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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5 Questions with Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams

Zach Selmes

Caitlin Williams: We might as well start out with the most obvious question – what’s your kink?
Zach Selmes: Such a Vanda question! Would it be such an actor thing of me to say “role-playing”?

You play two characters in this, the playwright Thomas and his character Kushemski. What drew you to these roles?
The greatest thing about acting is being given the opportunity to explore such a variety of characters, of lifestyles you’ll never lead, and play within that world for a while – a gentleman in the Austro-Hungarian empire, for example. I love this industry and if a show is meta, I’m interested! As an aspiring director, Thomas is an excellent example of the traps a creative with privilege can fall into if they aren’t thoughtful of their subject matter or choose to regard their colleagues as little more than puppets to do their bidding. He’s a great case-study on how NOT to negotiate with your actors.

You come from a musical theatre background, how does it feel working on straight theatre?
Two people alone onstage for ninety minutes is definitely a jump in the deep end. After majoring in musical theatre at uni, I played a lot of comedy roles in what were largely ensemble shows. More recently, I was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night but played the fool and musician in both and always had a joke or instrument to charm the audience onto my side. ‘Venus in Fur’ is the first show I’ve done without a single song and, while Thomas gets in some dry zingers, he is far from comic relief. It’s a refreshing learning experience to be playing the antagonistic straight man.

What do you think this play has to say about the complexity of power in relationships?
It certainly subverts the idea that power comes down to physical dominance. Indeed, while it explores the erotic side of power, the play is far more driven by the psychological nature of Thomas and Vanda’s relationship. From the moment Vanda storms the stage, Thomas has to fight to maintain his directorial power and as soon as you think you have a handle on the power struggle within his play, it becomes apparent that any power Vanda has is a result of Kushemski’s manipulation of her… until she manipulates Thomas right back and the lines between the plays blur! It’s a constant tug of war and the longer it goes on, the more gloriously frustrated everyone becomes.

With the #MeToo movement all over the media, how do you feel this play is relevant to the current moment, particularly surrounding the treatment of actors?
I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of some overwhelmingly conscientious casts, but I’ve only fairly recently been delving into plays. While I could only reference media reports with regard to straight theatre, I can say first hand that being a young man on the musical theatre side of the fence means a lot of unsolicited attention – typically from male creatives or networking figures – in situations where it is difficult for a performer to refuse the advances for fear of losing current or future work. As we see with #MeToo, it’s an industry-wide problem because of the unique ways our work environment relies on trust. Every show that I’ve worked on has had a co-ed dressing room (often closer in size to a closet) where you have to trust that your colleagues are being respectful of your privacy. Onstage, you become more intimate with people in ways you normally wouldn’t and have to trust that their focus is on what’s best for the scene and show, and not something more sinister. The industry and its workers are vulnerable to that trust being taken advantage of or broken which is why it’s incredibly important to be constantly aware of your other actors and their wellbeing. Having support systems in place like cast reps and being a part of your actor’s union (MEAA) gives power back to the majority of the industry who just want to be able to work and create safely.

Caitlin Williams

Zach Selmes: You’ve been involved in a lot of shows recently, what’s special about Venus In Fur?
Caitlin Williams: What’s special to me about Venus In Fur, is that it lets me play a role I rarely get to play — the young, sexy, confident, take-no-prisoners Vanda. I can’t tell you how many times in the last two years I’ve played an older role or a male character rewritten as a woman, so it’s nice to finally get back to playing someone age appropriate who’s so much fun.

As an emerging female creative working both onstage and behind the scenes, how relevant do you find this play to the theatre scene in Sydney?
I think what this play shows is that the audition room is such a fascinating, terrifying thing, where the power imbalance is profound and can, as we’ve seen in the international and Sydney theatre scene, be easily exploited. What Thomas expects out of Vanda is a level of perfection that’s impossible for any woman to reach, and I think that standard of perfection is still subconsciously expected of emerging female artists.

Performing a two-person text isn’t easy, especially when that text involves a play within a play. Is there a craft to bouncing back and forth between character mid-scene? Mid-sentence even?
For these roles I’ve been finding lot of the character changes come from my voice and accents. Vanda Jordan has your typical American accent, while Vanda Von Dunayev has this much more regal, old-school transatlantic accent. I’ve found that once I’ve gotten the accent switches down then I can bring in that characterisation and physicality that comes along with each change.

Were you always a theatre kid, or was there a specific moment that converted you?
I think it was a high school production of A Midsummer Nights Dream, where I went in determined to play Helena. I’d never spoken a word of Shakespeare out loud before but I went in, auditioned, and got the part. Being part of a cast, getting to explore a character and have fun on stage in a safe environment, really kicked off a love of theatre in me.

As your character Vanda so eloquently describes Venus In Fur “basically it’s S&M Porn”. What would you say to any hesitant theatre-goers who worry the show might lack depth?
This is a play that’s fun, sexy, and hilarious. But it also tackles issues that the entertainment industry has really had to come to terms with in the form of #MeToo. This play is about female empowerment and the complexities of power in relationships.

Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams can be seen in Venus In Fur by David Ives.
Dates: 10 – 13 Apr, 2019
Venue: 107, Redfern

Review: Obscene Madame D (Theatre Kantanka)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), May 23 – 27, 2018
Novelist: Hilda Hilst
Director: Carlos Gomes
Cast: Katia Molino
Images by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
Surrounded by death and dereliction, Madame D is plunged into a deep isolation, where she finds herself examining the meaning of her existence, after suffering the recent bereavement of a longtime companion. Still shaken from the sudden loss, her thoughts are incoherent but belligerent, and her behaviour is increasingly erratic. Her neighbours are perturbed, and so are we. Obscene Madame D is unsettling, an avant-garde work that is unafraid of confusion, determined to embrace the strange and difficult, in its exploration of life at its outer peripheries.

The space is charged with a sense of wonderment, as though something esoteric has taken over Madame D’s depressed home and mind. Video projections by Sam James and lights by Fausto Brusamolino create a gloomy but seductive atmosphere; we never feel at ease, but this mysterious intrusion into Madame D’s sanctuary is a hauntingly beautiful experience. Gail Priest’s music and sound are heard through headphones, so that all the secrets are presented with immediacy, and intimacy, although what we are presented with, never seem to be more than clues or deflections.

Directed by Carlos Gomes, who orchestrates something enchantingly unique for his audience, often intriguing with its penchant for rousing curiosity, though its ability to hold our attention is inconsistent. In the absence of a strong narrative, we drift through dream states, not all of which pertain to the show in progress. Performer Katia Molino cuts a glamorous figure, mesmerising even in various states of dishevelment. In the middle of all the tangential statements, Molino’s unflappable presence provides a reliable centre, that our imaginations can retreat into, and interpretations can be formulated.

When we meet Madame D, it is as though she is encountering freedom for the first time. In pain from the shock of a new independence, she now has to define the world for herself. No longer the passive half of a partnership, Madame D must finally grow up, and as an older woman, the process is understandably excruciating. It is an inevitable metamorphosis, one that can only be unpredictable, but that will ultimately be rewarding, if only for the brutal authenticity that it delivers.

www.107.org.au | www.kantanka.com.au

Review: Get Her Outta Here (107)


Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Apr 19 – 21, 2018
Creator: Isabella Broccolini
Cast: Isabella Broccolini
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Isabella Broccolini is the lady in red, swathed in an uncompromising colour representative of all things fiery. We see a picture of obstinacy, a woman of dogged determination making single-minded statements about selfhood, and of identity in general. Her red suitcase never leaves her side, like a snail with her home attached, adding to the image of tenacity, but symbolising discontentment, in a performance piece that seems to talk a lot about the unexpected duality of perseverance and relocation.

Get Her Outta Here is wonderfully engrossing, fuelled by the inexorable presence of its creator. Broccolini’s physicality is confident and powerful, with an idiosyncratic style to its movement that has us captivated. Her body is untethered to the homogenising nature of dance training, but offers a clarity and strength to what it wishes to convey, as though disciplined in accordance with her own ideals.

The work is abstract, beautifully so, and audiences will interpret it how they wish. When art refuses to be obvious, it runs the risk of leaving us apathetic, but Broccolini’s enigmatic (and often very funny) approach is deeply alluring. We find ourselves opening up to her, allowing her obscure expressions to provoke and inspire. Music by Grace Huie Robbins moves the show through its various phases with excellent effect, creating shifts in dimensions that help enrich our imagination. Lights however, are under-explored and regretfully monotonous, for a production that is otherwise an aesthetic delight.

Broccolini’s speech is coy, but glimpses of honesty are revealed in her storytelling, to help our minds assemble a sense of truth for the red lady. Under the quirky and jokey, almost camp, deflecting exterior, lies a distinct rage, drenched in blood, perhaps too gory to expose unadorned. Get Her Outta Here is a woman’s fight with territory, even as she resists every place that she finds herself. Outsiders wish to be anywhere but here, and for us, the cliché is especially true, that it is the journey, and not the destination, that fulfils. Our project of reclaiming and redefining space, is not yet able to afford any room for complacency. For the time being at least, the red lady’s adventures with her red suitcase shall not cease.

www.107.org.au | www.isabellabroccolini.com

Review: Jobready (Feckful Theatre)

Venue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Nov 30 – Dec 1, 2017
Playwright: Caitlin Doyle-Markwick
Cast: Sabrina D’Angelo, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick, Sarah Easterman, Matte Rochford

Theatre review
Matte is a musician in need of an income. Australian bureaucracy dictates that he goes through onerous channels, to find a job that addresses that need, without concern for the talents that he possesses. It certainly pays no attention to any of the interests that he may have as a sentient being.

In Caitlin Doyle-Markwick’s Jobready, we see our economy determined to dehumanise those who rely on it to survive. We allow money to drive the way communities operate, and as we become increasingly consumed by financial pragmatism, and the accompanying concept of productivity, what makes us human is reduced into a process of monetisation that seems to value only that which can be commodified. It is just too bad that Matte’s abilities are judged to be worthless.

The ideas are sombre, but the show is uproarious. We watch our ludicrous beliefs presented in a comedy unhinged with an exaggerated absurdity, but feel only its accuracy. Although a straightforward piece of writing, the self-directed cast of Jobready brings to the stage, something that is quite extraordinary in its acerbity and exuberance. Its commedia dell’arte style of presentation is joyful, and marvellously entertaining; the laughs in this show are nothing short of rambunctious.

As Matte is put through the system, his transformation into something robotic, reminds us of technological advancements that are now said to be poised to take over most of our jobs. The things that we are grooming Matte for, will soon be taken over by machines. He will then have to exploit parts of himself that artificial intelligence is unable to replicate, and in that process become more human than ever before. This is a future we should not be afraid of. Utopia might still require money, but it is up to our most optimistic humanity to re-imagine that iteration of a new economy.

www.107.org.au

Review: An Alternative Fact (Woolf Ensemble)

Venue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Aug 29, 2017
Playwrights: Sam Anderson, David Margulies, Lucy Prebble, John Patrick Shanley, Frederik Stroppel, Liam Williams, John J Wooten
Directors: Meg Alexandra, Christine Greenough, Georgina Holt, Valentin Lang, Lauren Lloyd-Williams, Izzy Stevens
Cast: Sam Anderson, Megan Bennets, Isabel Dickson, Karli Evans, Thomas Filer, Christine Greenough, Haydan Hawkins, Lara Lightfoot, Amanda Marsden, Jamie Meyer-Williams, Claire Oehme, Jessica Saras, Johann Silva
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Seven short pieces, including one-act plays and select scenes from longer works, are presented in a series named An Alternative Fact. Featuring white lies, half lies, and complete falsifications, the production is a simple one, barely disguising its singular intention of providing a showcase for actors. The stories are not always well told, but we can certainly see all the work that is put into acting. David Mamet once wrote audaciously, that theatre requires only actors and no directors, but in An Alternative Fact, it is clear that for an audience to be involved in ideas, we need to be provided something that is over-and-above the witnessing of actors in labour over their craft.

Much of the production is raw, feeling almost impromptu in its approach, but there is no shortage of conviction on this stage. The players try to convince us, of their skill and talent, and of the material they have taken responsibility for. Truth is the nature of this beast, not just with its thematic concern, but as an exercise that draws attention so closely to the art of acting, we watch to see if each of the cast is able to be impervious, with that integral quality of honesty in their portrayals.

As Tristan in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, Thomas Filer is a rigorous, persuasive presence. Simultaneously theatrical and natural, it is a captivating performance that allows us to perceive the levels of reality that could be manufactured for an audience. Most memorable of the night however, is Sam Anderson in an extract of his own one man show, Bi-Cycle. Polished yet intuitive, and thoroughly nuanced, it is the only segment that has us invest in its narrative. The piece is playful but earnest, finely calibrated to utilise Anderson’s charisma, to win us over.

It is all make believe, but theatre means little without authenticity. There is no guaranteed avenue to achieving that all-important resonance with an audience on every venture, but time will aid that process. Art is about experimentation, repetition and refinement. Artists need to hone their craft, and those who work on the stage, will have to go through the experience of a spectacular failure in full public view, every once in a while. Those who can bear it, will return for more, and those unable to endure that lack of security, will move on to pursuits that offer greater certainty, in fields less artistic.

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Review: Godface (Matriark Theatre)

matriarkVenue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Jun 28 – Jul 10, 2016
Playwright: Robert den Engelsman, Murray Lambert
Director: Scott Parker
Cast: Murray Lambert, Emily McGowan, David Molloy, Jesse Northam, Sam Flack
Image by Alinta Haydock-Burton

Theatre review
In Godface we find a familiar reflection of our scepticism and distrust of government and the adversarial political system. There is an accuracy to the way Robert den Engelsman and Murray Lambert’s writing represents our feelings about politicians and their operations, but its insights and perspectives on the subject are hardly unusual. It shares our disillusionment with all things political, featuring characters that need little introduction, for a simple tale of corruption and exploitation.

Scott Parker’s enthusiastic direction brings to the stage a liveliness that many will enjoy, using puppetry and techniques of commedia dell’arte to spark our imagination as it forms a commentary on the state of the world. Delightfully performed by a unified cast of actors, the production is memorable for its sense of variety, established by a keen interest in a non-naturalistic mode of expression. Sam Flack leaves a remarkable impression in a range of characters including the head of the New God Party, a wolf gangster and a pair of opinionated giraffes. The actor is vibrant and humorous, with excellent charisma that gives each of his transfigurations considerable appeal. Designer Aleisa Jelbart’s work on puppets, props and set is especially noteworthy, with an exceptional eye for detail and refinement that provides touches of stylistic elevation to the production.

At the 2013 elections, 739,872 informal votes were recorded. There is little hope to be found in Godface, for good reason, and we see clear as day, the alienation felt by many of our population. Modern democracy is deeply flawed, but remains the only system we deem acceptable. It is a conundrum that we learn to live with, and on occasions such as this weekend’s federal elections, we have no alternative but to indulge in a moment of delusion that the world might just be ready to make a change for the better.

www.matriarktheatre.com