Review: The Overcoat (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 1, 2018
Book & Lyrics: Michael Costi (based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol)
Music: Rosemarie Costi
Director: Constantine Costi
Cast: Laura Bunting, Kate Cheel, Aaron Tsindos, Charles Wu
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Nikolai is an unremarkable man, an ordinary citizen of Russia, who lives and works in St Petersburg, not unlike the faceless millions in any of the world’s cities. He is unambitious, able to be content with a simple life, but the most basic of human requirements, dignity, eludes him. He is sold a luxurious coat, one he is unable to afford, with the promise that the new garment would finally help him gain the respect of people he sees every day at work. Based on Nikolai Gogol’s short novel of the same name, The Overcoat is about injustice, and the sacrifices some have to make, just to attain a level of subsistence.

Adapted by Michael Costi, whose book and lyrics retain the poignancy of the original, this musical version is an understated but thoroughly moving work of theatre. Rosemarie Costi’s music is consistently gripping, and delightfully idiosyncratic, incorporating shades of Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim to find exquisite balance in this sophisticated take on the genre. Director Constantine Costi exhibits great style, alongside a sensitive understanding of drama, for a production that lulls us gently to some very deep places in our hearts and minds.

Performer Charles Wu is an enchanting presence, vulnerable yet confident as Nikolai. Not only does he earn our empathy for the pitiful character, Wu elevates our experience of the sad story with his capacity to inspire our intellect. Aaron Tsindos’ booming voice thrills and satisfies, as do his extravagant depictions of several unforgettable supporting roles. Laura Bunting and Kate Cheel create a range of ebullient personalities, both actors proving themselves to be as commanding as they are charming.

Our protagonist procures his coat, with money that should have gone to food and rent. Before society can provide him with a feeling of belonging, Nikolai must give up more than all he has; we come to the cruel realisation that the real world does not offer unconditional love. When we participate in the labour force, we go to work for survival and for salvation, but there is never any guarantee that the exchange can be a fair one. In fact, we see in The Overcoat, that when the marketplace is left to its own devices, many of us are put in positions where we have to give more than we can ever receive in return. The unfairness is ubiquitous, and without intervention, disparities can only widen.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Wild Party (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Nov 15 – 24, 2018
Book: Michael J. Lachiusa, George C. Wolfe
Music & Lyrics: Michael J. Lachiusa
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Michael Boulus, Jack Dawson, Nick Errol, Emily Hart, Prudence Holloway, Matthew Hyde, Tayla Jarrett, Katelin Koprivec, Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Rosalie Neumair, Sophie Perkins, Olivier Rahmé, Zach Selmes, Samuel Skuthorp, Georgina Walker, Simon Ward, Jordan Warren, Madeleine Wighton, Victoria Zerbst
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is New York City in the 1920s, and the party is lit. Bohemian types gather at the behest of volatile lovers Queenie and Burrs; not a single introvert in sight, all thirsty for a good time, ready to make the drama happen. Michael J. Lachiusa and George C. Wolfe’s 2000 musical The Wild Party is a rollicking ride with colourful characters taking us through a succession of exuberant numbers, celebrating life in the most exciting of cities.

Under Alexander Andrews’ direction, The Wild Party is a dazzling, fun-filled romp. Even though its narrative becomes somewhat vague, the production’s relentless vibrancy keeps us engaged and uplifted. Music direction by Conrad Hamill is lush and decadent, a wonderfully evocative element. Outstanding choreography by Madison Lee brings unexpected sophistication. Imaginative and adventurous, Lee’s work is thoroughly compelling, and along with dance captain Sophie Perkins’ efforts, it is the way bodies move through every second in this staging, that proves truly splendid. A group of 5 chorines, Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Rosalie Neumair, Jordan Warren and the aforementioned Perkins, are the stars, brilliant with their spirit and charm, extraordinarily cohesive with all that they present.

Georgina Walker plays a very alluring Queenie, with an attitude and physical gestures that are flawlessly reminiscent of that bygone era. Sound engineering is often deficient, and Walker’s voice suffers as a result, but the intricacy of her performance is no less impressive. Prudence Holloway and Victoria Zerbst take on flamboyant roles with extravagant aplomb, both actors fierce and fabulous.

Parties are worth little when participants are unable to let their hair down, but as we see in The Wild Party, things can go too far. Art however, plays by different rules, and social transgressions are often an important part of how it can create impact. Considering the context, this staging is perhaps slightly polite, so it is never really able to provide much more than entertainment. To be wild, is to explore boundaries and question the rules. Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes may well be liked by everyone, but she is unlikely to have left an indelible mark anywhere.

www.littletriangle.com.au

Review: Blame Traffic (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 13 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Michael Andrew Collins
Director: Michael Andrew Collins
Cast: Violette Ayad, Nic English, Emma O’Sullivan, Mary Soudi, Alex Stylianou
Theatre review
Insurance investigator Lilian’s frustrating encounters with a blue Mercedes, over several days on the streets of Sydney, has stoked her occupational resolve. She finds herself secretly trailing the mystery man, trying to formulate an explanation for the latter’s shockingly poor driving etiquette. Blame Traffic by Michael Andrew Collins features a series of fractured scenes that gradually merge into an integrated, and satisfying, narrative. Collins’ playful dialogue ensures that each sequence is full of amusement, and the intrigue that he constructs, is a consistent pleasure, and the play’s strongest quality.

In lieu of realistic settings for many of Blame Traffic‘s on-road scenarios, the production takes a minimal but effective approach, with chairs and three sliding monitors, to convey its oscillating range of times and spaces. Designer Patrick James Howe keeps things slick and restrained, for unobtrusive solutions that provide surprising impact. Collins’ direction of the piece is taut, with an air of urgency that has us absorbed for its entire hour.

An energetic and rigorous ensemble takes us through the fast-paced action. Emma O’Sullivan shines in both her roles; she turns a very strange Jacquie convincing, whilst endearing us with her quirky characteristics, and as Dion, the actor’s interpretation of a young Italian-Australian is simply hilarious. Dion’s uncle Zio is played by Nic English, whose honest impulses make him a riveting presence. Violette Ayad and Alex Stylianou provide the fireworks with their partnership, in a segment memorable for its scintillating chemistry, both performers taking the opportunity to demonstrate their impressive skill and natural talent. Also wonderful is Mary Soudi who brings a thoughtful complexity to her part of Sarah.

Although not particularly provocative, Blame Traffic is an entertaining work of theatre, that uses the bane of our city’s daily existence as catalyst for its storytelling. We see people interspersed but connected, each heading in their own obstinate directions, occasionally stopping to think of others. Individualism and independence are highly valued in our metropolis; we believe in the freedom that allows people to live to their full personal potentials, regardless of tradition and conventions. It is also clear that Sydney is not an entirely selfish city, even if we do feel like we dwell inside bubbles that only seem to ever grow smaller. Our roads converge every day, allowing our trajectories to meet, at places like the theatre, where we congregate as one, to figure out the people we are, and the people we want to be.

www.facebook.com/twentysevensix

Review: The Dance Of Death (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 10 – Dec 23, 2018
Playwright: August Strindberg (literal translation, May-Brit Akerholt)
Director: Judy Davis
Cast: Giorgia Avery, Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe, Toby Schmitz
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Alice and Edgar live secluded on an island, married to each other but full of hate, in a state of constant exhaustion from having spent every waking moment bitter, and berating all that they come in contact with. When relative Kurt arrives for a brief visit, the antagonism escalates, as we observe the vitriol begin to infect their unsuspecting guest. From 1900, August Strindberg’s The Dance Of Death is characteristically expressionist, with the writer’s socialist attitudes perceptible in the play, although its criticisms of class are somewhat benign by today’s standards.

Its comedy is dark and caustic, and Judy Davis’ direction certainly conveys that subversive quality well, for a show that is consistently amusing, if not quite laugh out loud funny. Strindberg’s absurd and surreal dimensions are embraced by designers, who deliver a production many will find stimulating with its declarative flamboyance. Paul Charlier’s music is libidinous but disturbing, and extraordinarily theatrical in its effect. The stage floats on a pool of blood, with a backdrop proclaiming “hell on earth”; Brian Thomson’s set design and Matthew Scott’s lights conspire in a visual tango that intrigues and mystifies. Costumes and wigs by Judy Tanner are wonderfully evocative, with an exquisite red gown late in the piece, proving to be particularly memorable.

Pamela Rabe cuts a striking figure as the decadent former actress Alice, operatic in style and thoroughly entertaining, if slightly deficient with her character’s emotional authenticity. Edgar is played by Colin Friels, similarly heightened in his approach, for a beguiling study of narcissistic machismo at its ugliest. Cousin Kurt is taken through drastic transformations by Toby Schmitz, whose cheeky humour reinvigorates the action with each of his entrances.

The Dance Of Death succeeds at keeping us engaged, but we wait for poignancy that never arrives. It inspires us to think about marriage, about the way we deal with this thing called love, and how hate only exists in response to something unequivocally cherished, but the show keeps distant, as though aloof, unwilling to be touched, unable to move. Emotions can be frightening, so we go to art to better witness its machinations. Alice and Edgar share a love, but their vulnerabilities are all but calloused by the time we meet them at their twenty-fifth year of entanglement, and it is as though they no longer feel anything. They know only to make demands, and are incapable of giving anything, yet this dynamic is set on a perpetual loop, sustained by the ever surprising human capacity to withstand debasement. From the outside however, it is always easier to perceive with clarity, and we know that walking away from someone who has overstayed their welcome, is the simplest solution.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Laura Djanegara and Francisco Lopez

Laura Djanegara

Francisco Lopez: What do you love most about theatre in Sydney?
Laura Djanegara: I love the incredible array of talented and driven people that there are in the arts in Sydney. There are so many incredible and hardworking people in theatre in all its areas, cast and crew alike, that there is a lot to be inspired by. I also like that there is still a great sense of community in theatre. Back in Perth where I grew up, the theatre world was quite small but they cultivated a strong sense of community in theatre. Even though the industry here is much bigger, in my experience you still often have mutual friends with other theatre makers and that I really like.

What have you found most challenging about working on The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later?
It is a challenge making sure that each of your characters is distinct, especially when they are some that have fewer lines than others. Having clear and differing personalities for so 10+ characters can be tricky. Also, the narrator lines!

What has been your most memorable experience within the LGBTIQ+ community?
I think it would have to be when a dear friend of mine did a performance outlining why he wanted to be able to marry his partner one day. It was before the marriage equality vote and it was such a well written and performed piece that I felt truly positioned to see his point of view. That his love wasn’t wrong and wasn’t there to offend anyone. It was just love. I’d always been for marriage equality because it just makes sense to me but this performance was the first moment it really hit me in the heart. His love for his partner was so beautiful, it really moved me.

What do you wish most for the next generation of LGBTIQ+ Australians?
I wish very much for the next generation of LGBTIQ+ Australians to have acceptance, love and understanding. I was with a friend the other day and someone rolled down their car window to yell obscenities at them because they perceived them to be gay. It made me really angry. I think people have the right to make their own decisions about how they live and love. I wish this next generation doesn’t find it hard to be who they are. I wish for them a sense of belonging.

What can audiences expect to walk away with after seeing The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later?
I think a great sense of compassion and empathy. What I really like about this play is the way it doesn’t shy away from the humanity in it all. You hear from all differing views on what happened and from that you draw a clear view of how divided people can be within themselves. This murder forced people to look on their own views towards homosexuality and acceptance. I don’t think it’s enough to tolerate something – that just means putting up with something you are opposed to. This play focuses on the ‘why’ of the opposition. If it can have that effect on an audience it would be a very important experience

Francisco Lopez

Laura Djanegara: What drew you to this production and why should Sydney audiences see it?
Francisco Lopez: I had never read The Laramie Project. I knew it existed and I had a vague knowledge of Matthew Shepard’s horrific death by a fence. Maybe it sounded too horrific for me to accept; and too recent of an event. After having to fight for marriage equality last year, right here in Australia, I want to keep talking about what is holding us back from true acceptance of the LGBTIQ+ community. The Laramie Project goes beyond branding individuals as homophobes, and studies a whole town’s make up in relation to this tragedy. I invite audiences to see our two plays to remember what any equal rights movement is up against. It’s easy to believe we have made a lot of progress when we examine the horrors of the past, or the atrocities in distant parts of the world. The Laramie Project reminds us of the forces constantly present in our own communities today.

In a show of this nature where you play multiple characters, what has been the biggest challenge for you as an actor?
I play more than ten characters across the two plays, some of them appearing in both plays. There are many challenges that come with stepping into characters of different ages, professions, and belief structures. I think my biggest challenge was understanding that ultimately, these people cannot be too far away from who I am. I don’t have to wear wigs, fake noses or outrageous costumes. I may very well have said the things these people said in different circumstances. And I’m reminded that this play shows audiences just that – that Laramie is not that different from their own communities.

Which character in either play would you most like to act as and why?
I don’t know if it’s just because of the actor playing her (wink, wink, Laura!) – but Romaine Patterson, a friend of Matthew Shepard, seems like such a bad-ass in the best of ways! She wanted to be a rock star and instead became an activist who inspired so much social change across the USA. She even takes on Fred Phelps in one of the plays!

The shows are set in 1998 and 2008 respectively, what was your life like in 1998 and 2008?
Oof… in 1998 I was in Year 11 at a Catholic school in one of two Victorian electorates that voted No to marriage equality. It was my last year of studying drama, as I went on to study maths and sciences in the pursuit of academic glory. I was good at performing in life – so I had a great time in high school with some beautiful friends. I went on to be school captain and school dux – even if I wasn’t being 100% honest with myself about who I wanted to be. In 2008 I was improving workflows in an emergency department by day, and producing a community television show about Hispanic and Latin American culture by night. I was a very busy young man – and very curious about the world beyond my upbringing. That year I travelled to Dubai, London, Israel and the West Bank.

Describe The Laramie Project in 5 words.
Tragic. Hopeful. Brave. Compassionate. Love.

Laura Djanegara and Francisco Lopez can be seen in The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.
Dates: 28 Nov – 8 Dec, 2018
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: The Norman Conquests (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 2, 2018 – Jan 12, 2019
Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Danielle Carter, Rachel Gordon, Brian Meegan, Sam O’Sullivan, Yalin Ozucelik, Matilda Ridgway
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Ruth’s husband is having dalliances with her sister and her sister-in-law. These extramarital trysts with Norman are at least momentarily pleasurable, but it comes as no surprise that there is pandemonium when the cat is out of the bag. Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests takes place in a weekend, with each instalment encompassing the action at a specific area of the family’s country home. Table Manners occurs in the dining hall, Living Together in the living room, and Round And Round The Garden in the garden. They form a cohesive whole, but each part stands alone, for this intricate 1973 comedy about the meaning of marriage, at a time of sexual liberation as Britain emerges from the swinging sixties.

Its humour is of a classic style, with 45-year-old jokes likely to divide audiences, but at the heart of the piece is Ruth’s surprising permissiveness, still refreshing by today’s standards. Her reluctance to see the affairs as necessarily catastrophic, but more of an annoyance, leads us to a progressive evaluation of monogamy, still relevant to how we conceive of relationships and marriages today. This revival, directed by Mark Kilmurry, is bright and bubbly, a compelling jaunt back in time that is surprisingly resonant, even if its language is obviously outdated.

The characters may sound like the past, but they are made to feel current, by an excellent, and tireless, uniformly captivating cast. Yalin Ozucelik gives Norman an appropriate sex appeal, cleverly depicting that familiar blend of naivety and cunning, to convey the ambiguously deceptive quality of men who love too many. Matilda Ridgway is a marvellously complex Annie, the aforementioned sister, richly imagined with veraciously human conflicts, clearly presented for a personality sensual and intelligent. Ruth is played by Rachel Gordon, wonderfully vivacious and highly sophisticated, for an exemplary portrait of a woman with an open mind, unafraid to set her own rules.

When Ruth declares that she does not own her husband, we are urged to re-examine sexual relationships, and perhaps define them anew. In letting our loved ones go, we in turn disallow ourselves from ever being enslaved. Love, however, can make free people want to be bound. To have and to hold is a divine notion, but life without freedom is abhorrent, just as life without love is unbearable. In every intimate connection, whether fleeting or longstanding, delicate negotiations are required; traditional prescriptive methods, when adopted unquestioned, rarely deliver satisfactory results. Congress between organic beings can never be completely predictable, for every entity is different and in constant flux. We just need to make sure that nobody gets hurt, although it seems always to be easier said than done.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: A Cheery Soul (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 5 – Dec 15, 2018
Playwright: Patrick White
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Jay James-Moody, Brandon McClelland, Tara Morice, Sarah Peirse, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens, Nikki Shiels, Bruce Spence, Anthony Taufa
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Miss Docker is an inconvenient older lady. Living in the suburbs, her presence is a constant source of irritation to all and sundry, even though she goes out of her trying way to be a useful member of community. Possessing neither great discernible talent, nor satisfactory social skills, her good intentions prove inadequate, and having gone past an ascribed use-by date, exclusion is her daily reality.

Critical of the Australian middle classes, Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul takes aim at our parochial values, and that strange sense of fear resulting from our insecure colonial identity, one that corrupts the way we are with one another. Additionally, the play is a study of how women are devalued, through its depictions of a character who has failed to fulfil her destiny of wife and mother, in a society determined to disallow her from deviating from its narrow definitions of womanhood.

White’s signature incorporation of poetry and abstraction have a tendency to dilute the drama in his narratives, and although director Kip Williams does well to introduce a generous and robust scale of theatricality that is quite dazzling, the show oscillates regularly between entertaining and challenging, for an experience that feels, ultimately, not much more than moderately rewarding. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that live video is an inventive and memorable device here, with Williams and set designer Elizabeth Gadsby demonstrating an admirable meeting of the minds for a very effective use of the medium.

Actor Sarah Peirse brings a charming and familiar eccentricity to Docker that conveys a valuable realism for the piece, but it is arguable if the protagonist is on this occasion, sufficiently appealing for us to be firmly engaged with the plot. Reverend Wakeman is played by Brandon McClelland, whose flamboyant approach offers wonderful moments of intensity that add texture to a persistently sad story. Ensemble work is strong in the production, with sequences featuring the cast performing as a haunting chorus especially beautiful.

When scared little people make up the majority, it is the imaginative and the adventurous who are ostracised. Still in our psyche, an outpost of the old British Empire, we remain consumed by anxiety, always thinking ourselves deficient, desperate to be as good as everyone else in faraway fantasised Europe. We behave as though neglected and orphaned, consequently responding by always choosing to embrace the ordinary, in a constant state of keeping up with the Joneses, and irrational in our fear of all things different and unexpected. There is little value in living by replicating, even though it gives an impression of social cohesion, conformity holds us back from progress and deprives us of compassion. In A Cheery Soul we see that to love thy neighbour can be easy, if only we learned to step of our own way.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au