Review: Miracle City (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 12 – 29, 2017
Books & Lyrics: Nick Enright
Music & Concept: Max Lambert
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Missy Higgins, Josie Lane, Lara Mulcahy, Gus Murray, Liam Nunan, Anthony Phelan, Kelly Rode, Jessica Vickers
Image by Branco Gaica

Theatre review
The Truswells are American televangelists who make commerce out of religion, by commodifying faith and targeting herds of desperate souls. They put on a weekly TV show, promising inspiration, redemption and salvation, in exchange for cash from their loyal viewers. Behind the scenes however, the family is going broke, as they try unsuccessfully to fulfil ambitions of expanding their operations.

Miracle City depicts an absurd slice of life, but the production is rarely funny. The plot trudges along, offering no surprises and only few instances of amusement. In the absence of humour, we search instead for poignancy, which disappointingly and quite bewilderingly, never arrives. It is fortunate then, that the show features excellent singing and a pleasing score of Christian gospel music.

The cast works hard, with leading lady Kellie Rode bringing a valuable sense of vibrancy and polish to the show. Gus Murray cuts an imposing figure as Reverend Truswell, but it is a portrayal that seems insufficiently sinister in this tale of crushed dreams and broken morals. A trio of choristers provide some stunning powerhouse vocals that lift the mood, thankfully, at very regular intervals. Missy Higgins, Josie Lane and Lara Mulcahy play subsidiary characters, but their voices are the highlight of a musical that is otherwise strangely passionless.

We pay businesses to satisfy our needs, but we want them to be transparent in our dealings. Religion can give a lot to individuals, but the magic that they perform, often relies on obfuscation and mystery. We need to be in touch with the sacred, but we do not wish for access to the venerable be contingent on trade. Those who peddle in the divine, are therefore deceptive and hypocritical, whether on trash TV or in our more hallowed institutions.

www.thetheatredivision.com

Review: No End Of Blame (Sport For Jove Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 12 – 28, 2017
Playwright: Howard Barker
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Akos Armont, Angela Bauer, Danielle King, Sam O’Sullivan, Monroe Reimers, Lizzie Schebesta, Amy Usherwood, Bryce Youngman
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
In No End Of Blame, Howard Barker creates a hero out of political cartoonist Bela Veracek, who begins his life in Hungary at the end of the 19th century, and ends up in England decades later, after a stint in Lenin’s Russia. It is a man’s search for truth, through decades of war and social unrest, and an artist going against every grain to make sense of the world.

First published in 1981, the piece is stylistically representative of English male playwrights of the time, angsty and very wordy. Thatcher had become Prime Minister, and the righteous had much to fight for; Barker is certainly argumentative in No End Of Blame. Damien Ryan’s production updates the work from the punk era to something altogether more earnest and refined.

Projected on a large, white backdrop, are drawings by Nicholas Harding, David Pope and Cathy Wilcox, who bring an extraordinary dimension of artistry, constantly pulling our attention back to the actual medium being celebrated. Also remarkable is Alistair Wallace’s sound design, utilising a meticulous selection of music that takes us to places far away and sublime.

There is a lot of excellent acting to be enjoyed. Akos Armont is the charismatic and passionate lead, dependably convincing even though Bela’s emotions seem always to be operatic in scale. Supporting roles are all vibrantly rendered, with Danielle King especially memorable in a range of small parts, and highly effective as newspaper editor Stringer, delivering a tremendous sense of poignancy at show’s end.

As commentators of our world, cartoonists have the noble responsibility of pointing their finger at all that is wrong. This usually means that it is the powerful that come under the pencil’s attack, and it is necessary for us all to be cognisant of how those powers will try to quash their naysayers. Bela’s story came before the internet age, but even though we no longer have the same reliance on the print industry to provide a battle ground for democracy, those same dynamics exist today in how we use our phones and computers. The bad guys are able to control our freedoms, in some ways easier than before, and our resistance must remain vigilant and tenacious.

www.sportforjove.com.au

Review: Monopoly (Hot Room Theatre Group)

Venue: Petersham Bowling Club (Petersham NSW), Oct 13 – 14, 2017 with performances at other venues thereafter
Playwright: Steven Hopley
Director: Steven Hopley
Cast: Jasper Garner Gore, Benjamin Kuryo, Diego AR Melo, Alison Lee Rubie, Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou

Theatre review
It makes sense to write a play about Sydney people playing Monopoly. We are obsessed with property prices, and cannot stop talking about it. Living in a metropolis requires that each of us has a certain level of aspiration, even just to survive this dog-eat-dog world. The characters in Steven Hopley’s Monopoly are competitive, though to varying degrees. Aside from one white cishet male, born with a silver spoon in the mouth, the other board game participants have limitations, in their race to the top.

At its best, the piece discusses the idea of privilege and by the same token, systematic disadvantage, as we understand them to exist in Australia today. Arguments are made about the kinds of people who benefit most from the way our society is structured, while others are regularly left behind. It is noteworthy that issues of poverty and sexism are given some focus, while other aspects of our inequity, such as sexuality and race, are left conspicuously neglected.

An exuberant ensemble drives the piece, with each actor demonstrating a good grasp of the material. There are portions that become convoluted, when they become deeply involved in a game that the audience can only ever have a peripheral appreciation for, but Hopley’s direction is always careful to provide a sense of urgency to sustain our attention. It is a well-rehearsed show, entertaining, if slightly hesitant in its efforts to provoke thought.

The Monopoly game requires that competitors amass houses, or face decimation. It is not quite the same in real life. The need to own property is rarely questioned, an archetypal Australian dream that is ubiquitous yet only vaguely justified. The characters in Monopoly are a true reflection of the Sydneysider. We all want to possess a piece of this land, when all we should ever be content with, is having the right to live here.

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Review: Buyer And Cellar (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 6 – Nov 12, 2017
Playwright: Jonathan Tolins
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ben Gerrard
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In her book My Passion For Design, Barbra Streisand reveals a private shopping mall in the basement of her property in Malibu, California. Playwright Jonathan Tolins imagines what it must be like to find yourself the sole employee of that strange place, in his 2013 one-man play Buyer And Cellar.

Unsurprisingly, the work overflows with camp and frivolity, but Tolins anchors the fun with a genuine interest in human nature, building his narrative around our fascination with the rich and famous, and taking a look into the limitlessness of ambition, and our insatiable need for affirmation.

In Buyer And Cellar, we are presented a version of Streisand, semi-fictional, who thinks herself never beautiful enough, successful enough, or admired enough. Alex, the aforementioned shop boy, is the everyday person, positioned in close proximity, to make us examine the different lives, and to consider our own values as they relate to the meanings of accomplishment, happiness and love.

The play is witty, very creatively conceived. It will appeal to much more than fans of Streisand, but a passing familiarity with the entertainment icon, and with American pop culture, is required. A specific kind of gay sensibility, of the family-friendly flavour (more “Just Jack” than John Waters), determines the comedy style, and actor Ben Gerrard is sensational in the show.

For 90 minutes, he is bewitching, so precise and energetic, that we all find ourselves hopelessly immersed in the story, whether or not we give two hoots about Streisand and her ridiculous closets. There is a tendency for Gerrard to outshine the actual material being shown, but it is for certain that we emerge thoroughly, and fabulously, entertained. His partnership with director Susanna Dowling, is clearly a match made in heaven.

Appropriately, design is marvellous in this production of Buyer And Cellar. Alexander Berlage’s lights and Marty Jamieson’s sounds are particularly effective, as we find ourselves transported to a Hollywood dreamland. Both artists are adventurous and meticulous in what they bring to the stage. Charles Davis’ set is simple, in the most elegant way, but probably slightly understated for the Streisand brand.

It is not fair that some people should have so much, while the rest of us are deprived of ever experiencing that level of wealth, but if we believe that everything comes at a cost, it might be some consolation thinking about the things that have to be given up in order to arrive at that state of abundance. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and although Streisand has traded in huge talent and hard work, we also see the emotional deficiencies she suffers, that form the propulsive force resulting in her eminent glory. The woman we see in Buyer And Cellar is dissatisfied and often unhappy, but as the playwright keeps reminding us, this is a work of pure fantasy.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Birdland (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 3 – Nov 4, 2017
Playwright: Simon Stephens
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Jack Angwin, Graeme McRae, Charmaine Bingwa, Leilani Loau, Louise Harding, Airlie Dodds, Matthew Cheetham
Image by Chris Lundie

Theatre review
Paul is a rock star who plays to crowds of 100,000 people. That scale of extraordinary fame and fortune, is an existence beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. In Simon Stephens’ Birdland, we see a kind of dehumanised individual struggling to find a sense of normalcy in a world where everything is permissible and accessible, and where everything is eventually reduced to meaninglessness.

The play lifts the lid on the lustrous personalities who entertain us. We fall in love with these strangers, and envy their lifestyle, thinking that theirs is the ultimate freedom, to have every request and desire met. It is fascinating to imagine what it must be like, to not be able to want, after having consumed everything. The human compulsion to pursue that which remains unsated, is crucial in how we are able to operate from day to day. The depressed cannot get out of bed, because nothing is worthwhile. The superstar experiences something similar, when all appetite is quelled even before they appear.

Paul becomes increasingly anaesthetised, resulting in a frantic escalation of indulgence and excess. Graeme McRae is strong in the lead role, offering an interpretation that is detailed and intelligent. It is extremely demanding work, and while our compassion for Paul is carefully sustained for the entire two hours, McRae’s stamina seems to wane in the later stages. The production is quiet and sensitive, with director Anthony Skuse’s remarkable ability to provide a sense of fragility keeping us engaged, but the bareness of the stage, although visually appealing, can at times feel overly taxing on the actors, who have nothing but themselves to make each moment spark.

It is less daunting for the rest of the cast, who play a series of supporting characters orbiting Paul. Charmaine Bingwa is outstanding in Birdland. As an African escort, she is dangerously alluring, and as an English policewoman, she is deliciously unkind, but it is in the scene where she plays Paul’s father that Bingwa is most memorable. We are suddenly overwhelmed with emotion, when we see the only thing of genuine value to Paul, falling to pieces along with every other aspect of his being. It is a beautifully performed show, with each actor captivating in their passionate commitment to the craft.

It is healthy to want better for ourselves, and dreaming big is a way for us to find impetus to live with excitement and joy. A state of contentment however, must never be absent. The tension between needing more, and feeling satisfied, might seem a contradiction, but it is in finding a way to negotiate their co-existence that we can perhaps achieve emotional and psychological stability. Nobody rejects Paul, so it can only be up to him to say no.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Hypnagogism (Balter Theatre Co)

Venue: The Factory Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Oct 4 – 14, 2017
Playwright: Frankie
Directors: Luke Beattie, Frankie
Cast: Kate Allison, Bretany Amber, Daniel d’Amico, Brielle Flynn, Lachlan Mcnab, Vonne Patiag, Ash Sakha, Tivy Siripanich
Image by Margaret Grove

Theatre review
Michelle goes to acting school everyday, where teachers tell her to dig deep for emotions worthy of display. Trauma is fetishised, but little care is given to the young adults who find themselves in a constant state of vulnerability, with open wounds that are left to their own often inadequate devices. Michelle suffers from a history of sexual assault and finds herself encouraged to exploit those very painful memories.

Frankie’s Hypnagogism portrays with striking persuasiveness, the neglect of mental health in some of our less proficient institutions. Although lacking in polish and maturity, the play makes salient points about how we train our actors, by drawing attention to problematic practises that are usually hidden from the public eye.

It is essentially a work of dark comedy, with a strong tendency to turn very melodramatic in its efforts to maintain emphasis on Michelle’s struggles. Directors Luke Beattie and Frankie herself, use the stage with commendable imagination, but edits could be made at more than a few junctures, to achieve a considerably crisper result. Playing Michelle is the confident Bretany Amber, one of an impressively well-rehearsed and cohesive team of young talents. Flamboyant actors Brielle Flynn and Daniel d’Amico are memorable in comedic roles, both bringing exuberance and excellent entertainment value.

The infinitely multi-faceted nature of art, allows for participation by artists of all kinds. It is easy to identify the ones who go to extremes, but more than a few level-headed individuals have found success on their own terms. In the process of art however, the extant discovery of self and environment is fundamental, meaning that limits and boundaries must always be explored. Where and when one chooses to transgress, is perhaps how art is best able to get involved, in the creation of meaning.

www.baltertheatre.com

Review: The Natural Conservatorium For Wise Women (Clockfire Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 3 – 21, 2017
Director: Emily Ayoub
Cast: Alicia Gonzalez, Sam Newing-Stern, Catherine Parle, Laura Turner, Tony Weir
Image by Geoff Magee

Theatre review
The patriarchy is constantly at war. In a system that benefits few, it has to protect itself from many enemies, especially those who have awoken from its deceptive manipulations, and are now aware of the injustices it generates. The Natural Conservatorium For Wise Women is an allegorical expression of the nature of patriarchy, in which we meet a man sitting atop a lonely throne, inside the strict boundaries of his miserable home, whilst others are outside engaged in blood-drenched combat on his behalf.

A highly imaginative work with only a slight reliance on dialogue, it is the sheer theatricality we encounter that truly excites. The characters tell a meaningful story, but it is the craft being put on display that is most captivating. There is much to admire, in the very specific discipline cultivated by this team of artists, with its strong emphasis on human physicality, rather than a more conventional use of emotional and verbal capacities as devices of communication. Informed by traditions of dance and mime, it is a style of performance that we rarely see in the landscapes of Australian art and is hence, an immediately refreshing experience for our audiences.

It is a very accomplished cast, with Tony Weir sensational as the decaying patriarch. Mesmerised, we watch closely as he mobilises every fibre of his being to turn the stage into a living, breathing thing that insists on our undivided attention. Weir’s commanding presence, and his powerfully seductive eyes, guide us through each moment with commendable precision and an inspiring sense of wonder. Alicia Gonzalez and Catherine Parle too, are terrific with their eccentric concoction of personalities, and the beautiful simplicity built into their unique language, is quite sublime. Space and atmosphere are finely tuned by director Emily Ayoub, who delivers a creation elegantly minimal in its aesthetic, but rich in resonance.

There is no end to the things we can talk about in the theatre, and there is no end to the different ways in which we can have those conversations, yet we seem to go about things in predictable fashion, choosing to persist with refining usual modes of presentation, instead of investing in the new. Our conservative art is symptomatic of the conservative times in which we live, and one might begin to interpret this unmistakable apathy as though there is nothing left to fight for. The opposite is true of course, but until we wake from the dulled and disillusioned dormancy of an existence that has resigned itself to the parochial, events like The Natural Conservatorium For Wise Women can only be an exception and not the norm.

www.clockfiretheatre.com