Review: Slaughterhouse (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 16 – Nov 2, 2019
Playwright: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Benita de Wit
Cast: Romy Bartz, Adam Marks, Tom Matthews, Brooke Rayner, Stephanie Somerville
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The action takes place at a tech start up, where Bianca is trying to expose the meat industry for cruel practices at its abattoirs. Slaughterhouse by Anchuli Felicia King talks about the upsurge of ethical products being offered at the marketplace, by companies that continue to be breeding grounds for mercenary corporate cannibals. We see personalities who have little concern for for what is right, building careers out of peddling apparently wholesome concepts that exploit our desire for responsible consumption.

Consisting of five monologues, Slaughterhouse is a dark comedy, often wildly imagined, and edgy with its humour. It is a spirited work, passionate with its moral stance, but is simultaneously pessimistic in its understanding of the world. Directed by Benita de Wit, the show is energetic and appropriately boisterous, accurate in its depiction of us as a culture that is overfed with noise, but always failing to listen. Extensive use of video projections foregrounds the fact that in the selfie era, everybody wants to say something but nobody is paying any meaningful attention.

Bianca is played by a very earnest Brooke Rayner, who performs with great vigour, the ever-escalating mania that perfectly reflects the state of anxiety that we experience, as individuals and as collectives today. As Hannah the unscrupulous entrepreneur, Romy Bartz captivates with a persuasive combination of ruthlessness and vulnerability, able to portray complexities that prevent us from relegating the monster to otherness. Tom Matthews’ enthusiastic embrace of the bizarre in the role of DJ is a delight, for a character that demonstrates pointedly, the social consequences of unadulterated hedonism. Also noteworthy are Brendan De La Hay’s costumes, polished and flamboyant, for a series of striking looks that provide a sense of theatricality to proceedings.

Like Bianca, most of us know right from wrong, but are unable to find ways to operate in clear conscience, within pervasive structures that are inherently harmful. We watch Bianca turn into the very devil she despises, as she tries to push an honourable agenda, inside a system that seems only able to deliver evil. Deciphering good and bad is the easy part. To dismantle the bad, when it is long-established, and when it has become the very definition of ‘normal’, calls for a courage and an imagination that few are capable of.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Brooke Rayner and Stephanie Somerville

Brooke Rayner

Stephanie Somerville: What’s your favourite pre-show pump up song?
Brooke Rayner: “Joyful Joyful” from Sister Act. Gospel choir and Lauren Hill’s voice – amazing. I remember dancing to it at one of those area spectacular school shows, maybe it’s the muscle memory but makes me want to laugh and cry.

What show have you seen in the last twelve months that’s really stuck with you?
Blackie Blackie Brown. Who doesn’t want a kick ass political comedy about an Indigenous Superhero and too many wig changes to count!? I was screaming in my seat. It was like watching a comic book open and come to life. In the words of the Hot Brown Honeys “Moisturize and Decolonise”.

What made you want to be an actor?
I think having access to theatre in high school and watching these amazing transformations happen and then having the opportunity to do it myself. Once I realised I could explore and feel out someone else’s story there were endless possibilities like … Why be one thing when you can be everything else?

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Tripe. I love tripe. It’s cow’s stomach. But specifically Dim Sum style. It appears spiky but is quite soft and chewy, a lot of people reel at it. I ate it for years not knowing what it was. There’s some kind of irony in eating stomach.

What’s something that you and your character have in common that surprised you?
I think Bianca and I share a similar way of communicating. It’s knowing what you want to say but everything coming out of your mouth is disjointed, three different versions of saying the same point at once. Word vomit and then back tracking to try and fix what you’ve said. I’ve always been told I have terrible sentence structure.

Stephanie Somerville

Brooke Rayner: If you were an animal what would you want to be and why?
Stephanie Somerville: I’d like to be a big, fat, cat that belongs to some little old lady who feeds it fresh tuna and lazes around in the sun all day. Because honestly wouldn’t that be the life?

If you could eat one meal every day for the rest of your life what would it be?
Hot chippies with lots of salt.

What excites you about getting to know a character?
I get excited about that moment when you fall in love with a character. Sometimes it’s love at first sight when you read a script, but sometimes it takes a bit of digging. I think it’s the things that surprise you about a character that make you fall in love with them, and I always get excited about that.

What do you want to see when you go to the theatre?
That depends on what I’m going to see! But hopefully a good show? I like to see something that makes me think in a way I’ve never thought, jabs me in my heart, or a story I’ve never heard. I also really like to see kick-ass POC actors doing incredible work, and it’s something I don’t see enough.

What grabbed your attention about Slaughterhouse?
When I first read the script I felt like I was reading a good crime novel and I was trying to piece together this great mystery. I’m really looking forward to our audience having that same experience. What grabbed me though was how intelligently Felicia writes these intricate and complex characters, there’s just so much to excavate. She’s really very good, hey? And how lucky are we to be working with her words!

Brooke Rayner and Stephanie Somerville can be seen in Slaughterhouse by Anchuli Felicia King.
Dates: 16 Oct – 2 Nov, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

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