Review: John (Outhouse Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 19 – Oct 12, 2019
Playwright: Annie Baker
Director: Craig Baldwin
Cast: James Bell, Maggie Blinco, Belinda Giblin, Shuang Hu
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Jenny and Elias are visiting Gettysburg, Pennsylvania whilst trying to mend a rough patch in their relationship. They stay at a bed and breakfast, run by an elderly lady named Mertis, who is very nice, but who is also more than a tad mysterious. Her eyes, like her house, are secretive and cavernous, and in Annie Baker’s John, we always feel as though things are not quite what they seem. We see the young couple attempt to make things work, both trying hard not to let go, inside Mertis’ tchotchke-filled house, where past and present converge, unable to disentangle from one another.

Baker’s intriguing play is filled with characteristics of scary stories; lights that turn on and off by themselves, a pianola that plays unprompted, portraits and dolls imbued with a presence that can only be described as supernatural. There are lots of creepy goings on, but in the absence of an obvious genre style pay off, our minds are made to regard Mertis’ world with an unusual complexity, that quite matter-of-factly ventures into the metaphysical.

Director Craig Baldwin manufactures this eerie atmosphere with considerable diligence and detail, supported magnificently by set designer Jeremy Allen and lighting designer Veronique Bennett, who deliver exquisite imagery that has our imagination running wild. The house is in some ways the star of the show, and the work that has gone into making it come alive, is absolutely terrific.

Incredibly nuanced performances by the cast of four take charge of our attention for the entire three-and-a-half hour duration, keeping us guessing at every juncture, making us see things that may or may not be there. Efforts to render a spooky vibe can sometimes feel awkwardly lethargic, especially in Act One, but we are always engaged, always filled with curiosity, even when feeling impatient.

Belinda Giblin is electric as landlady, hugely impressive with the intelligence and rigour that she brings to her portrayal of the enigmatic Mertis. Her close friend Genevieve is played by an exhilarating Maggie Blinco, whose kooky vivacity adds much needed energy to the show. The troubled young couple is depicted with great chemistry by James Bell and Shuang Hu, who are convincing whether loving or fighting, but there is a restraint to their approach that can at times feel at odds with the humour of the piece.

There is much that can be interpreted as strange in Mertis’ home, but there is also a peculiarity to how the visitors struggle with their lives that can easily get unnoticed. The older women share a sense of ease that escapes Jenny and Elias, who we observe to be constantly at odds with the world, always responding to it with resistance and frustration. Mertis accepts things as they are, and nothing seems to unnerve her. She exists in harmony with a cosmos that many think is chaotic. The young ones on the other hand, appear to play by the rule book. They look like normal people doing normal things, but they are in contradiction with a bigger scheme of things, as exemplified by the house they temporarily occupy. The house just is, and it is us who have to learn to adhere to it.

www.outhousetheatre.org

Review: Trojan Barbie (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 16 – 21, 2019
Playwright: Christine Evans
Director: Maddison Huber
Cast: Anthea Agoratsios, Sophie Avellino, Deng Deng, Sam Flack, Cathy Friend, Tristen Knox, Anjelica Murdaca, Taleece Paki, Lisa Robinson, Shannon Rossiter, Amy Sole, Kristelle Zibara

Theatre review
An homage to Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Christine Evans’ 2009 play Trojan Barbie places focus on legendary women of the Trojan War. Modern day tourist Lotte, who restores dolls in her normal life, is flung back to ancient times, where she is trapped in a women’s camp, witnessing the atrocities of war. Evans’ work is suitably tragic, but also surprisingly humorous in many of its early scenes. Familiar characters are rendered with a contemporary sensibility, allowing us to relate better to their stories, and to keep us amused.

Time travel aspects are not always presented effectively in the production, leaving us confused at several points, but director Maddison Huber ensures that each personality we encounter in her show, is distinct and memorable. Actor Lisa Robinson demonstrates strong comic abilities as Lotte, adept at delivering laughs even in the midst of battleground horrors. Kristelle Zibara is a convincing Hecuba, intense with the sorrow her maternal role is charged to convey. Sophie Avellino and Cathy Friend take on different kinds of madness, for Helen and Cassandra respectively, both performers bringing appropriate flamboyance to invigorate the stage. The show succeeds at dramatic moments of catastrophe, but when the action calls for a gentler touch, its lack of nuance can make for a less than satisfying experience.

A Chinese proverb says that women hold up half the sky. Even as men insist on occupying positions of power, we are always required to be on hand to pick up the pieces, whenever they bring degradation and destruction to the world. It is important that we look beyond how things currently operate, and commit to working towards a new system that does not simply replace men with women. These hierarchical modes of organising society have proven to be severely deficient, no matter who sits on top of the pile. If we want to ensure that nobody loses, it must mean that old ways of thinking about success, about winning, must be radically eliminated.

www.facebook.com/Scribe-Theatre

Review: High Performance Packaging Tape (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 18 – 22, 2019
Collaborating Artists: Phil Downing, Mickie Quick, Lee Wilson, Mirabelle Wouters
Cast: Lee Wilson
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
The man assembles a whole lot of household and industrial items, including plastic chairs, oversized balloons, rubber bands, cardboard boxes, and an endless supply of packaging tape. Using them like big boys toys, he performs a series of daredevil type stunts, usually with gravity as his opposition, almost like a circus act. Except Lee Wilson is dealing entirely with physics in High Performance Packaging Tape, leaving nothing to chance, and therefore unlike the circus, we are not fearful of things going wrong. No one is at risk of plunging to their deaths, and certainly no lions are hanging around waiting to maul him to death.

In the absence of danger, our attention is then free to shift towards intellectual aspects of this physical work. We wonder what it is that compels man to place obstacles before himself, as Wilson does incessantly in his show. Questions about gender, ethnicity and therefore social advantages, begin to arise. We wonder if privilege means that a person would tend to create challenges for the self, if challenges are not already present. In 2019, if we are no longer interested in what a white man has to say about the way Australian life is experienced, it appears that we leave him to his own devices, and he goes to prove his worth by exploring his existence in spaces that seem devoid of politics, in cultural frameworks he is able to determine for himself, that can disregard all the urgent discussions being had in the real world.

It is arguable if audiences can be as easily persuaded. Some might be able to invest in the statements being made about the body, as entirely apolitical objects, scientific and subject only to natural laws of matter and energy. The rest of us will struggle to extricate our corporeality from the implications of daily stresses, unable to relate to this ethereal vacuum, where suffering and injustice are so conveniently shut out.

Within this world of childlike play, where the creators make up their own rules, the production is faultless, and very sleek, with what it sets out to achieve. The humour is sophisticated, and the stunts are original. Wilson’s nonchalant composure is a cool juxtaposition against the dramatic intensity of the visual presentations. Auditory effects are remarkably inventive, involving digital manipulations of live sounds that heighten tensions in the auditorium. High Performance Packaging Tape is quite unlike anything one has seen before, an escape from realities that not all can bear.

www.branchnebula.com

Review: The Becoming (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 15 – 20, 2019
Playwright: Katie Pollock
Director: Brett Heath
Cast: Alison Benstead, Jo Goddard, Ben Hanly, Patrick Holman, Sarah Maguire, Paul Wilson

Theatre review
Greta and Gregor are rich kids from the eastern suburbs of Sydney, both going through significant transformation, as a response to the world’s current state of tumult. Katie Pollock’s The Becoming can be seen as a coming-of-age tale, but is more likely to be taken as commentary on the sociopolitical mess we are experiencing today. We see Greta deciding to be a nicer person, whilst Gregor turns angry and militant; it is as though one environment has bred two extremists on either ends of a spectrum, both of which the play presents as ineffectual and regrettable. It is an amusing context that Pollock has located, inspired by Franz Kafka, and obviously pertinent with its thematic concerns. As a work of absurdist comedy however, its characters never really depart sufficiently from the mundane, with a sense of humour that is probably too subdued.

Directed by Brett Heath, the show is thankfully raucous in atmosphere, although the players never really attain a level of authenticity that would allow its ideas to resonate. Each role is approached with an enjoyable sense of theatricality, but we struggle to connect with anything meaningful even if the text does point to matters contemporary and troubling. Sarah Maguire’s indefatigable ebullience as Greta helps sustain our attention, and Patrick Holman is suitably offbeat as the misguided Gregor, particularly noteworthy for his performance of live drums that prove to be a rousing and sophisticated touch.

It is true that so much of what we observe to be happening in society, can be infuriating. Greta and Gregor may have found radical ways to express their dissatisfaction, but they achieve nothing, other than to escape that dreadful sense of helplessness when one is crippled with inaction. When the system is broken, those of us who are more intrepid, like the siblings in The Becoming, might be moved to try for solutions, but it is revealing that the two do not confer, choosing instead to operate independently even though they live under the same roof, and share the same blood. They are unable to listen to the other, each so certain of their own beliefs. Watching the collapse of this kinship, of humans failing to connect, it becomes unsurprising that disaster should unfold.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with Caitlin Burley and Michelle Ny

Caitlin Burley

Michelle Ny: How similar were you to your character when you were in high school?
Caitlin Burley: Fairly similar to be honest. High school is a wild ride, and I tried a few different hats, some closer to Steph than others. I definitely shared her optimism and her desire to believe that people, especially those in charge, are honest and concerned about everyone’s best interest. And I am aware of the disillusionment that this can bring.

What was the naughtiest thing you ever did when you were a teenager?
I was pretty tame. Naughtiest thing I ever did in high school was probably just lying about going to the movies, and instead drinking in parks, ovals, backyards or on the streets. But
that phase was short lived, and never more than a few mouthfuls…

How would you cope with dealing with the blackouts in this world?
Well it would change our world drastically. It wouldn’t just be an ‘inconvenience’. Blackouts that plunge entire cities into darkness are catastrophic and do happen. There was a 25 hour blackout in New York in 1977 that resulted in a huge spike of crime and looting and more than 1000 intentional fires. Our world would be more dangerous. We would all be more vulnerable. I
would feel more powerless and night-time would be scarier. But I hope I would emerge with a survival plan, re-tweak my lifestyle and build a community so that we could survive off the grid
when needed, have an incredible emergency kit that I would never leave home without, torch, whistle, pepper spray, nuts and build a huge network of like-minded people with friends and family.
At night, I would always be ready to run, but to be honest, I seldom wear heels or tight skirts for that reason anyway.

How do think this play appeals to other young women?
It centres on two young women who take the narrative, that so often places women as victims, into their own hands and in the darkness imagine and negotiate a better future. It also breaks down heaps of stereotypes and divides that don’t serve us and that’s appealing. I think people will find it empowering and hopeful see it as a rallying call to stick together and rewrite the way forward. We will make mistakes, but we will get there together. I hope this play will play a small part getting us there.

Would you rather have an 8 hour blackout every week or a month long blackout every 12 months? And why.
Definitely an 8 hour blackout every week. Overall it’s much less time and I think that if our society were to face a month long blackout anarchy would break loose. We do have some back-ups in place; hospitals are supposed to have backup power for 96 hours, there is fuel in storage tanks, but a lot of these require electricity to access. If we all knew that come Sunday we would have 8 hours without electricity we could prepare ourselves, with resources and safety. It might actually force us all to slow down and interact with one another more. And surely it would mean being closer to hitting our carbon budgets. A month would be hard to recover from. Our society is dependent on electricity at every level, and unfortunately we are a selfish species. But I think conscience makes us kinder. Come see the show!

Michelle Ny

Caitlin Burley: In this play, you give a lot of (often unsolicited) free-advice. What is a piece of advice you would give to your 16 year old school girl self?
Michelle Ny: Hey 16 year old, Michelle. I’m sorry but there will be things in your life which are monumentally shit so I can’t say life will be better. BUT, you will grow up and be able to handle things with more emotional maturity and grow with each new obstacle that is thrown at you. So keep feeling things at 1000% (even if this is overwhelming) and keep being weird. x

Tell us about a real-life blackout you’ve experienced.
This isn’t an ~actual~ blackout but once when I was a kid, my parents left for a little while and my brother and I psyched ourselves into fear so we turned off all the lights and sat in
silence in chairs with our back towards the entrance of the room. Then when we heard people coming home we hid underneath the dining table but of course, it was just my family arriving!

What is one of your favourite moments in the play?
This is probably a favourite moment in rehearsals but, because the play has references to the UK, we had to change small references to become Australian, and we have gone through a big debate on what biscuit brand to use. Tim Tams, Tic Tocs, Honey Jumbles, Chit Chats, Coles brand chocolate chip cookies, Chocolate Thins, Gingernuts, Mint Slice, Digestives, Oreos etc… I like cookies.

This play deals with violence against women, is there anything in the play that you find empowering?
The women in this play are not victims and I think they are never portrayed as victims. A lot of awful things happen in their lives but both Bell and Steph take ownership of their issues and seek to find ways to tackle them. I think it’s interesting to see young women who are traditionally vulnerable act on their own means to break the trope of ‘damsel in distress.’

What were you like at school? Did you have a fake ID?
I was pretty high energy and annoying when I was at school but I was also kind of an ~”emo”~. A lot of walking around the corridors with extremely loud teen punk music blasting through my headphones. In my last year of high school we didn’t have to wear a uniform, so I exercised that privilege by skipping almost every chemistry class and lying somewhere on the waterfront. And I only borrowed my sisters ID once to get into a venue which was hosting our wrap party for a web series I was in. Other than that, I was pretty good and the first time I went clubbing was on my 18th birthday!

Caitlin Burley and Michelle Ny can be seen in A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar), by Lulu Raczka.
Dates: 20 Sep – 5 Oct, 2019
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: The Irresistible (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 11 – 15, 2019
Playwrights: Ariadne Daff, Zoe Pepper, Tim Watts
Director: Zoe Pepper
Cast: Ariadne Daff, Tim Watts
Images by Rémi Chauvin, Dan Grant

Theatre review
April wants to give her sister Bridget a break from motherhood, so little Cassie comes to stay. We soon discover that the child is not only a handful, she is in fact bizarre. The Irresistible too is often a strange exercise, with two actors playing a range of characters, behind translucent screens blurring our vision, and microphones altering their voices as if to say that it matters not, which actor is assuming which role.

The action is episodic, involving disparate narratives that our minds will insist on assembling a coherent picture out of, but the greatest pleasure in The Irresistible is to luxuriate in the extraordinarily imaginative approaches being applied to each theatrical moment. The magic is not in the stories themselves, but in how those stories are used to subvert our expectations, and therefore deal with what we consider to be normal in art and life. Director Zoe Pepper seems to imply that when we encounter the opposite of normal, an interrogation into who we truly are, comes to the fore. It is hard for humans to properly see ourselves, until a catalyst is introduced to turn us weird, and to force a deviation from the ordinary.

Performed by Ariadne Daff and Tim Watts, the simple text becomes springboard for experimentation, with their irrepressible desire to always manufacture something surprising, resulting in an experience that has us utterly mesmerised. The pair is outrageously inventive, both spirited in the kookiest way possible, and impossibly precise in their delivery of a technically demanding work. Sound by Phil Downing and music by Ash Gibson Greig are astonishing in their ambition and scope, daring to surpass other elements to become the most important and effective design aspects of the production. Jonathon Oxlade’s set and Richard Vabre’s lights manipulate our attention so that we cannot look away, keeping our sight intrigued and hopelessly engrossed for the entire duration.

The character Christian finds himself seduced by the performance of adult entertainer Neve, and responds by trying to dominate and consume her. At the theatre, we can never be sure how power dynamics can manifest themselves. Being capitalist, we enter with the subliminal notion that if someone is going to be the boss, the paying audience must surely be in charge. Art however, cannot let itself be subject only to market forces and the taste of the masses. It is responsible for moving discussions forward, to find advancements for our civilisation. For our society to progress, it seems artists are the only ones left willing to take the lead. We need the shock of the new, and The Irresistible is an excellent case in point.

www.sideponyproductions.com.au | www.thelastgreathunt.com

Review: Romeo & Julien (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Sep 5 – 14, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Jamie Collette
Cast: Ali Aitken, Jackson Blair-West, Jayden Byrne, Sasha Dyer, Daniel Gabriel, David Halgren, Ryan Hodson, Cynthia Howard, Samantha Lambert, Charles Mayer, Chiara Osborn, David Soncin
Images by Isabella Torv

Theatre review
Juliet is now Julien, so the question would obviously relate to how this new perspective of gender in Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet would result. It might come as a surprise, that turning a heterosexual love story into a gay one, does not necessarily involve a complete and fundamental transformation of the centuries old play. The Capulet and the Montagues are still at loggerheads, and the drama we encounter is still about blood and kinship. All the conflict in Romeo & Julien come from the same sources as Shakespeare had intended, and it seems that making boys of both lovers, does not change anything in their story.

If one can accept the validity of an artistic license in this gender alteration, one could probably be willing to see that the original narrative can remain, given our understanding that gender is ultimately a meaningless construct. As director, Jamie Collette’s efforts at imposing a new inclusiveness to an old icon of Western literature is laudable, but his creative spirit can seem insufficiently radical, when viewed against the inevitably conservative associations when taking on the Bard. Nonetheless, there is inventiveness and vigour in Collette’s staging, ably assisted by Scott Witt’s dynamic fight choreography, and Sara Delavere’s colourful live music accompaniment.

The ensemble is not always cohesive or balanced, but strong acting by several individuals provide moments of professional sheen. Daniel Gabriel plays an androgynous, possibly bigender, Mercutio, introducing much needed flamboyance to proceedings, leaving an impression with the sheer magnitude of their stature and bold presence. Friar Lawrence is given detailed rendering by the dazzling David Halgren, who locates unexpected, and entertaining, dimensions for the pivotal role. Romeo is on this occasion, a tentative, quiet type, as performed by an overly naturalistic Jackson Blair-West. All eyes are on Jayden Byrne, who brings surprising emotional range to Julien, and is particularly satisfying as pop star, in several enjoyable musical interludes.

We are beginning a new era in which queerness does not have to tear our families apart. We have dreamt of a time of unprecedented normalisation, when queer people no longer have to come out, and in Romeo & Julien, we are given the opportunity to imagine that possibility. Whether one is inclined to find this Shakespeare title romantic or dreary, the present re-gendering is unlikely to cause any transformation to those prior opinions. It is true that whether one is male or female should have no bearing on outcomes, but it is undeniable that we have grown to expect queerness to add spice, especially when old and painfully obsolete texts are concerned.

www.facebook.com/RomeoAndJulien19