Review: Dot Dot Dot (The Old 505 Theatre)

old505theatreVenue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Nov 10 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Drew Fairley
Director: Gareth Boylan
Cast: Matt Bell-King, Gerard Carroll, Lucy Miller, Natalie Venettacci

Theatre review
Dot Dot Dot involves a Victorian era prostitute getting high, a psychic medium speaking with ghosts, a serial killer on the loose, and a newspaperman with dubious intentions. The ingredients are certainly spicy, but the concoction is not always an easy one to digest. In its efforts to provide both entertainment and social commentary, the play struggles with its balancing act, and falls short on both counts. There are interesting characters and fascinating scenarios to be found, but for a show in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre, its plot struggles to deliver the tension and intrigue it sets out to achieve.

The cast of four is not sufficiently cohesive, but actors are individually accomplished. Lucy Miller is captivating as Babette, with a solid and seductive presence that helps sustain our attention. There is a quality of natural and sultry darkness in the actor’s approach that gives the production its eerie, Gothic flavour. Equally appealing is Matt Abel-King, whose portrayal of young men in the late 19th century provides a sense of accuracy to the time and space his characters inhabit. Abel-King is a charming performer, with a whimsical edge that enlivens the stage.

The play talks about democracy today, and the impact upon it by the disparity in power and wealth of our classes. Our media landscape is being sequestered slowly but surely, by a rich few, and their insidious control over the information we receive has unquestionably changed the way we perceive and live our lives. Political decisions are made through a semblance of democracy, but what we believe to be true, and therefore the way we exercise our voting rights and consumer decisions, are largely doctored by the powers that be. It is a grim situation we find ourselves today, and there seems no solution in sight, except for a healthy dose of cynicism, and prudent vigilance.

Review: Orlando (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 9 – Dec 19, 2015
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl (based on the novel by Virginia Woolf)
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Matthew Backer, Luisa Hastings Edge, Garth Holcombe, John Gaden, Jacqueline McKenzie, Anthony Taufa
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography was published in 1928, when discussion of sexuality was made in hushed tones, and inseparable from notions of gender identity. If a person loved a woman, they had to take the form of the masculine, and the reverse was true. The centrepiece of Orlando‘s story is a man’s magical transformation into a woman, wistfully described but scarcely explained, though by simple deduction, one could perceive more than an indication of sexual fluidity, and a desire to explore what is now known as sexual orientation. It would be remiss however, to reduce the work to be simply about sex, for its interest in fluidity extends to the whole of a person’s identity, or how one sees themselves, along with how society conceives of that individual.

Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 stage adaptation can be understood as a feminist piece. Orlando’s life as a man is depicted with an extroversion that is concerned with the character’s appetite and discovery of the world around him, but as a woman, she turns introspective and we are presented with constant interrogations about her place in relation to things as the fairer sex. In other words, maleness is seen as an unquestionable natural state, while the feminine requires persistent justification. In dramatic terms, Ruhl’s work is poetic, sublime theatre that uses all the capacities of language to excite, provoke and enchant, and to tell a fascinating story that is strangely engaging in spite of its contextual distance.

It is a humorous text, gentle in its approach, but always charming and amusing with its renderings. Director Sarah Goodes executes that subtle comedic tone with great sophistication, and although the production is seldom laugh-out-loud funny, her brilliant wit is deeply endearing. There is clever use of space, with a relatively small ensemble establishing an active and visually dynamic stage. Comprising two flights of mobile staircases and concentric revolving platforms, our eyes are kept busy and no time is wasted on scene changes, but the production is not strikingly lavish. It makes occasional reference to the well-known Sally Potter film of 1992, but that extravagant beauty, still fresh in many of our memories, is absent from this staging.

Our focus is placed squarely, and appropriately, on the title role’s narrative, but the show features a charismatic four-man chorus that helps with a lot of heavy lifting. Matthew Backer, John Gaden, Garth Holcombe and Anthony Taufa play a wide range of roles in all gender states, and provide commentary in song and narration that moves the plot along in spirited, gay fashion. Backer in particular, is impressive with his fervent embrace of the show’s vaudeville style of presentation, taking the opportunity to showcase delightful comic timing and a flair for exquisite camp.

In the role of Orlando is Jacqueline McKenzie, keeping us spellbound with a delivery that will be remembered for its intelligence, precision and unrelenting effervescence. It is noteworthy that the actor’s interpretation of Orlando’s personality does not alter significantly with the sensational gender transformation. Whether in male or female costume, McKenzie maintains a singular essence, reflecting a modern and enlightened attitude toward the construction of gendered identities. Her unfaltering energy gives life to two solid hours of stage time, every minute compelling and whimsical, keeping us engrossed in the development of Orlando’s extraordinary narrative with her captivating confidence.

The word “transgender” was recently announced as one of Collins’ dictionary’s “Words of the Year”. As Western societies begin to better understand the way we live out our gendered lives, we can recognise that a new dawn in civilisation is imminent, where people will no longer be persecuted for the way they express their gender, and individuals are free to adopt any form of gender identity they wish to inhabit. Hardly anyone bats an eyelid when Orlando emerges as a woman after living thirty years as the opposite sex. We may not share her aristocracy, wealth and power, but we can appreciate the nonchalance surrounding her transformation, and indeed realise the curious irrelevance of something that convention considers so crucial to how we understand life. Feminism is about achieving equality, and in equality, all that we think separates us, can be vanquished.

Review: Mortido (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 7 – Dec 23, 2015
Playwright: Angela Betzien
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Toby Challenor, Tom Conroy, Colin Friels, Louisa Mignone, Renato Musolino, David Valencia
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
At the centre of Angela Betzien’s Mortido, is a wretched life. Jimmy is a soft and kind soul, misguided by family and exploited by every person he trusts. Emerging into adulthood from a background of poverty and addiction, the only barometer he possesses for a better life is a need for acceptance, along with our definitive measure of success, money. Without the support of anyone who has Jimmy’s own interests at heart, and with no education to speak of, his fate is sealed, and doomed. The story is a dark one about the underbelly of Sydney, and how our affluence is built upon the perpetuation of an underclass, kept aspirational and concurrently ignorant.

Betzien’s script is highly ambitious and vast in scope. It encompasses themes of family, money and addiction, set against historical contexts, to explore attitudes and machinations of our current sociopolitical environment. The play looks at our problems with narcotics and poverty from micro and macro perspectives, refusing to diminish their complex enormity for convenient storytelling. What results is a piece of writing that is detailed and intricate, but also challenging, for audiences and theatre makers alike.

Director Leticia Cáceres does well at providing the production with tension and intrigue, but the plot’s clarity suffers from that tautness of pace. In its second half especially, too much is revealed too quickly, and our minds struggle to process every poignancy. Each revelation is an important one that contributes, not only to our appreciation of each character’s circumstances, but also to our understanding of the real world. Many of the story’s elements will resonate deeply if given the chance, but the show seems to rush quickly past and we are left wondering if we had learned everything that is worth knowing.

Nevertheless, Mortido is gripping, and very exciting, with each scene holding surprises, frequently overwhelming with its keen portrayal of brutality, both physical and psychological. Composer The Sweats and Sound Designer Nate Edmondson do exceptional work with their manipulations of atmosphere. The production relies heavily on its sounds to control our responses, and the precision at which it guides our emotions through every sequence and transition is remarkable. A disappointing contrast does occasionally occur however, when it takes a back seat, leaving the actors to their own devices, and we begin to feel the emptiness of space.

There is plenty of impressive acting to be found, including the very young but very compelling Toby Challenor, whose immovable focus on each task in every appearance, belies his tender age. Colin Friels plays several disparate characters, displaying a good level of versatility and enthusiasm, but is probably most effective as Detective Grubbe and El Carnicero. The star’s presence is undeniable and the intensity he brings to the stage has an effortless drama that is absolutely captivating. The central character Jimmy is performed by Tom Conroy with a faultless vulnerability. For all of Jimmy’s regrettable mistakes, we are always on his side, hurting for his every adversity and hoping that a twist of fate appears. Conroy excels in the role, successfully depicting Jimmy’s personal difficulties as well as the social connotations of a problematic life. We understand the responsibilities that are due young people like Jimmy, and realise how we have failed those who share his disadvantage. Also noteworthy is David Valencia as the enigmatic Spanish-speaking El Gallito, memorable for his simultaneous delivery of danger and ethereality, and an aggressive sex appeal that electrifies the stage.

The title of the work refers to our human tendencies toward self-destruction. It is a discussion about weakness, and along with that, we encounter ideas surrounding ethics, responsibility and social harmony. Mortido is a cautionary tale about the seduction of death, and the perils involved when allowing lives to be less than honourable. It confronts the inequity that exists in our wealthy cities, and our complicity in maintaining that damaging status quo. We can always identify good from bad, but we do not always make the right decisions.

Review: Roadkill Confidential (Lies, Lies And Propaganda)

liesliesVenue: Kings Cross Theatre Kings Cross NSW), Nov 11 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Sheila Callaghan
Director: Michael Dean
Cast: Alison Bennett, Sinead Curry, Michael Drysdale, Jasper Garner Gore, Nathaniel Scotcher
Image by Emily Elise

Theatre review
Trevor is not a happy artist. She watches the doom and gloom on the news to stay in touch with things so that her very high profile work in the field of visual art may be relevant to her public. In fact, her studio is highly secretive, maybe she is insecure about the unfinished product, or maybe she is trying to control the reaction to her controversial art. Meanwhile, a government agent is investigating her, and everything begins to look sinister. Sheila Callaghan’s Roadkill Confidential is however, no straightforward cop drama. It is an abstract and often surreal piece of writing that celebrates the dramatic art form by prioritising the stage’s unique abilities of relating to its audience. Beyond the use of a narrative to satisfy, the play features sequences that resonate independent of characters and stories. Its free form allows actors to create moments of wonder, in service of theatre and all its possibilities.

Michael Dean’s exuberant direction is concerned with creating an experience that fascinates and intrigues. The show’s plot is not always coherent, and we leave with uncertainty about the moral of the story, but there is much to get involved with at every step of the way. Lights by Richard Neville and Mandylights, along with Benjamin Garrard’s sound are playful and dynamic elements of a production that is determined to deliver whimsy and extravagance. Creativity is in abundance here, and there is little that holds it back from making its ubiquity felt in every nuance.

Performances are suitably colourful, from a committed ensemble, unified in style and tone. The charming Michael Drysdale plays the unnamed agent with a quirky flair, and a confident physicality that brings life to the stage. His work needs better polish to reflect a more precise grasp of the text, but Drysdale’s execution of the show’s anti-realistic scenes are consistently amusing, and memorable. The artist Trevor is depicted with admirable strength and vigour by Alison Bennett who introduces an alluring severity to the mysterious role. Her piteous neighbour Melanie becomes a force to be reckon with under Sinead Curry’s surprising interpretation. The actor’s flamboyant approach and magnetic presence provide her character with excellent entertainment value, and offers good balance to a show that has a tendency to bewilder.

There is no discussion about whether Trevor’s new work will be understood, yet its effects are gravely anticipated. We need to talk about theatre in a similar way; to allow it to do more than just telling stories. There is no fear of abstraction in this production of Roadkill Confidential because it believes in affecting its audience in a more inventive or perhaps, sophisticated manner. At the theatre, we share a space for a couple of hours, and when we go our separate ways, we will depart having grown a little. It is by that amount of extension that we can measure an artist’s worth.

Review: Round Heads And Peak Heads (Actors College Of Theatre & Television)

acttVenue: Bondi Pavilion (Bondi NSW), Nov 5 – 9, 2015
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Director: Lex Marinos
Cast: Simon Benjamin, Campbell Briggs, Alex Brown, Cait Burley, Sarah Anne Carter, Abbie Coco, Keegan Fisher, Joseph Hallows, Reilly Anne Keir, Richard Littlehales, Angelika Nieweglowski, Jake Scherini, Amy Shapiro, Romney Stanton

Theatre review
Bertolt Brecht premiered Round Heads And Peak Heads in 1936, when Hitler was leading Germany. The play talks about racial persecution, without specifically naming the Jews, and how ethnic minorities are used as a scapegoat of sorts for people in positions of power. It explores the dynamics between greed and justice in a way that is not far different from discourse today, although its cautious language (as a result of censorship) is certainly much more indirect than we are used to.

The production, directed by Lex Marinos, is an energetic one, with variations in texture that occupy our senses, but a more explicit adaptation to current political climes and social concerns would make it more engaging. Performances are uneven in the 14-strong cast, with some talents outweighing others. Cait Burley is a striking Isabella De Guzman, with intense and raw emotion accompanying a studied physicality that displays a daring adventurous spirit. Romney Stanton and Campbell Briggs have interesting roles that they sink their teeth into, both providing colourful portrayals energised by impassioned creativity. Also noteworthy are Angelika Nieweglowski and Alex Brown, who exhibit interesting presences and excellent commitment to their charmingly idiosyncratic roles.

Life is often not fair. Ability does not guarantee success, and hard work does not always see commensurate returns. We exist in predetermined structures that will identify and subjugate the weak, but fortunately in this lucky country, some semblance of democracy exists, and individuals are able to attain their heart’s desires against all odds. What the secret ingredients are, is anyone’s guess, but it is the very definition of success that needs to be evaluated and re-evaluated every step of the way.

Review: Good Works (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

darlotheatreVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Oct 31 – Nov 29, 2015
Playwright: Nick Enright
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Taylor Ferguson, Lucy Goleby, Anthony Gooley, Stephen Multari, Jamie Oxenbould, Toni Scanlan
Image by Helen White

Theatre review
In Nick Enright’s Good Works, we are often confused about time and characters. It is a deliberate ploy to have us focus on what people are doing to each other, regardless of when things had taken place or who those people might be. It probes us to consider if contexts matter when we are unkind. It talks about how we treat children, and how behaviour is perpetuated beyond the illusion of growing up. The play’s plot structure is perhaps its most interesting feature. The story and its themes are not unusual or spectacular, but through its highly inventive way of communication, we are required to relate to its ideas on a level of intimacy. If we do not have certainty about characters, we can only understand events by applying them conceptually, to our selves.

Director Iain Sinclair’s construction of space through Hugh O’Connor’s complex multi-tiered platforms is theatrical magic. The constant profusion of movement, visual depth and dimension is an aesthetic joy, and also an effective mechanism for providing demarcation for minute scene transitions. Sinclair’s knack for creating dramatic tension and his ability to extract meaning from them, ensures that the play unfolds with a gravity necessary for its poignant messages to hit home.

It is a strong cast that presents this challenging work. Each player is required to embody a range of ages and personalities, and although not every scene is equally powerful, there is no questioning the authenticity and thoughtfulness of their approach to individual parts. Lucy Goleby leaves an impression with studied stillness on a stage buzzing with energetic activity. Her eyes are, on more than one occasion, our sole focus as they convey quiet but intense emotion. Taylor Ferguson brings remarkable exuberance and strength to a character who faces multiple setbacks. The resilience and fallibility of humanity that she demonstrates is touching, and beautiful.

There is not much point to life if we do not try to do good, but Good Works shows us the conflict and complications that occur in communities when flawed individuals try to do their best within their inevitable limitations. We examine how it is that we can come to conclude which decisions are best, without resorting to convenient solutions that religions are keen to provide, and we question if there is possibility for behaviour to be anything else than emulation. Whether Enright’s play is pessimistic or otherwise, would depend heavily on one’s own outlook on life.

Review: Duck Hunting (Contemporarian Theatre Company)

contemporarianVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 4 – 29, 2015
Playwright: Aleksandr Vampilov
Directors: Shai Alexander and Toby B. Styling
Cast: Michelle De Rosa, Nicholas Drummond, Paul Gerrard, Louise Harding, Christian Heath, Jessica Saras, Carlos Sivalingham, Anthony Sottile, Joshua Wiseman
Image by Toby B. Styling

Theatre review
Craig’s only passion is duck hunting, but he spends every second of his life avoiding it, preoccupied with all the petty mundanity of a bourgeois existence. He seems full of hatred for his job, his new home, the women around him, and most of all, himself. We see him snorting cocaine and downing copious amounts of alcohol, fantasising about better times, to which he never commits. The eccentric 1976 script by Aleksandr Vampilov is about a small man’s state of crisis. There is hardly anything likeable about Craig, but we do recognise the issues that he grapples with. The play is transposed to a modern day Australian context fairly effectively, but the sheer length of the work at three-and-a-half hours is a challenge. A heavy edit would most certainly make things more dynamic.

Shai Alexander and Toby B. Styling’s highly stylised direction delivers a lot of hits, but also more than a few misses. Their experimental anti-naturalistic mode of presentation is refreshing, with an ability to add surprising dimensions to the text, but the staging needs greater finesse to ensure that its surreality does not fall into pointless gesturing and mere pretence. The tone of performance required for the piece is specific and highly unconventional, using an idiosyncratic physical language that the cast is not always sufficiently au fait with. Michelle De Rosa and Paul Gerrard stand out for their confident embrace of the production’s offbeat nature to create characters that seem strange on the surface, while providing firm logic to their respective narratives. Craig is played by Christian Heath who brings energy and presence, along with an unshakeable conviction to hold our attention. In spite of his character’s faults, the actor’s own vulnerability and his determination to portray fragility in the protagonist’s story, help us gain an unusual, albeit objectionable, perspective of the world.

Duck Hunting is an ordinary tale that the everyman can understand. More interesting is the way it attempts to explore the potentials of the theatrical medium, and how the stage conveys meaning. It is not always successful with its endeavours, but its sense of adventure and pursuit of originality should not be disregarded. We never discover if Craig has any talent at all, but we know that he does not make it to the hunting ponds. For the artist, talent will always be subjective, but as long as self-belief and commitment exist, art will be created, and that alone, is achievement.