Review: Let’s Talk About You (Pop Up Theatre)

popupVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Nov 16 – 26, 2016
Playwright: Rivka Hartman
Director: Rivka Hartman, Christine Mearing
Cast: Elaine Hudson, Taylor Owynns, Anne Tenney
Image by Vicki Skarratt

Theatre review
Ernestine’s marriage and career are adequate, but clearly far from perfect. She has a high level of self-awareness, constantly in dialogue with herself (quite literally) to examine thoughts and feelings as they emerge, but she keeps things under strict control. Ernestine is not one to rock the boat. Her husband is philandering, and job promotions are lost to less qualified male persons, but she grins and bears it, determined to fulfil the part of the good girl. When the beautiful Joy enters the picture, however, our protagonist is inspired to let all hell break loose.

Rivka Hartman’s Let’s Talk About You is about a woman whose time has come, admittedly a little late in life, but Ernestine is finally at a point where she realises that following all the rules has paid her poor dividends. It is a deeply charming play, witty and spirited, with depth and humour effortlessly guiding us through its simple but delightful narrative.

The production is directed with a warm vibrancy that keeps us connected with its characters, but spacial configurations could be more imaginative to allow scene transitions to occur with less fuss. Performance for the piece tends to be overly declarative in style, but what it lacks in terms of an empathetic naturalism, it atones with genuine passion and excellent stage presence from its smart team of actors. Elaine Hudson is a sagacious leading lady, imparting wisdom and flair through her incisive interpretation of a personality that we will all find familiar, and honest.

It should be easy living in a country that is free and rich, but we can often find ourselves held back from happiness. What happens in the mind is endlessly complex, but in Let’s Talk About You, we can see that fear and delusion are luxury items many of us in developed nations possess, and like that Patek Philippe or that Lamborghini, completely unnecessary and irrelevant to finding a good life. Ernestine understands her own irrationality, but what she does with it, is the million dollar question.

www.thedepottheatre.com

Review: The Shadow Box (Red Line Productions)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 10, 2016
Playwright: Michael Cristofer
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Jackson Blair-West, Jeanette Cronin, Anthony Gooley, Mark Lee, Tim McGarry, Fiona Press, Ella Prince, Kate Raison, Simon Thomson
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Three terminal patients in a hospital are waiting for the inevitable, but in the meantime, they try to experience life in an ambiguous space of transience, acutely conscious of their imminent fate. Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box is a meditation on death, which in its distillation of life’s essence, leaves us with a play that talks a lot about love and hope.

We think about existence as being conditional on the future, letting what we do today rely on our imagination of what is to come tomorrow. When tomorrow becomes increasingly uncertain, how we experience the now transforms into something that is thoroughly disquieting. Rattled and agonised, the characters in The Shadow Box, ill and otherwise, negotiate a strange state of being that feels like a constant struggle of trying to say goodbye.

Kim Hardwick’s direction honours the depth of Cristofer’s writing with an elegant and quiet approach. Its starkness is designed in order that thoughts and emotions may erupt with immediacy, but results are mixed. Not all of its scenes are able to engage meaningfully. Even though the show works hard to demonstrate the melancholic sentimentality that each personality endures, it can often feel too distant in its coolness. Considering the weight of its themes, the production is surprisingly, more cerebral than it is emotional, leaving us craving for an experience perhaps slightly more conventionally dramatic in style.

The actors are individually robust with what they bring to their respective roles, each one shiny with conviction and professional polish. Kate Raison steals our hearts, playing up her role Beverly’s dogged optimism and blistering self-deprecation, and Jeanette Cronin’s final moments of sorrow are as devastating as they are satisfying. Performances are well-rehearsed, but chemistry is not always present, in a production that does not necessarily wish to represent any unified or rigid philosophical positions.

To love is not to possess or to shackle, but for anyone to be able to love and let go, is harder said than done. A fundamental expression of love is to be present for the other, and in The Shadow Box, we observe the ultimate in selflessness that is required for loving the dying. Sitting with the ill gives the assurance of a life valued and valid, but helping them cross over is an act of great benevolence that the ones left behind will often find themselves unequipped to administer.

www.oldfitztheatre.com

Review: Speed-The-Plow (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 8 – Dec 17, 2016
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Rose Byrne, Damon Herriman, Lachy Hulme
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
It is the simple story of a man caught between good and evil, one that never seems to get old. It is the eternal experience of us all, no matter where or when in the annals of history we find ourselves. Bob is a Hollywood executive who has to choose between art and commerce, and in David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow, that relationship is a strictly dichotomous one. Art is good, commerce is bad, and like the devil and angel who take up traditional residence on either sides of our minds, Bob finds himself caught in a tug-of-war between Karen and Charlie, each one neatly representing each side of the argument.

This basic premise is stretched out to fill a 90-minute play, but it feels deficient, lacking in depth despite its thorough expositions on money, work and benevolence. Andrew Upton’s direction gives the show an engaging sense of momentum, but Mamet’s words are only occasionally resonant, almost as if philosophy is sacrificed in the effervescence and tempo of the presentation. We enjoy the dynamics between characters, and are titillated by the suspicious duplicity that may or may not colour their intentions, but ultimately, the audience is left with nothing fresh or inspiring, even though a barrage of noisy ideas seem to be thrown about on stage ad nauseam. Design by David Fleischer does well in providing a visual focus ensuring that the small play does not get lost on a very large stage, but the overly minimal set in Act Two seems awkward for both players and slightly confusing for the audience.

Damon Herriman has a powerful start in the role of Bob, every bit the eighties corporate monster and womaniser, but is unable to sustain our interest as the character transforms. The play allows the secondary personalities to overwhelm Bob, while keeping narrative focus on his predicament. Even though the actor’s conviction is clear to see, it seems that there is little in the text that lets our leading man remain arresting after Act One. Karen is played by Rose Byrne, who brings surprising complexity, along with excellent comic timing and intellectual acuity to the production. Her interpretation of the ingénue is by far the most exciting element of the show, requiring us to pay close attention to all her purposeful nuances, while challenging prejudices as they pertain to female ambition, in this world of cutthroat business wretchedness. Charlie is a stereotypical entertainment desperado, performed by the imposing Lachy Hulme, who luxuriates in every opportunity for heightened tough guy drama.

Mamet’s writing has no room for grey areas. Our protagonist can only choose between good and evil, art and power. Their inability to recognise the realistic possibilities of negotiating between polarities, detracts from how we are able to identify with the story. We all live between black and white, having to make decisions that are never completely ideal, but most of us are able to find points of balance that are at least momentarily satisfactory. We all want our cake and eat it too, but it is this constant shifting of circumstances and choices that gives each day its corporeal vibrancy.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Flood (Old 505 Theatre)

lamberthouseVenue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Nov 8 – 19, 2016
Playwright: Chris Isaacs
Director: Charles Sanders
Cast: Chandel Brandimarti, Caitlin Burley, Olivia Jubb, Aaron Lucas, David Thomas, Jackson Williams, James Wright
Image by Alexandra Nell

Theatre review
6 young adults, all white, embark on a road trip into the Western Australia bush land. A dramatic transgression occurs involving Aboriginality, and the story attempts to move itself into high gear, except no black person ever shows up on stage to provide balance to the ideas being explored.

Chris Isaacs’ Flood is a well-meaning work about race relations and colonisation, but is woefully oblivious to the fact that it is entirely concerned with the guilt and hurt of white people, when the tragedy at the centre of its narrative strikes only Aboriginal people. It is a shocking and deeply disappointing indiscretion that should no longer surface in public storytelling, but its existence is reflective of the ignorance and insensitivity that remains commonplace in Australian society.

It must be said however, that the production is carried out well. Design elements are simple but elegantly implemented, and direction by Charles Sanders tunes rhythms and emotion levels appropriately for the narrative to make sense. All performers present a good amount of proficiency with their roles, and the relationships they cultivate are subtly but effectively conveyed. The pain and struggle these white kids experience might bear authenticity, but their side of the story pales in significance, and is frankly, tedious to witness.

We can acknowledge and thank the First Nations all we want, for the use of their land at every social occasion, but when talking about their place in our historical and contemporary lives, we must no longer usurp space that is rightfully theirs. The failure to engage Aboriginal voices (the programme lists Indigenous content consultants but the text does not present Aboriginal voices), and then for the colonialists to exclusively occupy an Australian stage, when attempting to address issues of regret and reconciliation, is hardly acceptable. Flood is earnest navel-gazing, but in its frustrating and empty introspective search for answers, it has forgotten to ask those who matter most.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Tiny Remarkable Bramble (Kings Cross Theatre)

impendingroomVenue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 6 – 25, 2016
Playwright: Jessica Tuckwell
Director: Cathy Hunt
Cast: Thomas Campbell, Lucy Suze Taylor, Catherine Terracini, Contessa Treffone, Geraldine Viswanathan, Michael Whalley
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Joy is the emotion that manifests as protagonist in the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out, which explores emotions as separate entities in a human child. Jessica Tuckwell’s Tiny Remarkable Bramble can be seen to be similar in approach, with the quality of melancholy instead taking centre stage. The play is cryptic, and surreal in style, allowing the viewer a certain amount of freedom for the creation of meanings that could lead to personal interpretations that resonate with power, or could simply be an absurdist comedy that proves itself inconsequential, depending on the viewer’s tastes.

Smart, snappy dialogue is inventively formulated for the creation of six very quirky characters. There is considerable profundity in Tuckwell’s writing, in spite of a less than gripping plot line that leads us to a predictable end. Cathy Hunt’s direction of the piece is vibrant, playful and energetic in its thorough excavation of erudite gems, submerged in the densely fertile text. The show is fun-filled, featuring a group of actors that seem to be in a state of complete merriment, thrilled to be delivering ripples of laughter in a series of brilliantly humorous sequences.

Central figure Alice is played by Geraldine Viswanathan, appropriately apathetic for a sarcastic depiction of dispassionate and hopeless lethargy. Thomas Campbell steals the show as the belligerent Brigadier, fantastic in all his flamboyant flourishes, with a deeply charming presence that has us mesmerised and wanting more. Equally endearing is the memorable Contessa Treffone, desperately adorable as Pipkin, fragile and literally bubble-wrapped, representing a part of ourselves that can be too delicate and overprotected. The cast’s excellent chemistry and confident timing are the production’s strongest features, responsible for a night of theatre simultaneously challenging and entertaining.

Much of life involves wrestling with negativity. Personal insecurities, fear and despondency are constant threats that prevent the development of each of our own potentials. Many of us find it difficult to participate in society because pessimism is crippling, and always just a membrane away from stifling our creative energies. In privileged societies, we have everything that we could possibly need, but our materialism forms the basis of many constraints that we so frequently encounter. We think we have so much to lose, until we remember the transience of being, and start to appreciate the possibilities that can only come before death.

www.facebook.com/theimpendingroom

Review: The Angelica Complex (Kings Cross Theatre)

siren1Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 5 – 27, 2016
Playwright: Sunny Grace
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Naomi Livingstone, Lucia May, Kym Vercoe
Image by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Angelica is under tremendous pressure, having recently given birth to her first baby. The responsibilities of caring for a newborn, and the accompanying social expectations of being a perfect mother, are more than she can bear. Sunny Grace’s The Angelica Complex is about a woman’s painful struggle to cope with the idea of perfection, derived from the prevalence of social media and unrealistic parenting advice. We witness Angelica trying hard to get things under control, but she thinks herself a failure, putting blame on herself, her baby, and society. The entire play has her working through a process of internalised guilt and anger, while ignoring the fact that her husband is almost completely omitted from the narrative.

Angelica blames herself for believing in the myth that “women can have it all” but strangely, and frustratingly, forgets to take the baby’s father to task. While he is out doing whatever that is more important than taking care of his family, absolving himself of paternal duties, Angelica absorbs everything at home, drowning under self-hate and paranoia. She spends her time resenting the yummy mummies on Instagram who make things look a breeze, but accepts her spouse’s abandonment.

Angelica is played by Kym Vercoe, an actor full of energy, magnetism and acuity. Under Priscilla Jackman’s direction, Vercoe delivers an astonishing performance rich with insight and emotion, giving us the opportunity to understand and to feel, what it is like to be in those circumstances. The show’s rhythms shift dynamically and beautifully through the duration, even though the character’s state of mind remains fairly static. Sophisticated video projections by Velinda Wardell are introduced judiciously to add texture, and to inspire our imaginations. It is an involving production that speaks carefully and clearly to its audience, although its arguments are not always poignant.

Angelica does not tell us why she had wanted to have a baby in the first place. It is of course, much too late for her to change her mind, now that she discovers that the truth of parenthood is too overwhelming to cope on her own. The Angelica Complex asks several questions but one of its most potent, is the often unexplained desire to bring new life to the universe. The root of Angelica’s problems may well be the misogynistic manner in which women are told how they should look and act, but the play’s inability to address a rational person’s need to give birth is symptomatic of how our society can take the issue too lightly. Whenever the answer is “just because” or “it’s always been this way”, an opportunity for radical investigation emerges.

www.sirentheatreco.com

Review: A Life In The Theatre (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

darlotheatreVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Nov 4 – Dec 4, 2016
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Helen Dallimore
Cast: Akos Armont, Sunil Chandra, John Gaden

Theatre review
John and Robert work on a lot of plays together and have become more than familiar, but their closeness does not extend beyond the theatre. John is considerably younger, and although respectful of Robert, the generational gap that exists between the two is incontrovertible. The theatre that they practise is an ancient art form, passed down through the years from old to young, and in A Life In The Theatre, we are always conscious of John’s progression towards an inevitable taking over of Robert’s veteran position, in a perpetually reconstituting cycle of life and art, that tends to escape our daily consciousness despite its omnipresence.

David Mamet’s work of comedy is an acerbic yet deeply loving tribute to the people who make theatre, featuring fractured observations of the many absurd moments commonly experienced by those who work the stage, flattering and otherwise, but always meaningful on account of the honesty from which these vignettes are derived. All of human behaviour is funny from the right distance, and Mamet’s faux cynical attitude offers excellent opportunity for a great many laughs.

Director Helen Dallimore steers her production into madcap territory appropriate to the writing style, for a delightful and endearing portrayal of artists at work. The production’s rhythm suffers unfortunately, from frequent disruption due to its many sequences involving the cast going through costume changes on stage, causing energy levels to take a tumble at the end of every scene.

The actors however, provide detailed performances that insist on our attention at every step of the way. Both Akos Armont and John Gaden are resolutely present and thorough in their depiction of a profession fuelled by unbridled passion and ceaseless anxiety. Also noteworthy is Christopher Page’s lighting design, sensitively conceived and boldly executed, adding gloss and dynamism to an otherwise ordinary setting of backstage drabness.

Life is at its most real when the idiosyncrasies of individuals are able to be revealed. The quirky characters in A Life In The Theatre allow us to perceive the universality of our insecurities and irrationality, along with the benevolence and optimism that are fundamental to how we can make sense of existence. We may never come to a complete understanding of life or art, but it is the participation that counts for everything.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com