Review: Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo (Mad March Hare Theatre Company)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Apr 12 – May 6, 2017
Playwright: Rajiv Joseph
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Josh Anderson, Tyler De Nawi, Maggie Dence, Andrew Lindqvist, Stephen Multari, Megan Smart, Aanisa Vylet
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
It is a prayer of anguish and pain. In addressing God, Rajiv Joseph offers a meditation on the biggest challenges faced by humankind at this moment in time, from perspectives personal and global. Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo talks about the ceaseless wars that take place in the middle east, and the sacrifices made to all lives no matter which side of the battle they reside. It also deals heavily with guilt and regret, universal experiences that allow audiences to relate even closer to its characters and stories.

The writing is emotional and imaginative, with ghosts and paranoia haunting the living, and troubling philosophy interrogating the dead. Having Americans and Iraqis at the centre of the action might allow Australian viewers to distance ourselves from its very difficult themes, but the production’s extraordinary intensity is determined to have us embroiled. It is powerful work by director Claudia Barrie, who invests great detail and dynamism into all facets of her show.

An unrelenting atmosphere of tension akin to horror movies and war zones, is marvellously established by a bevy of design talents. Nate Edmondson’s music in particular, impresses with its exceptional precision in calibrating tonal shifts, allowing us to flow with the play’s many surprising and contrasting moods, with no apparent effort at all. Lights are appropriately colourful for a show that revels in its hallucinations, with Benjamin Brockman’s robust approach providing excellent visual variety to a small and restrictive stage. Stephanie Howe’s costumes and Isable Hudon’s set design are simple but always effective and convincing, especially admirable considering the economy at which they operate.

An ensemble of seven remarkable actors perform an unforgettable show, each one commanding, with strong interpretations of their individual parts but beautifully cohesive as a whole. Andrew Lindqvist is stunning as Musa, demonstrating a level of authenticity that makes theatre pure magic. The kinds of torment being described is, to most of us, quite unimaginable, but Musa’s story is laid bare in front of us, entirely convincing and heartbreaking. It is in the way Lindqvist brings meaning to his lines, and in the way his physicality manifests between those lines, that the essence of suffering can be so clearly observed. His work is dramatic and breathtaking, but also profound in its subtle assertions; the actor is fantastic. Josh Anderson and Stephen Multari play American soldiers, both engaging, and moving, with fascinating psychological complexities provides to what are usually reductive ways of portraying military personnel. The eponymous tiger is brought to life by Maggie Dence, who has a tendency to seem overly static, but the quality of omniscience she brings is invaluable. Tyler De Nawi, Megan Smart and Aanisa Vylet are all given scene-stealing opportunities, and although their appearances are relatively brief, they each leave an indelible mark on this stage.

Maybe God does exist out there in the ether, or maybe we are all gods in the here and now. We can crane our necks and ask for answers, but we will never be absolved from doing the best to make the world a better place. We must try to figure things out ourselves, for as we see here, divine intervention never did arrive. For good to happen, it is only up to us, but evil is real, and in Bengal Tiger, it does not know itself. In the play’s pessimism, our actions result in harm, and civilisation is on a downward spiral, but it is a work of fantasy, and how we respond, is another one of its mysteries.

Review: Sex Object (Jackrabbit Theatre / The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Apr 19 – 29, 2017
Playwright: Charlie Falkner
Director: Michael Abercromby
Cast: Charlotte Devenport, Charlie Falkner, Andrew Hearle, Grace Victoria
Image by Omnes Photography

Theatre review
Ben is addicted to pornography, an increasingly widespread problem resulting from recent technological advancements, that have allowed unprecedented access to explicit sexual content. Unable to conduct a healthy relationship with his girlfriend, he decides to break things off, but Ron’s father has just passed away, and timing is a real issue. Charlie Falkner’s Sex Object may not be very sure about what it wishes to say, but its dialogue and characters are certainly amusing. We go on a delightful ride with the youthful foursome, entertained by the things they say and do, and even though we end up at a place quite unexceptional, the journey is ultimately a pleasing one.

The show is energetic, full of effervescence, and we are kept engrossed in each of its very chatty sequences. Director Michael Abercromby is determined to have interchanges occur with great exuberance, which holds the audience’s attention well, but it is doubtful if we ever find an opportunity to invest anything deeper than cheerful laughter. Falkner’s own performance as Ben is charmingly idiosyncratic, like a Millennial Woody Allen, struggling to make sense of his own world, while exposing the dysfunctions that we all share. Playing Gustav is the very funny Andrew Hearle, long-limbed and manic, prancing around the stage with uncontainable enthusiasm, and proving himself to be an awfully infectious presence.

The play beats about the bush, wishing to talk about sex in the modern era, but is unable to get deep and dirty with its ideas. Taboo subjects are by definition seldom discussed, and as such, we often lack the ability for their articulation. Not only do we lack the language, we lack the philosophy, because silence hampers how we communicate and how we think. It is clear that Sex Object wishes to interrogate something contemporary about our sexualities, at a time when technology and commerce are allowed to penetrate all that is intimate and private, but what it actually does say is insubstantial. In its inevitable and unintended prudishness, we receive instead a barrage of jokes, like children discovering sex, unable to appreciate it for its profundity, indulging instead in its many awkward and silly, although not unenjoyable, thrills and spills.

Review: The Sylph (Harlos Productions / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 18 – 29, 2017
Playwright: Jodi Rose
Director: Colleen Cook
Cast: Gertraud Ingeborg

Theatre review
The legacy left behind by the celebrated 19th century ballerina Marie Taglioni, can be found in the world of dance, but in Jodi Rose’s The Sylph, we come to meet with her in a play. Stories from her life are relayed directly, to an audience curious about Taglioni’s biography. When we see dancers, they are picture perfect. What we see is effortless, often sublime, with all that happens behind the scenes kept tightly under wraps.

The monologue provides information about Taglioni’s history, but there is little in terms of drama that could be gleaned. There are no great eruptions of emotion, no spicy scandals, and few dark secrets. It is a meaningful existence from a distant past, discussed with a simplicity that is perhaps underwhelming for a generation accustom to much more outrageous tales of unrelenting impropriety by famous types.

Gertraud Ingeborg is in the starring role, impressive and convincing with her physical expressions as ballet expert. The graceful beauty she brings to the piece is commendable, along with an undeniable strength in her presence that keeps us engaged. It is a flattering image of both actor and character that the show presents, under the directorship of Colleen Cook, who demonstrates an elegant and effective use of space, but the plot structure would benefit from greater effort in manufacturing a sense of tension for The Sylph‘s storytelling.

Female geniuses are consistently obliterated from our history books and our consciousness. Works like The Sylph are important in finding redress to this injustice. To know that women have achieved as much as, or more than, our male counterparts, is crucial to how we see ourselves today and how future generations will be able to live out their potentials. For women who wish to be great mothers and wives, there are plenty of success stories, but for the rest of us who desire anything else, we need every opportunity to encounter our predecessors.

Review: The Dog / The Cat (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 13 – May 7, 2017
Playwrights: Brendan Cowell (The Dog), Lally Katz (The Cat)
Directors: Ralph Myers, Anthea Williams
Cast: Sheridan Harbridge, Benedict Hardie, Xavier Samuel
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We like to subscribe to the notion that there are cat people, and in a separate category there are dog people. This either/or dynamic could easily be applied to this double bill. Brendan Cowell’s The Dog and Lally Katz’s The Cat are both contemporary Australian comedies, but there is little in their respective senses of humour that unites them. Not to say that one is funnier than the other, for that judgement can only be a subjective one, but the probability of individuals enjoying one half of the presentation, and not the other (are you a cat person or a dog person?) is highly likely.

While Cowell’s work is a naturalistic exploration of today’s personalities and relationships, Katz’s approach is highly stylised, relying on surreal elements for its laughs. Both are filled with frothy, inconsequential observations that tell us nothing surprising, but there is certainly a lot of entertainment to be found in their dual presentation. Some of its jokes are genuinely funny, and when they are less than effective, the flamboyant cast invariably finds ways to make things work.

Benedict Hardie is wonderful, and perfect, in all three of his roles, determined that every word of dialogue is served with flair and purpose. Sheridan Harbridge and Xavier Samuel too, are delightful in the more outrageous comedy of The Cat, both in their element, and unimaginably creative with their artistic choices. On this stage, it is the acting that makes all the difference. Often, we could hardly care about what is being said, when enthralled in the masterful comedic performances so diligently bestowed upon us.

Laughing together in an auditorium beings us closer. We discover where we are similar, and remember that we are a community, sharing in life as compatriots and neighbours. So much of current discourse is about separation and hostilities. Even though the enemy is always abstract, we fall every day, for the allure of convenient condemnation. Theatre is essentially about camaraderie. We have to forsake our phones and isolation, just for a couple of hours, to sit, watch and listen, as one body, to react as one body to what is usually a reflection of ourselves. The Dog / The Cat brings us parts of being human that are silly, and in all that silliness, we are moved to recognise that the vulnerabilities of people are the same, and realise we can so easily just be there, and be good with one another.

Review: Down An Alley Filled With Cats (Throwing Shade Theatre Company)

Venue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 25 – May 8, 2017
Playwright: Warwick Moss
Director: Tom Richards
Cast: Gabriel Egan, William Jordan
Image by Andrew Langcake

Theatre review
Simon and Timothy are a couple of dishonest types, who let greed take control of their destinies. It is true that most of us use material gain as a guiding force to navigate through daily life; many of our decisions are made with monetary benefit in mind, and little else is allowed to interfere. Down An Alley Filled With Cats by Warwick Moss takes place in a bookshop, where knowledge and intellect occupy physical space but the printed pages fail to form a positive influence on the men who read them.

The play is interested in the relationship between philosophy and the actualities of existence, but that idea is a mere suggestion that backs down from the show’s need to be a straightforward comedy about crooks trying to outsmart each other. The production is tentative and under-rehearsed, but its players, Gabriel Egan and William Jordan demonstrate a strong conviction that sustains our attention, with Jordan’s more nuanced approach providing much needed texture to an often unimaginative staging of the work. Laughs are delivered sparingly, but the narrative, and its several plot twists, are relayed with sufficient clarity.

Good and bad are simple dichotomies, presented as absolute oppositions that demand our moral propriety. When we choose right from wrong however, grey areas are discovered, or perhaps manufactured, and one person’s morality becomes another’s transgression. Evil exists, but they are always in other people. Bad people are never ourselves. The way we justify any action is always completely reasonable at the time, and in order to satisfy selfish desires, conscience is easily brushed aside. In Down An Alley Filled With Cats, even the learned do sin. When all the books in the world offer us no salvation, humanity must be at a point beyond hope and repair.

Review: Trade (Hurrah Hurrah / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 4 – 15, 2017
Director: Alison Bennett
Cast/Devisers: Alison Bennett, Dymphna Carew, Alicia Gonzalez, Mathias Olofsson, Melissa Hume
Image by Maria Hansson

Theatre review
Corporations exist to make money for its stakeholders, that much is clear. Everything else they claim to do, are undertakings that must be taken with a pinch of salt. In Trade, we examine the nature of these organisations, and their perennial pretensions around social responsibility. If the point of their existence is to maximise profit, we must always hold a sceptical attitude toward their altruistic proclamations. It is a culture that defines itself by taking more than it gives, so our interactions with businesses should always be cautious, and if their people are anything like the vile characters in Trade‘s fictitious world, then the state of our affairs is very grim indeed.

The piece looks exaggerated, but what it communicates feels absolutely real. Its theatrical language is inventive, absurd and hyperbolic; the story is told with faces and bodies in a completely anti-naturalistic way, and through its performance art approach, we discover a surprising accuracy in its grotesque portrayal of greed and megalomania.

Alison Bennett’s direction is spectacularly entertaining while maintaining a raw unconventionality. In the absence of a complex narrative, details are located instead, in all the deliberate gestures of the five flamboyant players, each one presenting their own version of the unhinged corporate cannibal. Elaborate sequences involving an energetic ensemble and its strange movement vocabulary, keeps us fascinated and thoroughly amused. Their cohesiveness is deeply impressive, and the most persuasive element of the show.

It is a strong message that Trade wishes to impart, but for all its passionate assertions, what we do eventually leave with, is a simple and unoriginal idea about the darker sides of humanity. Also less satisfying, is the deficiency in commitment to visual design of the production. The audience’s eyes are thoroughly engaged in this dance of anthropological ugliness, but little is on offer when our sight shifts beyond the performers.

It is easy to want to participate in life with the principle of “eat or be eaten”. We can think of our capitalism as being fundamentally and inevitably cruel, and then allow ourselves to do harm unto others, to keep from falling prey to those who run faster. The fear of not succeeding can be overwhelming, and the voracious appetite for an unending more, is a force that few of us can hide from, but surely there must exist something more generous and compassionate, if not entirely more blissful, in a way of life that is abundantly honest and, dare we say, pure.

Review: Fallen (Sport For Jove Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Apr 6 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Seanna van Helten
Director: Penny Harpham
Cast: Lucy Goleby, Megan Holloway, Chantelle Jamieson, Abbie-lee Lewis, Moreblessing Maturure, Rebecca Montalti, Eloise Winestock
Image by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
It is 19th century England, and the women in Seanna van Helten’s Fallen are told what to wear, how to act, and which to think. The story takes place in a kind of halfway house, where women who have transgressed morality are banished, to be put through a process of rehabilitation. There is a Victorian severity to these characters’ lives, but what the play demonstrates more relevantly, is how those archaic ways retain control over us today; we still insist on telling women how they should look and behave.

Van Helten’s writing is subtle, a quiet mystery with depths of emotion and meaning, discoverable under surfaces of restrained tumult. The six women of Fallen reveal little, but an authenticity is nonetheless present. The work is challenging to perform. Actors are required to imagine all that is hiding between the lines, and the bolder they are at manifesting the unsaid, the more effective their show becomes. It is a likeable ensemble, but not always powerful enough to overcome the cryptic nature of the writing. Lucy Goleby is matron of the house, a staunch, stern character who is depicted with a greater sense of definition than the rest. We rely on Goleby to bring the drama, which she does often, especially when she taps into the eerie, slightly gothic quality that the piece lends itself to.

The production has a mild temperament, almost timid in its expressions. At its best, Fallen is haunting and transcendent, but the show can quickly turn tepid and consequently lose connection with its audience. We wonder what the women had done to have them condemned, and who they truly are, but our interest seems to swell and wane, through different junctures of the plot. There are moments of design brilliance to relish; Raya Slavin’s music and Sian James-Holland’s lights are attractive, even though inconsistencies in atmosphere add to the show’s issues with dramatic tension. We see all the potential on this stage, and wish for greater impact, with more audacious approaches.

The women in Fallen have no choice but to be compliant. Our world today is significantly different, with much more liberated attitudes than before, yet we submit everyday, to fears of stepping out of line, whether or not repercussions are real. We alter our own behaviour to conform and to appease, and expect the same of other women. Well-behaved women seldom make history, but it is not only for the momentous that we should dare to be ourselves. It is what happens in our regular day-to-day that requires us to be vigilant over the power that we own and that we should never be fearful of.

Review: The Rasputin Affair (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 1 – 30, 2017
Playwright: Kate Mulvany
Director: John Sheedy
Cast: Tom Budge, John Gaden, Hamish Michael, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O’Shea
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Rasputin, the divisive and enigmatic figure of early 20th century Russia, remains a figure of contention in Kate Mulvany’s new play. The self-proclaimed “holy man” found himself at the centre of political upheaval through his association with the Tsar royalty, but his position as a religious leader has kept his contribution to social unrest of the time, ambiguous and mysterious. The Rasputin Affair is about the mounting outrage surrounding his rise to power, and assassination attempts led by members of the aristocracy.

A work of comedy, it lampoons archaic personality types and pokes fun at the hypocrisy of religious organisations. There are striking similarities to Molière’s Tartuffe, although the burden of history weighs heavy on Mulvany, whose efforts at providing background information detract significantly from the play’s entertainment quotient. John Sheedy’s direction is often imaginative, but even though his embellishments are delightful, the plot can seem needlessly convoluted, particularly in the first act. Staging becomes much more jaunty post-interval, as the production shifts gear and develops a broader, more appealing approach to its comedy.

Alicia Clements’ vibrant set design contributes beautifully to laughs, along with Matthew Marshall’s lights that give the imagery its finesse. It is an animated cast, particularly memorable in sequences that allow a bolder performance style. Sean O’Shea has just the right charisma, and theatrical sarcasm, for Rasputin. Dangerous, powerful and cryptic, we perceive his allure, as well as his disingenuity, and come to an understanding of the controversial qualities of the legendary character.

The separation of church and state is a familiar concept, but religious beliefs remain chronically ingrained in systems that rule our daily lives. The men who lead religious groups are never democratically elected, yet their influence on policies and ideology are resolutely tenacious. The Rasputin Affair is concerned with corruption, inspired by stories from a hundred years ago. With the inordinate amount of talk about feuding religions in our media, we must not cease to question the extent of their interference on our civil autonomy, whichever gods we have chosen to believe in.

5 Questions with Eli Saad and Sana’a Shaik

Eli Saad

Sana’a Shaik: You play multiple roles in Future Seekers, how did you find tackling each character?
Eli Saad: I love a challenge so I was really excited by the idea of having 5 characters to play in one show. It’s given me an opportunity to showcase something different, and also go really extreme and do something unexpected with some of the characters. I’m excited for audiences to see them.

If you were able to invite anyone in the world to come watch you perform, who would it be?
Max Mutchnick – I love his work. I’d also take the opportunity to convince him to add me into the Will & Grace cast!

What thrills you more, drama or comedy?
I would have to say drama. I do love comedy and I enjoy making people laugh, but making people cry is far better, haha. No really, there is something about being able to really move someone with a performance on a deeper level and taking them on a journey with you.

Future Seekers takes us from Russia to Australia, where is the best place you’ve travelled to?
Definitely Kenya. I first went in 2011 and a 5 week trip turned into a 3 month stay. I then came back to Sydney in March 2012 and returned to Kenya again in December 2012. It’s just a stunning country, I really did feel like I was home being there. The people, the culture, the animals – by far one of the greatest experiences of my life. I also volunteered with an organisation called Tushinde who do amazing work in the Mathare slums, so it also taught me a lot about the world and myself. Working with Tushinde also connected me to my sponsor child, Shadrack, who has now been in school for 5 years, which is just incredible. I can’t wait to go back and visit him again.

Are you more a sweet or savoury kind of guy?
Most definitely sweet. Just ask the cast/crew of Future Seekers. I show up to rehearsals with a different cake I’ve baked each time! Delicious but dangerous.

Sana’a Shaik

Eli Saad: When you’re not acting what are you doing?
Sana’a Shaik: The polar opposite! I work in funds management. The silver lining is that I get an endless supply of paper to print all my scripts!

What excites you about being part of the Future Seekers production?
Being able to explore multiple characters and different storylines all in one play. I’ve never been a part of anything like this script, its exciting. One minute I’m a Russian/English immigrant the next i’m a pregnant pubescent teen in Australia. It’s been challenging working my way through each individual character. Making each role separate from the last has been something the entire cast has worked very hard on. Also being able to work with my Beirut Adrenaline family again has been wonderful. Everyone in the production brings something special to the show.

If you could play any role, who would it be?
Princess Jasmine from Aladdin!

Which of your characters in Future Seekers is your favourite, and why?
Linda is probably my favourite. She’s been dealt some really unlucky cards but she never uses that as an excuse. She’s determined, ballsy and optimistic.

What is your favourite line/moment in the show?
Oh I have two! First is when Mr Brown (Eli Saad) has a semi-breakdown and needs to escape the theatre for some smokes. Second is the banter between Sally (Neveen Hana) and Marta (Me). Sally tries to explain to Marta it’ll be social suicide to not go into the company sweep!

Eli Saad and Sana’a Shaik can be seen in Future Seekers by Carol Dance.
Dates: 20 – 30 Apr, 2017
Venue: Sydney Philharmonia Choirs Hall

Review: The Popular Mechanicals (Wharf 2 Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 6 – May 13, 2017
Playwrights: Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare, Tony Taylor
Director: Sarah Giles
Cast: Lori Bell, Julie Forsyth, Charles Mayer, Amber McMahon, Tim Overton, Rory Walker
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When embarking upon an artistic project, possibilities could be endless, but there is almost always a view to an end result. At the theatre, a show is eventually performed for an audience, after a period of rehearsal and creative exploration. The Rude Mechanicals are a group of amateur actors from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, remembered for their comical incompetence. In The Popular Mechanicals, they take centre stage as we watch them go through the anxious, and absurd, process of preparing for their evening of entertainment for the royals. It is a work that puts focus on what happens before opening night, giving validation to all the thrills and spills that inevitably happen, while reaching for the penultimate goal. We often say that nothing is wrong in art, and The Popular Mechanicals certainly places all of its trust on that belief.

The silliness inherited from Shakespeare’s vision of the troupe is fully embraced, for a joyful show that owes a lot to clowning traditions (complete with rubber chickens). The cast goes through sequences that range from pointless and frightfully cheesy, to moments of genius hilarity that will prove unforgettable. It is all deeply amusing, even though its inconsistency can be trying. Appropriately effervescent in approach, six quirky performers take us from one ridiculous scene to another, with mischievous charm and surprising nuance. Rory Walker and Tim Overton are especially memorable, not only for the repellent bodily functions they gleefully demonstrate, but also for an unusual air of ethereality they bring to the stage.

It is natural to want to present our best sides, but nothing is more human than our foibles and blunders. The point of art is that it reflects humanity, yet we so often expect it to be perfect, when humanity is clearly anything but. In its celebration of imperfection, The Popular Mechanicals grants an opportunity for artistic expression that seems more authentic, as a representation of our experience of life, which is almost always stranger than fiction, but incontestably true.