Review: American Beauty Shop (Some Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 25 – Sep 16, 2017
Playwright: Dana Lynn Formby
Director: Anna McGrath
Cast: Charmaine Bingwa, Caitlin Burley, Amanda Stephens Lee, Jill McKay, Janine Watson
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The times might be a-changin’, but the American Dream goes on strong. Sue is a hairdresser who runs a small business in the town of Cortez in Colorado, and although she lives hand to mouth, her dreams of escaping poverty never fade. Dana Lynn Formby’s American Beauty Shop is about an underclass of the USA, that believes in hard work as deliverance. They may or may not understand the systematic oppression that they suffer under, but they focus only on labour and enterprise, without any attention placed on political action. Sue accepts her place in society, and plays by the rules, thinking that a commitment to drudgery is her only way out.

Amanda Stephens Lee is an affable presence as Sue. We understand her struggles, and wish the best for her, but let down by lacklustre direction, the women’s stories in American Beauty Shop fail to move us. The production feels under-rehearsed, and although most of the cast is able to demonstrate a good grasp of their individual roles, we are kept waiting for sparks that never fly. The stakes are high for the characters, but dramatic tension is sorely missing from this stage. Conflict and altercations are rarely convincing, as though we sense that all will be good in the end. It is a false sense of security, and the desperation of the Cortez poor, remains an abstract, and distant, concept.

The system is broken, but it was always designed to fail the vast majority. It is an illusion that all who have wealth are deserving of it, implying that those without, are wholly responsible for their own misfortune. The women in American Beauty Shop have ambition and the appropriate fortitude to push for better days, but the cards are stacked firmly against them. They know only to participate in a game that gives them miserably poor odds, and as we watch their fates unfold, it is the lack of fairness in our increasingly capitalist worlds that must leave an impression.

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Review: Rossum’s Universal Robots (What Fresh Hell Theatre)

Venue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Aug 30 – Sep 2, 2017
Playwright: Karel Čapek
Director: Ariella Stoian
Cast: Peter David Allison, Abigail Honey, Francisco Lopez, Misha Mehigan, Michael Mulvenna, Blake O’Brien, Ciaran O’Riordan, Alex Radovan, Meg Shooter, Emily Trueman,

Theatre review
The play is almost a hundred years old, but the action is set in a distant future. Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots was a work of science fiction from 1920, credited to have introduced the word “robot”to the English language. It is that old chestnut about us versus technology, a narrative that relies on our often irrational fear about the human race being destroyed by artificial intelligence. Innovative a century ago, Čapek’s writing is now dreadfully naive, with outmoded arguments that fail to present as legitimate concerns.

The production is earnest, but more than a little rough around the edges. Its drama never manages to engage, and we never know if its comedy is intentional. Performance styles are incongruent, with each actor doing the best to their individual ability, resulting in a confused composite that amounts to a fair bit of tedium.

In a world that continues to struggle with overpopulation, anxiety about human babies no longer being born in Rossum’s Universal Robots is laughable. It does however, draw attention to our narcissism, and our arrogant attitude and belief that we rule this earth. We think that we own everything, that we are a sort of master race that has the unassailable right to occupation and sovereignty. Čapek imagined catastrophes of his future, but he never foresaw the simple idea, that it is not technology that will eventually bring us to our knees, but nature itself, who will prove to be bigger than us, while we languish in feign surprise, of its might and authority.

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Review: An Alternative Fact (Woolf Ensemble)

Venue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Aug 29, 2017
Playwrights: Sam Anderson, David Margulies, Lucy Prebble, John Patrick Shanley, Frederik Stroppel, Liam Williams, John J Wooten
Directors: Meg Alexandra, Christine Greenough, Georgina Holt, Valentin Lang, Lauren Lloyd-Williams, Izzy Stevens
Cast: Sam Anderson, Megan Bennets, Isabel Dickson, Karli Evans, Thomas Filer, Christine Greenough, Haydan Hawkins, Lara Lightfoot, Amanda Marsden, Jamie Meyer-Williams, Claire Oehme, Jessica Saras, Johann Silva
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Seven short pieces, including one-act plays and select scenes from longer works, are presented in a series named An Alternative Fact. Featuring white lies, half lies, and complete falsifications, the production is a simple one, barely disguising its singular intention of providing a showcase for actors. The stories are not always well told, but we can certainly see all the work that is put into acting. David Mamet once wrote audaciously, that theatre requires only actors and no directors, but in An Alternative Fact, it is clear that for an audience to be involved in ideas, we need to be provided something that is over-and-above the witnessing of actors in labour over their craft.

Much of the production is raw, feeling almost impromptu in its approach, but there is no shortage of conviction on this stage. The players try to convince us, of their skill and talent, and of the material they have taken responsibility for. Truth is the nature of this beast, not just with its thematic concern, but as an exercise that draws attention so closely to the art of acting, we watch to see if each of the cast is able to be impervious, with that integral quality of honesty in their portrayals.

As Tristan in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, Thomas Filer is a rigorous, persuasive presence. Simultaneously theatrical and natural, it is a captivating performance that allows us to perceive the levels of reality that could be manufactured for an audience. Most memorable of the night however, is Sam Anderson in an extract of his own one man show, Bi-Cycle. Polished yet intuitive, and thoroughly nuanced, it is the only segment that has us invest in its narrative. The piece is playful but earnest, finely calibrated to utilise Anderson’s charisma, to win us over.

It is all make believe, but theatre means little without authenticity. There is no guaranteed avenue to achieving that all-important resonance with an audience on every venture, but time will aid that process. Art is about experimentation, repetition and refinement. Artists need to hone their craft, and those who work on the stage, will have to go through the experience of a spectacular failure in full public view, every once in a while. Those who can bear it, will return for more, and those unable to endure that lack of security, will move on to pursuits that offer greater certainty, in fields less artistic.

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Review: The Father (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 19 – Oct 21, 2017
Playwright: Florian Zeller (translated by Christopher Hampton)
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Faustina Agolley, John Bell, Marco Chiappi, Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Natasha Herbert
Image by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
André is getting on in years. He remains in good physical condition, but his mind is failing. The protagonist’s disintegrating memory in Florian Zeller’s The Father brings us through a narrative that vacillates in its reliability. We are constantly disoriented, like its subject, confused by the incoherence of people, place and time. Without any dependable means to decipher and interact with the world, André struggles to maintain a cogent sense of self; if the external cannot be appropriately explained, so too will the internal begin to lose meaning.

Zeller’s depiction of that mental decline, in its theatrical form, offers a valuable opportunity for the condition to be better understood. What could only be an abstract concept, that hitherto relied only on our emphatic imagination, becomes a much more powerful appreciation of an unfortunate state of being. Damien Ryan’s direction makes us feel as though we experience it firsthand. The 90-minute play however, has little new to say besides. After early scenes of quite thrilling revelations, things get old quickly. The show dissolves into predictability and repetitiveness, and when we arrive at what should be an emotional zenith, a surprising placidity is encountered instead.

The roles are performed well, each one lucid and believable. John Bell’s star quality keeps us firmly engaged with André’s plight. It is a robust portrayal, with an emphasis on the character’s dignity at a time of hardship, although a greater sense of vulnerability would make for more poignant drama. Daughter Anne, is played with an admirable realism by Anita Hegh, but the writing seems to restrict the actor to a slightly monotonous interpretation of her role. In the absence of a congruous timeline, characters are prevented from developing very dynamically. They appear in fragments, and the players are accordingly concise.

The production is simple and elegant, with Alicia Clements’ set design placing us confidently, in an upper class existence, where carers and nursing homes are matters of remorse rather than cost. André and Anne have the financial means to ease the pain of fading health, so we are protected from real catastrophe in The Father. Age and death however, will come to all, and as we watch a good man deteriorate, it should only be with resignation and acquiescence that we regard the closing scene, yet we resist, instinctively rejecting the truth of our mortality.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Lip Service (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 17 – Sep 30, 2017
Playwright: John Misto
Director: Nicole Buffoni
Cast: Tim Draxl, Amanda Muggleton, Linden Wilkinson
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Helena Rubinstein founded one of the world’s first cosmetics companies, whilst living in Australia early last century. Subsequently establishing herself as a businesswoman of international fame and fortune, we meet her later in life, in John Misto’s Lip Service, picking up from when she meets Patrick O’Higgins, who becomes her personal assistant, friend and surrogate son. Rubinstein’s extraordinarily flamboyant personality and a concomitant acerbity is the centrepiece of the play. Misto appropriately eschews sentimentality in this biography of a very hard woman, crafting instead lines of dialogue that are relentless, and exquisite, in their bitchiness, for a show that proves itself tremendously funny by any standard.

It is a story of unbridled ambition and searing ruthlessness. Misto uses Rubinstein’s rivalries with Elizabeth Arden and Charles Revson (of Revlon fame) to reveal a woman of remarkable intelligence and fortitude, along with unmistakable flaws, creating for our heroine, a magnificent aura of mythical proportions. It is possible that direction and design elements of the production could deliver something more elaborate, but Misto’s script is strong enough to hold its own, especially with a leading lady of dazzling charm at its helm.

Amanda Muggleton plays Rubinstein with a great deal of diligence. Her approach is considered and precise, so that every hilarious quip hits its mark, but there is also a definite soulfulness in her portrayal that has us endeared throughout. Opening night is not quite flawlessly polished, but we go away impressed by both Muggleton and Rubinstein, wishing to be entertained further, even after 2-and-a-half hours of incessant laughter. Also memorable are supporting actors, Tim Draxl as O’Higgins and Linden Wilkinson as Arden, both with comic ability and remarkable presences that ensure our satisfaction.

To reach such heights of commercial success, sacrifices must be made. Some might say that Helena Rubinstein goes to her grave not knowing true happiness, but it is undeniable that her accomplishments are greater than most could even imagine. In Lip Service, we watch her give a poorly received speech at a college, about work being the only real salvation. Mere mortals might be able to experience love and other simple joys, and it is regrettable that those pleasures had eluded Rubinstein, but what she was able to achieve as a Jewish woman in the twentieth century was exceptional, and the enduring legacy she leaves behind is a phenomenon that far exceeds any reasonable criterion. Few would dare follow her path, but the inspiration one can draw from it, is inexhaustible and divine.

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Review: I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son Of A Bitch (Théâtre Excentrique)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 22 – Sep 2 2017
Playwright: Rodrigo Garcia (translated by William Gregory)
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Gerry Sont, Sister Ursuline
Image by Emma Lois

Theatre review
It is unlikely that one should lose sleep to something sacred. We worry about money, work, and all other things that feed the ego, but art and philosophy tend not to keep us awake at night. In fact, they can be relied on to offer the comfort that lulls us into slumber. Rodrigo Garcia’s 50-minute monologue I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son Of A Bitch, is about a middle-aged man resisting the profanities of daily life that can so easily overwhelm our existence.

His two young sons, dreaming about visiting Disneyland, are the inspiration for his attempts at shifting focus onto a higher plane of consciousness. The importance of art and philosophy is all he wants to impart, and he stakes his entire life’s savings of 5,000 Euro on the exercise. Indeed, to be able to gift the best to your dearest, is worth every penny, even if all one gets in return is intangible.

The work is hugely passionate, almost hysterical in its desire to expound its anti-capitalistic ideals. Rarely overtly political, it talks little about what it rejects, choosing instead to delve fervently into its earnest and fantastical explorations, involving in part, the Prado Museum and a long cab ride. Director Anna Jahjah creates a sense of urgency appropriate to the writing, along with a whimsical optimism that helps open us up to the play’s intellectual provocations. Gerry Sont is effervescent as actor of the piece, a warm, likeable presence although not quite humorous enough for what is required. Live music by Sister Ursuline (cello and vocals) provides a romantic dimension, to the discussion of sacred versus banal, art against commerce.

The staging encompasses both the earthy and the ethereal. In being human, we are of the mundane, but also inseparable from the many greater realms that our minds allow. Social forces will insist on our compliance with regards all things pragmatic. Rules, regulations and bills will attempt to shape our lives in a certain way, but our spirit cannot be contained. As long as we understand that the capacity for imagination is real, then what we become, is beyond repression.

www.theatrexcentrique.com

Review: 4:48 Psychosis (Workhorse Theatre Company)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 16 – Sep 9, 2017
Playwright: Sarah Kane
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Ella Prince, Lucy Heffernan, Zoe Trilsbach
Image by Andre Vasquez

Theatre review
A large mirror forms the backdrop, and for much of the show, we watch the actors through their reflections. It is a peculiar sensation, to look into the mirror over a prolonged period and not be familiar with the person therein. In Sarah Kane’s world of mental illness, 4:48 Psychosis is often incoherent, but undeniably truthful. The characters speak, not always for the purpose of communication with an external presence, but to achieve a kind of sentience, or to find a way for things to make subjective sense.

Charged with emotion and an abundance of hopeless desperation, it is the rock-bottom of a dark existence that we encounter, a place where we are able to think of death as salvation. The work is difficult because of the deeply fragile omnipresence of a person’s impending suicide. Director Anthony Skuse is right to steer the show away from any sense of sensationalism or pleasure, so that we remain in the regretful bleakness of a fellow human being’s agony.

There is little that should be enjoyable of the work, but we discover that annihilation is seductive, and that poetry is beautiful, even (or especially) when tortured. It is a polished production, sensual and intense, with memorable design work by an excellent team of creatives. Benjamin Freeman’s music is heard for the entire duration, striking in its exacting sensitivity.

A cast of three women present an extraordinary study of a diseased mind. Thoroughly complex and remarkably focused, what they bring to the stage is replete with authenticity, but also unabashedly dramatic. The extremely well-rehearsed group, Ella Prince, Lucy Heffernan and Zoe Trilsbach are individually captivating, whilst maintaining an impressive cohesiveness that secures our attention, come hell or high water. We may not understand much of what they have to go through, but they are nonetheless demanding, of our concentration, our validation, our empathy.

Public discourse requires that we talk of suicide as fundamentally unacceptable. Forbidden by law and religion, the thing that is most unequivocally owned by the self, is one’s life, yet the decision to end it, is thought of as repugnant. In our refusal to condone suicide, we declare human life to be sacred. It is a social contract, that all must be given care. As Sarah Kane asks repeatedly in the play, “what do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?” the question becomes increasingly irrelevant. For any person to be given support, a currency of exchange is not needed. By the same token however, one can think of being, as essentially personal, and no debt will be owed, when extinguished.

www.workhorsetheatreco.com