its hallucinatory indulgences. It is not clear if participants in the making of the show are able to find a unified vision for their project, but what they do make accessible needs greater depth and poignancy to accompany the big themes being discussed. Fantasy can always be found at the theatre, but it needs to be more than fanciful, before it can fuel our soul and give us what we truly need from art.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com

Review: The Drover’s Wife (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 17 – Oct 16, 2016
Playwright: Leah Purcell
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Tony Cogin, Mark Coles Smith, Benedict Hardie, Will McDonald, Leah Purcell
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
In Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife, race relations in Australia are placed front and centre, and we have nowhere to hide from its confrontations. 1893 is in some ways a long time ago, but in Aboriginal terms especially, we can still think of the story as a contemporary one. The invasion is ongoing, and the carnage, although better disguised, still persists. The cruelty and brutality demonstrated in Purcell’s play is a necessary point of discussion for our nation. Turning abstract into flesh, we look into the face of horror, and any denial of responsibility is impossible. When Molly meets Yadaka, revelations are made about identity and how it is constructed or understood in Australia. We watch fanatic bigotry in action at its extremes, and relate it to what we know to happen today, and can only react with despondence and anger.

It is a powerful piece of writing, unforgiving and unrelenting in its accusations, balanced by a sensitive incorporation of grace and compassion in its depictions. What Leticia Cáceres brings to the stage as director, is cuttingly honest but with a lucid rationality that prevents us from feeling alienated by its outrage. The relationship between Molly and Yadaka is a tricky one that goes through drastic transformations, and the production’s ability to portray it with authenticity, convincing at every point, is deeply impressive and the linchpin to its success. As actor, Purcell’s formidable presence is captivating, and Mark Coles Smith, as Yadaka, is equally compelling, with a dynamic and empathetic approach that mesmerises. Tony Cogin and Benedict Hardie play a range of objectionable and revolting characters who are thoroughly disturbing, but it must be said that their work is remarkably bold, and brilliantly conceived.

A statement that promises redress is made at the play’s end, but what it represents is not an optimistic prophecy. What we have instead, is a continuing process of struggle and suffering that generations of Aboriginal people are enduring. The Drover’s Wife wants us to look at the injustices of 1893 and recognise that, although much has changed in over a hundred years, much of the same remains. A dominant foreign culture exists on this land that requires the subjugation of our native communities. European colonisation, at its very foundations, disallows any room for its oppressed to gain autonomy or sovereignty, unless we begin to acknowledge the need for a radical dismantling of systems. The damage may be severe, but we must believe that reparations are possible, and the urgency for them to occur cannot be overstated.

www.belvoir.com.au