Review: Te Molimau (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 7 – 24, 2019
Playwright: Taofia Pelesasa
Director: Emele Ugavule
Cast: Lesina Ateli-Ugavule, Malia Letoafa, Tommy Misa, Iya Ware

Theatre review
Fatia has flown back to his mother’s hometown, the Pacific nation of Tokelau, where the island state is only days away from being completely submerged beneath the ocean. Taofia Pelesasa’s Te Molimau tells the heartbreaking story of a country lost, in the not too distant future, to the devastating effects of climate change. It is a deeply emotional work, made resonant by the inclusion of some very hard truths, about the way we stand on the sidelines, doing nothing to prevent disasters from consuming our neighbours. Incorporating generous doses of Tokelauan language and dance (with exquisite choreography by Sela Vai), Te Molimau represents the art of storytelling at its most potent, able to use the theatrical form to turn abstract concepts into something immediate, palpable and urgent.

Directed by Emele Ugavule, the show grows gradually, from its initial delicate tone to eventually forceful, all the while ensuring that the plot is built upon a solid foundation of sincerity. Lighting design by Amber Silk is noteworthy for its sensitive coherence with the text’s varying degrees of sentimentality, always subtle but precise in it calibrations of atmosphere. An extraordinarily likeable cast draws us into the action, including Tommy Misa as Fatia, striking in the simplicity of his approach, able to lay bare all that is so engaging and important about the play. In the role of Vitolina is Malia Letoafa, ethereal and truthful, for a supremely understated performance surprising in its impact. Lesina Ateli-Ugavule and Iya Ware demonstrate flawless chemistry, as a couple of mismatched acquaintances who form a friendship remarkable for its genuine warmth.

It is the ultimate cruelty, to see a small neighbouring country sink into the ocean, and choose to do nothing. Even if we are unable to agree on the causes of these calamities, our humanity should know to find ways to help, but it appears that we are more than comfortable to sit back and watch people go through the worst imaginable scenarios. It may be true that we feel helpless, but it is also true that we use ignorance as an excuse, in fear of having to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of others. Nature however, will never understand our demarcations of us and them. Rising sea levels will not end at the Pacific Islands just because they hold less political and economic power. Our delusions tell us that wealth is a shield from every harm, but it is only a matter of time, that this intractable inaction will catch up on us.

www.black-birds.net | www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Skyduck: A Chinese Spy Comedy (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 11 – 20, 2019
Playwright: Sam Wang
Director: Aileen Huynh
Cast: Sam Wang
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Chinese agents Chang and Yan have stolen a flight simulator from the Americans, and are surreptitiously turning Skyhawk into Skyduck, to claim illegitimate supremacy in the world of military technology. They come up against good guys from the West; Kendrick is from the USA, and Tucker is Australian. There is also a love interest Little Swallow in the mix somewhere, along with pop star Xiao Peng who makes a short but memorable appearance.

Sam Wang plays all these characters in his Skyduck: A Chinese Spy Comedy, a lampoon of Hollywood action flicks, from Top Gun to Inception, in which nothing is allowed to get in the way of a good time. Wang’s show is imaginative and wonderfully quirky, with an artistic audacity that is highly persuasive; there are lots of outlandish ideas, some of which are completely bonkers, but they all work.

Directed by Aileen Huynh, the production’s idiosyncratic tone is perfectly pitched, for a style of humour that feels one of a kind. A remarkable ingenuity pervades Skyduck. From its clever video projections to some surprisingly elaborate prop making, everything about this staging is a delight.

Performed in Mandarin and English, Wang’s flamboyant take on characters is cheeky and very charming, underpinned by a truly splendid sense of timing. His ability to command attention proves to be quite incredible, as we are kept enthralled for the entirety, thoroughly bemused by what is being offered.

Skyduck is the funniest of contemporary Australian comedies, showcasing an exceptional emerging talent. Sam Wang’s instincts are accurate yet unpredictable. He seems to know better than ourselves, what it is that makes us laugh, and it is in his jocular prowess that we luxuriate. Skyduck pretends to be something it is not. It presents itself as an inferior imitation of blockbusters, and misleads us into thinking that we are laughing at a hack job, but the genius at play is almost furtive, and it is at our own risk that we should ever underestimate it.

www.facebook.com/skyduckandco | www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Aileen Huynh and Sam Wang

Aileen Huynh

Sam Wang: Are you into spy films?
Aileen Huynh: Who’s not into a good spy film? True Lies with Arnie is where it all began for me (which I over watched and can now only claim as a guilty pleasure to maintain my cred). Action, risk, danger and usually a situation that needs saving – pretty good base to start a story from!

Is this your first time directing? What have you been drawing on?
Pretty much! I have directed small things prior to this and I don’t actively pursue directing, but this project really fit for me in terms of content, style and what I’m passionate about, so it seemed right! I have been drawing from what I’ve been taught in the past, instinct and also largely on my experiences as an actor – the flip has been interesting for me, I’ve learnt a lot about the other side.

What has been the most challenging thing about working on Skyduck?
At the beginning it was about putting my thoughts out in the right words – basically communicating my ideas efficiently, which I found difficult. Now, I’ve moved on to just saying exactly what I think and not care so much – ahaha! It has removed any fluff to wade through – and I think my relationship with you, is still intact, right Sam? Ha!

Have you learnt any Mandarin doing this show?
I went to Mandarin lessons at the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple every Saturday for like 8 years. It was pretty much glorified baby-sitting because I learnt very little! My mother is an interpreter who speaks five languages including 3 dialects of Chinese and I pretty much have some butchered Cantonese and even worse Mandarin! Sorry mum… True Aussie-Asian here! But in a way it works for Skyduck. It’s very much a show where those two worlds are colliding together and sharing what that is – I’m sure a lot of audience will relate to that idea of having multiple cultures, which influence their lives. So to answer the actual question – yes, but not really any more that I didn’t already know!

Before wanting to be an actor/director/creative, did you want to be anything else?
I really don’t think so. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor – classic. Then I grew up and worked out that there was no way that would be happening. No maths or science brain to show for! I just wanted to be in the arts and crafts corner all the time… literally. I still have whole drawers devoted just for stationary and scrapbooking…

Sam Wang

Aileen Huynh: Why did you write Skyduck: A Chinese Spy Comedy?
Sam Wang: I wanted to be a fighter pilot as a kid. Then I wanted to be a spy. Writing this show has given me a chance to do ‘Boom! Boom! Bang! Bang!’ acting on stage. Like literally going ‘Boom! Boom! Bang! Bang!’ on stage and pretending to be a fighter jet. Yes, that is the level of this show…and one I’m particularly capable of matching.

You also wrote four songs to go with the show and a lot of your self-made work involves song. What draws you to doing this?
I’m not a great singer but I love musicals. This is the closest I’m ever going to get!

Half of the show is in Mandarin. What has it been like to work bilingually?
Challenging, because I can’t actually read or write Mandarin. I left China in kindergarten. But I can still speak it and with the help of Google Translate and some cousins, we’re here! I know Mandarin speakers in the audience will probably feel like they’re watching a toddler speak Mandarin on stage but that kind of plays into the comedy of the show. And to quote Robert LePage: ‘the best thing about being bilingual is that it gives you permission to butcher English as much as you want.’ I think that’s going to work both ways in this show.

What has it been like going from working on this on your own to having a whole team come on board?
Scary and motivating! Having a team come on board meant I wasn’t just accountable to myself anymore and there was no ‘abandon-mission/self-eject’ button. I wouldn’t have followed through on this project any other way. Also, it’s so easy to fall down a black hole and go off on a complete tangent on your own. Having a team onboard to challenge and interrogate this work has been a complete luxury and one that has ultimately made it intelligible to other humans. And yes, we’re still friends… right?

You were once a lawyer. What is one thing you miss from your previous life in the legal industry?
Ha! (Probably shouldn’t say that about my backup in public – YOLO!)

Aileen Huynh is directing Sam Wang in his one-man show Skyduck: A Chinese Spy Comedy .
Dates: 11 – 20 Jul, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: The Astral Plane (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 12 – 29, 2019
Playwright: Charlie Garber
Director: Charlie Garber
Cast: Eden Falk, Emma Harvie, Julia Robertson, Imogen Sage, Ella Scott Lynch, Michael Whalley

Theatre review
Charlie Garber’s The Astral Plane happens in that space one arrives at before attaining nirvana, where imagination easily turns into reality, or to be more accurate, material. It is all very strange. Depending on personal inclinations, Garber’s sense of humour can be appealing, even in an adventure featuring talking rats and social media influencers that proves to make no sense whatsoever. It is a comedy about nothing, that can leave one feeling quite empty by its end, but there are certainly laughs to be had in every one of its wacky scenes.

An energetic cast, full of conviction, takes us on a spirited ride. They are determined to entertain, and their presence is consistently infectious. In the role of Romi is Imogen Sage, who brings to the stage, an exaggerated effervescence and more than a hint of quirkiness. Julia Robertson is impressive as Deborah, very powerful with an artistic approach that is always daring and robust. Emma Harvie and Michael Whalley are the rats, both performers extraordinarily charming, able to convince us of anything, no matter how farfetched their story.

There is tremendous creativity in The Astral Plane, but its idiosyncrasy will only find appreciation from some. Art can hope to be universal, but it must originate from a personal place if we require it to be honest. Thinking that people are all the same is dangerous, for we are only equal and never replicants of each other. There must be generous allowance for artists to express their individuality, no matter how off-kilter, as long as we are prepared for it to land where we do not predict.

www.facebook.com/theastralplane | www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Eden Falk and Charlie Garber

Eden Falk

What’s it like working together?
Eden Falk: I’ve known Charlie for like 15 years, we’ve always been at the same parties and we now both have kids, so now we’re at the same kids parties. But we’ve never really worked together and I’ve always wanted to. And its been super fun, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed making a play as much. Sometimes rehearsals can feel like a bit of an uphill battle, but this room has felt endlessly playful, partly due to Charlie’s sense of humour and also to the team of wonderful actors he’s assembled. It’s been a real work in progress and the script has grown as we’ve reacted to it as actors, which has also been part of the fun. The show is ultimately an adventure love story, and so playing with the rules of those worlds and developing our characters with Charlie’s insane mind has been a real joy.

Favourite thing about Charlie?
His unashamed delivery of line readings. He knows these characters inside out and could kinda play any of them. Which means his direction is from the inside out and that’s lovely to work with. Seriously though, there was a moment in rehearsals where I thought he was going to act out the entire show as a monologue and I was like yep I’d pay to see that. 

Why did you say yes to the show?
I’ve always admired Charlie as an actor, I wish I was 10% as funny as he is. So when he asked me to be in his funny play I couldn’t say no. I also think he’s written a really clever exploration of identity, love and self belief. It works on many levels, the ridiculous, the comical, the fantastical, the sublime. I can’t wait to share it with people.

What is the biggest challenge when playing your character Dan?
This is the kind of show where the characters don’t always know exactly what’s wrong with them until it’s too late, so one of the big challenges has been not to over think that too much. As actors, we have to live in the moment as it happens, line by line. With Dan, there’s a lot of inner conflict that surfaces later in the show, but it works better if that isn’t played too heavily in the early scenes, which is in some ways different to how I’d usually approach a performance. But it’s also incredibly liberating; there’s a lightness of touch and an ease in the storytelling. You can just let go and let the play do the work.

Do you share any similarities with Dan?
Yikes. There’s a few – which considering he kind of becomes the anti-hero of the play (spoiler alert) is somewhat hard to admit. He’s pretty conflicted. Social media frustrates him and yet he spends all day in front of a computer. I don’t necessarily hate social media but I’m not crazy about it and having spent my early twenties without it I miss the days when we didn’t have so many ways to “connect”. But I can also sympathise with his need to escape these things, he just takes it way too far. It’s all about balance, and maybe Dan is yet to figure out what that is. I feel for the dude.

Charlie Garber

Why did you want to write this play now?
Charlie Garber: This play came about through wanting to write an adventure. A big show. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it at the quite the scale of storytelling I was hoping for but its still pretty big. I wanted to create a comedy epic – ridiculous, yet real. Big ideas, fun ideas, big scenes, big moments, yet funny and all that. to sucker punch the audience with stuff after opening them up with comedy.

Why did you want to write and direct?
I wanted to get the show up with a minimum of bother. If I’d been sitting next to a director who’s making their own mark on the play while I’m also revising the writing in rehearsals it could have been a difficult. Its an independent show – it has enough hurdles already. It’s not an artistic piece, it’s a comedy that needs to be staged simply. I’m not really a director. I’ve devised and co-directed a lot of stuff so I sort of know the ropes (and I’ve been directed by good directors) enough to get the thing up. 

What’s it like working together?
Eden is great to work with. We worked together ten years ago on Summer Folk directed by Eamon Flack which went on in Belvoir’s big rehearsal room for a week. Eden is a secret comedy weapon. He’s got great everyman appeal but with a strong sense of the ridiculous. He also has a lot of theatre experience so there’s a great short-hand. We’ve seen a lot of each other’s work so we sometimes know sooner what the other is trying to achieve.

What’s your favourite thing about Eden?
My favourite thing about Eden is that he has a daughter of a similar age to mine so we can relate. 

What is the biggest challenge when directing an epic, adventure comedy in the intimate downstairs Belvoir space?
The biggest challenge is treading the fine line of comedy – the epic and the ridiculous, getting performances which make it real yet slightly self aware. But these actors are gung ho masters of the art so we’re all good. Seriously I’m blessed with this cast to make the inherent ridiculousness of the show work. 

Eden Falk and Charlie Garber collaborate in The Astral Plane, by Charlie Garber.
Dates: 12 – 29 Jun, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: Extinction Of The Learned Response (Glitterbomb / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 7 – 25, 2019
Playwright: Emme Hoy
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Tel Benjamin, Sarah Meacham, Eddie Orton, Jennifer Rani
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Duncan and Marlow are running an unauthorised, and unethical, experiment. They have two mysterious subjects held captive in their laboratory, undergoing a gruelling training regime to appear more convincingly human. Rachel and Wells have problems mastering the most basic of social skills, and we are kept wondering about their natural form; they may look human, but the playwright Emme Hoy wants us to look deeper into who these people are inside, or if indeed, they are people at all. Essentially a work of science fiction, Extinction Of The Leaned Response does ultimately ask some worthwhile questions, but its intrigue is too mild, and its plot too hesitant, to be sufficiently provocative.

The show is moody, and adequately suspenseful, thanks in large measure to Ben Pierpoint’s genre specific sounds and Kelsey Lee’s adventurous lights. There is however a circumvention of the bizarre and absurd, in favour of naturalism, by director Carissa Licciardello, that seems a missed opportunity. An air of placidity provides sophistication to proceedings, but the story’s cruel circumstance calls for something more heightened that could make for a more satisfying theatricality.

Actors Sarah Meacham and Eddie Orton are fascinating as the test subjects, both effective in engaging our imagination. Undeterred by the abstruseness of their material, Meacham and Orton find ways to vitalise their parts, making Rachel and Wells memorable, and strangely charming. Tel Benjamin and Jennifer Rani play the dubious researchers, with excessive restraint perhaps, but are nevertheless entertaining performers with excellent conviction.

As humans, we are eternally enthralled by our own nature. Always seeking to define humanity, we constantly find new ways to understand ourselves, not only because of an indubitable narcissism, but also as a means to interact with the larger universe. When one wishes to make the world a better place, it is necessary to know deeply the self, before one should begin imposing on others. In their efforts to discover bigger truths however, the researchers in Extinction Of The Leaned Response commit transgressions that are horribly egregious. There can be no end to knowledge, but to recognise right from wrong, is a fundamental principle that must not be compromised.

www.dasglitterbomb.com | www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Tel Benjamin and Jennifer Rani

Tel Benjamin

Jennifer Rani: Tell me about a work of art you’ve experienced, of any art form, that changed you in some way.
Tel Benjamin: Lord, there are so many but three jump out as having had particularly profound effects on my life. Jim Carrey’s seminal 1994 classic The Mask was the first film I watched (on repeat) that triggered the realisation that being an actor was an actual occupation and you could do it for a living. I used to do a bunch of the musical numbers and scenes from that film and others at the bus stop with my mum or dad and it was kind of like ‘Damn, you can do this for work? Why isn’t everyone doing this?’. Steppenwolf’s 2010 production of August, Osage County at STC completely blew my mind. It raised the bar immensely for my expectations of what theatre could be and got me thinking more critically about stage craft than I had in the past. I still remember how I felt leaving that theatre. Finally, Cormac McCarthy’s short novel Child Of God opened me up to how prose can have a musical quality and rhythm and how line breaks, punctuation and breaking the rules of those conventions can elicit an emotional response. I try to remember that in any prose style writing I do for film treatments or the like. Blood Meridian is also a must read. You asked for one, I gave you three, I’m sorry!

The play’s title is Extinction Of A Learned Response. What is a learned response you’ve developed at some time in your life that would save you in an apocalypse?
Okay. Are we talking zombies? Or just a regular old Nuclear winter? If it’s zombies, you definitely want me in your colony because I’ve read Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide. Did you know, one of the most important items to have in a zombie apocalypse is ear plugs, because the incessant moaning from the undead can drive you mad? I did. Cos I read the book. But reading a book isn’t really a learned response is it. I’m a pretty good mediator and have some decent leadership skills so I could probably keep morale up and stop the group from eating each other. No promises.

Describe a creative work you haven’t yet made that is closest to your heart.
I’ve had quite a colourful upbringing, growing up in housing commissions with a rich close family history of addiction and crime. There’s a project I’m usually thinking about and often come back to that delves into and explores that world. It’s still very early development but it’s either an hour long format crime drama series or a feature film. I think it’s set in the inner west of Sydney during the heroin boom of the 90s, probably in and around a housing commission. Maybe spans to Cabramatta and involves a group of young teens who find a gun and don’t know what to do with it? I’ll make it one day. Get me on the hotline bling, SBS!

So you’re an actor, award winning screenwriter and director. Following a creative path can be a hard life to navigate, what keeps you coming back to it and do you ever lose faith?
It can be tricky right? This career is a vocation for me, I don’t really consider a life without it. I know that might sound a bit, whatever, but you really need to need to be an actor because it requires immense commitment and can be, as you say, hard to navigate and quite exhausting. I read a couple of years ago that T.S Elliot said “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business”. That resonated because, for me, the lack of control in an actor’s career is the hardest part. Your path is often at the behest of casting directors, producers etc which can leave you feeling kind of helpless. All you can really control is how hard you work, so that’s what I come back to. That’s part of why I started writing and directing film, I think there’s more autonomy in those pursuits. I’m also reminded of why I do it almost every time I’m in a rehearsal room or on set. After our first reading of Extinction I kind of floated home and couldn’t sleep, I was giddy. Not much else does that for me.

Your character in the play could be described as having questionable ethics. If you were sent to jail, what crime would it be for?
Classic Marlow, passing the buck. You’re in on these questionable ethics too! It would be a crime of passion, for sure. I like to think it would be a Robin Hood, steal from the rich and give to the poor type situation. Or like, an overexuberant romantic gesture. Egging bigoted far right-wing politicians feels like a crime worth going to jail for to be honest.

Jennifer Rani

Tel Benjamin: Um, so your Showcast says you are ‘‘Highly skilled in Military culture including: weapons handling; combat training; marching drill.’ Can you please explain how you came to gain those very specific set of skills and if you could utilize them in any action franchise, which would it be?
True! Secret past revealed! I was in the Army and am a highly trained military operative: think SAS Who Dares Wins– lots of running and shouting and “breaking through pain barriers”. It was more a social experiment; it was such a hidden world. I mean, what did the Australian military really do? Where was it like for women? As a young woman of colour navigating a specific, isolated and predominantly male environment was… challenging. Great fodder for character study though and I reckon I’d be right at home in Terminator, Mad Max or Indiana Jones. You’d definitely want me on your team if the world were ending.

Extinction deals with memories and the way they shape your current place in the world. Is there a specific memory from your life that you remember being the catalyst for wanting to be an actor and work in the arts?
I distinctly remember stepping into the streets of Singapore, my mother’s birthplace, for the first time. The smells, the colours the noise and languages, there was something deeply familiar and comforting about it. It felt like home, I’d never had that sort of visceral experience with Australia. So that kinda blew my mind. It was such a relief knowing those ethnic markers were intrinsic to me, even though they weren’t necessarily prevalent during upbringing. It wasn’t the catalyst for wanting to be an actor but it was pivotal to me understanding that story was a way in which I could unravel that experience, that I could create a narrative that I hadn’t previously felt a participant in. The question of whose and what stories we tell, and what they say about our national psyche, underlies this.

You’re a first generation Australian who grew up in Tasmania. Is there a story or aspect of your culture and background that you’re interested in creating work from and exploring as an artist?
Absolutely. My experience growing up in a regional Australian city was like a ‘101’ in cultural confusion – I was one of only two Asian kids at my school! Theatre and the arts opened worlds of possibilities that weren’t available in my everyday, especially the diversity on the art and creative I saw when living overseas. The potential impact of the arts, that it can shift something seismic in you and create space for you is a driving motivation for me. Don’t write off regional cities. Take work there. Support regional artists. Seek them out. Australian stories exist all over the country. Currently I’m developing my maternal ancestral history, traversing South East Asia, England and Wales to Tassie. I hope that this can help deepen my understanding of my heritage and what ‘belonging’ and ‘homeland’ actually look like to me. That experience in Singapore particularly was a stimulant to connecting with my cultures as a first-generation Australian.

How weird are auditions! Got any pre audition rituals or sage advice you’ve been given to keep you focused and in a good headspace?
Weird, but they can also be warm and creative. Nah man, just be prepared and chill. There is so much I can’t control so focusing on my work and managing nerves and expectations is key. Be present, be open and trust yourself – I’ve discovered excellent things in the room by being flexible in my approach. It’s all practice for the right gig. Then chuck the script out.

If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be and what would you eat?
Mate. This question. Um. Monty Python. I’d make us all toasted cheese and caramelised leek sandwiches and I’d react all the scenes from all the films and we’d have so many laughs. And so many sandwiches.

Tel Benjamin and Jennifer Rani can be seen in Extinction Of The Learned Response, by Emme Hoy.
Dates: 7 – 25 May, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre