Review: Babes In The Woods – Australian Purity Defil’d (Don’t Look Away Theatre Company)

dontlookawayVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Dec 13, 2016 – Jan 21, 2017
Playwright: Phil Rouse
Music: Phillipe Klaus
Director: Phil Rouse
Cast: Annie Byron, Gabriel Fancourt, Sean Hawkins, Alex Malone, Eliza Reilly, Ildiko Susany
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
It is Christmas time, and in Australia, we go absolutely bonkers. Phil Rouse’s pantomime take on Babes In The Woods is a wild, wacky jaunt that marks the end of 2016, celebratory in tone but fiercely castigating of our ever-frustrating sociopolitical climate. If the show is a summation of the way we were, these 12 months are, once again, nothing to be proud of.

Rouse’s production however, is a triumph. Exuberant, inventive, poignant, and very funny, his creation is both frivolous and meaningful, targeting issues that concern us all, but always in the right shade of humour, no matter how dark the subject. The big and brash style of presentation allows the worst of our behaviour to be put on display, all in the name of comedy, but its need to keep things frothy can seem to diminish the severity and gravity of what is being discussed. Nevertheless, it is an admirable effort that does not forget the downtrodden, as we indulge in the unrestrained merriment and mirth characteristic of our silly season.

Phillipe Klaus’ spirited work as composer and musical director keeps the show structured and cohesive. Not all performers are impressive with their singing, but Eliza Reilly is delightfully memorable as the powerfully voiced Angel of White Privilege, allowing white children Australia-wide to act recklessly, and delivering more than a few laughs to her captive audience. Sean Hawkins is hilarious and shameless as Jack the himbo lumberjack, flexing muscles, both comedic and anatomic, to get us going. It is a remarkable cast, infectiously enthusiastic and impressive with their uninhibited creativity and imagination.

The final musical number in Babes In The Woods lampoons the lip service we often pay to the less fortunate. It makes fun of the $50 we might give to charity each month for absolution from the first-world evils that we commit. Theatre is a powerful medium, but it can also be ineffectual. Our art should always aim to do more, but if catharsis is the best we can manage on the night, there needs to be an accompanying sense of enlightenment that would take us to brighter days. A happy new year is incumbent upon how much we are able to learn from yesterday, so that tomorrow can be made better.

www.facebook.com/dontlookawaytc

Review: Route Dash Niner (Re:group Performance Collective)

merrigongVenue: Giant Dwarf (Redfern NSW), Dec 13, 2016
Written and performed by: Jackson Davis, James Harding, Mark Rogers, Steve Wilson-Alexander, Carly Young

Theatre review
We meet a group of Australian astronauts as they prepare to travel light years into deep space. It is a formal set up, something like a press conference perhaps, where we are furnished with information on this monumental undertaking. Route Dash Niner is a very droll, very stoic work of comedy. There are certainly moments where the audience laughs out loud, but the show seems more interested in simply keeping us amused, with a sense of humour that is about a captivating subtlety, rather than relying on a standard formula of delivering one punchline after another.

The performers are incredibly serious within their deadpan approach, and coupled with the gravity of the context being manufactured, we find ourselves in a curious situation where nothing is believable, yet everything feels real. Our reaction to the details of their absurd journey oscillates between laughter and logic. We participate as audience at a comedy show for half the time, and serious journalists participating in a sombre occasion the other half. It is an unusual theatrical experience, unnerving at times but ultimately, and surprisingly, compelling.

The quiet confidence of Route Dash Niner‘s unusual humour wins us over. Its science fiction may not feature remarkable intellect, but the creators’ refusal to underestimate their audience’s level of receptiveness, as many comics are want to do, gives the show a certain sophistication. The astronauts are expected to return in six months. What happens at the next symposium is anybody’s guess, but smart money is on something funny and more than a little odd.

www.regroupperformancecollective.orgwww.routedashniner.com

Review: The Taming Of The Shrew (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Nov 29 – Dec 10, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Caitlin West
Cast: Travis Ash, Tel Benjamin, Robert Boddington, Sam Brewer, Hannah Cox, Jane Watt
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew is about society’s need to subjugate women. The play takes issue with Katherine, characterising her as headstrong and troublesome, a young woman to be brought under control. The plot is kept basically the same under Caitlin West’s direction, but comedy is turned into tragedy in her version of events.

The production is a heavily edited, compressed revision of the, now objectionable tale. A more detailed approach to Katherine’s and her beau, Petruchio’s perspective backgrounds would allow us to feel more involved in the story, but the main concern here is the argument between West and Shakespeare, between where we are today and how we had been yesterday. The ideas are simple but powerful, and although the methodology would benefit from finding more nuance in its expressions, the resultant show is nonetheless, an exciting one.

There is good conviction from the actors who take the stage. The rapidity of their performance keeps things enjoyable, but by the same token, we are prevented from getting to know any of the characters very well. Robert Boddington and Hannah Cox are combustive as the lead couple, both passionate for the work, and able to achieve a valuable volatile connection that gives the show its dangerous, astringent quality.

We can leave the past behind, but have to acknowledge its influence on how we think and behave. In order to move forward, we must look back and address history. This cyclical concept of time requires that the scars we carry are being attended to, in order that progress may be found. Much of Shakespeare’s legacy involves the ugliness of humanity. Each generation of theatre makers that comes along will have amongst them, those who fall for the Bard’s words, and who must bear the burden of his failures.

www.montaguebasement.com

Review: Bare (The Depot Theatre)

supplyevolutionVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Nov 30 – Dec 17, 2016
Book: Jon Hartmere, Damon Intrabartolo
Lyrics: Jon Hartmere
Music: Damon Intrabartolo
Director/Choreographer: Hannah Barn
Cast: Aaron Robuck, Sophie Perkins, Alex Jeans, Natalie Abbott, Timothy Langan, Teale Howie, Alexandra Lewtas, Caroline Oayda, Matt Laird, Stephanie McKenna, Ibrahim Matar, Tara Hanrahan, Annette Vitetta, Penny Larkins, Gavin Leahy

Theatre review
The musical is set in a Catholic high school. Peter and Jason are secret lovers struggling to come to terms with their gay relationship and the identity markers that will inevitably become a matter of controversy given the social context. It is an age-old story, but one that bears repeating. Our religious institutions remain unkind to those who do not conform to their narrow definition of acceptable sexual behaviour, and Bare‘s response is still important, even if its story offers little that would be refreshing for the twenty-first century.

Hannah Barn’s direction of the piece pays strong attention to the show’s emotive qualities. Every melodramatic flourish is amplified to passionately drive its point, and to captivate. The more humorous portions of the musical seem to be neglected, which results in a production that can feel slightly unvarying and predictable, but there is plenty of dynamism to be found in the music. Musical director Matthew Reid does wonders with his 8-piece band, providing injections of energy whenever required, and calibrating atmosphere with remarkable sensitivity throughout, but sound design, especially in the first half, needs to be refined.

It is a very committed cast of performers that take to the stage. Alex Jeans and Aaron Robuck play their leading parts with integrity, and even though their interpretations of characters can feel somewhat one-dimensional, both young men tell their stories with impressive enthusiasm. Along with Jeans and Robuck, accomplished singing by Natalie Abbott and Penny Larkins give the production a surprising polish that reflects a good level of professionalism and admirable devotion to the time-honoured craft of musical theatre.

Bare is yet another work that documents the struggle of gay men in a society that refuses to accept them as equals. We have heard it all before, but we must not stop telling these tales of oppression as long as the cruelty persists. For some of us, progressive political movements have brought us better lives, but for many others, the chains of injustice are a daily reality. We might like to think of ourselves as first world civilisations, but if we have children living in fear and in some tragic cases, taking their lives, our complacency has to take responsibility.

www.thedepottheatre.com

Review: Hiding Jekyll (Mon Sans Productions)

monsansVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Dec 6 – 10, 2016
Playwright: Liviu Monsted
Director: Liviu Monsted
Cast: Wills Burke, Nic D’Arrigo, Jordan Gallegos, Nathanael Hole, Dale Johnson-Green, Liviu Monsted, Jordan Rafter, Vitas Varnas

Theatre review
It is the Jekyll & Hyde story turned pantomime. The protagonist’s infamous condition is clearly fertile ground for comedy, so there is no surprise that Liviu Monsted (writer, director and lead actor) has identified it appropriate for lampooning. The sense of humour in Hiding Jekyll is very specific, and not to everyone’s tastes, but the production is certainly full of passion in its bid for a style of presentation, that had gone out of fashion when Mel Brooks ended his directorial career more than 20 years ago.

The jokes are cheesy, and the gags hammy, but the cast looks to be enjoying their experience. One person’s meat is another person’s poison, and it is probably true that there is no one thing that is universally funny. The cast is energetic and committed, but chemistry is lacking and timing poorly measured, with strange pauses between lines that prevent the show from ever gaining momentum. Performer Dale Johnson-Green however, leaves a good impression in the role of Enfield, with one of the more naturally animated, yet sensitive, approaches in the show.

The Jekyll & Hyde conceit will forever be relevant, and is therefore always primed for a retelling. The uncontrollable evil that resides within, is deeply familiar but also a mysterious and neglected stranger. We may not all share a common funny bone, but what is irrevocably true is our understanding that human nature comprises both good and bad, and it is important that we know when the bad guy takes over.

www.monsansproductions.com

Review: Girl Asleep (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirstVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 2 – 24, 2016
Playwright: Matthew Whittet
Director: Rosemary Myers
Cast: Ruby Burke, Sheridan Harbridge, Amber McMahon, Martha Morgan, Ellen Steele, Matthew Whittet, Dylan Young
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Alice and Dorothy are young ladies who travel famously into their subconscious, for memorable stories that have shaped generations. In Matthew Whittet’s Girl Asleep, Greta joins the list, for an exploration into teenage anxiety as it relates to all things social, familial and sexual. Like her predecessors, we meet Greta when she is in a moment of confusion, but our new heroine seems stronger, more independent and wilful, as we watch her battle the demons to emerge with newfound wisdom.

The play is often funny, but its explorations do not go deep enough for us to derive much more than what is presented on the surface. As the show becomes more surreal, we expect harder truths to reveal themselves, but what we get instead are elaborate effects (courtesy of a very impressive team of designers) that fascinate our senses without much intellectual engagement. Music by Luke Smiles and Harry Covill, along with Richard Vabre’s lights and Jonathan Oxlade’s set and costumes, are truly commendable, for the many dimensions they add to what is essentially a static stage.

Ellen Steele brings an admirable dignity to Greta, choosing to portray the girl with grit and pluckiness, without a hint of twee. Her relationships are established with authenticity, most notably her friendship with Elliot, played by the very charming Dylan Young, who brings a valuable quality of joyful innocence to the production. The actor’s irresistible comedy is certainly one of the strongest assets of a show memorable for its sense of humour.

Greta is not quite ready to grow up, but there are forces determined to hurry her into womanhood. Nature has a way of taking us places against our will. Just as we learn to be content with how things are, disruptions inevitably come upon us, and we have to fasten those seat belts again for yet another bumpy ride. Childhood may be a wonderful time, but the promise of better days is always palpable, and in our every breath, we anticipate new gifts from the great unknown.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Macbeth (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Nov 29 – Dec 10, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Travis Ash, Robert Boddington, Hannah Cox, Alex Francis, Barret Griffin, Lulu Howes, Jem Rowe
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
It is a story of greed and betrayal, arising from unbridled ambition, but it is also a parable of retribution and punishment. The transgressions in Macbeth reveal dark and buried parts of our psyche, although neglected in much of daily life, we all know to exist beneath our amiable surfaces. Our conscience keeps things in check, but some of us use divine inspiration as permission to carry out less than pleasant deeds. Shakespeare’s characters know that the supernatural forces they conspire with are evil, but in our realities, they are never quite so undisguised.

Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s rendition of the play is a straightforward telling of the story. A few artistic licenses are taken in his effective conflation of characters, but the plot is left soundly, almost radically, unaltered. Good work on music selection by Lusty-Cavallari brings drama to the production, but the frequent use of stage blood has a tendency to look puerile. Flashes of strong acting by Hannah Cox as Lady Macbeth and Jem Rowe as Malcolm, introduce moments of elevation to a cast that is generally underwhelming. Robert Boddington as Macbeth is insufficiently expressive, in body and in voice, neither to entertain nor to provide psychological insight into one of Western theatre’s most infamous characters.

Countless other productions of Macbeth have come before, many of which have been huge successes. Artists have the right to take on any classic, should they think themselves capable, but they must remain conscious of their audience’s relationship with the text in question. It is highly likely that any performance of a work like Macbeth would be compared to memorable versions that have come prior. Young artists can choose between cutting their teeth with challenging material in the public domain, or settle for something more attainable. Impatience usually results in clumsiness, but it is also a valuable quality necessary for us to soar at great heights.

www.montaguebasement.com