Review: Mosquitoes (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 8 – May 18, 2019
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Annie Byron, Jason Chong, Mandy McElhinney, Jacqueline McKenzie, Angela Nica Sullen, Louis Seguier, Nikita Waldron, Charles Wu
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
The two sisters could not be more different. Alice is a high-achieving scientist, and Jenny is an anti-vaxxer; it would seem that all the brains had gone to one sibling, leaving the other quite the imbecile by comparison. Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes sets up a dynamic that tempts us to think in binary terms, but guides us away from forming false equivalences in our estimation of its characters. Although we see good and bad, smart and stupid, the play is able to convince us that people are people, that to determine some life as more valuable than others, would always be tenuous and quite indecent.

After one very big mistake, Jenny’s messy life appears to be going resolutely downhill. The reverberations of her self-destruction are felt by Alice, whose own existence begins to unravel, perhaps as a result of her sister’s chaotic proximity. Playwright Kirkwood sets the family drama against a backdrop of science and nature, with Alice’s career in physics providing context for us to ruminate on both the separateness and inseparable-ness of things. We isolate things to understand them, but forget their indissolubility in the bigger scheme. Our minds are able to conceive of distinct particles, but none exists in absolute detachment. Families are made of individuals, who are at once autonomous and conjoined.

Mosquitoes‘ small domestic scenes are not an easy fit on this vast stage, and although production designer Elizabeth Gadsby and lighting designer Nick Shlieper do not always succeed at containing and concentrating our vision, there is an alluring quality in the elegance that they do achieve. Some very big acting by Annie Byron, Louis Seguier and Charles Wu in supporting roles, are risky choices that prove helpful, and satisfying, in getting us involved. Director Jessica Arthur brings excellent amplification to personal emotions for the characters we meet, but her show is insufficiently provocative, able to communicate effectively only on surface levels. We want more insight into our contemporary times, and more philosophy in general, from a piece of writing that seems to promise so much intellectual rigour.

Jenny is played by Mandy McElhinney, whose humour is a striking feature, full of confidence and impressive verve. Jacqueline McKenzie’s Alice is appropriately high-strung, with an admirable intensity, although slightly one-note in her approach. Their work is assisted by James Brown’s music and sound design, who does marvellous work when tensions are rising, but is occasionally deflating, when in contradiction with the comedy being presented by the cast.

When we find Alice at the end of her tether, rationality turns her ironically monstrous, almost fascistic in attitude, as she tries to put order back into life. At that moment, the shiny appeal of her intelligence and sophistication, reveals something inhumane, and we begin to perceive Jenny’s prior weaknesses with disarming empathy. It is a magical instance of equalisation that transpires, if only in our irresistible urge to place judgement. At these times of extraordinary factiousness, there is perhaps no greater need than the urgency to look for similarities in between. In our efforts to make things better, we identify problems, and relegate them to imagined groups of others, and forget the ultimately inextricable culpability of the self. It is easy to think of the cosmos as one, but to prevent it from falling to pieces, in this day and age, looks to be impossible.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Justin Amankwah and Stella Ye

Justin Amankwah

Stella Ye: Justin you are one busy and hard-working human. How is your soul going and what do you do to stay grounded?
Justin Amankwah: My soul is swell! I’m no good at sitting still so I prefer to always have something to do. In terms of staying grounded, all credit is due to my calendar.

What would be your game plan during a demon apocalypse?
Run to the nearest Church & repent. Then grab a rosary & some holy water. If all else fails, I’ll channel my juju and kick some demon ass.

Seeing Edgar evolve during rehearsals has been NUTS. What’s it been like working with puppetry? What has is taught you about yourself as a performer?
It’s quite profound working with a character both inside and outside of my physical self. I’m still wrapping my head around it to be honest. I initially thought I’d just have to get the mechanics of puppeteering correct, but I’ve come to find that the real challenge is to bring myself into him and work towards him moving like I would If I were a talking teddy bear. It’s taught me that I rely very heavily on my body in performance. But mainly that I like to get the work right straight away. & I noticed this while enduring the very slow burn of bringing the puppet to life.

If Edgar had two theme songs, what would they be and why?
‘Battle Without Honor or Humanity’ by Tomoyasu Hotei because it’s a powerful track with grit. & the instrumental for ‘Simon Says’ by Pharoahe Monch because it’s an awesome blend of demonic & straight up gangster, just like Edgar.

What does the show mean to you and why should people come and see it?
This show for me is a great opportunity to entertain through means I’ve never got to before, to play this boisterous & melodramatic character unabashedly is a total joy. I think people should come because it’ll be such a good time at the theatre & my hope is that audiences will be wildly amused by our ridiculous show.

Stella Ye

Justin Amankwah: What were your thoughts when you first read Alice In Slasherland?
Stella Ye: My mind kind of went like this: “!!!!!!!!!!!!” because I found it so wonderful and fun to read. I felt like Qui Nguyen threw all of the ingredients from the fridge into the pan and somehow made the best omelette ever. I loved that it played into all of these familiar American teenage and horror tropes, yet allowed room to see and experience beyond them as well. So yes, shoutout to Qui for creating such a hilarious, vibrant and heightened world.

What are your favourite things about being a part of this show (besides kicking ass)?
Getting to explore crazy ideas. Being with an amazing group of humans also exploring crazy ideas. Using my voice and body in ways that I never have before. Blood capsules.

You face some heavily racist comments as Alice in the show, how do you deal with that, and has it become less challenging as we’ve progressed?
That was definitely a scene that Rachel [Kerry, director] and I talked about after the first read and had to ask exactly how it served the story. High school can be a tough place and I think we’ve all come across a Tommy at some point in our lives. Moving forward with it has been about honouring what’s going on for Alice in that moment, and she’s still demonic and freshly adjusting to life out of hell (cue internal monologue: humans are weird) so I’m learning to sit inside her brain and trust in how she chooses to handle that interaction.

In a world where the action is commonly reserved for men, what are you feeling about portraying a powerful female protagonist battling an even more powerful female antagonist?
Life has taught me that women are incredible and powerful and badass, so it’s been fantastic being able to reflect that on stage through Alice. I love that she gets to be so physically engaged in everything that she does, and those fight scenes are so, so fun to perform. Laura and I especially have a lot of fight moments together in the show, and working with her during rehearsals has really made me appreciate her strength and bravery, as a woman but as a human being really.

Justin Amankwah and Stella Ye can be seen in Alice In Slasherland.
Dates: 18 Apr – 11 May, 2019
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: Venus In Fur (107 Projects)

Venue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Apr 10 – 13, 2019
Playwright: David Ives
Director: Emma Burns
Cast: Zach Selmes, Caitlin Williams
Images by Andrea Mudbidri

Theatre review
Thomas is casting for his play, a new rendition of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus In Furs from 1870, about a man who is so infatuated that he asks to be the woman’s slave. Vanda arrives late, but is exceedingly well-prepared for her audition; it begins to look as though the actor knows the work better than its author. In David Ives’ marvellous reinvention entitled Venus In Fur, Thomas’ misogyny is exposed from the very start, as a sort of commentary on the hypocrisy of American liberalism, where the straight white male often fools no one but himself, with his twenty-first century wokeness.

Thomas argues that he writes about a man’s surrender, but Vanda understands all the manipulations involved, not only in the role she is charged to play, but also as it pertains her status in the rehearsal room. Ives’ play is dark and delightful, especially scintillating for those with a penchant for BDSM and sapiosexuality. It is smart, playful and dangerous, constantly teasing us with its language and plot, beguiling as it cajoles us into asking “who is the master”, and “who is the slave.”

Splendid direction by Emma Burns keeps us hopelessly enthralled. Intensely mysterious, but saliently expounded, Venus In Fur is made to feel as delicious as it is complex. Design elements are rudimentary, but Burns ensures that the action is always intriguing, and also deeply satisfying. Actor Caitlin Williams is wonderful as Vanda, aggressively intelligent with her interpretation of the enigmatic female. She makes the dialogue come to glorious life. Zach Selmes is similarly powerful, and convincing as the reprehensible Thomas. The performance is thoroughly rehearsed, and although not particularly inventive with what they bring to the stage, their show is unequivocally captivating.

Thomas is taught the important lesson, that to present himself as a feminist on his own terms, is a disgraceful transgression. He imagines that to put his fictive heroine in a position of power, absolves his neglect of her own desires. His slave’s submission is entirely conditional and self-serving; we learn that it is the slave and Thomas’ desires that come first. The world does not need a feminism that simply focuses on shifting power from one gender to another. We must learn to conceive of new societies in which hierarchies that require anyone to be positioned at the bottom, burdened with disadvantage, are no longer acceptable. In the bedroom, however, we can play with more sadistic parameters, as long as nobody gets hurt, and everybody gets what they want.

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Review: Exhale (Black Birds / Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 9 – 13, 2019
Creators & Cast: Ayeesha Ash, Emele Ugavule

Theatre review
They live in Sydney, but they struggle to call it home. Ayeesha Ash is Māori Grenadian, and Emele Ugavule is Tokelauan Fijian. Their work Exhale relates to the sense of displacement that many experience in the metropolis, and the questions inevitably raised about background and origin, when examining notions of belonging. The artists identify in each other, the alienation that results from complex historical and ongoing operations of colonialism. They connect through a yearning for indigeneity, and it is this reclamation of cultural roots, that forms the substance on which, we too, can connect.

A thoughtful compilation of audio recordings and visual projections, help us visualise the women’s longing, but it is their very presence, as individuals and as a pair, that speak most saliently. Ash and Ugavule are compelling performers, both captivating with everything that they bring on stage. Their fifty-minute presentation is enjoyable and though-provoking, but explorations in Exhale have a tendency to feel too polite. The production is gentle, with moments of tenderness that are genuinely beautiful. Its spirit is evident, but it feels contained, perhaps hesitant with what it wishes to reveal.

Ash and Ugavule speak with their elders, who prove to be evasive, intentionally forgetful in their efforts to get on with life. We see in the young women, a frustration and a disquiet perhaps, but we wonder if a more urgent anger, could be helpful in the advancement of their stories. Not many of us are natural soldiers, but there are aggressors who will come to violate those who are peaceful, and when push comes to shove, one has to find the warrior within, even just for a brief theatrical sojourn.

www.black-birds.net

5 Questions with Stephanie Somerville and Megan Wilding

Stephanie Somerville

Megan Wilding: What has been the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard?
Stephanie Somerville: Probably something Rick Brayford, the head of the Aboriginal acting course, at WAAPA told me before I went for my call back for the acting course. I was super, super nervous and he said to me “It’s your land, now go act those little white girls off the stage.” I find myself saying that to myself a lot; it grounds me, gives me confidence and makes me laugh.

Do you have a mantra you say to yourself before you go on stage?
“It’s your land, now go act those little white girls off the stage.”

What has been the most exciting thing about bringing A Little Piece Of Ash to life?
I’ve never gotten to work with a writer/director on a play before. It feels like such an enormous privilege to help a friend and someone who I admire so deeply tell her story.

Do you have a good warm-up song that you blast before a show?
I usually have a little playlist for each show I do, and I’ve got a few already for A Little Piece Of Ash. It’s a lot of country music, but ‘G.U.Y’ by Lady Gaga is always a great one to get the blood pumping.

Why should people come and see A Little Piece Of Ash?
It’s a deeply touching and hilarious play about the absurdity of life, death and how we deal with it. It’s written by an incredible new talent. It’s powerful, it’s truthful, it’s Aboriginal and it’s completely unapologetic.

Megan Wilding

Stephanie Somerville: What first made you want to start writing?
Megan Wilding: Ever since I was a little anxiety-riddled kid, I found it hard to express what I was feeling. I discovered at quiet a young age that I could explore things that that were going on around me that I didn’t really understand through writing and making stories. As I grew older and became more aware of the theatre industry, it was just a natural progression that my writing turned into plays and performance poetry. It’s nice to give my feelings to characters and let them explore the extreme. Writing A Little Piece Of Ash certainly helped me understand my feelings towards loss and love a lot more.

Why did you feel it was important for you to also direct A Little Piece Of Ash?
Can I say I’m a bit of a control freak? A Little Piece Of Ash is my first little trauma baby, and I wasn’t ready to give her away just yet; I wanted to see her take her first steps and start to walk. Also, I’ve wanted to pursue directing for a while and this presented itself as a really great opportunity to jump in. Hopefully from here some more opportunities will come along.

What’s one thing you wish people talked about more?
Everything. Treaty, trauma, and truth. But more importantly I wished more people listened when someone spoke. It’s scary how much talking is done to blocked ears.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
That there’s no one way to grieve; that you can and should reach out if you need to; that love can be expressed across time and space.

How do you unwind after a long day of writer/actor/directoring…?
I’ve watched every season of RuPaul’s Drag Race at least 5 times. Honestly, that show with all feathers and fierceness helps me switch off every time. Or a nice, hot, eucalyptus bath.

Stephanie Somerville and Megan Wilding are collaborating on A Little Piece Of Ash.
Dates: 12 – 27 Apr, 2019
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Ditch (Dream Plane Productions)

Venue: Limelight on Oxford (Darlinghurst NSW), Apr 3 – 13, 2019
Playwright: Beth Steel
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Laurence Coy, Angus Evans, Giles Gartrell-Mills, Fiona Press, Martin Quinn, Jasmin Simmons
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Beth Steel wrote about a very near future in her 2010 play Ditch, describing a nightmare scenario that seems to prophesy the currently ongoing Brexit ordeal, eventuating at the very worst possible place. We find ourselves in the middle of World War III, but this time, Great Britain is fighting as a fascist state, whilst its land is fast becoming submerged by rising sea levels. Steel’s work offers an alarming look at the world we are turning into. It shows us the horrors we are travelling towards, without dwelling on how we are getting ourselves there, leaving the audience to figure out the root of these problems, and making us go through a process of soul-searching, for an agonising reflective examination of the people that we are.

The play is heavy, but never alienating. A very strong cast turns what should be inconceivable, into an immediate and pressing tale full of frightening resonance. Fiona Press is a persuasive Mrs Peel, of an older generation (which makes her our contemporary) and has a lot to answer for. She keeps calm and carries on, trying to forge ahead as though blameless, or maybe more accurately, suppressing the guilty conscience that must plague her. The other elder of the group, Burns is played by a very nuanced Laurence Coy, able to distinctly represent both fragility and brutishness of the banal male archetype. Young Megan’s powerful presence is embodied by Jasmin Simmons, who impresses with her remarkably textured approach.

As the appropriately domineering and repulsive alpha soldier Turner, Giles Gartrel-Mills adds a subtle dimension of deception to the role, further enhancing the drama that he brings. Angus Evans is wonderfully authentic with the conviction, and precision, so discernible in his depiction of the traumatised Bug. New recruit James is effortlessly innocent, as performed by the incredibly earnest Martin Quinn.

Director Kim Hardwick’s insistence on her actors delivering accuracy and dynamism, proves to be very rewarding. The show’s crescendo grabs hold of us slowly and incrementally, as it builds to an explosive, and very satisfying, conclusion. The production is well designed on all fronts. Set and costumes by Victor Kalka, lights by Martin Kinnane, and sound by Stephanie Kelly, are all cleverly rendered for our easy suspension of disbelief, and for maximum tension. Ditch will not let us off the hook, in its tragedy about all our sins.

Completed pre-Brexit, about a post-Brexit world, Steel knew about the darkness that we were heading for, not because of some supernatural precognitive perception ability, but because our self-destruction is always written on the wall. Much as our catastrophes are unimaginable in scale, they were always foreseeable. Ditch does not wish expressly to be pessimistic, but the truth that it presents, would be challenging even for the most ardent of optimists. At this juncture of our evolution, or some might say devolution, the question seems to be moving away from “how do we survive this?” to something much more like “do we deserve to survive this?”

www.facebook.com/dreamplaneproductions

Review: The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (Jackrabbit Theatre / Little Eggs Collective)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 2 – 13, 2019
Poet: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Director: Julia Robertson
Cast: Lloyd Allison-Young, Mathew Lee, Nicholas Papademetriou, Nicole Pingon, Callan Purcell, Annie Stafford, Grace Stamnas, Mike Ugo, Laura Wilson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The theatrical action takes place in a rectangular sandpit, with nine people in disciplined formations, illustrating the 1798 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Romanticist’s words are turned tangible, as we watch his ship’s adventures unfold, from an optimistic start, into a journey that becomes increasingly perilous. The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner is parsed through the bodies of performers, for a transformation that takes the storytelling from one artistic form to another, and in the process, bending time to create a channel in which the past can visit the palpable present.

Directed by Julia Robertson, the production is whimsical, resolutely so, but it is insufficiently engaging, due mainly to the traverse arrangement of seating, which disallows the visual dimensions of the show to truly fulfil their intentions. Without an adequate backdrop, and without a raised stage, our eyes become restricted in what they are able to absorb and discern. The ensemble is focused, exquisitely cohesive with their offering. It is a spirited effort, especially inventive with the music and sounds that they generate, and along with composer Oliver Shermacher, auditory pleasures are a principal accomplishment of this work.

The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner may not connect as potently as it should, but it bears an integrity that is reassuring. There is a purity to its approach that feels artistically uncompromising and, therefore, admirable. In what we term “independent theatre”, nobody pays your bills but yourself. The sacrifices involved in undertaking this often thankless work are mammoth, and artists should not placate or ingratiate, in the hope of some imaginary professional advancement that will result. Their only responsibility is to the truth, and that is what we are here for, wherever we find ourselves to be.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com | www.facebook.com/littleeggscollective