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

Review: Jess & Joe Forever (Sugary Rum Productions / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 13 – 30, 2019
Playwright: Zoe Cooper
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Nyx Calder, Julia Robertson
Images by Kate Williams

Theatre review
The children are on a mission to tell their story. It takes place in Joe’s hometown of Norfolk, where Jess had begun spending her summer holidays at 9 years-old. The two become fast friends, and go through thick and thin together. In Zoe Cooper’s Jess & Joe Forever, they find a way to recount seminal events of their young lives, like an informal kind of psychotherapy, not because there is anything wrong with them per se, but because the world seems intent on inflicting a very hard time on them both. Cooper’s writing is extraordinarily tender, beautifully authentic in the way these young voices are rendered. Its structure is suspenseful and intriguing, for a narrative that does much more than entertain.

Director Shaun Rennie takes great care to manufacture a sensitive atmosphere in which we can only receive Jess and Joe with hearts wide open, and in the process, come to an intimate understanding of how children respond to the bigger world, and all the the difficult things we cannot shield them from. The emotional crescendo Rennie is able to build into the plot of Jess & Joe Forever, is representative of theatre at its most captivating.

It is a wonderfully designed production. Isabel Hudson’s playground is perfectly proportioned for the small auditorium, with quaint illustrations along the backdrop reflecting an innocence so crucial to the play. Lights by Benjamin Brockman help to amplify the emotions of both characters and audience, so that none of the sentimentality escapes us. Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound provides for the mind’s eye, an evocative picture of what that small English seaside town must look like, and his music gives the show a sense of elevation, with its unmistakable sophistication.

We fall in love right away with the very excellent cast, both actors adorable and completely believable as our little hosts. As Jess, Julia Robertson brings to the role a strength and defiance that absolutely charms. Her effervescence is infectious, and even though her penchant for machine gun speed recitation of lines can sometimes be a challenge, the precision of her approach is unequivocally affecting. Nyx Calder is perfect as Joe, disarmingly poignant but also effortless and delightful in their depiction of youthful purity. The extraordinary vulnerability that Calder is able to convey, fills the gaps purposefully left behind by the playwright, impeccably addressing parts of Joe’s story where words can prove inadequate.

Watching these kids, we feel compelled to protect them, but we also know that their struggles will make them into resilient and wise adults. It is true that there is much sadness in the world. The societies we manufacture often seem to be endlessly flawed, and the thought that those who have done no harm, would still be subject to injustice and inequity, is devastating. Some of us will respond with resignation, but some will fight for things to be better. Jess & Joe Forever is bittersweet, because its anguish is palpable, but it also provides inspiration, so that we can know to always do the right thing.

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

5 Questions with Nyx Calder and Julia Robertson

Nyx Calder

Julia Robertson: In your experience, what was the best part about being a kid?
Nyx Calder: It was definitely the boundless curiosity and hunger for knowledge, I remember spending hours finding new words in dictionaries and looking up synonyms to broaden my vocabulary. I was so eager to learn how to read that I drove my parents half mad, they eventually taught me to read out of sheer frustration.

What’s a big similarity between you and Joe? What’s a major difference?
In terms of similarity, definitely the gentle and quiet nature. While I get pretty wild after getting comfortable with folks, I tend to be quite slow to develop connections, and I am inherently quite shy – I have a lot of social anxiety that I think Joe shares. Unlike Joe, I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve! I’m slow to develop connection, but I tend to overshare quite a fair bit and without knowing people very long, while Joe tends to keep his personal history under lock and key.

You’ve recently graduated from NIDA, how does it feel to surface from the depths of drama school and dive straight into a two person text?
It’s an absolute dream! While NIDA educated me in a great many ways, it also left me feeling very boxed in at times, especially towards the end of my stay. Being able to step into a rehearsal room as an actor and not a student is such a pleasure, and even more so to do it with a text as rich and expansive as Jess & Joe Forever. It’s also incredibly liberating to be working in such an intimate and direct form of theatre with such giving and wonderful folks.

What is something that has challenged you during the rehearsal process of Jess & Joe?
The voices! I underestimated just how many perspectives we see through this play in spite of the cast size, and when you start throwing dialects into the mix, it can all be quite overwhelming. Fortunately, everyone has been very patient and nurturing, and we’ve had wonderful input from our dialect coach, so it’s been entirely manageable.

What makes this story worth seeing, and why should audiences see this production in particular?  
I think this story speaks to something quite universal in the experience of puberty; the sense of loneliness and isolation felt during those vulnerable developmental years, and the yearning for companionship and acceptance. This play allows us to see a beautiful connection blossom between two kids who do not just survive their circumstances, but start to thrive and prosper alongside each other. Jess & Joe Forever is for those of us who, in our adolescent years, struggled to find ourselves in the world around us. This play speaks to that uncertainty in a tender, honest and loving way, and I believe audiences will be thrilled to join us on such a moving journey.

Julia Robertson

Nyx Calder: Given that we’re both twenty eight years old, what has your process been in finding your inner adolescent?
Julia Robertson: My inner adolescent is… disturbingly accessible? Julia means youthful after all! I spend a lot of time with teenage girls as a drama and singing teacher. Their complexities, empathy and curiosity are continually fascinating to me. Teenage me made a lot of mistakes, felt very alone but always wore a smile on her face. I like in this production that we are able to see the truths, whatever they may be, underneath the polite smile that has been forced upon young women for a very long time.

What’s the biggest difference, and the biggest similarity, between you and your character Jess?
I find differentiating myself from a character once I’ve gotten them under my skin quite difficult! But let’s try. Difference: in her younger years Jess is very feminine and proper. I was not. I was a “boy-girl” and pretty determined to be an entomologist when I grew up. When I began at an all girls school, I was suspended for punching someone in the face a week in. Jess takes a little longer to find her physical prowess! Similarity: Too many. She’s lovable and annoying. I hope/think that’s me. 

What’s your favourite rom-com of all time?
Goshhhhhh I honestly don’t know if I have one! I used to like How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days? Maybe? The hairless dog in it is good?

What sets Jess & Joe Forever apart from other plays and makes it a must-see?
Jess & Joe Forever is unique. It tenderly explores hardships that only a minority of us have ever or will ever experience. Jess and Joe are like and unlike any tweens you know and love. And that’s what makes this story so special. 

What even is a scotch egg, anyway?
A tiny, bald, white man in a kilt. Nah, jokes it’s some bacon-crusted egg thing? Sounds gross. Apparently it’s artisanal. 

Nyx Calder and Julia Robertson can be seen in Jess & Joe Forever by Zoe Cooper.
Dates: 13 – 30 Mar, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: Tuesday (Sign Of The Acorn / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 6 – 23, 2019
Playwright: Louris van de Geer
Director: Nell Ranney
Cast: Frances Duca, Duncan Fellows, Tom Anson Mesker, Bridie McKim
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Four people in a supermarket, isolated in their own lanes, doing what are probably the most banal of activities, in the most mundane of places. In Louris van de Gerr’s Tuesday, we see ourselves on the most prosaic day of the week, caught up in private thoughts that reveal our truest, most unflattering selves. Structured as four interwoven monologues, these Australians do not interact with each other, but they exhibit common characteristics that serve to represent our identity. They may be of different genders and generations, but what we see in Tuesday are scared white people, filled with anxiety and aggression, completely self-obsessed even at a moment of catastrophe.

Van de Gerr’s writing is astonishingly detailed in its observations, thus able to connect in a way that feels intimate and authentic. Its disarming sarcasm makes for scintillating humour, and along with a subtle but cleverly structured narrative drive, Tuesday proves to be terrifically satisfying. Director Nell Ranney’s emphasis on tension and gravity from the get go, creates a powerful work of theatre that delivers incessant ironic laughter, as well as an undeniable sense of poignancy in its microscopic scrutiny into the everyday.

The production is designed exceedingly well. Isabel Hudson’s precarious placement of full uncapped bottles of milk, in perfect straight rows, insists that our bodies seize up in their presence, in fear of any accidents that might happen. Martin Kinnane’s quiet rendering of lights gives support to that mood of ubiquitous and impending horror, without ever drawing attention to itself. Sound design by Clare Hennessy is a marvellous achievement, heavily relied upon to convey every fluctuating degree of funny and frightening, for a highly sophisticated blend of comedy, drama and thriller.

A splendid ensemble comprising impressive measures of intelligence and creativity, takes us on an exercise in intuitive storytelling, riveting from beginning to end. Frances Duca fascinates us by combining poetic gestures with incisive speech, to emulate and comment on the sad housewife archetype. Equally memorable is Duncan Fellows’ interpretation of the pathetic but still respectable low-rung shop manager, hilarious in his naive perception of the world. Bridie McKim plays a mischievous schoolgirl, painfully accurate and unfettered in her spirited depiction of mindless rebelliousness. Tom Anson Mesker’s controlled and complex portrayal of masculinity at its puerile best and toxic worst, encourages us to examine the little irritations and provocations that can pervade our lives, pretending to be normalised, only to explode spectacularly when you least expect it.

The characters in Tuesday are consumed by annoyance, yet there is no evidence of anything serious actually happening within their personal realms. They are people who have no concerns about food and shelter, but are far away from any semblance of peace or contentment. In Australia, we have everything, in fact we have a great deal more than we need, yet we are endlessly restless, and increasingly selfish, always obsessing over issues like border defence and protectionism, without ever intending to be properly informed about the world beyond our shores. It is easy to see the crazy in others, but to understand one’s own madness is quite another thing.

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

Review: The Club (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 7 – 22, 2018
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Tessa Leong
Cast: Jude Henshall, Louisa Mignone, Ellen Steele
Images by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
Hundreds of millions of dollars go through Australia’s sporting organisations, and to view the industry as wholesome and virtuous is, to put it mildly, naive. Yet, we routinely attribute our sports stars and their colleagues, with a glow of reverence, and they in turn, present an image of habitual sanctimony. The men in David Williamson’s The Club are exposed of these hypocrisies. It is a story about white boys spoilt by their talent with an olive-shaped ball, who grow into stunted adulthood, and we watch their clumsy attempts at extending the glory days beyond bygone moments on the football field.

The corrupt and inane behaviour of these self-aggrandising men provide a platform for director Tessa Leong’s discussion of sexism and toxic masculinity, within an archetypal setting of a sporting arena, that conveniently encapsulates our nation’s sense of self-image. Three female performers take on all the roles, playing exaggerated versions of maleness, for a subversive exercise that makes statements about gender, and especially about the misguided adoration of what might be termed traditional masculinity. First half of the production is surprisingly conventional, a one-trick pony with a simple concept that quickly loses steam, but the show picks up furiously after interval, and what had felt gimmicky, turns into something far more complex and provocative.

The production is full of grandiose gesturing, not always powerful, but certainly delivered with extraordinary conviction. Actor Ellen Steele is particularly robust with her comedy, extremely cheeky and acerbic, a consistent delight in this portrait of ugliness. Jude Henshall and Louisa Mignone too, are exuberant performers who bring admirable rigour into their farce, for a rewarding study on the machinations of privilege and ignorance, frequently found in some segments of Australian society.

In sport, we celebrate high achievers not only for their accomplishments, but also for the whole of their persons. We want our heroes to be godlike, and imagine them to be infallible, consequently giving them powers, in the form of money and status, that they often exploit to the detriment of our collective good. It is no coincidence that these powerful are predominantly straight white men. Our institutions are structured to benefit a certain idea of supremacy, one that repeatedly exerts its imperialism over all others, and any action designed to take them down is met with disdain and even violence. Oppression requires concession, with the oppressed made to concede to notions of objectivity and meritocracy, that are demonstrably unjust. It is a survival strategy, to play to these rules, but only those willing to sacrifice can hope to foster a change.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.isthisyours.com.au

Review: The Overcoat (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 1, 2018
Book & Lyrics: Michael Costi (based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol)
Music: Rosemarie Costi
Director: Constantine Costi
Cast: Laura Bunting, Kate Cheel, Aaron Tsindos, Charles Wu
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Nikolai is an unremarkable man, an ordinary citizen of Russia, who lives and works in St Petersburg, not unlike the faceless millions in any of the world’s cities. He is unambitious, able to be content with a simple life, but the most basic of human requirements, dignity, eludes him. He is sold a luxurious coat, one he is unable to afford, with the promise that the new garment would finally help him gain the respect of people he sees every day at work. Based on Nikolai Gogol’s short novel of the same name, The Overcoat is about injustice, and the sacrifices some have to make, just to attain a level of subsistence.

Adapted by Michael Costi, whose book and lyrics retain the poignancy of the original, this musical version is an understated but thoroughly moving work of theatre. Rosemarie Costi’s music is consistently gripping, and delightfully idiosyncratic, incorporating shades of Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim to find exquisite balance in this sophisticated take on the genre. Director Constantine Costi exhibits great style, alongside a sensitive understanding of drama, for a production that lulls us gently to some very deep places in our hearts and minds.

Performer Charles Wu is an enchanting presence, vulnerable yet confident as Nikolai. Not only does he earn our empathy for the pitiful character, Wu elevates our experience of the sad story with his capacity to inspire our intellect. Aaron Tsindos’ booming voice thrills and satisfies, as do his extravagant depictions of several unforgettable supporting roles. Laura Bunting and Kate Cheel create a range of ebullient personalities, both actors proving themselves to be as commanding as they are charming.

Our protagonist procures his coat, with money that should have gone to food and rent. Before society can provide him with a feeling of belonging, Nikolai must give up more than all he has; we come to the cruel realisation that the real world does not offer unconditional love. When we participate in the labour force, we go to work for survival and for salvation, but there is never any guarantee that the exchange can be a fair one. In fact, we see in The Overcoat, that when the marketplace is left to its own devices, many of us are put in positions where we have to give more than we can ever receive in return. The unfairness is ubiquitous, and without intervention, disparities can only widen.

www.belvoir.com.au