Review: The Dog, The Night And The Knife (The Other Theatre)

Playwright: Marius von Mayenburg (translated by Maja Zade)
Director: Eugene Lynch
Cast: Thomas G Burt, Tom Crotty, Samantha Lambert
Images by Shayan Askari

Theatre review
It is always 5:05 o’clock, in Marius von Mayenburg’s nightmarish The Dog, The Night And The Knife. A man is trapped inside a surreal landscape, encountering strange people who all seem to have nefarious intentions, it seems, of wanting to eat him up. The anxiety-riddled work takes us on a bizarre trip, into a space that feels like the semiconscious, where reality exists only in states of compromise. Paranoia is about things that hide beneath the surface, and in von Mayenburg’s play, things are certainly never quite what they seem.

Actor Tom Crotty demonstrates good focus as the protagonist, full of mental concentration, but lacking in physical agility. The production is staid, probably overly serious in its interpretation of von Mayenburg’s writing. Director Eugene Lynch is able to create a sense of macabre for the piece, but the show proves less funny than it could be.

In a variety of roles are Thomas G Burt and Samantha Lambert, both performers introducing an enjoyable theatricality with the ghostly quality they bring to their characters. Burt is particularly delightful with the dynamism he is able to bring to the stage. Also noteworthy is music composer Kailesh Reitmans, who delivers clever atmospheric enhancements for the production, especially effective with the suspense he is able to convey.

There is no denying that art can help deal with psychological and emotional baggage of which no one is excepted. At the theatre, whether we come in contact with cannibals or with the average Joe, there is always opportunity to know ourselves better, and in that process, find a more expansive view of existence that will keep our disquiet in check. In The Dog, The Night And The Knife, von Mayenburg comes to terms with the idea that people are not always kind to one another. It might be a pessimistic realisation, but an acceptance of reality is always a necessary start, before attaining greater epiphanies.

www.facebook.com/theothertheatre

Review: Leopardskin (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 26 – Apr 6, 2019
Playwright: Michael McStay
Director: Samantha Young
Cast: Nick Gell, Travis Jeffery, Zoe Jensen, Emma Kew, Guy O’Grady, Ella Watson-Russell
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Luka and Val are petty thieves trying to make the big leagues. They hear of an Italian billionaire philanthropist giving away his priceless antique clock, and make a beeline for an opportunity to nab the prize. Michael McStay’s play is a farce in the classic vein, reminiscent of Molière, Fo and Brecht, complete with bumbling cops, mixed identities and love triangles. Witty and wild, extremely quirky and downright silly, the work is almost astonishing in its ability to steer clear of anything that could be classed deep and meaningful. Amusement is of course, one of the main reasons we go to the theatre, and Leopardskin delivers it in spades.

Samantha Young directs a wonderfully flamboyant show, very loud and very mad, quite the counter-cultural statement in what feels to be a terribly conservative milieu. With just enough attention placed on making sense of the frankly perfunctory narrative, Young puts her energy into making every second count, so that the audience’s synapses are firing, all of us tickled and fascinated, from beginning to end. When not laughing out loud, we find ourselves grinning from ear to ear, in deep enjoyment of this peculiar beast of an unapologetic, outlandish comedy.

Six very excitable performers can be seen luxuriating on stage, in full throttle madcap mode. Luka is played by Guy O’Grady, sarcastic in his unexpectedly pompous rendition of the small-time crook. Zoe Jensen is vibrant as Val, the rookie pickpocket who defies underestimation. The idiosyncratic tycoon Giuseppe Monterverdi is made an effervescent joy by Travis Jeffery, who brings surprising texture to his performance. Nick Gell takes all four of his characters to high camp territory, unforgettably gregarious with his vaudeville style. Also very effective in multiple roles is Emma Kew, whose timing is surpassed only by her effortless comedic presence. Senator Olive Darling is depicted with precision and a lot of exaggeration, by Ella Watson-Russell who contributes to the exceptional mischievousness of the production.

In accordance with its title, the show features costume pieces in all manner of leopard spots, that perennial symbol of bad taste in Anglo-Saxon societies. Indeed, in Leopardskin‘s embrace of all things brash and obnoxious, we encounter an anti-conformist aesthetic that tells so much about what constitutes normal and respectable, in our art and in our lives. When we scrutinise each other, to police an idea of tastefulness in the way we look and behave, we reveal a set of values determined to separate people into classes. When we dare to disrupt those codes, bad traditions can begin to be dispelled, and more than that, a shitload of fun will be had.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com

Review: The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 22 – Apr 27, 2019
Playwright: Melanie Tait
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Valerie Bader, Merridy Eastman, Sapidah Kian, Amber McMahon, Sharon Millerchip
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Like many of our little country towns, the fictional Appleton struggles with the idea that women should be able to enjoy the same privileges as men. They fool themselves into thinking that the genders simply belong in different domains, rather than admitting that people are being unjustly deprived of spaces and experiences. Worse, they habitually overlook power imbalances, allowing inequalities to exist, under the guise of having to keep the peace. In Melanie Tait’s The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, Penny moves home from the city, to a township busying itself with having to gear up for show day. When she discovers that the day’s highlight, the potato race (involving people running with sacks of potatoes on their backs) awards the winner in the women’s category only $200, or $800 less than the men’s, she decides to take action.

It is not an easy task of course, to find backing for her cause, in this conservative community where it can feel as though tradition is all they have. As is crucial in any feminist story, persistence is the key, and in Tait’s play, that persistence is embodied by a mild-mannered protagonist, who instead of going into her project all guns blazing and feisty, takes it upon herself to do all the hard work with inconceivable politeness. Her only true ally is a Syrian sidekick, Rania, who provides moral support, and little else besides. Penny is a GP, and Rania an unemployed refugee; they both wish to affect the same change, but Australian currency clearly has its biases. Nevertheless, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is funny, passionate and rousing, an uplifting romp that many will find irresistibly delightful.

Director Priscilla Jackman imbues the show with extraordinary warmth. A palpable sentimentality colours this sojourn into mystical rural Australia, where people with good hearts never fail to charm our pants off, even if they are a little ignorant. Jackman’s representation of modern sisterhood is edifying, thoughtfully nuanced in all the complexities it is able to convey in regards the always painful job of galvanising people against the patriarchy. Actor Sharon Millerchip leads the charge as Dr Penny Anderson, perhaps a trifle too sweet in approach, but a persuasive presence who disallows us from ever questioning her intentions.

Rania is played by an understated Sapidah Kian, who introduces a distinct quotient of realism to the otherwise stridently fairy-tale quality of the production. Excellent narrative tension is created by Valerie Bader, august and compelling as Bev, a marvellous boss about town, unofficially in charge of everything. Splendid humour is brought by Merridy Eastman and Amber McMahon, both fabulously imaginative, and faultless with their comic timing. It is an impressively well-rehearsed presentation, featuring five actors in a cohesive and joyful collaboration that perfectly illustrates the point of the whole exercise.

The men carry 50kg sacks but the women carry 20kg. In real life, men do carry heavier loads than women in some places, and the reverse is also true. We hear of young men killing themselves in the bush, but rarely connect these dots. There is no need for any of our burdens to be allocated unevenly. In The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, women are fighting not only for equal prize money, but also for the opportunity to let every person have equal footing in their society. The consequences to disadvantage are obvious, but in our neo-liberal world, we neglect to recognise the problems that arise within loci that are concentrated with power. If we can orchestrate a dispersion of power, money, privilege and advantage, hardship at the bottom and at the top, must surely begin to evaporate. If this sounds an unconvincing argument, we can understand why arms have to be twisted in order to make things better.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Fierce (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 20 – Apr 13, 2019
Playwright: Jane E.Thompson
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Lauren Richardson, Zelman Cressey-Gladwin, Stacey Duckworth, Martin Jacobs, Chantelle Jamieson, Felix Johnson, Andrew Shaw
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Suzie Flack is the first woman to play Australian Rules football in a professional men’s team. This is of course, a fictional premise that Jane E. Thompson uses to construct her play, Fierce. Our trailblazing protagonist may have broken through the glass ceiling, but her challenges do not end at that point of disruption. The weight of having to single-handedly redefine an entire industry, sits on her shoulders. This is a story about women who have had to walk into men’s spaces all alone, against all odds, to overcome unjust systems of exclusion. Thompson’s writing is passionately feminist, and although ultimately a predictable narrative, its magnanimous spirit proves affecting.

Directed by Janine Watson, the production is often powerful, and memorable for creative risks that help elevate its overall sense of artistry. Music by Ben Pierpoint contributes vigour at key moments, crucial in helping us identify the high stakes that Suzie’s experiences represent. Kelsey Lee’s lighting design has a dynamism that works well at conveying a turbulent volatility for the storytelling, and Melanie Liertz’s set and costumes offer just enough visual stimulation, to keep us attentive to both surface and deeper implications of Fierce.

Actor Lauren Richardson’s scorching intensity ensures that the play’s social pertinence is never neglected. Her display of vulnerability can at times seem excessive for a personality who has to remain unyielding with her strength and resilience, but it is a captivating performance that puts the audience firmly on her side. The ensemble cast is uniformly wonderful, every actor full of sincere conviction. In the role of Melanie is Chantelle Jamieson, who offers a deeply fascinating portrayal of a football WAG struggling to find happiness, beyond the obvious perks of her unsubstantial job title. Never able to make explicit her desires, we observe her desperation in various states of physical manifestation, which Jamieson renders with impressive power and accuracy. Felix Johnson too is memorable as Nate, the escort who shares more than sexual intimacy with Suzie, in a performance that is as convincing as it is moving.

It is a daunting prospect for minorities, to have to infiltrate and operate from the inside of old structures, with little or no peer support, to change things one step at a time. Fierce is ahead of its time in daring to imagine a sportswoman competing neck to neck with elite men in the business, but it is timely in giving us much needed illumination to prohibitions that have been hiding in plain sight. We seem to be at a new breaking point in the evolution towards a more equitable society, especially in terms of gender and race. There are incredible leaders fighting everyday at what feels to be the final frontier, and we must all learn to back them, and lean in the right way.

www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: The Realistic Joneses (Patina Productions)

Venue: Limelight on Oxford (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 13 -30, 2019
Playwright: Will Eno
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Jeff Houston, Suzann James, David Jeffrey, Jodine Muir
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
There are two straight couples living across the street from each other, both named Jones. In The Realistic Joneses, characters go about their average mundane small town lives, but there is something distinctly strange about the way they talk. Playwright Will Eno’s dialogue feels like high art, bizarre yet completely believable, for a way of excavating truths about the human condition, that only the medium of performance can deliver. Resolutely quirky, The Realistic Joneses brings upheaval to concepts of normalcy that inform Western life. The Joneses speak what they are supposed to, but also what they are not. They portray the ordinary in a manner that creates turbulence, making us laugh because we understand all the arbitrariness of rules that fundamentally govern the politeness of society.

Actor David Jeffrey finds the right pitch for conveying the play’s humour, deadpan but deliberate in an interpretation of John that almost makes him seem an alien pretending to be human. There is no doubt that we can all relate to this sense of displacement, of being awkward in social situations. Director Julie Baz’s understated approach is surprisingly effective in depicting the comedy inherent in our daily lives, but an emphasis on naturalism can sometimes take away from Eno’s heightened style. The very subdued closing scenes abandon the laughs, in search of poignancy, which sadly never quite materialises.

It is a splendid title, that reveals so much about how we present our selves to the world. We aim to be realistic, of appearing to look real, probably because actually being real is not something our collective existence is able to cope with. Those who truly speak their minds are ostracised, maybe even cast as insane, so we learn where the limits are, and negotiate within those rigid borders. There is always something false in how we communicate, especially when in groups. The answer is not to withdraw and hide in arrogant isolation, but to question all that is shown to us. Cynicism, one would argue, is necessary in one’s participation in the world. The real challenge is making that cynicism sit side by side, with an earnestness we must never give up, in our involvement with this world.

www.limelightonoxford.com.au

Review: Once In Royal David’s City (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 19 – Apr 13, 2019
Playwright: Michael Gow
Director: Patrick Howard
Cast: Alana Birtles, Ben Brighton, Amy Victoria Brooks, Sandra Campbell, Nathalie Fenwick, Nicholas Foustellis, Angela Johnston, Alice Livingstone,
Aimee Lodge, Francisco Lopez, Martin Portus, Bryden White-Tuohey
Images by Bob Seary

Theatre review
Will is on the verge of beginning a new job, just as his mother coincidentally lays dying in hospital. It is a new life that beckons, and with all the emotions that should feel overwhelming, Will retreats into a lot of academia, as is typical of theatre directors and educationalists. He spends his time thinking about Marx and Brecht, dealing with ideas of resource ownership and distanciation; not quite preparing for the period of mourning that is sure to come. Michael Gow’s Once In Royal David’s City is a piece of writing perhaps not entirely interested in coherence, allowing itself to move in various directions, almost defying our need to condense its contents into a more conventional narrative form.

Patrick Howard’s direction reveals with honesty, the often contradictory states of being human. Will never quite behaves the way we expect him to, yet there is nothing unbelievable about how he goes about his business. There are some hallmarks of Brechtian theatre in the presentation, although those expressions can seem perfunctory. It is a handsome looking show, put together with excellent taste by production and lighting designer Victor Kalka, and costume associate Luciana Nguyen. Their minimalist style suits the bluntness of Gow’s writing, unpretentious but elegant.

Actor Francisco Lopez brings an unassuming geniality to the lead role, effective in monologues that allow him to directly address the audience, but too mellow in contrast with scene partners. More compelling performances come from the likes of Sandra Campbell, whose commanding presence in several small parts proves refreshing. Amy Victoria Brooks too, is memorable as Gail, an anguished soul roaming the hospital, in search of connection and consolation. Will’s mother Jeannie is played by Alice Livingstone, ironically lively, able to bring verve to a character that is otherwise written with little originality.

To love books is in some ways better than loving people. Books can be crafted to perfection, and we as readers can hold dear, words and ideas that we deem to be impeccably arranged. To love humans however, is quite another thing. Not only are we deeply flawed, we are transient, destined to break hearts wherever bonds are created. Death and impermanence, however are the ultimate provocation, intensifying all the sensations that define love. The heart wants what the heart wants. Mortal or immortal, it is hardly up to us to choose for whom we fall.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams

Zach Selmes

Caitlin Williams: We might as well start out with the most obvious question – what’s your kink?
Zach Selmes: Such a Vanda question! Would it be such an actor thing of me to say “role-playing”?

You play two characters in this, the playwright Thomas and his character Kushemski. What drew you to these roles?
The greatest thing about acting is being given the opportunity to explore such a variety of characters, of lifestyles you’ll never lead, and play within that world for a while – a gentleman in the Austro-Hungarian empire, for example. I love this industry and if a show is meta, I’m interested! As an aspiring director, Thomas is an excellent example of the traps a creative with privilege can fall into if they aren’t thoughtful of their subject matter or choose to regard their colleagues as little more than puppets to do their bidding. He’s a great case-study on how NOT to negotiate with your actors.

You come from a musical theatre background, how does it feel working on straight theatre?
Two people alone onstage for ninety minutes is definitely a jump in the deep end. After majoring in musical theatre at uni, I played a lot of comedy roles in what were largely ensemble shows. More recently, I was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night but played the fool and musician in both and always had a joke or instrument to charm the audience onto my side. ‘Venus in Fur’ is the first show I’ve done without a single song and, while Thomas gets in some dry zingers, he is far from comic relief. It’s a refreshing learning experience to be playing the antagonistic straight man.

What do you think this play has to say about the complexity of power in relationships?
It certainly subverts the idea that power comes down to physical dominance. Indeed, while it explores the erotic side of power, the play is far more driven by the psychological nature of Thomas and Vanda’s relationship. From the moment Vanda storms the stage, Thomas has to fight to maintain his directorial power and as soon as you think you have a handle on the power struggle within his play, it becomes apparent that any power Vanda has is a result of Kushemski’s manipulation of her… until she manipulates Thomas right back and the lines between the plays blur! It’s a constant tug of war and the longer it goes on, the more gloriously frustrated everyone becomes.

With the #MeToo movement all over the media, how do you feel this play is relevant to the current moment, particularly surrounding the treatment of actors?
I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of some overwhelmingly conscientious casts, but I’ve only fairly recently been delving into plays. While I could only reference media reports with regard to straight theatre, I can say first hand that being a young man on the musical theatre side of the fence means a lot of unsolicited attention – typically from male creatives or networking figures – in situations where it is difficult for a performer to refuse the advances for fear of losing current or future work. As we see with #MeToo, it’s an industry-wide problem because of the unique ways our work environment relies on trust. Every show that I’ve worked on has had a co-ed dressing room (often closer in size to a closet) where you have to trust that your colleagues are being respectful of your privacy. Onstage, you become more intimate with people in ways you normally wouldn’t and have to trust that their focus is on what’s best for the scene and show, and not something more sinister. The industry and its workers are vulnerable to that trust being taken advantage of or broken which is why it’s incredibly important to be constantly aware of your other actors and their wellbeing. Having support systems in place like cast reps and being a part of your actor’s union (MEAA) gives power back to the majority of the industry who just want to be able to work and create safely.

Caitlin Williams

Zach Selmes: You’ve been involved in a lot of shows recently, what’s special about Venus In Fur?
Caitlin Williams: What’s special to me about Venus In Fur, is that it lets me play a role I rarely get to play — the young, sexy, confident, take-no-prisoners Vanda. I can’t tell you how many times in the last two years I’ve played an older role or a male character rewritten as a woman, so it’s nice to finally get back to playing someone age appropriate who’s so much fun.

As an emerging female creative working both onstage and behind the scenes, how relevant do you find this play to the theatre scene in Sydney?
I think what this play shows is that the audition room is such a fascinating, terrifying thing, where the power imbalance is profound and can, as we’ve seen in the international and Sydney theatre scene, be easily exploited. What Thomas expects out of Vanda is a level of perfection that’s impossible for any woman to reach, and I think that standard of perfection is still subconsciously expected of emerging female artists.

Performing a two-person text isn’t easy, especially when that text involves a play within a play. Is there a craft to bouncing back and forth between character mid-scene? Mid-sentence even?
For these roles I’ve been finding lot of the character changes come from my voice and accents. Vanda Jordan has your typical American accent, while Vanda Von Dunayev has this much more regal, old-school transatlantic accent. I’ve found that once I’ve gotten the accent switches down then I can bring in that characterisation and physicality that comes along with each change.

Were you always a theatre kid, or was there a specific moment that converted you?
I think it was a high school production of A Midsummer Nights Dream, where I went in determined to play Helena. I’d never spoken a word of Shakespeare out loud before but I went in, auditioned, and got the part. Being part of a cast, getting to explore a character and have fun on stage in a safe environment, really kicked off a love of theatre in me.

As your character Vanda so eloquently describes Venus In Fur “basically it’s S&M Porn”. What would you say to any hesitant theatre-goers who worry the show might lack depth?
This is a play that’s fun, sexy, and hilarious. But it also tackles issues that the entertainment industry has really had to come to terms with in the form of #MeToo. This play is about female empowerment and the complexities of power in relationships.

Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams can be seen in Venus In Fur by David Ives.
Dates: 10 – 13 Apr, 2019
Venue: 107, Redfern