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: The Ham Funeral (Siren Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 17 – Jun 10, 2017
Playwright: Patrick White
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Andy Dexterity, Eliza Logan, Carmen Lysiak, Johnny Nasser, Jane Phegan, Sebastian Robinson, Jenny Wu
Image by Lucy Parakhina

Theatre review
At the centre of The Ham Funeral is a Young Man without the certainty of a name. Unsure of his own identity, interpretations of what goes on around him is correspondingly ambiguous. Patrick White’s surrealist work is not one to rely on for narrative pleasure, but as a platform for theatrical delight, it swells with possibilities.

Director Kate Gaul identifies the extremities in the play, whether they be comedic, dramatic, grotesque or celestial, and turns them into sequences of sheer and intense pleasure. There is a cohesive whole, but the primary enjoyment of this staging is in the savouring of all its deeply fascinating moments. A vague logic does exist, but our senses, beyond those that comprise the rational mind, are fired up and called upon to engage, in a visceral way that can only happen within a live setting.

It is a waking dream in which we find ourselves immersed. Nothing looks real, but we know that everything points to something authentic. We are gripped by its mystery, and the hypnotic ambience so expertly manufactured by its team of daring creatives. Hartley T A Kemp lights the space so that everything seems to float in an abyss of subconsciousness, and Nate Edmondson’s sensational sounds of ringing and rumbling take over our nervous system, directly manipulating our moods and responses.

Gleefully infectious, the wonderful cast looks and feels to be made up of all those voted most likely to run off and join the circus. Idiosyncratic and profoundly eccentric, we are persuaded to relate to the show in a manner that is perhaps unusual for many. Eliza Logan is the magnificent leading lady, completely enthralling as Alma Lusty; wild, depraved and primal, yet impressively precise with the design and execution of all her choices. Intelligent and inventive, Logan’s performance in the flamboyant, mad world of The Ham Funeral is truly unforgettable. The nameless Young Man is played by Sebastian Robinson with a physical proficiency that adds exceptional beauty to the production’s visual emphasis. Also remarkable is Johnny Nasser, deliciously exaggerated while maintaining a measured sensitivity, in both of his contrasting roles.

A century has past since the dawn of Dada, and all things surreal or absurd may no longer be thought of as immediately relevant, but art must never shy away from conversations that exist at the outer limits of rationality and reason. If we talk only about the things we know, the chance of us meaningfully expanding consciousness is meagre. To break free from incessantly repetitious dialogue that has become a habit of modern living, it can only be beneficial to indulge in something radically new, especially when getting to the point, is not the point of it.

www.sirentheatreco.com

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: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 11 – Jun 18, 2017
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering, Brandon McClelland
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is a nondescript living room but a great deal happens in it. Edward Albee’s wild imagination is let loose in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, a modern classic that seems to be about a marriage breaking down, but the volume of themes and philosophical ideas it explores over a three-hour duration, extends beyond a person’s mental capacities within that one sitting. The incredible richness of Albee’s writing, and his insistence on disobeying conventions of literary coherence, produces something sensationally anti-naturalist, at times very strange, for all its misleading construct of a realist family drama. It all comes together beautifully, the ending result is quite sublime, but it is the disparate elements and divergence of meanings in all its interminable suggestions, that makes it a unique, rarely paralleled work.

Therefore, finding a focus becomes challenging for any production. Director Iain Sinclair uses the play’s absurdist qualities to his advantage, manufacturing a black comedy that not only delivers laughs but also, through its emphasis on uncomfortable contradictions, help draw attention to the many levels of meaning that the text implies. The show is often entertaining, but in spite of the great emotional upheaval that its characters experience, we remain at a distance, always at close observation, but from the outside. Visually pleasing, the staging draws inspiration from 1960s Americana, Michael Hankin’s set design and Sian James-Holland’s lights create a performance space that feels an accurate representation of the era, while establishing a sense of stifling oppressiveness crucial to the psyche of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Four actors conspire with unmistakable simpatico, to form a fascinating piece of theatre. Their personalities are individually distinct, but together they are harmonious, one engrossing organism that drives us through unexpected twists and turns. At the centre is Genevieve Lemon as Martha, ebullient and dedicated, determined to maintain a liveliness in the show even during its darkest troughs. The actor may not be able to sufficiently depict the rage crucial to the story, but there is no mistaking the turbulent existence Martha has to endure. Her husband George is played by Darren Gilshenan, who journeys into bleaker terrain more successfully, but who will be remembered for the mischievous approach he applies to the play’s cynical and sinister complexions. Effortlessly funny, Gilshenan is an engaging presence that keeps us fascinated at every audacious revelation. Similarly alluring is Claire Lovering, whose comedic confidence assures us that the tricks hidden up her sleeve are worth our anticipation. Honey is a small role, but the performer takes every opportunity to shine. Brendon McClelland brings out a complexity in Nick, a deceptively plain upstart, and surprises us with transformations that we never could see coming.

It is about marriage, it is about the way exercise control over one another, it is about the way we build meaning into our lives, it is about the futility of our pursuits. What a viewer will deduce from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf could be a great many things, but there is no denying the nihilistic pessimism of Albee’s creation. In art we can find the truth, and it is without doubt that life can leave us bitter and hopeless. It is also true, that conflicting truths can co-exist, and whether one can perceive light through the darkness, is sometimes about luck, and sometimes about choice.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Homeroom Series (ATYP)

Venue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), May 10 – 19, 2017
Images by Tracey Schramm

Girls Like That
Playwright: Evan Placey
Director: Robert Jago
Cast: Annika Bates, Claire Giuffre, Ella Hosty-Snelgrove, Rashie Kase, Michelle Khurana, Molly Kyriakakidis-Costello, Miranda Longhurst, Emily Longville, Natasha Pontoh-Supit, Cara Severino, Emily Simmons, Lucy Valencic, Lara Wood

Michael Swordfish
Playwright: Lachlan Philpott
Director: Tamara Smith
Cast: Ashutosh Bidkar, Eden Bradford, Fergus Finlayson, Jason Hartill, Tim Kenzler, Louis Nicholls, Angus Powell, Daniel Steel, Gus Watts

Theatre review
Two plays about teenagers in high schools, both utterly contemporary, and equally relevant to the Australian experience. Evan Placey’s Girls Like That makes a powerful statement about feminism for the young, and Lachlan Philpott’s Michael Swordfish offers unconventional observations about teenage masculinity. Uncompromisingly complex, they each offer an unusual opportunity to explore adolescence in ways that might be surprising, through themes that are confronting but pertinent to all our lives. We watch the young, and learn about ourselves.

Robert Jago’s exquisite direction of Girls Like That is powerful, deeply engaging and thrilling in its combativeness. Michael Swordfish takes a gentler approach, with director Tamara Smith offering a poetic perspective to our young men’s lives. Designers, too many to mention, do an excellent job for an impressive pairing of shows that look and sound as vibrant as they are polished.

The actors are uniformly compelling and enthusiastic, with many displaying very fine potential for serious careers in performance. Cara Severino’s ebullience is unforgettable, while Rashie Kase has an unshakeable authenticity that can convince us of anything. Louis Nicholls portrays his character with a sense of creative freedom and adventure, and Gus Watts captures our attention with a confident hand at subtle comedy. These fledgling artists, all 22 of them, should feel greatly encouraged by the outstanding quality of work here.

The characters are in their formative years, so what they acquire now, could well stay with them for the rest of their days. What happens to them, and how they react, are depicted in both plays with a degree of honesty, that does not allow us to detach. For their contexts of juvenility, it is easy to diminish these experiences and consider them trivial, but contained within their microcosms, are truthful interrogations about our shared existence. Through these kids, we discern right from wrong, and decide how we must evolve.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: Educating Rita (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), May 10 – 20, 2017
Playwright: Willy Russell
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: David Jeffrey, Emily McGowan
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
We meet Rita as she begins to realise her discontentment with banality. Going back to school, she wishes to make improvements to her life, although not entirely sure what a better existence should look like. Her tutor Frank on the other hand, is an alcoholic, and a poet who no longer writes. Both are subconsciously thinking “anywhere but here,” but only Rita knows to seek for answers in a productive way.

Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is about aspirations, and also, in its very British way, about class distinctions. Its humour relies on Rita’s lack of sophistication as a Liverpudlian hairdresser, but under Julie Baz’s direction, the characters speak as Australians, with our Rita in a broader, shall we say, working class type accent.

It is a bold decision that proves to be at times effective, and at others, quite awkward. The text mentions a slew of British places and personalities, and talks of Australia as a faraway country, so the production’s ability to assist with our suspension of disbelief tends to be inconsistent. However, the show remains otherwise attentive to the spirit of Russell’s writing, and we always feel that its heart is kept in the right place.

The actors take a couple of scenes to warm up, but when Emily McGowan gets comfortable in her role, Rita’s endearing qualities shine through, allowing us to engage with the play’s ideas and sentimentality. Both actors, McGowan and David Jeffrey, can on occasion slip into an unfortunate reticence with their parts, but when confident, their scenes become involving and quite amusing. Also noteworthy is Tim Linghaus’ music providing an air of melancholy appropriate to the characters’ inner worlds.

Rita and Frank cross paths, as they both embark on new trajectories. Life is change, but we do not have to think of moving up as the only meaningful way to achieve progress. We have to value the sense of surprise in all our narratives, just as we know to enjoy the simple straightforward increments in things we usually pursue. The universe will take us places, whether we like it or not. It is how we choose to understand them and delight in them, that makes all the difference.

www.thedepottheatre.com

Review: Black Is The New White (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 5 – Jun 17, 2017
Playwright: Nakkiah Lui
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: James Bell, Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn], Tony Briggs, Luke Carroll, Vanessa Downing, Geoff Morrell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Shari Sebbens, Anthony Taufa
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Charlotte worries about being too white, or to be more accurate, she carries shame about her life not being black enough. The blood in her veins is Aboriginal, but having been born into great privilege, she can only observe, what she considers an authentic black experience, from afar. In Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is The New White, we visit a wealthy black home, through what could be the whitest of storytelling genres possible, the Christmas family comedy.

The show is very funny. Indeed, the jokes do at times, sit on a level of superficiality characteristic of the format, but Lui’s relentless need to interrogate the state of Aboriginal politics allows her show to speak in any tone it wishes, while always retaining a gravity that justifies the exercise, along with providing an extraordinary level of intellectual involvement that keeps us firmly engaged. The work has a specificity that feels completely of the moment; its language, its concerns and its ideas are thoroughly modern. It articulates what we are thinking, but have hitherto been unable to discuss with great fluency. It allows the convoluted disarray of contemporary Aboriginal perspectives surrounding issues of colonialism, be magnificently displayed in all its unresolved vexations. The play is an important timestamp that chronicles the discontent inherent in today’s social dynamics, and a fantastic piece of entertainment with a surprisingly wide appeal.

Paige Rattray demonstrates excellent flair for the sardonic with Black Is The New White. Very pointed observations are made agreeable, and dark subject matter is turned satirical; we are all compelled to have a sense of humour, at Rattray’s insistence. Big conversations between its characters about Australian morality are finely gauged, so that we receive the full impact of what each person is saying. We analyse their upper-middle class lives as their stories unfold before us, but cannot escape shades of complicity, while we inevitably recognise ourselves in so much of the blistering dialogue.

A spectacular cast of nine is fiercely present, determined to enthral and educate. Each vibrant actor offers up a personality that is detailed and authentic, and we get to know them with extraordinary familiarity. Not all are picture perfect and several prove themselves to be quite nasty people, but we fall head over heels nonetheless. They are all very charming.

Charlotte is played by Shari Sebbens, a performer especially effective when things gets politically combative. The conviction she brings is impressive, leaving no room to doubt her very edifying intentions and desires. Melodie Reynolds-Diarra is commanding in her maternal role, incisive with her humour, but adoringly warm as leader of her pack. Remarkably elegant, she delivers some of the play’s biggest laughs with what looks to be little effort. The narrative’s pivotal parts of duelling fathers, are played mischievously by Tony Briggs and Geoff Morrell, both imaginative and effervescently confident with what they introduce to the stage. Their bickering is hilarious, and the actors’ chemistry as an unexpected pairing, is a highlight.

Set design is brilliantly conceived by Renee Mulder, who establishes five separate performance spaces within the interiors of a very glamorous house. Aesthetically refined and superbly functional (without relying on moving parts), it presents comfortable aspects to all seats in the auditorium, although decoration and costumes could benefit from a bolder, more adventurous style.

There are many ways to talk about race and Indigenous experiences, and in Black Is The New White, we find several of them co-existing. The joy of being able to partake in its pluralist approach to these difficult matters, makes the play uniquely refreshing. The people we meet have differing views, but they are all likeable. As audience, we are then given permission to agree with contradictory points of view, or at least, are encouraged to take moments to appreciate what our adversaries value. It is a messy affair at the Gibson household (complete with an epic food fight), and although the stories all conclude nicely, à la Hollywood (and Bollywood), the issues that had been brought up do not diminish. Money can solve many problems, as we witness at this spirited Christmas gathering, but it is how we move our rich resources around that will bring about the improvements we desperately need.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au