Review: Mr Burns (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 19 – Jun 25, 2017
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Music: Michael Friedman
Lyrics: Anne Washburn
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill, Ezra Juanta, Jacqy Phillips
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
There are three distinct acts in Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play. First, we discover that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket; it is the apocalypse, and we have run out of electricity. A small group of survivors huddle together, trying to keep themselves sane by retelling episodes of The Simpsons. They each contribute fragments, but memory, like all human ability, proves to be considerably less than infallible.

Over the next decades, this compulsion to hark back to when things were better, grows in magnitude. The act of storytelling becomes grander, so do the increasingly fabricated remembrances of how things had been, back in the day. Eventually, we see that The Simpsons is turned into a kind of origin story that no longer accurately recreates the real thing.

Anne Washburn’s play is wildly imagined, but not always successful in its ability to aid our suspension of disbelief, as is necessary for all styles of science fiction. At each step of the narrative, we are bothered by questions left unanswered, that create an expanding sense of implausibility to the narrative. It is appropriate then, that the show turns progressively extravagant, until in Act Three, where we are presented with something that looks no different from standard Broadway musical fare.

The production begins dour, perhaps understandably so, but its long and enduring dullness marks a disappointing start for a crowd that has clearly amassed for that very particular Simpsons sense of humour. Satisfaction eventually arrives with Act Two, as the tone turns quirky and playful, and stimulating philosophy is introduced to its existentialist explorations.

The first musical number appears, quite unexpectedly, weaving American pop references into a kind of campy postmodern mash-up, to excellent effect. We see the characters desperately trying to hold on to all things bright and shiny from the past, much like the conservatives in our real life, unable to come to terms with their new circumstances. Entertainment continues to be dispensed henceforth, but we discover that the show had reached its peaked too soon. It all comes to a somewhat underwhelming conclusion.

It is a proficiently designed production. Mr Burns’ black sequinned catsuit by Jonathon Oxlade is very fabulous indeed, an unforgettable vision for the theatrical annals. Oxlade’s sets are appropriate to each sequence, but the show offers only a few surprises with its imagery, presumably restrained by its context of resource depletion.

Mitchell Butel leads an endearing cast of enthusiastic and colourful performers. As Mr Burns, Butel’s gangly limbs attempt to steal the show with their incredible animated dexterity, but the actor’s comedic capacities are impressive, and a real asset to this tenaciously serious creation.

It really is no joke, that we refuse to adequately address our energy crisis. Those with a stake in industries that are bringing devastation to the environment, like the villainous Mr Burns, continue to be allowed to plunder and destroy. We have to keep optimistic in order to be of any effect as opposition to their corruption, but the prevailing state of confused democracy seems to be getting us nowhere. Knowing right from wrong, is no longer sufficient in mobilising power and generating action, in our current climate of fake news, alternative facts, and insatiable greed. If history teaches us anything, it is revolution that will shift paradigm, but there is no hint even of burgeoning insurgency, in this age of despondent complacency.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Guru Of Chai (Indian Ink / Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 16 – Jun 4, 2017
Playwright: Justin Lewis, Jacob Rajan
Director: Justin Lewis
Cast: Jacob Rajan
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The story begins at the Bangalore City railway station. We meet Kutisa at a street stall selling chai, a vivacious man who cannot help but tell us a wondrous story about himself, a parrot, and a family of orphaned sisters whom he adopts into his care. Supernatural beings and high drama ensue, accompanied by extravagant emotions surrounding birth, death and betrayal. Guru Of Chai is gripping, made even more compelling by the work of a masterful performer full of drive, and magnificently skilled.

Jacob Rajan is scintillating in this one-man show. Almost like magic, his presence takes over the theatre, and we fall under his spell. Playing what seems to be an endless number of characters, Rajan is crystal clear with each manifestation, weaving the most vivid of narratives through his immense talent and artistry. It is a real pleasure to be able to submit to an expert guiding hand, and perceive the confidence in the actor and in ourselves, that the play can only progress flawlessly.

Direction by Justin Lewis ensures that the story is told at great detail and precision, with great care put into showcasing the best of his actor’s abilities. Gentle assistance from Cathy Knowsley’s lights and David Ward’s music, provide us with deeply evocative suggestions that transform a black box into the busy, sweltering streets of India. It is a small production that unfolds before us, but what we are made to see in our minds, is infinitely bigger.

There is something about Guru Of Chai that feels like a fairy tale, even though its characters encounter only the brutal realities of hardship and poverty. By removing us from the here and now, into a space far away, experiencing Kutisa’s world is as though we have stepped into a dream. When art meets us in reverie, the capacity of our minds turn boundless, and we can learn great things about the universe that are unimaginable in our insular everyday. We connect with other lives, no matter how dissimilar from what we are used to, and discover that which is unambiguously human, or perhaps something like a soul, that keeps us from feeling isolated, that gives us a glimpse of the eternal.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Dog / The Cat (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 13 – May 7, 2017
Playwrights: Brendan Cowell (The Dog), Lally Katz (The Cat)
Directors: Ralph Myers, Anthea Williams
Cast: Sheridan Harbridge, Benedict Hardie, Xavier Samuel
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We like to subscribe to the notion that there are cat people, and in a separate category there are dog people. This either/or dynamic could easily be applied to this double bill. Brendan Cowell’s The Dog and Lally Katz’s The Cat are both contemporary Australian comedies, but there is little in their respective senses of humour that unites them. Not to say that one is funnier than the other, for that judgement can only be a subjective one, but the probability of individuals enjoying one half of the presentation, and not the other (are you a cat person or a dog person?) is highly likely.

While Cowell’s work is a naturalistic exploration of today’s personalities and relationships, Katz’s approach is highly stylised, relying on surreal elements for its laughs. Both are filled with frothy, inconsequential observations that tell us nothing surprising, but there is certainly a lot of entertainment to be found in their dual presentation. Some of its jokes are genuinely funny, and when they are less than effective, the flamboyant cast invariably finds ways to make things work.

Benedict Hardie is wonderful, and perfect, in all three of his roles, determined that every word of dialogue is served with flair and purpose. Sheridan Harbridge and Xavier Samuel too, are delightful in the more outrageous comedy of The Cat, both in their element, and unimaginably creative with their artistic choices. On this stage, it is the acting that makes all the difference. Often, we could hardly care about what is being said, when enthralled in the masterful comedic performances so diligently bestowed upon us.

Laughing together in an auditorium beings us closer. We discover where we are similar, and remember that we are a community, sharing in life as compatriots and neighbours. So much of current discourse is about separation and hostilities. Even though the enemy is always abstract, we fall every day, for the allure of convenient condemnation. Theatre is essentially about camaraderie. We have to forsake our phones and isolation, just for a couple of hours, to sit, watch and listen, as one body, to react as one body to what is usually a reflection of ourselves. The Dog / The Cat brings us parts of being human that are silly, and in all that silliness, we are moved to recognise that the vulnerabilities of people are the same, and realise we can so easily just be there, and be good with one another.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 2, 2017
Playwright: Tommy Murphy
Director: David Berthold
Cast: Peter Carroll, Kit Esuruoso, John Howard, Sarah Peirse, Chris Stollery, Helen Thomson
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We want many ideas and themes running through our plays, so that they may be experienced with complexity and a sense of surprise. In Mark Colvin’s Kidney, by Tommy Murphy, we think about friendship, altruism, wealth, technology, and the Leveson “phone-hacking” inquiry, divergent concepts that the writer consolidates with the help of a real story.

It is a tricky undertaking, having to find the right balance so that our focus sticks with the plot’s main concern. The play wants to talk about the unusual affair of a broadcaster, Mark Colvin’s kidney transplant, but sets of circumstances in the donor’s life that take us to the main event, often seem equally or more interesting, perhaps due, admittedly, to the brevity at which they are dispensed. Protagonist Mary-Ellen Field is an extraordinary woman who has had a very full life, and we require more than just that one great deed of rescuing a sick man, to satisfy our desire to know and celebrate her.

Murphy’s representation of characters, Mary-Ellen and Mark, is warm, vibrant and suitably life-affirming. Actors Sarah Peirse and John Howard are both immensely affable, but their unpreparedness for opening night is apparent, and disappointing. The magic of the piece lies in the fascinating implausibility, of a friendship developing so quickly and deeply in cyberspace, with the actors assigned the unenviable task of making that relationship believable. Director David Berthold’s spatial manipulations are marvellously imagined, for his creative portrayal of dialogue that takes place only on mobile devices, but performances fail, ironically, to make convincing, events that actually did happen.

It is nonetheless, a feel-good uplifting tale that is at once hopeful and inspiring. Mary-Ellen’s determination to give up her kidney may not be entirely comprehensible, but we recognise the divine in her actions. Her name may not bear enough eminence to claim space in the title, but she is a modern day real-life hero to whom we should all aspire, if only we could come away with a greater understanding of what it is that makes her tick.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Prize Fighter (La Boite Theatre Company / Belvoir St Theatre)

laboiteVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 6 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Future D. Fidel
Director: Todd MacDonald
Cast: Margi Brown-Ash, Thuso Lekwape, Gideon Mzembe, Pacharo Mzembe, Zindzi Okenyo, Kenneth Ransom
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We meet Isa as he tries to make a new life in Australia. After experiencing years of trauma in Congo, he now focuses aggression onto the fighting ring, and as he boxes his way through flashbacks of unimaginably tough times, we witness his tragic biography unfold onstage.

Prize Fighter involves a young man making sense of the world, in order that healing and a brighter future become possible. It is also about a migrant reaching out to his adopted land, asking for understanding and acceptance. Future D. Fidel’s writing is concise and simple. The play knows what it wishes to say and says it clearly, but its inability to delve deeper into our protagonist’s psychological and emotional complexities, results in a story that has a tendency to feel generic.

Direction by Todd MacDonald gives the show exciting vigour, with an athletic cast providing a beautiful sense of visual animation. Lighting design by David Walters is creative, surprising and very polished, but the production often feels distant, or perhaps elusive. Its dim dreamlike quality seems to prevent us from connecting firmly with the characters, and we struggle to connect with an intensity that would befit Isa’s plight.

We hear about humanitarian crises, on the news every day. Reports are made by people in positions of privilege, for the consumption of people with privilege. These stories affect us all, but the stakes are infinitely higher for those seeking refuge, yet their voices are rarely heard in our cacophonous landscape of upper-class broadcast culture. Prize Fighter is a rare opportunity for a first-person account, an important contribution to unceasing discussions on who are allowed to occupy this land. If the world is one, our boundaries can only be false, but humans have always been at war, and even though utopia is only imagined, life means little if we are unable to conceive of something better.

www.laboite.com.auwww.belvoir.com.au

Review: Girl Asleep (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirstVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 2 – 24, 2016
Playwright: Matthew Whittet
Director: Rosemary Myers
Cast: Ruby Burke, Sheridan Harbridge, Amber McMahon, Martha Morgan, Ellen Steele, Matthew Whittet, Dylan Young
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Alice and Dorothy are young ladies who travel famously into their subconscious, for memorable stories that have shaped generations. In Matthew Whittet’s Girl Asleep, Greta joins the list, for an exploration into teenage anxiety as it relates to all things social, familial and sexual. Like her predecessors, we meet Greta when she is in a moment of confusion, but our new heroine seems stronger, more independent and wilful, as we watch her battle the demons to emerge with newfound wisdom.

The play is often funny, but its explorations do not go deep enough for us to derive much more than what is presented on the surface. As the show becomes more surreal, we expect harder truths to reveal themselves, but what we get instead are elaborate effects (courtesy of a very impressive team of designers) that fascinate our senses without much intellectual engagement. Music by Luke Smiles and Harry Covill, along with Richard Vabre’s lights and Jonathan Oxlade’s set and costumes, are truly commendable, for the many dimensions they add to what is essentially a static stage.

Ellen Steele brings an admirable dignity to Greta, choosing to portray the girl with grit and pluckiness, without a hint of twee. Her relationships are established with authenticity, most notably her friendship with Elliot, played by the very charming Dylan Young, who brings a valuable quality of joyful innocence to the production. The actor’s irresistible comedy is certainly one of the strongest assets of a show memorable for its sense of humour.

Greta is not quite ready to grow up, but there are forces determined to hurry her into womanhood. Nature has a way of taking us places against our will. Just as we learn to be content with how things are, disruptions inevitably come upon us, and we have to fasten those seat belts again for yet another bumpy ride. Childhood may be a wonderful time, but the promise of better days is always palpable, and in our every breath, we anticipate new gifts from the great unknown.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Faith Healer (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 22 – Nov 27, 2016
Playwright: Brian Friel
Director: Judy Davis
Cast: Colin Friels, Pip Miller, Alison Whyte
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Frank makes his living as a faith healer, travelling all over Britain with a performance that showcases his charismatic arrogance, and sometimes actually, miraculously healing people in the process. There are serious troubles in private however, but none of his energy is put into finding a cure for the suffering at home. Brian Friel’s play is meandering, and often obscure, with its Rashomon style of getting at the truth by taking us through layers of subjectivity and delusions, in a simple format of successive monologues.

Three characters, speaking in distinctive voices, help us piece together a puzzle that is both confusing and intriguing. Talent manager Teddy’s warm candour is endearingly portrayed by Pip Miller, who captivates with a precise and dynamic approach. The vividness of his storytelling is inviting, and contrasts with Frank’s enigmatic style that can often alienate, in spite of actor Colin Friels’ powerful presence. The shamanic showman’s life is occupied by smoke and mirrors, and his penchant for embellishments and denials have us mystified even when his followers are kept mesmerised. In the role of Frank’s wife, Grace, is Alison Whyte, impressive with an extraordinary emotional agility, perfect for a character replete with volatility.

Director Judy Davis insists that we watch closely at the cast, but her stagnant presentation is demanding of us, and probably excessive in its minimalism. Design however, is noteworthy, with a spectacular cyclorama by Brian Thomson depicting a wide variation of cloudy skies, transforming with every one of Verity Hampson’s lighting changes. The weather we see in the backdrop is often the most truthful element on stage.

When Frank’s audience falls into his concoction of fiction and non-fiction, they are willing participants in a show, all wishing to believe. When people turn to the faith business for salvation, it is because tall tales feel more real than reality. The afflicted come to Frank for a cure, but more accurately, what they seek most is certainty. A life of doubt and ambiguity is unbearable, and the allure of faith lies in its ability to turn hope into surety. When the whole world turns cruel, comfort can only come from the extraterrestrial.

www.belvoir.com.au