Review: Everybody (Cross Pollinate Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 6 – 21, 2020
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Gabriel Fancourt
Cast: Kate Bookallil, Caitlin Burley, Annie Byron, Giles Gartrell-Mills, Isaro Kayitesi, Mansoor Noor, Kate Skinner, Samm Ward and Michael Wood
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The idea is to think of that one thing you can take with you, when you die. Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins talks about the most common of denominators. A woman named Death has come knocking, and is asking Everybody to bring along one other, to meet their maker. It is worth pointing out that Everybody is played by any one of five actors, determined at each performance by lottery. As we watch ourselves shuffle off this mortal coil, leaving behind all things material, we are urged to consider a certain distillation of being, that occurs in the final hour, and come to a conclusion of what it is that might accompany the departure of each spirit.

It is a cleverly structure play, featuring thought-provoking and immensely enjoyable dialogue. Its raison d’etre may ultimately feel somewhat prosaic, but the journey Everybody takes us on, is a very satisfying one. Dynamic work by lighting designer Morgan Moroney and sound designer Felicity Giles, ensure that the production is consistently energetic and vibrant. Set design by Stephanie Dunlop makes effective use of space, with a simple solution that keeps us all engaged with every stage activity.

Gabriel Fancourt’s direction delivers a show that entertains from start to finish, able to position a compelling sense of theatricality alongside earnest explorations of the text’s philosophy. A charming cast, including five brave performers who allow a nightly act of chance decide their fate, collaborate on a presentation unique to the live form. When playing the part of Everybody, Isaro Kayitesi is tremendously impressive, with a glorious combination of vulnerability, complexity and authenticity, that she renders with apparent ease. Giles Gartrell-Mills is our usher, comfortably authoritative in the role, but also disarming with a sincerity that he exudes quite naturally. Death is a comical character when portrayed by Annie Byron, whose unremitting joviality brings splendid contrast to the grim notions that she embodies.

God is omnipresent in Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing, but Nature scarcely gets a mention. In 2020, it is our natural world and environment that has become a major factor in how we conceive of mortality and the future. Perhaps God has all along been indivisible from Nature, yet so many of our minds have learned to have them separated. There is a lot of truth in saying that we create God in our image (and vice versa), and for those of us who think of God and Nature as different, this must be the day of reckoning, the final opportunity for us to come to grips with the fact that it is us who are at the mercy of Mother Earth.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

Review: The Bridges Of Madison County (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 6 – Apr 5, 2020
Book: Marsha Norman (based on the novel by Robert James Waller)
Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Neil Gooding
Cast: Michael Beckley, Anton Berezin, Beth Daly, Kate Maree Hoolihan, Zoe Ioannou, Katie McKee, Ian Stenlake, Grady Swithenbank
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
When we encounter Francesca, she is a housewife in 1960s Iowa, with 2 kids and a husband, seemingly happy to be on a farm living the simple life. A fortuitous meeting with photographer Robert however, reveals that she does want more. The Bridges of Madison County is one of the most famous of American romances, a novella by Robert James Waller that has sold over 60 million copies since its initial publication in 1992. Francesca’s struggles about fulfilling her duties as wife and mother, are presented as completely incongruent with what might be a greater happiness. For a moment, she experiences exhilaration with Robert, but must weigh the consequences should she dare to follow her heart.

This musical version, first created in 2013, features strong songwriting by Jason Robert Brown, but its individual numbers, although delightful, do not necessarily add up to a satisfying plot for the show. Direction by Neil Gooding is able to suffuse a sense of intensity to the emotions being depicted, but the general pace for its storytelling is unsatisfying. Design and technical aspects of the production are on the whole accomplished, with Phoebe Pilcher’s work on lights noteworthy for bringing valuable flamboyance to the staging.

Performer Kate Maree Hoolihan plays a very sentimental Francesca. Her interpretation tends to be simplistic, but proves ultimately to be a moving one. Ian Stenlake looks every bit the National Geographer photographer and love interest Robert, but some of his singing at crucial points are not quite up to scratch. Although evident that the couple works hard to find chemistry, the attraction between the two is never really convincing. Beth Daly and Michael Beckley however are memorable as Marge and Charlie, quirky neighbours who bring occasional but very needed humour to the staging.

In the song “Almost Real”, we hear Francesca talk about her relationship with Chiara, her sister in Naples, who “would open her legs just as easy as speaking.” In her efforts to separate herself from that negative perspective of a free woman, Francesca spends her life doing what she thinks is the right thing, but it is clear that all she does is dedicate herself to being a subject of conformity. Although an indisputably credible character, the writers of Bridges refuse to allow Francesca the gratification she craves, and deserves. We are made to think that to be a good mother, Francesca simply has to give herself up, and that we must all realise, is a lie.

www.goodingproductions.com

Review: Good Mourning (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 3 – 8, 2020
Playwright: Sonia Dodd
Director: Hannah Armstrong
Cast: Gabrielle Aubrey, Coen Lourigan, Madelaine Osborn, Ben Rodwell

Theatre review
Told from the perspective of an 8 year-old, Good Mourning by Sonia Dodd is about a young family dealing with the impending death of a parent. The four children have to grapple with a diagnosis that can only be described as traumatic; their father has advanced cancer with only three months to live. It is however not a grim story that we discover. The family finds uplifting ways to spend their remaining time together, cherishing their precious days and doing what children do best, to find the light under any circumstance.

At just forty minutes or so, Dodd’s writing is concise but satisfying, with an honesty that circumvents sentimentality, for a discussion on grief that always feels authentic. Hannah Armstrong directs this story based on her own experiences, inventive and effervescent in style, surprising us with the optimism and entertainment she is able to provide. Also noteworthy are Rhys Mendham’s efforts with lighting design, successful at providing consistent visual variation to a very bare stage.

The ensemble is charming and well-rehearsed, beautifully cohesive with all that they present. Gabrielle Aubrey, Coen Lourigan, Madelaine Osborn and Ben Rodwell play a range of characters, each one spirited and cleverly imagined. Their portrayal of the children’s innocence is especially effective, able to tell a sad story without excessive despondency, thereby encouraging us to think about death and mourning in a healthy manner. The very definition of life means that we must encounter loss. Learning to cope is essential, and knowing how to live with vibrancy after saying goodbye, is crucial.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 29 – Apr 4, 2020
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Tony Cogin, Jack Crumlin, James Evans, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, James Lugton, Jane Mahady, Lisa McCune, Robert Menzies, Aanisa Vylet, Sophie Wilde
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Having very recently lost his father, the young prince is understandably grief-stricken. Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s quick remarriage to the new King Claudius, almost as a form of distraction, but when the ghost of the dead king arrives to reveal that it was his own brother Claudius who had killed him, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with fury. More than a revenge story, Shakespeare’s Hamlet examines the meaning of death, from the vantage point of a man obsessed with bereavement.

It is a handsome production, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights giving a glamorous finish to the staging, and designer Anna Tregloan’s 1960’s costumes adding a sense of whimsy. Tregloan’s cyclorama depicts a beautiful Danish snowscape, but an awkward house-shaped frame sits centre stage, doing little more than to confuse with its lack of purpose. Video projections by Laura Turner helps us empathise with Hamlet’s tragic circumstances, as does Max Lyandvert’s restrained music compositions.

Director Peter Evans’ conservative style may not deliver anything unexpected, but his rendition is likely to appeal to fans of Shakespeare who favour a more conventional approach. Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson is insufficiently charismatic as the lead, but displays clear dedication to her craft. What she offers as the Danish prince is not always convincing, due in part to her slight stature, although there is no questioning her conviction and focus for the role. The two problematic women in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia, are played by Lisa McCune and Sophie Wilde respectively, both performers able to convey a certain level of power and integrity, in spite of Shakespeare’s intentions to portray them as useless. Robert Menzies leaves a strong impression as Polonius, animated and entertaining as the court’s chief counsellor.

In the twenty-first century, it is easy to take issue with the representation of women in Shakespeare’s work. We are far less likely to accept as reasonable, the extremely unbalanced way in which gender is expressed in his oeuvre. The current trend of placing women actors in key male roles does, to some extent, soften the blow of insults to half of humankind, but the strategy is rarely if ever, able to comprehensively address the gender problem that figures so centrally in all of Shakespeare’s narratives.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Artslab: Behind Closed Doors (Shopfront Arts Co-op)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Feb 26 – Mar 1, 2020
Images by Clare Hawley

Stalls
Playwrights: Lana Filies, Lily Hensby
Devised and performed by: Lana Filies, Olivia Harris, Lily Hensby, Cara Severino

Little Jokes In Times Of War
Written, directed and performed by: Charlotte Salusinszky

Stripped
Written, directed and performed by: Luke Standish

Theatre review
Artslab: Behind Closed Doors features five works, three of which are in the theatrical form. Created by young emerging artists, they combine to offer a refreshing experience, even if style and tone are extremely varied from one to another.

Stalls is a collaboration between Lana Filies and Lily Hensby, exploring toilet humour with a feminist approach, inspired by the concept of an idealised woman that allows no capacity for the most basic of all bodily functions, defecation. The performance is devised by the writers, along with additional cast members Olivia Harris and Cara Severino, for a riotously funny show that stridently rejects notions of sugar and spice and all things nice. Chemistry between the four is joyous, for an effervescent thirty minutes that entertains from an unmistakably political perspective.

Charlotte Salusinszky goes in search of her Hungarian roots in Little Jokes In Times Of War, and unearths a story of inter-generational trauma through an examination of her grandmother’s life. Salusinszky’s almost psychic impulses function as a mode of connection with her family history, inspiring a sort of time travel, going back to locate ancestral meanings, so that she can find, and crystallise, herself in the process. It is a rich text that comes to be, and the artist’s remarkable proficiency on stage, as performer and director, is a revelation.

The thoughts of an erotic stripper are documented in Luke Standish’s Stripped, a poetic and melancholic look at one man’s experience of employment in the adult industry. It is, appropriately, a predominantly physical presentation, but made abstract in a way that reveals, more than anything, the subject’s emotional state. Even at just half an hour, Stripped is repetitive, unable to provide significant elucidation beyond the predictable and obvious, but its imagery is compelling, whether Standish chooses to be clothed or not.

We live full lives behind closed doors, but it is what can be shown to others, that determines so much of identity. Art is most valuable when it lifts the veil on that which lays dormant. Art helps us know ourselves, and as narcissistic humans, that promise of reaching deeper into our own truths, is a huge thrill. Theatre furthers that mission, by coalescing truth into consensus, so that when we sit side by side in a darkened room, something magnanimous unites us, if and when the magic happens.

www.shopfront.org.au

Review: Hello Again (The Factory Theatre)

Venue: The Factory Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Feb 20 – 28, 2020
Words & Music: Michael John LaChiusa (after La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler)
Director: Jerome Studdy
Cast: Denzel Bruhn, Lyndon Carney, Grace Driscoll, Stacey Gay, Charlie Hollands, Brendan McRae, Kate O’Sullivan, Anna-May Parnell, Harrison Vaughan, Emelie Woods
Image by Junior Jin

Theatre review
When first staged in 1920, La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler remained a scandalous work even though it had taken 23 years to go from initial publication to a theatre in Vienna. It dared to depict progressive sexuality as somewhat natural, and certainly spoke about promiscuity as as a phenomenon far less reprehensible than was the convention. A century later, there is little left in the work that feels even naughty, thankfully as a result of substantial advancements over time, in attitudes about sex.

Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again is a 1993 reiteration that transforms the ten dialogues from Schnitlzer’s original, into songs for the musical format. LaChiusa’s music is often experimental and infrequently melodic, with lyrics that now seem unsophisticated and lacking in wit. Each chapter takes us through the decades of the twentieth century, but direction by Jerome Studdy never makes that at all clear. The production feels rough around the edges, admittedly clumsy at points, but an enthusiastic cast almost holds everything together. Without microphones, the acoustically challenged auditorium proves demanding of those with smaller voices, but it must be said that the ambition of all involved is admirable.

La Ronde is about class as much as it is about sex. It represents an effort to look at humans at our most vulnerable and essential, stripped of all ornamentation and pretence, trying to understand ourselves at what should be our purest. Using sex as a common unifying mechanism, and hypocrisy as a theme through which we can access notions of manufactured identity, Schnitzler urges us to be honest, in the belief that truth will set us free.

www.facebook.com/HatTrickProductions

Review: Veronica’s Room (Flight Path Theatre)

Venue: Flight Path Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Feb 26 – Mar 1, 2020
Playwright: Ira Levin
Director: Ehsan Aliverdi
Cast: Parisa Mansuri, Hamed Masteri, Shiva Mokri, Arash Salehi

Theatre review
At the beginning of Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room, a young woman is locked in a room by an older couple. She insists that her name is Susan, even though those who hold the key say that she is Veronica. The suspenseful mystery keeps us guessing, as its characters feud with parallel narratives. We vacillate between wondering if the story is about mental illness, or a strange tale of entrapment and gaslighting.

It is an entertaining work, featuring an appropriate dimension of eerie supernaturality rendered by director and lighting designer Ehsan Aliverdi, who fills the show with flamboyant gestures that give the experience a delicious theatricality. Performed entirely in Farsi (with English surtitles), the cast brings exceptional energy to the piece, for a passionate staging that has us absolutely mesmerised.

Actor Parisa Mansuri plays the young woman, with an emotional complexity and intensity that makes the central riddle even more captivating. Shiva Mokri and Arash Salehi take on a bizarre range of roles, each one compelling and intriguing. Both performers are powerful presences that impress with a sense of fastidiousness to their approach. A fourth character is brought to extravagant life by Hamed Masteri, whose gradual escalation to a state of lunacy is a joy to watch.

Ira Levin’s women may not feel realistic, but it remains a pleasure that they occupy central positions in his play. It is true that women can be naive, and women can be evil, as represented in Veronica’s Room, but we are also resourceful and strong. Although Levin has put on paper something that is truly fascinating, we should question his choices, especially if we believe that humans have become more sophisticated as a species, half a century on from the play’s original staging. Fiction always allows us to manipulate outcomes, and how we choose to see ourselves, is entirely in our hands.

www.nomadartgroup.com | www.flightpaththeatre.org

Review: Pit (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 1, 2020
Playwright: Jackson Used
Director: Mikala Westall
Cast: Tony Barea, Margarita Gershkovich, Briony Williams
Images by Morgan Moroney

Theatre review
Bridget’s only daughter has been abducted. Needless to say, the aftermath is traumatic, and as we see in Jackson Used’s Pit, a constant state of disorientation and pain. One can attempt to find ways to move on, but there is no escaping the all-consuming damage that must result from an incident like this. Bridget tries on every kind of survival mechanism, none of which proves satisfactory, and we must confront the idea that when things go this bad, no solution can exist. It becomes a case of sink or swim, and we see that the remaining hope is about resilience and spirit, even if all they do is to keep a person breathing.

Direction by Mikala Westall is often imaginative, although a bolder approach is necessary for a more dramatic experience. Actor Briony Williams does most of the heavy lifting, focused and purposeful in the lead role. Tony Barea plays the lost girl’s father Serge, a surprising performance that has us won over at the end. Margarita Gershkovich provides sturdy support in a number of smaller parts, able to engage the audience without causing distraction from the central plot and character.

The emotions displayed on stage can feel slightly restrained, but theatre should not ask of its makers, thorough authenticity under all circumstances. What Bridget has to go through, is beyond inhumane, and no actor should have to take on anywhere near that level of torment. There are techniques however, that can help the show convey greater intensity, so that we may come closer to the reality being rendered, even if bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors are how we can get there.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Australian Open (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 14 – 29, 2020
Playwright: Angus Cameron
Director: Riley Spadaro
Cast: Di Adams, Gerard Carroll, Miranda Daughtry, Patrick Jhanur, Tom Anson Mesker, Tom Russell
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Inspired by her son Felix, Belinda decides to change the nature of her marriage, in order to try out new things. Felix adamantly objects, even though it is his own open relationship with Lucas, that had acted as the very catalyst for his mother’s radical transformation. Australian Open by Angus Cameron looks at the way we let our most personal lives be dictated by others, and how we in turn feel at liberty to intervene with other people’s private business. It is a wonderfully progressive piece of writing, that takes the discussion of sexuality and marriage into the twenty-first century. Framed by some fabulously mischievous wit, the play is often hilarious, with its strengths clearly residing in dialogue rather than in plot.

Relentlessly camp, the show is directed by Riley Spadaro, whose penchant for grand gestures makes the experience a vivaciously engaging one. Spadaro is meticulous with the comedy of the piece, never letting any opportunity for laughs go wasted, although it must be said that more serious moments at the end, can in comparison, feel perfunctorily handled. There is a sense of refinement to the staging, with Grace Deacon’s work on set and costumes proving enchanting with her refreshing palette. Phoebe Pilcher’s lights too, bring an exuberance to keep us in the mood for all the bubbly goings on.

An extremely adorable cast keeps us enthralled in their slightly naughty story, with Di Adams particularly charming as Belinda, full of pointed nuance and jubilant playfulness, for a character luxuriating in being able to get back her groove. Felix is played by Tom Anson Mesker, whose proficient comic timing establishes pace for the proceedings. Also very funny is Gerard Carroll as Peter, able to portray vulnerability whilst bringing cheeky humour to the role. The millennial tennis star Lucas is given a surprising authenticity by Patrick Jhanur, who hits the mark effortlessly, both in terms of his acting and allure, for the very sex-positive part. Miranda Daughtry is appropriately stern as Annabelle, a commanding presence who offers a valuable counterbalance to her flighty family members. Finally, Tom Russell is memorable in the smaller role of Hot Ball Boy, simultaneously playing clown and eye candy, for a delighted and appreciative crowd.

As demonstrated by Felix, the hardest part about love and sex, is the discovery for oneself, what it is that one really wants. The inundation of messages relating to those subjects makes it nigh on impossible to know, if one is acting in response to influences, or if one’s true nature or essence is actually being expressed. As children, we are given explanations about partnerships and gender, that are at best interpretations of phenomena. There comes a time in adulthood, that each individual must determine for themselves, and themselves only, what those things should mean.

www.presentedbybub.com

Review: Our Blood Runs In The Street (Old Fitzroy Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 19 – Mar 21, 2020
Director: Shane Anthony
Cast: Andrew Fraser, Cassie Hamilton, David Helman, Eddie Orton, Sam Plummer, Ross Walker, Tim Walker
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Violence is an indelible part of LGBTQI history in NSW. In the many years leading up to the decriminalisation of homosexuality and then the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Sydney’s gay men and trans women especially, have suffered physical harm, to the extent of murder, as a result of homophobia and transphobia.

Our Blood Runs In The Street is a work of verbatim theatre, composed of accounts by victims, as well as “family members, witnesses, historians, police officers, journalists and researchers,” presented alongside contemporary dance and physical theatre, for an examination of the prejudice and brutality that has shaped the community.

With stories mainly from the last three decades of the previous century, director Shane Anthony and his team have collated a meaningful text from which we can better understand that past. We are additionally informed that investigations are ongoing, in case new revelations should surface as a result of the show. It is a heavily fragmented work, and although able to convey the severity of incidents, struggles to elicit emotional involvement.

Visually enticing, with imaginative choreography throughout, and lights by Richard Whitehouse bringing constant colour and movement, our eyes are kept entertained. Auditory capacities are attended by composer Damien Lane and sound designer Nate Edmondson, who move us seamless from scene to scene, as they maintain an uncompromising gravity for these harrowing tales.

Seven performers, each one earnest and passionate, deliver testimonials with indisputable conviction. David Helman is particularly impressive with his clever blend of words and movement. Imagery and dialogue in the show do not always work well together, but Helman makes us watch and listen with coherence, without distraction from one or the other. A powerful speech is given by Cassie Hamilton, captivating in her stillness, recounting the serious under-estimation of violence against trans people, as reported by Eloise Brook of The Gender Centre.

The times are slowly changing, but problems for LGBTQI Australians continue, now most notably for ethnic minorities in suburbia. That the stage for Our Blood Runs In The Street is filled with white bodies, is indicative of the disparity that exists between cultures. People of colour have benefited from the work of Western activists, but there remains challenges, specific and nuanced, yet to be addressed. Pride has functioned as an effective war cry for many queers, but it is still a concept that eludes some, for which shame is still the default experience.

www.redlineproductions.com.au