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

Review: Things I Know To Be True (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 8 – Jul 21, 2019
Playwright: Andrew Bovell
Director: Neil Armfield
Cast: Miranda Daughtry, Tom Hobbs, Matt Levett, Tony Martin, Anna Lise Phillips, Helen Thomson
Images by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
Fran and Bob suddenly find themselves in their sixties, and although both have worked hard, there seems little to show for. After having put everything into raising a family, the couple is starting to have to confront their twilight years. With four adult children still struggling to find their own feet, and a marriage that has long lost its lustre, years of sacrifice seems to have delivered little contentment. Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True is a portrait of one family, in some ways typical of the Australian experience, but certainly not representative of our myriad diversities. More bitter than sweet, this family drama contains excellent humour and a great deal of sentimentality, as though trying to mask the pessimism that it fundamentally contains.

The Price family presents an admirable facade. There is undeniable love, very well depicted by director Neil Armfield, but we are encouraged to question the choices Fran and Bob had made, or more precisely, to question the options they had perceived to be available when deciding to follow the straight and narrow. Fran concedes that she had adopted others’ expectations as her own, that she believed her destiny was to be a mother and nothing else. Now observing her legacy, we see her constantly trying to find satisfaction, usually tenuous at best, with all that she had manifested. The thing about parenthood is that room for regret is virtually non-existent.

The production is incredibly well-crafted, with every faculty operating at levels of excellence, keeping us enthralled from beginning to end. Armfield magnifies all the comedy and drama, for a show determined to entertain, even if its emotional resonances tend to feel highly romanticised. Lights by Damien Cooper warmly lull us into a daze of tenderness, making us a forgiving audience for Things I Know To Be True, almost oblivious to its characters’ flaws and frequent moments of stupidity.

Terribly ordinary people are turned captivating, by a cast of actors brimming with charm. Tony Martin is especially charismatic as Bob, beautiful with the vulnerability that he so effectively depicts, alongside a convincing rendering of archetypal suburban masculinity. The very funny Helen Thomson, who never misses any opportunity to create laughter, plays Fran, a wonderfully complex character, able to sustain our empathy even after some very unkind behaviour. Miranda Daughtry is notable as youngest daughter Rosie, whose unyielding innocence sets the tone from curtain-up, allowing us to see the story with her eyes, often too pure for our own good.

Things I Know To Be True does not intend to be a cautionary tale, but one could be tempted to interpret it as such. Aside from Fran who had worked tirelessly for decades as a nurse, there is no evidence of any great contribution to society or to humanity, in these small, albeit painful, existences. The Prices think about nothing but themselves, and are perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmed with frustration and anguish. Fran and Bob were committed to being the best parents, but never found a way to impart a sense of fulfilment to their offspring. If we return to the initial unexamined notion of procreation as an obligatory social and personal imperative, we might be able to draw from Fran and Bob’s story, the consequences of doing things without thinking them through.

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

Review: Winyanboga Yurringa (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 4 – 26, 2019
Playwright: Andrea James
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Roxanne McDonald, Tuuli Narkle, Angeline Penrith, Tasma Walton, Dalara Williams, Dubs Yunupingu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
A group of Koori women are in the bush, gathered together for a camping trip on the bank of a great river. In Andrea James’ Winyanboga Yurringa, six city slickers take time off to get in touch with one another, with nature, and with tradition. They are a family, but individuals grow apart, and we watch the effort required, to firm up those bonds again, and to rediscover that which is truly important.

The play begins with a sense of ambiguity, very gradual in the way it divulges its raison d’être. The playwright insists that the audience too, takes time off from our hustle and bustle, to fall into a plot that is languid, perhaps slightly disorientating, but trusting that the journey will ultimately be a rewarding one. When its climax arrives, we are surprised by the depth of its poignancy.

Director Anthea Williams’ approach is not obviously sentimental, but she catches us unawares with a quiet power, to deliver a moving work about our Australian heritage. The show communicates differently to people of varying backgrounds, but it is evident that whether or not one is indigenous to this land, Winyanboga Yurringa says a lot that is meaningful about our relationship with it.

Lights by Verity Hampson emanate a disarming warmth, and along with Isabel Hudson’s evocative set design, the familiarity of our landscape is intuitively established on this stage. It is a romantic vision, perfectly partnered by music and sound design from Steve Francis and Brendon Boney, who are called upon to introduce a dimension of melancholic soulfulness to the production. The cast is uniformly accomplished, with Roxanne McDonald particularly impressive as Neecy, the maternal figure through which the play dispenses all its wisdom. McDonald is a sublime performer, with a potency and an intricacy to her style that has us enthralled and firmly won over.

In Winyanboga Yurringa we are reminded that there is so much to love about this place we call home. Regardless of our sins, this terra is and always will be divine; we can cause harm to it, and to one another, but it is the human race that will ultimately and certainly face extinction, before the earth can ever succumb. On Aboriginal land, it is Aboriginal knowledge that is our surest hope for sustainability, yet those voices are routinely subdued and trivialised, in a colonised culture that refuses to listen to solutions that exist right on our doorstep. The characters in Winyanboga Yurringa are the eponymous women of the sun, but they will only shine their light when invited. If we choose to dwell in darkness, the price is ours to pay.

www.belvoir.com.au