Review: Sensitive Guys (Cross Pollinate Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 30 – May 11, 2019
Playwright: MJ Kaufman
Director: Blazey Best
Cast: Natasha Cheng, Nancy Denis, Alex Malone, Shell McKenzie, Samm Ward
Images by Clare Hawley
Theatre review
We meet two small groups of students at an American college. One is a Men’s Peer Education Group, and the other a Survivor Support Group comprised of women victims of sexual assault. MJ Kaufman’s 2018 play Sensitive Guys looks at young men grappling with sexual politics, at a time when boundaries seem to be shifting, as the traditionally subjugated learn to push back against injustices of many kinds. In the story are what we might term woke men, but we discover that thoughts and actions do not necessarily correspond, for those who claim to know better. There is excellent humour in Kaufman’s writing, and although didactic in nature, its clarity of intention makes for a political work that feels immediate and digestible.

It is a passionate production, cohesively designed by an efficacious team of creatives, to facilitate a simple depiction of contemporary concerns. Directed by Blazey Best, the show offers an accurate representation of our hopes and anxieties as they stand today, in relation to the development of discussions around sexual misconduct. The show is a consolidation and reiteration of recent ideas from the Twitterverse, no longer fresh but still pertinent. An excellent ensemble of five actors deliver a well-rehearsed performance, earnest but also comical, able to keep us amused as they take on the responsibility of expounding some valuable lessons.

The young men in Sensitive Guys have much to unlearn; their understanding of sex and gender is revealed to be more damaging than they had ever imagined. There is a pleasure in watching bad boys flagellate themselves on stage. We want to see them punished, as well as see them become better people. The moral of this story is incredibly basic, but the truth is that we keep imparting to our children, old values that are harmful to many and beneficial to few. How we teach masculinity and femininity must come under scrutiny, as do our reasons for insisting on those binaries.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

Review: The Village Bike (Cross Pollinate Productions)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jun 7 – Jul 8, 2017
Playwright: Penelope Skinner
Director: Rachel Chant
Cast: Kate Bookallil, Sophie Gregg, Jamie Oxenbould, Rupert Reid, Gabrielle Scawthorn, Benedict Wall
Image by Andre Vasquez

Theatre review
Becky is unable to get laid because her husband has irrational fears regarding the baby in her womb. Increasingly frustrated, she finds herself seeking gratification elsewhere. Penelope Skinner’s very riveting The Village Bike makes a powerful statement about marriage and monogamy, and the ways in which these age-old institutions and ideologies continue to form restraints, allowing society to control the lives of individuals, women especially, from the most intimate levels.

It plays almost like a revision of the Aga saga; that genre of slightly camp, English middle-class country life drama. The characters are familiar, and their stories are set, invariably, in an unassuming domesticity. Certainly, the work is critical of the way we conceive of a respectable woman. It challenges the unquestioned rules dictating what is acceptable, and objectionable, of a woman’s sexuality, and also the language we use that gives definition, and weight, to those restrictions.

In mocking that romantic and pedestrian style of storytelling, we see the wildness of Becky’s narrative resist the confines of form. Our protagonist is not playing by the rules, so the rules quickly become visible. In breaking the illusion of happily ever after, we are compelled to study her situation, and because we can relate to Becky’s desires so completely, we have to interrogate the systematic failures that we all have to operate under.

Although political and intellectual, the production is equally stimulating on other fronts. Rachel Chant’s direction ensures each personality we meet is distinct and vividly manifested, so we know exactly what it is that makes them tick (and how they contribute to the play’s tragic circumstances). Sequences oscillate between comedy and drama effortlessly, with moments of breathtaking sexual tension giving an excellent sense of texture and dimension to what we see, hear and feel. Persistent issues with spacial use however, detract from an otherwise polished and very well-rehearsed presentation that is as engaging as it is titillating.

Gabrielle Scawthorne stars as the woman who fucks up. Honest and vulnerable, she keeps us in love with Becky through every transgression. Scawthorne is sensational in the part, thoroughly psychological and physically detailed, turning a confronting role into a beautifully empathetic creature full of charm and disarming authenticity. Supporting actors too, are impressive, each one complex and humorous, all bringing a delicious, and rare, boldness to the telling of an uncompromisingly sexual tale.

By play’s end, Becky is rendered powerless. Entrapped by a world that permits only narrow definitions of motherhood and marriage, she has nowhere to go, but to accept her subjugation. Some have said that bicycling had contributed immensely to the emancipation of women in the 1890s, but today, calling a woman a bike, is to call a woman a harlot, whore, slut, skank; a common and convenient means of suppressing female sexuality, in order that the myth of the weaker sex is perpetuated. There is no greater threat to the patriarchy than a sovereign womanhood that rejects the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. When our sex is no longer tethered to imagined virtues in concordance with family, society and culture, is when a greater liberty can be found, for all the genders.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

5 Questions with Kate Bookallil and Rupert Reid

Kate Bookallil

Rupert Reid: What attracted you to the role of Alice and the play originally?
Kate Bookallil: I really admire Alice’s stillness and dignity. I don’t want to give too much away, but Alice is surprising and I love her because she knows who she is and has a lot of self respect.

I was attracted to the play because it makes me laugh at, question, contemplate, challenge, bask and despair in all that makes us fallible human beings. The writing is witty and direct, playful and confronting. Penelope Skinner has written a play with women at the centre, but it is also a play about men and society at large and how we will choose to move forward.

In what ways do you relate to your character and differ?
There are many parts of Alice’s story that align closely with my life. Of course, there are many differences too. In terms of character, I would say that I am envious of an aloof quality that Alice possesses that I have never been able to achieve, no matter how hard I have tried. I am all open book and Alice is far more contained than I am!

Why does Oliver describe Alice as “not unstable… sensitive”
Alice would not want to be described in such a way and does not see herself like that… I think that’s a question for Oliver! Alice is trying to conceive a child, so she’s under a certain amount of pressure… let the audience decide why Oliver would describe his wife in that way!

What kind of experience do you think will people have watching The Village Bike?
I think The Village Bike will be a great conversation starter. Hopefully it will encourage the audience to step up and decide if we are happy with the place of women in our society and if not, what are we going to do about it? I have three children and I can’t help think about them and the digital world they will become teenagers in and my role in helping them navigate their way through the matrix. Hopefully the audience will enjoy themselves too, as it is a really funny play! Come in a big crowd and see where the discussion leads afterwards!

Have you ever combined apple with peanut butter? If not, are you serious!? Why not??
Of course! I love apple and peanut butter together. I also love peach and feta. Vegemite and cheese. Lemon and sugar. Gin and tonic.

Rupert Reid

Kate Bookallil: What attracted you to the role of Oliver and the play originally?
Rupert Reid: His sense of fun and disregard for social norms which are both important thematically to The Village Bike. Oliver is a fascinating exploration of how subtle (and not so subtle) language we take for granted can be used to manipulate and control. What attracted me to the play was the ease and economy of the writing. Ms Skinner has asked us to challenge our preconceived notions of womanhood, motherhood, manhood and sexuality in one fell swoop while maintaining darkly comedic tone that intensifies to the last moment of the play.

What does the bike mean to Oliver?
Sex

Do you have a favourite line in the play and if so, why?
John’s line ‘Let’s put these bitches away’. (or something close to that). It’s just so wrong. Brilliantly out of left field in the moment it’s said and both hilarious and shocking in the same breath.

What does a perfect day off look like for Rupert?
Run, swim and about 4 hours of guitar playing.

Who should come and see The Village Bike?
Everyone. Except my parents. It’s a bit raunchy.

Kate Bookallil and Rupert Reid can be seen in The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner.
Dates: 7 June – 8 July, 2017
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: Journey’s End (Cross Pollinate Productions)

crosspollinateVenue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Oct 12 – 22, 2016
Playwright: R.C. Sherriff
Director: Samantha Young
Cast: Alex Beauman, Luke Carson, Alex Chalwell, Jack Crumlin, Oliver Crump, Patrick Cullen, George Kemp, Dean Mason, Sam O’Sullivan, Govinda Röser, Aaron Tsindos, Michael Wood
Image by Mansoor Noor

Theatre review
There are always battles being fought somewhere in the world, but we keep this knowledge compartmentalised, out of sight, out of mind. Horrific thoughts are crippling, and for most of us, to keep on living is to forget the atrocities that are happening in faraway lands. When we hear about them on the news, they can seem abstract and alienating, and we think about them as events that happen to other people.

Journey’s End brings us into the intimate setting of the WWI British trenches, where we encounter regular, good men, as they try to keep calm and carry on with the business of war. In R.C. Sherriff’s play, the soldier’s stories and memories feel like personal accounts that can only help to humanise sacrifices made on the front line. It is easy to send young lives off to war, until our own children are the ones being called up.

Drama is punctuated effectively by Samantha Young’s direction, for an engaging plot that belies its age. A clarity of emotion is introduced into the all-male setting, allowing us to perceive the turmoil that the troops try to hide. Actor Sam O’Sullivan is a highlight in the role of Osborne, authentic with his speech and physicality, and tender in his portrayal of the senior officer. Michael Wood is similarly impressive as Hibbert, charming and sympathetic for a boy too immature to be fighting for his country. Jack Crumlin is suitably volatile in the substantial part of Stanhope, although transitions between emotional states can seem abrupt.

The subject matter is important for as long as we continue to participate in warfare, and as was Sherriff’s intention, it is crucial that we look at soldiers, not as concepts, but as palpable individuals. We need these stories to be real, and we need those who survive to tell their truths. Journey’s End is approaching a century old, and bears the look and feel of a period drama. There is a need for today’s equivalent, so that we can get even closer to the abhorrence, in order that we may learn to take greater care in how we treat our neighbours, and ourselves.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

Review: The Block Universe (Or So It Goes) (The Old 505 Theatre / Cross Pollinate Productions)

crosspollinateVenue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Jun 6 – 25, 2016
Playwright: Sam O’Sullivan
Director: Dominic Mercer
Cast: Briallen Clarke, Jacob Warner
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Andrew the philosopher tells his love story the only way he knows how. He believes that our time in the world is predetermined, and that our past does not simply disappear but exists in a different realm. He tries to access history to relive happier times, but finds his intellectual idealism unable to provide the comfort he requires. Sam O’Sullivan’s The Block Universe is about a man’s heartache, and his fascination with time. The play takes the thematic opportunity to build upon itself a thoroughly interesting structure, based on Andrew’s theories of determinism, for an unusual plot trajectory that depicts time in an unconventional manner. The boy-meets-girl story that it contains is however, nothing out of the ordinary, and although charming in its mundanity, is insufficiently dramatic for us to engage more deeply with Andrew’s anguish.

The play is directed with an understated elegance by Dominic Mercer, who brings surprising clarity to the text’s philosophical interests. Isabel Hudson’s work on set design is thoughtful and artistic, providing ease of functionality to actors and evocative symbolism to the audience. Further visual sophistication comes from lighting designer Alex Berlage, who creates a large number of scene transitions and a wide range of atmospheric manipulations with little resource other than sheer ingenuity. Equally accomplished is Alistair Wallace’s work on sound that guides us through the play’s complicated timeline with a penetrating sensitivity that accompanies its auditory dynamism.

The stars of the show are its captivating actors, both charismatic, and thoroughly authentic with what they present. Playing Andrew is Jacob Warner, vulnerable and truthful in every moment, with a subtlety that draws us in but delightfully energetic in his stage presence. Briallen Clarke impresses with a performance full of nuance and intensity, while maintaining excellent humour in her very vibrant interpretation of Kristiina. The duo’s chemistry, and the timing that results, is flawless and the relationship they portray is utterly believable.

Our emotions are shielded from Andrew’s heartache in The Block Universe. We see him crumbling before our eyes, but the play prevents us from responding with feelings, choosing instead to elicit an analytical acknowledgement of his pain. Indeed, philosophy and analysis can often ease our suffering, and the transference from heart to brain, can be an effective means to dealing with loss and mourning, but as demonstrated by Andrew’s experience, the solution is only temporary. There is no escaping the fact that matters of the heart need to be treated at the origin of their hurt, and Andrew will not be able to think himself out of his troubles. If we refuse to address the real issues that eat at us, we will be trapped in a perpetual cycle of agony, obstructed from resolution and emancipation, blocked from salvation and peace.

www.crosspollinate.com.auwww.venue505.com/theatre

Review: Kayak (Cross Pollinate Productions)

crosspollinateVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 29 – Apr 9, 2016
Playwright: Katherine Thomson
Director: Adam Cook
Cast: Matthew Cheetham, Matilda Ridgway, Francesca Savige
Image by Mansoor Noor Photography

Theatre review
Desperate people do desperate things, and in Kayak, their actions are certainly outrageous. Katherine Thomson’s dark comedy features three characters, all lonely and lost, grasping at whatever crosses their paths that may contain salvation. Morals and ethics vanish when the going gets tough, and it is that process by which a person loses their mind, that provides the play with its biting humour. Thomson’s characters and dialogue are delightfully perverse and although they do not seem to make perfect psychological sense, it does provide sufficient contextual logic for us to connect with the increasingly wild stories that unfold.

Director Adam Cook’s interpretation of the work is full of energy, with attention placed on creating a lively and vibrant show. The narrative is conveyed with appropriate comedic levity, and each character is clearly defined, but the all-important humour of the production relies heavily on the cast, who do not always deliver the jokes with as much complexity as the material calls for. Matilda Ridgway is strongest, and very clever with the way she enacts the many surprises written for her character Wen. It is a charming performance, with an exaggerated quirkiness that is both theatrical and captivating. All players are passionate and determined to portray intense emotion, but the show lacks a certain melancholy. There are lots of tears, but we do not feel their sadness, and it is that sadness that is central to all the high jinks that transpire.

Wen, Ruth and Luke are dysfunctional people, crippled by misfortune. We identify with their pain because the causes of their troubles are all familiar. At the root of their many shenanigans are setbacks and misery that have descended upon us at one time or another, and while we may not express our grief in such dramatic fashion, the fantastical events they go through somehow ring true, perhaps relating to the fears we have about not being able to spring back, of not having enough resilience to cope with life. They crumble and fall into disaster, and we watch knowing that we are the lucky ones, if only for the moment, because disaster does happen, and people do break.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

Review: Crazy Brave (Cross Pollinate Productions)

crosspollinateVenue: San Telmo Studio (Chippendale NSW), Sep 17 – 27, 2015
Playwright: Michael Gurr
Director: Suzanne Pereira
Cast: Les Asmussen, Rhys Keir, Cecilia Morrow, Sam Trotman, Samantha Ward, Michael Wood
Image by John Ma

Theatre review
Political discourse is often simplistic, with individuals taking on allegiances with left or right wings for a certain convenience necessitated by the traditional structures of governance. Adversarial parties make us take sides, and difficult issues are made easier by adhering to a seemingly sensible spectrum traversing the far left to the far right. Many of us take on political affiliations as identity markers, always ready to align or dissent based on that tribal connection, and deviations are unthinkable. In Michael Gurr’s Crazy Brave, anarchists aim for social unrest with the sole purpose of disruption. They do not wish to replace existing systems and conventions with new propositions, only to dismantle what they view to be pervasive and fundamentally problematic. Gurr’s script is complex and sophisticated. It addresses the personal and the social with brilliant sensitivity, and structures its plot inventively for a surprising and gripping progression, involving both our emotions and intellect.

Accordingly, direction by Suzanne Pereira appeals to her audience’s desire to be satisfied on those visceral and cerebral levels. Challenging ideas are presented provocatively, and passions are explored with great potency. It is a mesmerising theatrical experience, with adventurous use of space (beautifully aided by Stephen Moylan’s sound and Tim Hope’s lights) and impressively accurate portrayals of relationships and personalities. Lead characters are powerfully performed. Alice, the ardent agitator with big hopes and even greater determination, is played by Samantha Ward who delivers difficult fanatic speeches with amazing clarity and an almost intimidating conviction. Ward’s toughness in the role is awe-inspiring, and her ability to demonstrate vulnerability alongside that immense strength of character, gives the play its credibility and a dramatic quality of urgency. Sam Trotman’s interpretation of Nick is intense and thoroughly studied, and the actor’s marvellous ability to establish chemistry with co-actors makes for compelling scenes that demand our attention. Some of the show’s most moving moments come from Les Asmussen as Harold, who provides a soulful voice of reason with a flair for bringing elucidation and gravity to the subtler, but wise, sections of the text. Asmussen’s delivery of an anecdote in the concluding scene is utterly sublime storytelling.

Broken marriages can be dealt with in several ways including, as is in the play, abandonment and divorce. Defective economic and political systems are contrastingly resilient, where rot is allowed to persist because change does not benefit the powerful. Cosmetic alterations are made to appease the public, but internal deterioration remains. Revolutions require vision, and a populace that understands its own deprivation, both of which are easily concealed by misinformation and deception. Unhappy relationships can be resolved, either by collusive delusion, or a brutal annihilation, but the choices for society are less simple.

www.crosspollinate.com.au