Review: The Effect (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Apr 18 – May 19, 2018
Playwright: Lucy Prebble
Director: Andrew Henry
Cast: Emilie Cocquerel, Firass Dirani, Emma Jackson, Johnny Nasser
Image by John Marmaras

Theatre review
Connie and Tristan are participants in a medical trial involving antidepressants. Temporarily shut off from the world, they live inside a science facility with only each other for company, and very quickly develop a strong romantic connection. Lucy Prebble’s The Effect is interested in the chemical aspects of what we understand to be human nature, and the moral implications of drugs we design to alter our experience of life. It poses questions about what we consider to constitute authenticity in being human, and looks at the ways in which we place value on things we term natural and synthetic.

The play is ridden with anxiety, fuelled by the pervasive scepticism we have of pharmacology and the money around it, but a puerile disquiet is undeniably present, that relies on reductive ideas presupposing the natural to always be unquestionably better. The Effect features scene after scene of tense drama, which director Andrew Henry is certainly not averse to amplifying at every opportunity for maximum theatricality. Alexander Berlage’s lights are accordingly bold and intrepid, effective in delivering some memorably stark imagery. The show is often gripping, with an intensity that sustains our attention, but its arguments are not always persuasive. It arouses intrigue, without providing sufficient rationale for us to feel satisfied with the statements it attempts to make.

Actor Johnny Nasser brings valuable subtlety to the role of Toby, alternating between good and bad guy, for a sense of complexity that resonates with truth, in this discussion of mental health and modern medicine. Other players have a significantly more grandiose approach, that can restrict us from reaching a greater understanding of the text’s nuances. Their extravagant gestures make for an energetic performance, but our access to the psychology of characters is consequently limited. The Effect contains philosophy that matters to us all, although a more detailed conveyance of meanings would be necessary for the production to affect us deeper.

As we watch ourselves being challenged by medicine, unable to submit easily to the science, we see an obstinate belief in a state of purity, and are prompted to interrogate the validity of our trust in naive ideals associated with all things “natural”. It is also similarly evident that when individuals are called upon to put their lives in the hands of others, trust is an issue that can never be made completely unassailable. Underlying these thoughts are fears that reflect our need for self-preservation. We can doubtless see the insignificance of the human race in the widest scheme of things, but our indomitable hunger for control seems essential to how we think and act, even when we know the futility of our efforts.

Review: Get Her Outta Here (107)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Apr 19 – 21, 2018
Creator: Isabella Broccolini
Cast: Isabella Broccolini
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Isabella Broccolini is the lady in red, swathed in an uncompromising colour representative of all things fiery. We see a picture of obstinacy, a woman of dogged determination making single-minded statements about selfhood, and of identity in general. Her red suitcase never leaves her side, like a snail with her home attached, adding to the image of tenacity, but symbolising discontentment, in a performance piece that seems to talk a lot about the unexpected duality of perseverance and relocation.

Get Her Outta Here is wonderfully engrossing, fuelled by the inexorable presence of its creator. Broccolini’s physicality is confident and powerful, with an idiosyncratic style to its movement that has us captivated. Her body is untethered to the homogenising nature of dance training, but offers a clarity and strength to what it wishes to convey, as though disciplined in accordance with her own ideals.

The work is abstract, beautifully so, and audiences will interpret it how they wish. When art refuses to be obvious, it runs the risk of leaving us apathetic, but Broccolini’s enigmatic (and often very funny) approach is deeply alluring. We find ourselves opening up to her, allowing her obscure expressions to provoke and inspire. Music by Grace Huie Robbins moves the show through its various phases with excellent effect, creating shifts in dimensions that help enrich our imagination. Lights however, are under-explored and regretfully monotonous, for a production that is otherwise an aesthetic delight.

Broccolini’s speech is coy, but glimpses of honesty are revealed in her storytelling, to help our minds assemble a sense of truth for the red lady. Under the quirky and jokey, almost camp, deflecting exterior, lies a distinct rage, drenched in blood, perhaps too gory to expose unadorned. Get Her Outta Here is a woman’s fight with territory, even as she resists every place that she finds herself. Outsiders wish to be anywhere but here, and for us, the cliché is especially true, that it is the journey, and not the destination, that fulfils. Our project of reclaiming and redefining space, is not yet able to afford any room for complacency. For the time being at least, the red lady’s adventures with her red suitcase shall not cease. |

5 Questions with Stefanie Jones and Andrew Kroenert

Stefanie Jones

Andrew Kroenert: Who do you think should have a fictional lovechild?
Stefanie Jones: Of all our most loved and most famous cultural icons, a child between Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio (once they’d separated) would have been pretty cool. She would have made a great mother, and we know how much he loved her. On top of all that, what a gene pool! So all the right ingredients, I say.

If it were the last day of your life, how would you spend it?
Without a doubt, Brisbane. My parents created the most beautiful family home there for us to grow up in, with an outdoor terrace and a pool surrounded by palm trees to watch the sun go down over. Being able to sit there with a glass of wine in my hand, with my mother’s cooking on the table and surrounded by family and friends would be absolutely perfect.

If you could play any role of the opposite gender, what would it be?
The Emcee in Cabaret would be oodles of fun! He is confused, in some ways debased, yet he is intelligent and has that rare ability to turn tragedy into satire / comedy. Cabaret is a very smart, important and relevant story so any role in that show would be a dream and also a great way to continue talking about our political and social history.

Any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
No, although I wish I had a few to help with my nerves sometimes! Mainly I just like to not feel rushed, to have the time to check in with fellow cast mates and to get ready at a comfortable pace, unlike Andrew Kroenert.

If you could have written any pop song, what would it be?
‘Never Give Up On The Good Times’ by The Spice Girls. It just came to me, and I’m sold on this choice.

Andrew Kroenert

Who do you think should have a fictional lovechild?
Doesn’t everyone want Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to have a ridiculously funny, quirky (and most likely wonderfully camp) little boy? He would be absolute heaven.

If it was the last day of your life, how would you spend it?
Last day on earth I would probably host a BBQ at my house with all my family during the day, hang out with the nephews and have a few beers with my siblings and parents. Then I’d send them home and have a quiet evening with my partner, Jess. Maybe split a bottle of wine, play some cards listen to all my favourite music.

If you could play any role of the opposite gender, what would it be?
I think it would be super fun to play Cathy in The Last Five Years. It would be interesting to see how the themes and people’s feelings towards those characters would hold were they played by members of the opposite sex.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I don’t have any pre-show rituals but I’m never in costume before the 5 minute call, in fact I try to stay out of costume for as long as possible before a show starts! And I’ll always have a coffee before a show.

If you could acquire any one skill to add to the strings of your bow, what would it be?
I would like to be fluent in another language. Having just been to Mexico currently that language is Spanish although I have long wished to be fluent in French.

Stefanie Jones and Andrew Kroenert can be seen in Carmen, Live Or Dead , by Craig Harwood and iOTA.
Dates: 28 Apr – 6 May, 2018
Venue: Hayes Theatre

Review: Sex & Death (Blood Moon Theatre)

Venue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Apr 10 – 28, 2018

Something In The Basement
Playwright: Don Nigro
Director: Garreth Cruickshank
Cast: David Luke, Annette van Roden

It’s Time
Playwright: Garreth Cruickshank
Director: Garreth Cruickshank
Cast: Russell Cronin, Jack Douglas, Kitty Hopwood, Annette van Roden

Theatre review
Two short plays, both concerned with marriage, form a double bill entitled Sex & Death. The first, Something In The Basement by Don Nigro is ostensibly about the mystery of sex, and the second, It’s Time by Garreth Cruickshank, deals with family violence. They both point to some fundamental ideas about the traditional unity of two persons, perhaps questioning the validity of that ancient institution for our current times.

Something In The Basement is a comedic exploration of sex, using the basement of a couple’s home as allegory, for the strange workings of compatibility and the libido. Humour is obscure for the piece, and its performers never quite manage to make it a sufficiently funny show. The meanings, as represented by their relationship with each other and with their house, too are rarely satisfactorily conveyed, left abstract with scant resonance. The production’s naturalistic approach seems an inappropriate choice, exposing only the mundanity of married life, and little else besides.

It’s Time dwells on the harrowing experiences of a housewife from the 1950s, who receives regular beatings from her husband. We meet her later in life, but it is her recollections of her darkest days that she wishes to share. Mrs O’Brien tells all, as flashbacks are introduced, with regrettable inelegance as actors walk in and out of view for sequences that last mere seconds. Annette van Roden plays the role with great sensitivity and maturity, exhibiting exceptional strength as a woman put through the wringer, and who emerges victorious. We wish to see how she escapes abuse and grows stronger in the aftermath, but the play ends abruptly, allowing only her suffering to define this version of Mrs O’Brien.

The people in Sex & Death fail at marriage, but we see them work hard at salvaging things to fulfil their commitments. Marriage is full of promise. We are told that it is essential to a good life, although arguments are never more than tenuous. Tethering the self to another, through measures religious and legal, is a bizarre habit that continues to prove hard to break. We aim to understand ourselves through science, logic and facts, but it often appears that irrationality plays the biggest part in being human. There is no rhyme or reason for so much of what we do, and hence we are prone to repeat our foibles time and again. Marriage will never live up to the grandness of its pitch, but we will nonetheless keep buying in. It is romance, idealism and delusion, but we are only human.

Review: The Time Machine (Strange Duck Productions)

Venue: NIDA Parade Theatres (Kensington NSW), Apr 11 – May 2, 2018
Playwright: Frank Gauntlett (based on the novella by HG Wells)
Director: Gareth Boylan
Cast: Mark Lee
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
In the space of science fiction, our imagination of what is yet come, reveals less about the truths of the future, and more about the values and beliefs that we hold today. In Frank Gauntlett’s adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, an Englishman travels from Victorian times to the year 802,701 AD, where he encounters an evolutionary state of humankind, split into clear distinctions of species, good and bad.

Instead of luxuriating in the welcoming utopia that he stumbles upon, our protagonist pursues the evil creatures who had stolen his machine, and in the process interferes with the ecosystem that he discovers. There is also a romantic encounter, with the hero claiming a female character from the new world, as he tries to bring themselves back to the 19th century. The Time Machine is an action-packed one-man show that puts on display, the narcissistic self-aggrandising tendencies of men, who are persistent in figuring themselves as braver, more righteous, more long-suffering and under attack than anyone else in their fictional narratives.

The true hero is actor Mark Lee, whose energetic precision provides all the theatrical entertainment we require. He is a captivating presence, interminably persuasive with all that he serves up. A highly skilled performer, with an astonishing familiarity with the text, Lee is intense, inventive and tenacious in approach, leaving his audience impressed, even if the material he presents is less than inspiring. Director Gareth Boylan introduces a healthy quantity of visual variation to the show that helps draw our attention back, when we begin to lose interest in the monotonous narration of unwavering gallantry. Lights by Martin Kinnane are particularly useful in this regard. Michael Waters’ sound design too, works hard to facilitate our concentration.

It is a recurring theme in our stories, where we find ourselves in places belonging to others, then quickly and convincingly asserting our victimhood, before successfully overcoming the enemy. There is truth in saying that life requires us to move outside of ourselves, that the spirit of curiosity and discovery is essential to a meaningful existence, but the belief that “the world is your oyster” must be examined with greater sensitivity. Spaces are defined long before we enter them. Wherever we choose to venture, we must be mindful of how it is configured. If we decide to cause disruption, we must tread with utmost care and caution.

Review: Alison’s House (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Apr 4 – 21, 2018
Playwright: Susan Glaspell
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Matthew Bartlett, Veronica Clavijo, Penny Day, Dominique De Marco, Elliott Falzon, Nyssa Hamilton, David Jeffrey, Brendan Lorenzo, James Martin, Tasha O’Brien, Sarah Plummer
Images by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
Fewer than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime. Her body of work, comprising approximately 1,800 pieces, only saw the light of the day after her passing; she was female after all. In Susan Glaspell’s Alison’s House, Alison Stanhope is a surrogate for Dickinson, and we meet her family on the eve of the year 1900, 18 years after her death. The Stanhopes are moving house, but Alison’s presence is strong and a mystery around her posthumous success emerges. Although a Pulitzer Prize winner, the play feels every bit her 88 years of age. Central concerns about authorship and artistic legacy remain valid, but its dramatic structure is now gauche, with stodgy dialogue that many will find alienating.

Its first two acts are particularly inaccessible, and the cast’s divergent approaches make the show a difficult one to engage with. The third act however, is a fortunate change of pace, with the plot suddenly turning lively, when the crux of the matter is finally revealed and addressed. Actor Brendan Lorenzo is a delight in the role of Eben, with intense conviction and a buoyant energy that helps introduce a quotient of enthralment. The production is a faithful rendition of a dated script, with everything kept coloured inside the lines. It is an adventurous spirit that dares take on this forgotten play, but this execution of Alison’s House requires greater imagination to resurrect it from obscurity.

Our great writers write from personal perspectives, but what is put on paper may not always be intended for public consumption. Time however, has the capacity to change anything. What was once private, objectionable or simply unfinished, could transform, over the years, into something that serves a greater purpose. We must then consider what it is that we want to hold sacred, when tossing up between the private and the public, or the dead and the living. When ambiguities abound, coming to decisions is difficult, but it is the very quality of ambiguity that interrogates the deepest of our beliefs, and that shows us who we truly are.

Review: A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing (Brevity Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 6 – 21, 2018
Playwright: Eimear McBride (adapted for the stage by Annie Ryan)
Director: Erin Taylor
Cast: Ella Prince
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Our destinies are written long before our flesh is are conceived. The unnamed girl in the story was born into an underprivileged Irish family, of a conservative Catholic town where ancient rules are upheld without question or suspicion. Women are allocated their place, but men occupy everything, including the female body. In Eimear McBride’s novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, violations take the form of rape, physical but also mental, emotional and spiritual. The entirety of the girl’s adolescence is characterised by the abusive imposition of all surrounding characters, determined to prevent any sense of individual agency from developing. She is deemed an object, an empty vessel with which society can do whatever it wishes.

It is a problematic adaptation by Annie Ryan who retains the “stream of consciousness” form of McBride’s book. One actor is designated to play not only the girl, but also every significant personality of her microcosm. Conversations are brief and unanticipated, often leaving us confused about the identities of people being portrayed, although we might as well think of them all as one uniform perpetrator, considering the analogous way in which our protagonist is being defiled. Actor Ella Prince is unable to provide clarity in terms of detail from the difficult text, but her capacity for authenticity and focus are certainly impressive. It is an extremely powerful presence that she brings to the show, and the gravity of the play’s concerns are never compromised under Prince’s depictions. The traverse stage proves challenging, requiring half of the show to be performed with her back to the audience, which proves unsatisfactory for a production that relies so heavily on its star’s facial expressions.

There is however, very fine design work being accomplished here. Isabel Hudson’s sophisticated set makes for a morbid but dramatic evocation of ideas around burial and death. Lights by Veronique Bennett are surprisingly dynamic, whilst administering a relentless austerity that is crucial to the play’s very specific tone. Chilling sounds created by Clemmie Williams ensure that we never deviate from the mournful devastation being analysed.

The girl is defiant, aggressively so, but she holds no power. We watch as she is put through a progression of torment, wondering if a person like this could ever grow into something whole. In places where freedom exists, we can imagine individuals flourishing, beyond the bounds of inevitable social restrictions. We want to believe that each human bears potential that is unique and good, and opportunities are available where against all odds, people can create the best out of their embryonic selves. This may or may not be true, but where there is no freedom, the only certainty is the unremitted spawning of deformed lives.