Review: Haunted (Spark Youth Theatre)

Venue: Petersham Town Hall (Petersham NSW), Oct 29 – Nov 8, 2019
Concept: Felicity Nicol
Directors: Felicity Nicol, Scott Parker
Cast: Alan Fang, Andrea Mudbidri, Bedelia Lowrencev, Caitlyn Wright, Ellie Oppen-Riley, Emily Pincock, Fanar Moonee, Jeno Kim, Jeremy Lowrencev, Mason Phoumirath, Niamh Kinsella, Pedro Luis Barrientos Rios, Rebekah Parsons, Tirian Tanious
Images by Patrick Boland

Theatre review
It is night time, and a group of young adults are exploring a disused hall, spinning tales involving missing persons from a 1940’s debutante ball. The audience too are on foot, lingering and observing, and soon we find ourselves standing in as ghosts, when the adventurers begin seeing things. Felicity Nicol’s Haunted makes extensive use of an old town hall, one that is similar to the hundreds that exist all over Australia, with performers dispersed throughout the venue, and us behaving like voyeuristic apparitions, tracking their activities over ninety spooky minutes.

Directed by Nicol along with Scott Parker, the work is fresh and playful, impressive in its exhaustive and imaginative use of space. There is pleasure not only in investigating the many curious satellite occurrences, but also in the very experience of exploring a forgotten building. Sensational work on sound by Nate Edmondson heightens all our senses, to have us feeling as though immersed within a world of horror cinema. Lights by Benjamin Brockman are extravagant at pivotal moments, to help convey varying states of surrealism, for a story about young people discovering their local history.

A cast of fourteen performers demonstrate excellent commitment and verve, relying on intuition and physicality, rather than dialogue, to deliver a thrilling, inventive and often beautiful work of modern theatre. Mason Phoumirath and Niamh Kinsella are memorable in their featured roles, proving themselves to be compelling actors, with limitless potential.

The present collides with the past in every moment, but we are rarely encouraged to look back, whilst we wrestle with busy existences dominated by demands of the rat race. Mistakes may not have to be made again, if only we understand their previous incarnations, and evolution would only be in positive directions, if only we remember all former failures. Individuals are only young once, and as a community we too should always strive to mature with each passing day. Lessons learned must not be forgotten, or we will forever be in positions of regret.

www.sparkyouththeatre.com

Review: Bird (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Oct 22 – Nov 2, 2019
Playwright: Katherine Chandler
Director: Jane Angharad
Cast: : Marvin Adler, Sarah Easterman, James Gordon, Bella Ridgway, Laura Wilson
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Ava is turning 16 and homeless. Her cruel mother rejects repeated efforts by Ava to mend bridges, letting the girl languish in crisis accommodation, and on the streets of her Welsh town. Katherine Chandler’s Bird is about survival, when a young person is abandoned. We look at the challenges that Ava has to negotiate having been left to her own devices, and the dangers she encounters as she does her best to stay alive.

It is a poignant story, featuring an honest portrayal of a loveless family not often seen in our storytelling. Its characters are realistic and thoroughly explored, so that we may sympathise with the depths of Ava’s despondency, and identify the hope that she never relinquishes. Directed by Jane Angharad, the production tends to be overly subtle in approach, but its emotional resonances are strong when necessary. The dynamics she renders between cast members is often moving, for an effective manifestation of the play’s generous measure of sentimentality.

Actor Laura Wilson’s authentic portrayal of innocence is crucial to how we regard Ava, along with a commendable focus and conviction that keeps us invested in the protagonist’s journey. The mother, Claire is played by Sarah Easterman, whose quiet brutality provides valuable fortification to how the plot unfolds. Mystery man Lee is given excellent depth by James Gordon, whose ambiguity creates exquisite dramatic tension for all his scenes. Marvin Adler and Bella Ridgway play Ava’s friends, both performers offering a balance of melancholy and purity, for depictions of youth that are vividly truthful.

To be unwanted by one’s parents is unimaginable for most, yet many continue to flourish in spite of this bitter deprivation. The odds against her are staggering, but Ava never gives up trying. With no choice but to be fearless, she is always able to muster the courage to march on, even if her days are aimless and sad. We have all experienced what it is like to be lost, but to brave the world when feeling unloved, is an immense tragedy, yet somehow, we are capable of it.

www.secrethouse.com.au | www.redlineproductions.com.au

5 Questions with Alison Benstead and Thu Nguyen

Alison Benstead

Thu Nguyen: What aspect of your character, Veronica, do you relate to the most?
Alison Benstead: Veronica could definitely be seen as being a bit of an air head. Her whole vibe is introspection, and commenting on the world in a way that only she sees it. I very much relate to this (can I blame my star sign?), however I wish that I had answers like she does. I’m definitely more concerned about how my peers might interpret my what I say, and I think this sometimes restricts our ability to look at the world from that beautiful child-like, uninhibited perspective. I think there’s nothing wrong with taking a leaf out of Veronica’s book.

Who do you draw most inspiration from for your character, Veronica?
Veronica definitely has a Luna Lovegood vibe about her. I haven’t watched the Harry Potter series since this was mentioned at our table read for fear of re-creating that character, but I think a HP marathon is definitely on the cards once we close the show.

Your character Veronica carries around a hand puppet. When you were younger did you have a favourite item/toy that went around with you everywhere?
I had this doll when I was a child that had big, curly hair. My aunty named her Curly Mop Head, and said that she looked like me because her hair was so big. I loved her so much. I didn’t take her everywhere with me like Veronica does her puppet, but she did move house with me four time. I wish I could have kept her forever, but she got a bit old and crusty so I threw her out in my most recent house move. It was time, though it wasn’t easy saying goodbye.

If Veronica had a favourite colour, what do you think it would be?
Silver, for sure. It has something ethereal about it, and its metallic, reflective quality is very fitting.

Simple Souls pokes plenty of fun at social media interactions – have you been guilty of any of the behaviours the play satirises? If so, which one? (e.g. I know I’ve posted up a picture of some natural disaster and told people to share it haha)
I remember when the Je Suis Charlie tragedy happened in Paris and everyone was putting #prayforparis up on their Facebook walls. I got to work that day and was questioned by my colleague as to why I cared so much about Paris and didn’t acknowledge a particular event that had just occurred in India, which was equally as horrible. I was definitely taken aback, and it absolutely made me stop and think about what we choose to acknowledge in our social media, and that it doesn’t give us as much awareness of the world as we think it does. We still only see what others want us to see.

Thu Nguyen

Alison Benstead: Simple Souls is ‘an experiment in comic magical realism’. Which of these words would your character Bridget resonate with the most and why?
Thu Nguyen: I think Bridget would identify most with realism because she takes everything to heart. She is down to earth and very of this earth. There are many times in the play that she doesn’t seem to get sarcasm or she would question flippant remarks way too earnestly!

What was your first impression of Bridget?
My first impression of Bridget was that she was upbeat and chirpy but a little bit too eager to please, kind of like a lap dog. It became clearer as we went along that underneath all that, she is a really lonely person who just wants to connect with other people. She means well and has a kind and caring soul, but for some reason, people don’t tend to see her. 

Your dog goes missing, so you put up posters in the street. A stranger calls to offer their condolences, though they haven’t actually seen your lost dog. How do you react?
I would be really weirded out but I think I would be too polite to hang up! I would most likely listen to them for a while and then eventually make up some excuse like I’m late for work and then be apologetic for ending the conversation even though they are the weird ones for calling me!

What do you hope audiences will come away from Simple Souls with?
Simple Souls is a fun but poignant play commenting on the way the modern world deals with political and social issues. I hope it gives audiences some food for thought in terms of how to make our interactions with each other less superficial and more meaningful. It definitely pokes fun at some of the things I have done in the past!

Alison Benstead and Thu Nguyen can be seen in Simple Souls by Paul Gilchrist.
Dates: 13 – 30 Nov, 2019
Fringe HQ

Review: White Pearl (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Oct 24 – Nov 9, 2019
Playwright: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Deborah An, Mayu Iwasaki, Matthew Pearce, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Merlynn Tong, Catherine Văn-Davies, Shirong Wu
Images by Phil Erbacher
Theatre review
A cosmetics company specialising in skin whitening creams, wakes up in hot water, when one of its ads appears online prematurely and quickly goes viral, as a result of its shockingly racist content. The Clearday headquarters in Singapore instantly turns into a war room, with executives desperately scrambling for damage control. All six of them are Asian women, from various parts of the world, each with a different experience of race and its associated politics. In Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, we see the group devolve into a belligerent mess of conflicting principles, unable to sustain an alliance forged initially by very dubious ethics.

It is a sensational piece of writing, thoroughly researched and passionately rendered. White Pearl throws us into a cauldron of frenzied chaos, but each line of dialogue is crafted with immense precision, for an insightful examination not only of capitalism and racism, but also of the classism and sexism that govern so much of how these characters operate. The play’s unravelling of corporate culture, engenders a caustic sense of humour that keeps us on edge, for a wildly funny theatrical ride that never releases us from its moral interrogations.

Director Priscilla Jackman keeps dramatic intensity at fever pitch for the entire duration, establishing an unrelenting awareness in our consciousness reminding us that the stakes are very high indeed, not only in the fiction that we encounter, but also the real life implications of this timely tale about our social responsibilities as groups and individuals. Sound design by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay amplifies the women’s stress levels, to fill the auditorium with shuddersome atmospheric pressure. Jeremy Allen’s production design and Damien Cooper’s lights are nimbly manufactured, to keep the storytelling moving at lightning speed. The playwright’s own video projections feature social media comments relating to the offending incident, ranging from amusing to appalling, working as a device that constantly widens the story’s context, so that each viewer can remain personally connected with the narrative. Dramaturg Courtney Stewart does remarkable work that allows the play to consistently resonant with accuracy.

Seven actors form a formidable ensemble to deliver an intelligent and highly entertaining show, that reveals many truths about who we are today. Priya Singh, the British Indian founder of the company is portrayed by the phenomenal Vaishanavi Suryaprakash, whose extraordinary range enables an endlessly textured study of a woman in deep trouble. It is a powerful performance that exposes the human and structural problems of the modern business world. Also very affecting is Deborah An, who plays Korean scientist Soo Jin Park, bringing incredible nuance and emotional gravity to the depiction of a very dire situation. Merlynn Tong (as Sunny Lee) and Shirong Wu (as Xiao Chen) are unforgettable for providing the biggest laughs, both immaculate with their comic timing, and wonderfully idiosyncratic with their respective interpretations of ethnically Chinese women, the former from Singapore, and the latter China.

Catherine Văn-Davies plays Built Suttikul, a fabulously wealthy, American-educated Thai national, with imposing confidence and a vigorous physicality that defies any underestimation of the ladies in White Pearl. Her sensitive choices for a sex scene brings surprising elevation to the character, and highlights the persistent impossibly of retaining integrity in the pursuit of commercial supremacy. Her French ex-lover Marcel Benoit too, becomes unexpectedly complex, as performed by a self-possessed Matthew Pearce. New addition to the “Clearday family”, Japanese recruit Ruki Minami is perfectly balanced between naivety and wisdom by Mayu Iwasaki, for a personality that demonstrates the limits of human integrity, in the stupefying face of money and power.

Clearday sells products nobody needs, that could very well be harmful. The people who comprise the company, expend all their energy on questionable activities, so that they may one day feel like a leader of the pack. This is the narrative not only of White Pearl, but also of many a conventional life in the modern world. Money and power are blinding, they shape our values so that we make compromises to morality, in the promise of a glory that rarely comes to fruition. We disregard justice, to uphold racist, sexist and classist ideals every day, in hope that the system would reward us with all that it professes, but in fact, as we see in the play, no one will emerge truly victorious.

www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP | www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Duckpond (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 22 – 26, 2019
Playwright: Tabitha Woo
Director: Alison Bennett
Cast: Danen Engelenberg, Melissa Hume, Rizcel Gagawanan, Rudolf Hendrikx, Samantha Lambert
Images by Alex Smiles

Theatre review
Ingrid seems to have survived a plane crash, except she wakes up in a surreal landscape, and begins to see things in a very different light. In Duckpond, playwright Tabitha Woo interrogates the notion of reality, with a particular interest in the way religion and technology not only construct meanings for our existence, but are in fact totalitarian determinants of how we perceive the world. We are ducks in a pond designed by false gods and technocrats, unable to swim out of a paradigm created by others, for the benefit of others.

It is an evocative allegory, charmingly illustrated, in a play enjoyable for its absurdity, if slightly too coy with its humour. Alison Bennett’s idiosyncratic direction delivers a production memorable for its kooky style, with frequent disruptions to theatrical conventions, that help us look into the nature and origins of normality as a general concept. Actor Melissa Hume offers an effective blend of ordinariness and inquisitiveness, in her depictions of a state of awakening, as flight attendant Ingrid begins to discover the artifice behind everything that wishes to pass as real. Her companion is a duck, played by Rizcel Gagawanan, sprightly and amusing with her representation of blissful ignorance.

Humans have an interminable desire for truth, but we are often distracted by the comfort of certainty. Capitalistic forces seduce us with that numbing gratification of phoney answers that they provide, in the form of certainties that rarely contain more than a semblance of truth. They know that when we stop questioning, we are turned into complacent consumers and obedient subjects, easily manipulated to serve their interests, as we languish in a perpetual and frustrating blindness.

www.thirtyfivesquare.com

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 22 – Nov 24, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: James Evans
Cast: Vivienne Awosoga, Danny Ball, Marissa Bennett, Mandy Bishop, Will McDonald, Zindzi Okenyo, Suzanne Pereira, Duncan Ragg, Paul Reichstein, David Whitney
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the classic story of misunderstandings, and the bumpy road that lovers must take, before arriving at happily ever after. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing features endless witty repartee, between idiosyncratic characters who seem to specialise only in matters of the heart. Romance takes centre stage, in an old-fashioned world that wants us to believe that nothing is more valuable than a monogamous heterosexual union.

Although rarely inventive, the production, directed by James Evans, is a joyful one, with a sense of playfulness that helps us get through the inevitable return of a perennial favourite. In the role of Benedick is an irrepressible Duncan Ragg, genuinely hilarious with his robust comedy, cleverly conceived and perfectly executed. Zindzi Okenyo plays a sophisticated Beatrice, memorable for an understated approach that works to reduce the cheese factor in Shakespeare’s play.

Hero is given emotional authenticity by Vivienne Awosoga whose efforts at instilling strength makes palatable the damsel in distress, and her gullible husband-to-be Claudio is depicted by a vibrant Will McDonald, who leaves a remarkable impression with his creative and energetic presence. Demonstrating that it is often Shakespeare’s male roles that truly shine, Mandy Bishop steals the limelight as Dogberry and Balthasar, incisive and effortlessly funny with all that she brings to the stage.

It is true, that we spend inordinate amounts of time and attention on romantic love. We seek a satisfaction unique to that experience, determined to find someone to fill an emptiness that cannot be otherwise occupied. There are things much more logical, and much more within an individual’s control, yet we stray from the possibilities of real achievement, to pursue that which is in many ways narrow and selfish. It seems that being human, we are capable of immense knowledge, but wisdom does not always mean that we act in the best interests of our species.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Baby Doll (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 18 – Nov 16, 2019
Playwright: Tennessee Williams (adapted by Pierre Laville, Emily Mann)
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Kate Cheel, Maggie Dence, Socratis Otto, Jamie Oxenbould
Images by Prudence Upton
Theatre review
A young woman finally has to consummate her marriage, on her twentieth birthday, after two years of being with a much older husband. On the eve of that fateful night however, a tall, dark and handsome stranger appears, as though poised to rescue the girl from the event she has long dreaded. Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll takes place in Mississippi Delta, at a time when women, even those who were young, white and beautiful, had few rights and opportunities to speak of. We observe the restrictive circumstances faced by the protagonist, and how her choices are limited to just two men, neither of whom have her best interests at heart, but in this adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, we are able to see her desires and fortitude come to the fore, and it becomes evident that the girl is not giving up without a fight.

Directed by Shaun Rennie, the scintillating production grips us, not only with the exciting paradigm shifts deliberately introduced to the old story, but also with its exhaustive efforts at imbuing every theatrical moment with a rich sensuality, able to have us captivated on levels beyond character and narrative. Lights by Verity Hampson convey an intense sexuality, oppressed yet untameable, a wild undercurrent emerging from all sides of this lustful triangle. Sound and music by Nate Edmondson moves effortlessly from episodes of rhapsodic extravagance, to sequences filled with hushed precarity. We always know what the people on stage are thinking and feeling, even if their words are designed to disguise the truth.

Actor Kate Cheel plays the girl named Baby Doll, with a delicious intellectual aplomb that powerfully resists the relentless sexual objectification imposed upon her from all directions. The character we see is libidinous, seductive and strategic, courageously using everything she owns to make the best of a terrible situation. The shrewd defiance being portrayed by Cheel elevates the entire exercise, for a surprisingly modern take of an otherwise outdated Lolita tale.

The repellent husband Archie Lee is depicted in full bigoted glory, by an exuberant Jamie Oxenbould, who keeps us engaged by his bold embodiment of the deplorable antebellum hangover. Stoking the fire as Silva Vacarro, is Socratis Otto who manipulates levels of authenticity for a deceptive type who seems only to have ulterior motives. Otto makes every line of dialogue believable and enthralling, so that we may follow Baby Doll as she falls hopelessly under his spell. Maggie Dence is memorable in the subsidiary role of Aunt Rose, absolutely charming and humorous at each appearance.

There is little Baby Doll could do to make things better for herself, but she pulls out all the stops. Women today do not experience the same level of subjugation, but we certainly do have to rely on ingenuity and resourcefulness, to navigate a world that continues to be unjust and dangerous. Most of us can now walk away from failed marriages, but few of us can turn our backs on a culture determined to limit our identities, and an economy built on our servitude. Our survival requires that we participate within structures that routinely place us at a disadvantage. We may feel duplicitous and hypocritical, when we bite the hand that feeds, but there is no escaping that which we wish to demolish. As demonstrated in Baby Doll, we can never be prevented from being instigators for change, no matter how small a part we play in whatever revolution that may be brewing.

www.ensemble.com.au