Review: Yen (New Ghosts Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 27 – Oct 13, 2018
Playwright: Anna Jordan
Director: Lucy Clements
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Meg Clarke, Ryan Hodson, Hayley Pearl
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Brothers Bobbie and Hench are young teenagers, left to fend for themselves with only media screens and addicts as role models. Maggie is their desperately incompetent single mother, having lost both her sons’ fathers to early deaths, in this world of substance abuse and poverty. A neighbour Jennifer enters their life as a ray of hope, but in Anna Jordan’s Yen, our capacity for optimism is put to the test, as we interrogate the nature of social change and its delusory qualities, in this hyperrealist depiction of inter-generational disadvantage.

Situated in the dingiest corners of an English council estate, where the boys disintegrate in the most spectacular fashion, we observe their loss of innocence, and in its place, all the evidence of imminent wasted lives. Jordan’s writing is undeniably moving, but also marvellously thrilling. Yen is a showcase that consolidates the many deficiencies of our communities, with pointed critiques that never feel excessively didactic.

It is very gripping drama, and under the astute direction of Lucy Clements, entertaining and immensely involving. Clements has us breathless for the show’s two-hour entirety, as the story takes us through universal themes of family, love, sex, violence and redemption. Visually compelling, the production is meticulously designed by Ester Karuso-Thurn (set and costumes) and Louise Mason (lights) who deliver a surprising range of spatial transformations within restrictive confines of the stifling context. Sound by Chrysoulla Markoulli is impressively exacting, in all its manipulations of atmosphere. There is remarkable sensitivity from all disciplines, that allows its audience to engage at exceptional depth.

The staging features four fantastic actors, each one convincing and enthralling in their respective parts. 14-year-old Bobbie is played by the very industrious Jeremi Campese, whose extremely detailed approach offers up an interminably fascinating study of troubling juvenility. His extraordinary vitality insists on our compassion, even when the going gets tough. Hayley Pearl’s portrayal of the neglectful mother, has us angered and heartbroken. It is a controversial character uncompromisingly presented, by a very sharp and daring performer. Meg Clarke and Ryan Hodson are the not-so-sweet sixteens, both authentic, and tremendously revelatory of the adolescent experience, through their beautifully naturalistic renderings of Jennifer and Hench. The coupling of vulnerability and aggression in all these interpretations, are a joy to behold, as well as being meaningfully confronting.

In Yen, we see our structural failures take place within spaces that are personal and isolated. We come to an understanding that the only way for individual lives to flourish, is for the environments in which they exist to actively promote that betterment. Little can be achieved, when we leave the needy to their own devices. We chastise and condemn those who suffer, unwilling to see our complicity in people’s inability to grow, choosing only to attribute blame to their otherness. Good lives cannot exist in isolation; it takes a village to raise a child, and to lavish care on most everything else.

www.newghoststheatre.com

Review: Ironbound (An Assorted Few)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 31 – Sep 15, 2018
Playwright: Martyna Majok
Director: Alastair Clark
Cast: Abe Mitchell, Ryan Morgan, Gabrielle Scawthorn, Benedict Wall
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
We see Darja at different periods of her life, but whether she is in her twenties, thirties or forties, poverty remains the central defining feature of her misfortunes. Scenes in Martyna Majok’s Ironbound take place at a New Jersey bus stop, where Darja is always hoping to go somewhere, but never does. Between working two jobs, and relying on a series of men for help, her situation refuses to improve, no matter how much she tries.

Majok’s play presents the American Dream as a lie, arguing against the notion that hard work alone is the key to salvation. Darja is a female Polish immigrant, thoroughly disadvantaged, and seen by society to be no more than a worker ant. She has only her hopes and dreams to cling to, unaware that those who have sold her those aspirations, are also the very ones who stand to benefit greatest from her destitution. All she does is work for the man, and all the man wants, is to keep things unchanged.

Even though socially pertinent, Ironbound is not necessarily a story with universal appeal. It dispenses valuable information, but is also inevitably dreary. Director Alastair Clark has the unenviable task of making entertainment from experiences of poverty, which is difficult as well as being morally precarious, but he negotiates those lines well, for an engaging show that always has its heart in the right place.

Leading a very strong cast is Gabrielle Scawthorn, immensely authentic in the role of Darja, with a portrayal of desperation that is deeply thought-provoking. We do respond to her story with a level of pity, but it is ultimately the wider questions being raised that stay with us thereafter. Benedict Wall brings a surprising complexity to love interest Tommy, facilitating profound contemplation about the meaning of love, in this age of advanced capitalism. Darja’s first husband Maks is played by Abe Mitchell, an endearing presence with a wonderfully dynamic approach, signalling the end of innocence in the Western world. The young and privileged Vic is brought to exuberant life by Ryan Morgan, charming and humorous, in his depictions of our systemic injustices.

We want Darja’s suffering to end, but Ironbound refuses to sugar-coat any of its truths. She fights tooth and nail for a good life, but the world is determined to keep her down. It is a story about people who never stood a chance, and the lies we are fed to sustain the inhumane status quo of our calamitous inequities. Education and knowledge, and therefore art, can help set us free, that is true, but it is unlikely that the likes of Darja will ever get to see a work of theatre like this.

www.facebook.com/anassortedfew

Review: You Got Older (Mad March Hare Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 13 – Aug 4, 2018
Playwright: Clare Barron
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Alex Beauman, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Ainslie McGlynn, Sarah Meacham, Gareth Rickards, Steve Rodgers, Cody Ross
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Mae has come home, to care for her father as he undergoes cancer treatment. Clare Barron’s You Got Older is a look at that moment, of suddenly becoming keenly aware of one’s parents’ mortality. In every process of healing, of trying to make someone better, is the salient reminder that life is fragile. Mae is strong for her father, but in the privacy of her own thoughts, anxiety and grief manifest in fantasies of sexual masochism. Role playing is after all, how we are able to get through most of our days.

The subject matter may be heavy, but like the resilience of our human spirit, the show is determined to keep buoyant and optimistic. Director Claudia Barrie brings excellent humour to the production. Although not exactly lighthearted, we are surprised by the delight and joy that the play brings, through its very enjoyable and richly authentic explorations of love and family dynamics. There is no angsty drama here, only a father and his beloved children grappling with the pain of inevitable separation.

A very solid cast takes us through this universal tale. Harriet Gordon-Anderson is entirely convincing as Mae, with all her contradictions and vulnerabilities, but the actor is particularly successful at conveying a strength that is neither heroic nor exceptional, but that is nonetheless profound in its representation of the good that we are capable of. The paternal character is played by a confidently understated Steve Rodgers, who introduces just enough pathos to have us engaged, leaving us grateful that no emotional blackmailing takes place in this presentation. Contributing to the somewhat unexpected elegance of You Got Older are its supporting actors, each one charming and funny, and as a group, perfectly timed and wonderfully captivating.

When someone close is suffering ill health, those on the sidelines might be left feeling helpless, but we also understand that fundamental to the patient’s well-being, is the spiritual care and support we are required to provide. In times of hardship, fear can easily overwhelm, but courage often appears, allowing love to do its job.

www.madmarchtheatreco.com

Review: Dresden (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 15 – 30, 2018
Playwright: Justin Fleming
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Thomas Campbell, Renee Lim, Yalin Ozucelik, Dorje Swallow, Jeremy Waters, Ben Wood
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Wagner’s first success was Rienzi, an opera about the rise and fall of a medieval Italian populist leader. Hitler fell in love with the work, years after Wagner’s death, and in Justin Fleming Dresden we see the unexpected and formidable ways in which art can inspire behaviour, good and bad. It also looks at Hitler as a failed artist, and proffers a chicken and egg scenario; questioning the relationship between that infamous abominable nature and his own deficiencies at artistic creation. Even though information about contemporary fascistic regimes seem to remain prominent in our consciousness, the play does not feel immediately relevant, but Fleming’s writing exceeds the story he tells. Against a backdrop monumental and historic, his words sing with an enchanting beauty, imparting observations that are succinctly constructed and very wise indeed.

Opera and a world war, give the play a sensibility that is unavailingly grand, but the small auditorium is ambitiously converted by set designer Patrick Howe to convey the sophistication associated with Wagner’s discipline, as well as the aesthetic severity of Hitler’s Germany. Benjamin Brockman’s lights are relentlessly theatrical, with incessant transformations that move us through dimensions, from miscellaneous days of yore, to those that are even more ephemeral and fantastical. Director Suzanne Millar very deftly negotiates the weaving realms of the play, taking us from real to imaginary, across terrains and timelines, for an impressively lucid telling of tales.

Yalin Ozucelik and Jeremy Waters are the leading men, both enthralling with their respective stage presences, and splendid with the dialogue that they are master of. As Wagner, Waters is spirited yet delicate, and as Hitler, Ozucelik’s depiction of cruel imbecility strikes a perfectly balanced act of dramedy. Also memorable are Dorje Swallow and Thomas Campbell, each supporting player demonstrating excellent versatility, proving themselves to be eminently watchable in any guise.

We often hear, that all publicity is good publicity. If all Hitler had wanted from his extreme brutality, was to be remembered, then the confounding actions of people in power everywhere, can begin to make sense. Most of us wish to leave behind some semblance of a legacy, no matter how minute, so that our time on earth can be seen to be of some value. Some want their names to last, but others prefer that what they had tried to generate in their own lifetime, is able to make permanent improvements into the future. Bad people exist, and as we negotiate existence around them, we must try to stop ourselves from fighting fire with fire. Good can turn into evil in the blink of an eye, when we let our guard down and start to emulate those who wish to trespass against us.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au

Review: Visiting Hours (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 7 – 17, 2018
Playwrights: John Harrison, Constantine Costi, Michael Costi
Directors: John Harrison, Michael Dean
Cast: Keiren Brereton, Tara Clark, Rose Costi, Laura Djanegara, Sarah Evans, Cheyne Fynn, Jasper Garner Gore, Richard Hilliar, Derbail Kinsella, Sheila Kumar, Yannick Lawry, Kianah Marlena, Suz Mawer, Tom McCracken, Jim McCrudden, Joshua McElroy, Rebecca Claire Moret, Mansoor Noor, Heather Prowse, Monica Sayers, Katherine Shearer, Emma White, Elijah Williams, Nicole Wineberg, Arisa Yura
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The people who work in hospitals are among some of the best human beings we have, but the experience of visiting medical institutions is often harrowing. We are at our most vulnerable, quite literally putting our lives in the hands of others. The immersive theatre production Visiting Hours, written by John Harrison, Constantine Costi and Michael Costi, investigates that very notion of having to submit to health experts and authorities, of being in a situation where one’s mortality is constantly under threat and question. We venture through ten or so spaces, guided by strange or menacing personalities, never knowing what is to come.

The experience is often terrifying, but in a humorous, often childlike way, where we engage in the sensation of fear, understanding that no real danger is ever present. The spaces are marvellously designed to deliver a sense of nightmarish foreboding, whilst stimulating all our senses in a range of unexpectedly pleasurable ways. Benjamin Brockman’s lights are almost inappropriately sexy, in their many spectacular evocations of tension and anxiety. Production design by Anna Gardiner offers spatial configurations that constantly surprise and amuse. Tegan Nicholls’ sounds are powerfully hypnotic, in how they coax us into strange realms of fantasy.

Visiting Hours is a thrilling show, and its demands of us as active participants in the story, are rich enough to elicit genuinely complex reactions, without ever crossing any lines. The first half involves a high level of interactivity, delivering intensely fascinating sequences that captivate all our senses and intellect. As it progresses however, we are released into more conventional and passive modes of audienceship, and even though we continue to be gripped by its continual atmospheric fluctuations, our minds struggle to focus on the show’s sudden reliance on spoken text. Our minds and bodies remain preoccupied with the multidimensional appeal of spaces, and can only listen sporadically to the words being said. Nonetheless, there is no question that the work is beautifully performed, by a huge cast of 26 actors, all convincing, charming and playfully provocative with their individual roles.

We all have to live inside power structures that keep us subjugated. Being at the bottom of the pile is sometimes involuntary, sometimes complicit. Visiting Hours challenges us to think about compliance and choice, and to examine the meaning of free will, when society seems to have a persistent appetite for deception and oppression. False gods in white coats can often appear to be all we have, but the ability to think for oneself and the courage to obey one’s own intuition, are always on hand.

www.kingsxtheatre.com

Review: Tonsils And Tweezers (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 12 – 27, 2018
Playwright: Will O’Mahony
Director: Michael Abercromby
Cast: Travis Jeffery, James Sweeny, Megan Wilding, Hoa Xuande
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Will O’Mahony’s black comedy Tonsils And Tweezers centres itself on two young men, who share not only a very close relationship, but also the unyielding malaise of modern masculinity. We see them bond as outsiders in school, and witness how that relationship shapes the adults that they try to become.

The narrative might be fairly simple, but the plot is a deliberately beguiling one that ends up delivering more confusion than it intends. We sense an emotional crescendo being constructed thoughtfully as each scene progresses, but its inability to have us sufficiently identify with either Tonsils or Tweezers, takes us to a conclusion that never manages to be more than lukewarm.

The actors however, are full of conviction and reliably entertaining. Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande are the leads, both authentically present and impressive with the gravity they bring to the stage at crucial junctures of drama. Even more appealing, are supporting players James Sweeny and Megan Wilding, memorable with the scintillating humour they are able to introduce throughout the piece. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but it is a cast that we are glad to have spent time with.

Director Michael Abercromby takes us through the play’s many blunt atmospheric shifts with admirable elegance and efficiency. Lights by Liam O’Keefe and sound by James Yeremeyev have a tendency to work slightly too literally, but are highly effective with the way time, place and mood are calibrated for our subliminal comprehension. Patrick Howe does remarkable well as set designer, creating a space beautifully sleek in its minimalism, whilst portraying a cold brutality that is consistent with emotions relevant to the text.

In Tonsils And Tweezers, the Australian man’s problem with self-expression is, characteristically, looked at, but not looked into. The inability of our boys and men, to articulate and to understand their own feelings is, as the play points out vigorously, clearly detrimental, but how all this transpires, is all but neglected. We know the effects of toxic masculinity, but are yet to examine it in a way that can bring us satisfactory solutions. The dismantlement of old structures that we continue to live within, is necessary but strenuous. Some have begun work on that process, but more will have to come on board, if we wish to truly progress.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com

5 Questions with Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande

Travis Jeffery

Hoa Xuande: Before you read Tonsils And Tweezers, going purely from the name, what did you think the play would be about?
Travis Jeffery: I had absolutely no idea what the play was about before I read it. I love the title, but the only thing it gives away is two of the characters names, and even that’s not crystal clear. Will O’Mahony is a very intelligent human and writer so I gathered the title wasn’t going to be literal, but the thought did cross my mind that ‘hey maybe it’s just set at the dentist’.

What kind of kid were you at school?
I was the funny chubby kid at school. Or at least I tried to be funny, I was definitely chubby. My passport photo was taken in 2009 when I was around 107 kgs, these days when I whip it out at the airport I occasionally get laughed at… at least I’m getting laughs 😦

What are the similarities or differences between you and your character?
The importance of friendship is definitely something myself and Tonsils have in common. My friendships are one of the most important parts of my life, whether it’s on or off stage it’s wonderful knowing you have people that will be there for you, including you, Hoa Xuande. At the heart of Tonsils And Tweezers is two best friends trying to help each other work through something traumatic, it’s their friendship that drives the play.

What do you think your character’s name actually is and why?
Interesting question Hoa, lets go with Peter. Purely because in one of the rehearsals James Sweeny, who plays Max, called me Peter when he wasn’t cut off in time. Or maybe his name really is just Tonsils, like Cher!

Where do you go to get your dance moves?
I learnt my moves at the school of hard knocks! Don’t be fooled into thinking I woke up one morning and they were there. Years of hard work and dedication has been put into my skills. Hitting the D-Floor rain, hail or shine to keep my moves in peak condition. Actually to be honest I was born with absolutely no rhythm so dancing is incredibly hard for me, come watch the show and see for your self.

Hoa Xuande

Travis Jeffery: What do you enjoy about Tonsils And Tweezers and Will O’Mahony’s writing?
Hoa Xuande: I’ve had the chance to work with Will twice now on his plays, including the original development of Tonsils And Tweezers, and the thing that really sticks with me about his writing is how frivolous and fun his plays are until it drops you into the deep end and puts you into an emotional mess. Without trying to sound smart he creates these ideas and clues along the way, which ironically makes his plays really clever. In Tonsils And Tweezers we just get to be silly and play until we hand the audience the play’s actual intentions and emotional truth. It’s really fun to do that every night!

What’s the biggest difference between this production and the original?
The biggest difference between this production and the original would have to be the pace between the two shows. The original was put on as part of a double-bill of theatre at the Black Swan State Theatre Company in Perth so we had some time constraints so Will, who also directed the piece himself, really got us to rapid-fire the text. I mean, we really spoke quite fast! But this production has allowed me to just re-discover the text and give the play a little more ‘breathing room’ so it’s nice to be able to just take your time a bit more in this version of the production and make new choices that you hadn’t previously thought about before. It’s just been great to be able to do the same text again but in a different way!

This question has 2 parts! Part 1: What do you like most about rehearsals? Part 2: What do you like most about working with me?
Haha, well… early on in rehearsals, it was interesting to re-discover the play with Travis and Michael and because I had done the play before, I thought, “Nah, I’ll be right.” But as they kept mining the text and discovered things I had completely missed before, I found myself questioning what I actually knew and what my choices were in the previous production and whether I had even understood the play in the first place. So stepping through the play once again in these rehearsals has actually been quite a refreshing feeling. Travis, mate, I like your can-do attitude! Strong choices even if they might be wrong, or always wrong, haha! Nah, actually that was me every day!

Is it true you only own one white shirt and wear it every day?
False, my friend, I actually own more than one white shirt. Three, to be precise. One of which is being used in the show right now! But I choose to wear my ‘rehearsal’ white shirt every day for rehearsal purposes. FYI, it does get washed every week, I think!

Did you ever have a nickname that you hated? Do you have one now?
I’ve had plenty of nicknames or more like mis-pronunciations of my name that’ve probably turned into a nickname at some point in time. The strangest reading of my name once was ‘hon’ and I was like, ‘Interesting, don’t know where the ‘n’ came from but I’ll take it!’ It’s pronounced ‘hwa’ by the way, like a karate chop! That phrase has become attached to my name every time I introduce myself now, haha! But no, never really hated any nicknames. Do I have one now? Don’t know, probably, but Xanadu’s been making the rounds because it looks similar to my last name!

Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande can be seen in Tonsils And Tweezers by Will O’Mahony.
Dates: 12 – 29 Jan, 2018
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre