Review: The Night Alive (O’Punksky’s Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Sep 13 – Oct 14, 2017
Playwright: Conor McPherson
Director: Maeliosa Stafford
Cast: Laurence Coy, Patrick Dickson, Sarah Jane Kelly, John O’Hare, Darren Sabadina
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
In a run-down home in Dublin, surrounded by insidious violence, its inhabitants go about their simple lives, acculturated and unperturbed. Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive begins with Aimee’s bloodied face, and we are struck by the astonishing ease at which everyone is able to recover from the savage episode. These are people who live rough, and we watch them get on with it, like most humans do, trying to figure things out in a world that always seems to be on the verge of turning dystopian.

Director Maeliosa Stafford brings to the stage, the quintessential Irishness of its characters, offering an intriguing glimpse into a culture that oscillates between familiar and exotic. Our Australian sensibilities at times run parallel, but can often seem divergent. With McPherson’s very fascinating dialogue, the other side of the planet is turned immediate, and even though the slow pace at which Stafford allows for things to happen can prove demanding, The Night Alive is a whimsical piece with definite charm.

Tommy is down on his luck, but John O’Hare’s naturalistic portrayal of a man who soldiers on, gives the show its tenacious optimism. Sarah Jane Kelly is spiritedly valiant, in her attempts at preventing the sole female in The Night Alive from dissolving into a subjugated accessory for the men’s stories. It must be said however, that romance blooms unconvincingly between the two.

Laurence Coy and Patrick Dickson are memorable in the play’s quirkier roles, both delightful presences with a sense of precision in their respective approaches. Kenneth is a slightly cliché bad guy type, but Darren Sabadina’s energy is refreshing, and a much needed boost for a production that tends to fall too languorous.

It may be hard out there, but we brave it. There are forces that work against Tommy and his friends, and not a day passes without its challenges, yet they remain hopeful. We can be certain that without hope, all our tomorrows may as well cease to exist. To live, we must keep on dreaming, for it is only in how we manufacture anticipation, that time can derive its meaning.

www.opunkskystheatre.com

Review: Dinner (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 11 – Oct 28, 2017
Playwright: Moira Buffini
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Caroline Brazier, Brandon Burke, Claire Lovering, Rebecca Massey, Aleks Mikić, Sean O’Shea, Bruce Spence
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Paige is throwing a pretentious dinner party, for people she dislikes. Moira Buffini’s takedown of the English upper class, Dinner, begins promisingly enough, with pathetic women and impotent men tearing into each other, to expose the ignorant indulgences of those at the top, who seem to have things much easier for no good reason. Touches of surrealism give the play an enjoyable whimsy, but we quickly discover its plot and dialogue to be unoriginal, almost generic in its castigation of the rich. Characters with a depraved sense of entitlement, all in broken relationships, engaging in hateful exchanges over an expensive meal; none of it ever ceases to feel a tad too familiar.

The action takes place in a glorious dining room (designed by Elizabeth Gadsby), behind a big glass window. Either the great unwashed has to be kept at bay, or the theatre patrons need to be protected from some big mess that is poised to take place on stage. Three words, “fuck things up”, are given grand emphasis several times in the course of the production, but the wait for radical activity proves fruitless. Director Imara Savage makes several obtuse gestures in her staging, attempting to introduce the idea of subversion to her work, but it all feels much too polite, and they fall regrettably flat.

Caroline Brazier gives a polished performance as Paige, and although we can certainly see the disquiet and the deceptive fragile glamour of the lady of the house, we never really come to an understanding of the source of her immense toxicity, which underpins the entire narrative of Dinner. Aleks Mikić plays Mike, the outsider who stumbles in, representing the working class, in a juxtaposition of the privileged against the concept of an everyman. In spite of the actor’s strange and unexplained use of a posh accent, the enigmatic qualities created for his persona, makes him one of the more intriguing aspects of this production.

There are laughs to be had, and valuable concepts to chew on, but Dinner needs a lot more spice if its ambitions are to be fulfilled. Social inequity is a problem of great severity, especially troubling in the Trump age, and when we decide to challenge the imbalance of wealth, any hint of the perfunctory would risk the exercise turning inadequate and hypocritical. It is never sufficient that artists are well-meaning. We rely on them to tell the truth in a way that the truth may have an effect on how we think and live, and when the message is hard to digest, their arguments need to find a way to make themselves persuasive. A gentle simmer might be an easy way to broach the subject, but it rarely manages to get the job done.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: 5 Guys Chillin’ (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 12 – 15, 2017
Playwright: Peter Darney
Director: Patrick Howard
Cast: John Michael Burdon, Tom Christophersen, Tim De Souza, Stevie Haimes, Will Reilly

Theatre review
The idea of a drug-fuelled sex party might seem, from the outset, a titillating proposition for the adventurous, but in Peter Darney’s very shocking, but desperately truthful, 5 Guys Chillin’, “chemsex” is anything but arousing. The play is an outrageously revealing collection of verbatim disclosures from five men on the fringe, part of a gay subculture that few have investigated. Filled with taboos, this is raw and edgy theatre, replete with astonishing detail. The result is something that is best described as hardcore, and is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Directed by the provocative Patrick Howard, who brings to his staging a corresponding boldness, we are urged to find an explanation for the extreme behaviour that these characters embrace so resolutely. The self-destruction is evident, and the urgency at which Howard presents that agonising sense of oblivious ruination, is irresistibly thought-provoking, and politically significant. Hypnotic in its nauseatingly realistic rendering of scenes that will never play out in most of our sheltered homes and imaginations, 5 Guys Chillin’ is an opportunity to gawk at how far some of us have to go, to make life bearable.

The spectacle is created by a strong cast, impressively well rehearsed, with each actor demonstrating a depth of understanding that makes us share in the material’s pertinence. John Michael Burdon plays the revolting B, fearless and memorable in his portrayal of a man with no redeeming features. These are difficult personalities to make convincing, but we believe every disgusting word that comes out of Burdon’s mouth. J is performed by Tom Christophersen who leaves a remarkable impression with excellent comic timing and a touching vulnerability. Also poignant is Tim De Souza as PJ, whose disquieting revelations are striking in their emotional authenticity.

Gay men have suffered prejudice and hate for as long as they have existed. Individuals have risen out of homophobia injured but strong, while others continue to languish in insurmountable pain. 5 Guys Chillin’ shows us some of the darkest reactions to that discrimination. We know of teenagers committing suicide as a response to their communities’ rejection of their sexual identities, and here, even though each of the gay men are able to put on a brave face, they are each living out their own private death wishes. Hate can do no good, and we must confront each occurrence with vehemence.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Diving For Pearls (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 8 – Oct 28, 2017
Playwright: Katherine Thomson
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Michelle Doake, Jack Finsterer, Steve Rodgers, Ebony Vagulans, Ursula Yovich
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We ascribe only noble values to the Aussie battler, because we believe hard and honest work to be the greatest of virtues. In our celebration of the underdog, it is easy to forget the injustices that society inflicts on our disadvantaged. Katherine Thomson’s Diving For Pearls shows us the struggles of the poor, but instead of indulging in a pointless admiration of their fortitude, we question how it is that we allow these extreme discrepancies in wealth to exist, as though it is a completely natural and healthy phenomenon.

Barbara is a brassy broad who is more than willing to give life a go, naive in her trust that dreams do come true, that all you have to do is to play your cards right, and all the appropriate rewards will eventually be delivered. She dates Den, less ambitious but equally accepting of his place in the world. The couple do not complain about their lot in life, hardly aware of the forces at work that are determined to keep them at the bottom of the food chain.

Steve Rodgers and Ursula Yovich are the charismatic leads, both tremendously likeable and hence highly effective, in having us empathise with the stories they present, even as their characters make some very questionable choices. Playing young Verge is the remarkable Ebony Vagulans, who leaves a strong impression with her vibrant and animated presence. She brings to the role exceptional nuance, in both physical and psychological terms, that reflects sensitivity and a sophisticated theatrical instinct. The production does not always speak with great power, but audiences will find the tale nonetheless meaningful.

Poverty is required so that the wealthy can retain social dominance. Those at the bottom are made to believe that they are owed nothing by society, and that all the riches of the universe are available to them, if only they were smarter, worked harder, or simply luckier. When Barbara and Den find themselves unfulfilled, we wonder if there is ever recourse for those in their position. If we are comfortable with access becoming increasingly restricted, it will only be radical action that can bring us to something fair and balanced.

www.griffintheatre.com,au

5 Questions with John Michael Burdon and Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon

Patrick Howard: What about this play drew you to it and led to your auditioning for it?
John Michael Burdon: In 23 years of theatre, I have never had the opportunity (until now) to work on a truly contemporary written piece that really transforms the idea of what we expect queer theatre to be. The fact that it is a verbatim piece and is telling the stories of real people yet maintaining a certain theatricality to it is not something we see every day as an actor. And I truly do try to push my personal boundaries as an actor to find the truth of this play and my character in ways I have never done before so that’s exciting; to have the opportunity to look at a part of myself I’ve always tended to avoid in the past on stage. Plus I’ve always wanted an excuse to wear a leather harness on stage.

The ‘guy’ you’re playing, B, describes himself as an ‘instigator’, and that certainly comes to fruition in the show. How do you relate to playing this role?
My character B, is definitely the most sexually driven and sexually charged character, not only in the play, but also that I have ever performed. As a young man, I was very much the same and lived in the same world of sorts and B, for me, is who I think I would have become, had I not settled down with a partner and become a parent. It’s like playing an alternative future for me – a “what could have been” scenario had I stayed on the path I was on in my late teens / early twenties.

5 Guys Chillin’ is a bit deep-end in its content at times. Why do you think people should come and see this play, rather than avoid it?
Let’s be honest, this play is graphic. From the stories told to the language used, and the simulated sex scenes and drug use, it is quite hardcore to watch. There’s a sense of voyeurism that borders on intrusion from an audience point of view. But I would also say it’s an exercise in watching bravery on stage from a group of actors who are really trying to bring the truth to stage.  This play is set in London where this particular “scene” is a lot more common, however it is happening in Australia as well. It’s an exploration into the way gay men now connect with each other in a world of apps, instant connections, swipe rights, immediate gratification and easy access. I lived in a world of MSN Chat, gay phone lines like Manhunt & clubs and bars – but this play definitely shows us a new world in the gay community and how the men who live in it, still try to find any connection to other men that they can. 

You’re coming into this show right off the back of playing John in After The Dance at the New. What’s it been like juggling these two very different roles?
It’s been a strange experience, there’s been times when I have gone directly from a 5 Guys Chillin’ rehearsal in the rehearsal room upstairs at the New Theatre to preparing for an evening performance of After The Dance, a Rattigan play set in 1939. Jumping from one to the other has been a challenge. Having said that, the two plays and characters are so very far removed from each other, it’s easy to compartmentalise my “actor brain”. Which is a great thing, because the last thing I need is to jump on stage as John in After The Dance and start talking about the epic sex party in Berlin I went to.

I’m going to throw your question right back at you: what is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
Let’s just say it involved a production of Hair, where I appeared naked on stage. I had eaten something bad the night before and…yeah…

Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon: What has been the biggest challenge in directing 5 Guys Chillin’?
Patrick Howard: Moving past my crippling lack of self confidence, actually. This is the first time I’ve directed a play on my own in quite a number of years, and having trained and worked since with a very collaborative approach to theatre, I’ve constantly been questioning my style of developing theatrical work is effective when directing a scripted piece. But a few minutes into every rehearsal I’m so at ease, it’s all working out really well and I’m learning a lot! I also knew from the start that, given that movement and choreography are some of my weaker attributes as an artist, making the sex scenes and intimate moments on stage work was going to be a challenge. But, I trusted my strongest skills, and have a great and very generous cast, and we’ve all really come together (so to speak…)

Describe 5 Guys Chillin’ in five words.
Funny, affronting, concerning, honest, human.

What is your experience in verbatim theatre?
Before I studied theatre, I’d done an Honours thesis for my music degree which involved a lot of fieldwork, interviews, transcribing and writing and I really enjoyed that. I first took an interest in verbatim theatre when we did Paul Brown’s Aftershocks and Campion Decent’s Embers in drama school, and that was where I started to see where my interests in qualitative research and theatre could meet. I took it upon myself to make it my own private major study in drama school and developed two verbatim plays about police brutality and student politics, and a surreal ‘documentary musical’ about food and medication, which was produced as part of our graduating production. I’ve worked on quite a number of verbatim and documentary works over the past few years, including Götterdämmerung with my own company, Arrive. Devise. Repeat. I love the idea of sculpting something raw with such truth to become part of some bigger truth, and then finding a way to make that exist in space and time in and interesting way that moves an audience. 5 Guys Chillin’ is tremendously successful in this sense – the characters and drama of the work are compelling through subtext, despite being a collage of interviews. It stays fascinating from beginning to end and there’s no judgement or bias of the stories told at all.

Can you see yourself taking part in one of these parties if you were invited?
To be honest, probably not. The opportunity has been there many times, and I’ve never taken it up. Again, there’s that crippling lack of self-confidence again, but this time with reference to my body. I am very good friends with people who a part of this scene, and through them feel like I have experienced it in a way (I’ve certainly experienced helping cleaning up the aftermath of one…) and while I think the idea of it is great, I have a bit of a hesitation with putting myself in situations where I’m not in control. And obviously, with some of the drugs used in this scene, there’s some substantial risks involved, which gives me another reason to pause for thought.

What is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
I tend to be a bit of a risk taker when it comes to art, so don’t easily find myself embarrassed. As an actor, directors tend to give me notes like, ‘A very bold choice, but…’ and as a director, well, we’ll see…? I think, though, some of my teenage memories probably fit the bill, when I didn’t have any self-confidence and was a terrified closeted little band geek. Having to kiss a girl when I had the lead role in the musical in year nine was a big one. I wanted the ground to eat me up whenever it came up. I remember passing a note to my romantic interest via a friend assuring her I was gay and it didn’t mean anything, but that didn’t make it any easier at all. There were some corker teste-pop notes in that show too, god, and I was singing pop/rock songs and I’m just not cool enough to pull that off at all, even now.

Patrick Howard directs John Michael Burdon in 5 Guys Chillin’ by Peter Darney.
Dates: 12 – 15 Sep, 2017
Venue: New Theatre

5 Questions with Jeremi Campese and Ruby O’Kelly

Jeremi Campese

Ruby O’Kelly: What was your initial reaction to Moth after reading it for the first time?
Jeremi Campese: Above everything, I was in shock… I had no idea what to expect when I began. I remember laughing more than I expected, and being completely stunned at other times. The story starts moving so quickly and before I knew it, I’d read the final scene. That’s when I realised you need to be focused from the ‘go’, because the story challenges you both thematically and narratively. To get under Sebastian’s journey, you need to be really zeroed-in… there are so many recurring ideas and lines that hold him together!

What do you love most about Declan Greene’s writing?
It’s very easy to tell a typical story of 15-year-old high school students in a less-serious, downplayed manner. But Declan takes these characters and runs with them so earnestly and brilliantly! They are immature but their story has such mature and intense subject matter. He builds and develops them with such care that we as actors have so much to play with and think about. The way Declan conveys the history of their friendship in such a short amount of time means that he plays with the audience’s heartstrings with ease. The language is also so familiar: it’s hilarious when a playwright nails Millennial vernacular.

Since working on Moth, a play that explores some very heavy themes including mental illness and bullying… do you now see the world a little differently?
Hugely. A lot of reflection has gone on since we started rehearsing about my school life, the way I saw kids treated, sometimes how I treated them myself. With Sebastian, what shook me the most was how quickly his world unravels: the whole story takes place over less than 3 days. Things can escalate, and they can escalate dangerously and quickly. Claryssa learns that the hard way, and so do the audience.

Was there anyone in your own high school experience that inspired your characterisation of Sebastian? It’s very good.
Thank you!! Yeah, there are certainly parallels I saw that I had to draw on. Primarily with his mannerisms and overall physicality I have a few friends in mind. So in terms of those ideas, I can’t really take credit for them – I’m just mimicking. But looking into Sebastian’s psychotic experiences, I was mainly left to my own research: as his experiences start becoming more and more abnormal (without giving too much away), I was drawn further away from my comfort zone.

Moth is your second show at ATYP in 2017. How is this experience different to your last play Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore?
Oedipus was a fast learning curve in terms of stage discipline, having to constantly embody new characters. In Moth, we have to do the same, but when we ‘play’ other characters, it is less clean: it’s more mockery. This has its own difficulty, because I’m having to constantly think about Seb’s attitude towards those characters, not just my own. And that’s the key difference, this show has made me to dive deeply into one individual’s experiences (as any great show does). They are both remarkable plays in their own rights, and I’m just so grateful to ATYP for giving me the opportunities. I can’t wait to get this one in front of an audience!

Ruby O’Kelly

Jeremi Campese: What’s the most difficult part about playing a high school student in Moth?
Ruby O’Kelly: Hormones in high school are all over the chop and playing with the fear of not being understood through making horrible decisions has been a great challenge. It’s funny though, as soon as our designer Tyler Hawkins gave me a school uniform skirt to wear in rehearsals, I put it on and I relived the awkwardness and weight of the material and had a rush of nostalgic insecurity. High school seems like a long time ago but the emotional trauma of being a teenager can stick with you forever.

Claryssa is a girl who, deep down, is insecure, but she covers it a lot, sometimes with mockery. How do you look for the balance between landing the humour and truth? You get it so right!
Daww thanks buddy. Declan Greene’s writing lends a huge hand to this balance by giving Claryssa a huge emotional journey. I guess what makes Claryssa funny is that half the time she’s mocking Sebastian, teachers, (everybody), she’s not trying to be funny. She genuinely thinks everyone is a fuckhead and what comes out of her mouth is so ridiculous it gets a laugh!

How do you want audiences to react to the show? Particularly ATYP’s younger audiences.
I hope the reaction from this play is reflection.. I don’t want to give away too much!! Working on Moth has made me want to be a better person. Moth has also given me a greater understanding of the consequence for actions made in high school.

The play pivots on Seb and Claryssa’s relationship. How would you define it in 3 words?
HA… and what a relationship they have… Today I’ll go with savage, hopeless and hilarious.

Rachel Chant works very collaboratively, so we’ve had a gratefully large role in shaping the play thus far. How have you found working with her? And most importantly, how long did it take to learn your lines????? Kidding…
Rachel has been an absolute dream to work with. Her incredible mind, generosity and empathy as a director creates the best environment for Jeremi and I to truly play. Rachel incorporates a lot of improvisation before we get scenes off the ground and often uses the creative impulses and physical discoveries we actors make to inspire some of her direction. She is a very cool lady.

Jeremi Campese and Ruby O’Kelly can be seen in Moth by Declan Greene.
Dates: 6 – 16 Sep, 2017
Venue: ATYP

Review: Undertaking (Sydney Fringe Festival)

Venue: HPG Festival Hub (Erskineville NSW), Sep 6 – 30, 2017
Playwrights: Duncan Maurice, Sharon Zeeman
Director: Duncan Maurice
Cast: Rizcel Gagawanan, Jasper Garner Gore, Moreblessing Maturure, Benjamin Wang, Sharon Zeeman

Theatre review
In a very large disused office, an audience gathers to solve the mystery of 11 murders. There are clues littered everywhere, and we roam around using mobile phones as torches, with suspicious characters in our midst who may or may not be part of the show that we have come to see. Over the course of an hour, drama unfolds, with the cast revealing itself, in their highly unorthodox presentation of a contrastingly conventional serial killer story.

Duncan Maurice and Sharon Zeeman’s Undertaking works with the enveloping of space around bodies, which is the essential nature of the theatrical art form. Strangers congregate, awaiting time and space to transform in the hands of collaborating artists, who have constructed a plan, to orchestrate a process of communication above the mundane. In Maurice and Zeeman’s vision, passivity is the ruin of both art and life. To be a participant of their staging, our spectatorship extends beyond the mind. A kinetic response is required of us, but how much we are willing to give, always remains a personal choice.

The journey fluctuates between moments of bustling activity, and creepy stillness. Some of us are compelled to make things happen, while others are content to wait for the next bout of drama. The wandering group consists of personalities who engage ardently in the investigative process, as well as those who observe quietly; we choose our own adventure. The show is most effective when actors are in close proximity, but the space is large and we are too often left to our own devices. Musical director David Herrero creates an omnipresent soundscape that assists in keeping us involved, especially potent when tensions escalate in the closing minutes. Actor Benjamin Wang is memorable for his terrifying depiction of a man on the brink of death.

Undertaking is a spirited work that takes seriously, its artistic responsibility to inspire its viewer. It is democratic and political, and even if the immediate narrative in the “whodunnit” genre can seem perfunctory, the experience is unforgettable. Whenever the making of art falls into repetitive predictability, we must call for a new challenge. Immersive theatre is just the way to tackle the tedious obedience, that has today become so pervasive.

www.mongrelmouth.com