Review: Superheroes (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 25 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Mark Rogers
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Gemma Bird Matheson, Claire Lovering, Aleks Mikic
Images by Prudence Upton
Theatre review
Superheroes by Mark Rogers tells the stories of two women at opposite ends of the world; Jana is near Sarajevo, and Emily is near Sydney. Their lives are different as can be, but on this one stage, we cannot help but draw parallels, such is the nature of being human. We create meaning from things we observe, and make distinct each personality whom we encounter, focussing quite naturally on how they are separate, but in this strange juxtaposition of experiences within Rogers’ text, we are additionally compelled to find ways to see ourselves as a unified species. We examine microcosms in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and a more privileged Australia, finding ways to understand the people that we are, wondering if vastly different environments mean that we are necessarily disparate, or essentially one and the same.

Rogers’ scintillating writing is brought to life by Shari Sebbens’ dynamic and vigorous direction. The show brims with passion, offering emotional intensity from start to end. Claire Lovering is exquisite as Jana, delivering a deeply considered and precise portrayal, of a woman unable to emerge from the trauma and conflict that has shaped her community. It is an unequivocally profound performance by Lovering. Emily is played by Gemma Bird Matheson, memorable for her exuberance and an enjoyable sense of rawness she introduces to the production. It is an extremely likeable presence that she brings. Aleks Mikic takes on separate roles as male counterparts to the leads, succeeding on both counts, with his uncanny ability to convey authenticity whilst dispensing generous measures of natural charm.

Also noteworthy is lighting design by Verity Hampson, efficient yet refined as it helps us navigate movements in time. Production designer Renée Mulder exercises restrained elegance for her work on costumes and set. David Bergman’s sound and music are dramatic but unobtrusive, surreptitiously manipulating our emotional responses as the plot unfolds.

Even in the most ordinary of lives, courage is paramount. Even the most cowardly, have known moments of bravery in order that they may survive. In these challenging times of 2020, we are startled to realise the strength and resilience each can possess. The most noble of us however, have the capacity not only to stay afloat, but to keep making the best choices for the sake of all, when self-preservation seems the order of the day.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Wonnangatta (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 21 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Angus Cerini
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Wayne Blair, Hugo Weaving
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We see in Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta, two men in various states of distress, coming to grips with the murder of a friend. The story takes place in the remote Victorian Alps, one century ago, inevitably taking the familiar tone of the Australian gothic fable. Our obsession with the landscape, and the nature of our mateship, come to the fore as the characters wrestle with isolation, despair and terror. Cerini’s writing is remarkably visceral in quality, allowing for ample manifestations of mood in the theatrical form to activate various aspects of our imagination.

Production design by Jacob Nash is sparse but highly evocative, featuring a structure reminiscent of a meandering cliff, that works in conjunction with Nick Schlieper’s lights to convincingly shepherd us into the abyss of Wonnangatta‘s haunting realms. Music and sound by Stefan Gregory provide valuable demarcations that shift our perceptions of time, in accordance with the men’s increasing bewilderment.

Actors Wayne Blair and Hugo Weaving bring undeniable charisma and gravity to the experience, although multiple blunders with collisions of their dialogue prove distracting. Director Jessica Arthur introduces a gradual crescendo to tension levels that sustains our interest, and it becomes evident that the performance is at its most enjoyable when the duo invests in the kinetic poeticism of the writing. An emphasis on the narrative’s linearity can however, work against the strengths of the show. We want to indulge in the despondent beauty of its netherworld, but often find ourselves trying to pay attention to details that detract from its more ephemeral pleasures.

Stories about our forefathers tend to involve hardship, and in 2020, that resonance is certainly apparent. There is a constant sense of foreboding in Wonnangatta that relates so directly to our lives today, as though fear, misery and anxiety are the most fundamental features of our humanity. We are reminded that survival is what we have to do. For decades, many have lived with lofty ideals, thinking that the meaning of life relates to so much more, than keeping alive to welcome the morning. It is a humbling moment, one most of us could do well to appreciate.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Distorted (Fixed Foot Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 10 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Xavier Coy
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Michael Arvithis, Xavier Coy, Emma Louise, Poppy Lynch, Lex Marinos, Tristan McKinnon, Kate Rutherford, Jack Walton, David Woodland, Sheree Zellner
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Xavier Coy’s Distorted comprises short episodes, involving ten main characters, all of whom are connected, and all of whom have less than joyful lives. They look like people from any Western city, who have struggles that look ordinary, yet none of which can be easily dealt with. Life is hard, by Coy’s estimation, but what he presents is perversely delightful. There is a veiled humour to the despondent scenarios being enacted, that feels like a bitter irony acknowledging that our complaints can only ever feel haughty when there are roofs over heads, and no shortage of food in bellies.

In Distorted, we observe the all-consuming nature of these personal problems, whilst forming a perspective that reveals these frustrations to be ultimately inconsequential and somewhat narcissistic. Director Richard Hilliar does an excellent job of depicting both the accuracy of these egocentric experiences, and a wider view that it all amounts to little. The show is captivating in every moment, with Hilliar’s knack for drama keeping us mesmerised.

Stage design by Hamish Elliot is gracefully rendered, and effective in facilitating the quick scene changes that happen throughout the duration. Jasmin Borsovsky’s lights too, help us instinctively navigate spacial transformations, as do Martin Gallagher’s sounds that work with our subconscious to make sense of the many abrupt shifts in time. A strong cast performs the piece, with each character believable and realistic. The team tells a cohesive story, remarkable with the even focus they provide so compellingly, to have us invest in every little detail that is being conveyed.

Most of the people in Distorted find the world a difficult place, but they do little to seek to change it. One of them spends considerable time in psychotherapy, where he tries to find ways to fix himself, even though the play gives no evidence of the young man suffering any illness. We have become conditioned to always think that it is the individual who needs improvement, that when things go wrong, we need to fix ourselves, without ever questioning if it is the external environment that requires interrogation. Happiness must come from within, but when we encounter anxiety and exasperation, we must not forget to transcend the self, and identify first, the structures we operate under that are determined to beat us down.

www.facebook.com/fixedfootproductions

Review: Cusp (ATYP)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 11 – 28, 2020
Playwright: Mary Anne Butler
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Stevie Jean, Josh McElroy, Nyasha Ogden
Images by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
In a Northern Territory rural town, three young people are about to leave their teenage years behind. Unlike many of their counterparts in big cities, Elvis, Maddie and Rosie have no time to waste. Mary Anne Butler’s Cusp tackles the worlds of those who do not have the luxury to slowly figure things out. It is a story about class and poverty, an exploration into structures we have to operate under that are manifestly unjust and inadequate, yet are rarely questioned. At seventeen or eighteen, characters in the play have to deal with matters as severe as pregnancy and incarceration, with little support and guidance from those who should know better.

Butler’s scintillating dialogue keeps us engrossed in the personalities she introduces. Director Fraser Corfield brings sincerity and honesty to the play, creating a show with genuine resonances, even though its staging can at times feel static and visually repetitive. Lights by Jessie Davis and sound by Brad Fawcett are sensitively designed, for a remarkably elegant style of presentation.

Three impressive actors bring passion and conviction to their roles, all of them adept at having the audience spellbound. As Rosie, Nyasha Ogden is a captivating presence, warm and very believable as the Indigenous girl trying to reconcile wishes of her community with personal desires. Stevie Jean depicts Maddie’s loss of innocence with a charming boldness, effective in helping us contemplate how a very young woman can exercise her agency. A memorable Josh McElroy is detailed and delicate as Elvis, a familiar juvenile type with troubling anger issues.

The sentence “some people get better choices to choose from” is uttered twice in Cusp. There is overwhelming evidence that wealth inequality in Australia has risen to an unprecedented level, with the general population experiencing over half a decade of stagnating wages, while constant reports of GDP growth fool us into thinking that the country is being managed well. We continue to think of ourselves as an egalitarian people, but are simultaneously, completely comfortable with ignoring the fact that only a small percentage is reaping the rewards of a strong economy. The rest of us are stuck with the indoctrination, that if life is not working out well, we only have ourselves to blame. We are in fact kept in the dark, whilst the few who are much better off, steal everything they can, in broad daylight.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: The Bridges Of Madison County (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 6 – Apr 5, 2020
Book: Marsha Norman (based on the novel by Robert James Waller)
Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Neil Gooding
Cast: Michael Beckley, Anton Berezin, Beth Daly, Kate Maree Hoolihan, Zoe Ioannou, Katie McKee, Ian Stenlake, Grady Swithenbank
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
When we encounter Francesca, she is a housewife in 1960s Iowa, with 2 kids and a husband, seemingly happy to be on a farm living the simple life. A fortuitous meeting with photographer Robert however, reveals that she does want more. The Bridges of Madison County is one of the most famous of American romances, a novella by Robert James Waller that has sold over 60 million copies since its initial publication in 1992. Francesca’s struggles about fulfilling her duties as wife and mother, are presented as completely incongruent with what might be a greater happiness. For a moment, she experiences exhilaration with Robert, but must weigh the consequences should she dare to follow her heart.

This musical version, first created in 2013, features strong songwriting by Jason Robert Brown, but its individual numbers, although delightful, do not necessarily add up to a satisfying plot for the show. Direction by Neil Gooding is able to suffuse a sense of intensity to the emotions being depicted, but the general pace for its storytelling is unsatisfying. Design and technical aspects of the production are on the whole accomplished, with Phoebe Pilcher’s work on lights noteworthy for bringing valuable flamboyance to the staging.

Performer Kate Maree Hoolihan plays a very sentimental Francesca. Her interpretation tends to be simplistic, but proves ultimately to be a moving one. Ian Stenlake looks every bit the National Geographer photographer and love interest Robert, but some of his singing at crucial points are not quite up to scratch. Although evident that the couple works hard to find chemistry, the attraction between the two is never really convincing. Beth Daly and Michael Beckley however are memorable as Marge and Charlie, quirky neighbours who bring occasional but very needed humour to the staging.

In the song “Almost Real”, we hear Francesca talk about her relationship with Chiara, her sister in Naples, who “would open her legs just as easy as speaking.” In her efforts to separate herself from that negative perspective of a free woman, Francesca spends her life doing what she thinks is the right thing, but it is clear that all she does is dedicate herself to being a subject of conformity. Although an indisputably credible character, the writers of Bridges refuse to allow Francesca the gratification she craves, and deserves. We are made to think that to be a good mother, Francesca simply has to give herself up, and that we must all realise, is a lie.

www.goodingproductions.com

Review: Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 29 – Apr 4, 2020
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Tony Cogin, Jack Crumlin, James Evans, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, James Lugton, Jane Mahady, Lisa McCune, Robert Menzies, Aanisa Vylet, Sophie Wilde
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Having very recently lost his father, the young prince is understandably grief-stricken. Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s quick remarriage to the new King Claudius, almost as a form of distraction, but when the ghost of the dead king arrives to reveal that it was his own brother Claudius who had killed him, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with fury. More than a revenge story, Shakespeare’s Hamlet examines the meaning of death, from the vantage point of a man obsessed with bereavement.

It is a handsome production, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights giving a glamorous finish to the staging, and designer Anna Tregloan’s 1960’s costumes adding a sense of whimsy. Tregloan’s cyclorama depicts a beautiful Danish snowscape, but an awkward house-shaped frame sits centre stage, doing little more than to confuse with its lack of purpose. Video projections by Laura Turner helps us empathise with Hamlet’s tragic circumstances, as does Max Lyandvert’s restrained music compositions.

Director Peter Evans’ conservative style may not deliver anything unexpected, but his rendition is likely to appeal to fans of Shakespeare who favour a more conventional approach. Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson is insufficiently charismatic as the lead, but displays clear dedication to her craft. What she offers as the Danish prince is not always convincing, due in part to her slight stature, although there is no questioning her conviction and focus for the role. The two problematic women in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia, are played by Lisa McCune and Sophie Wilde respectively, both performers able to convey a certain level of power and integrity, in spite of Shakespeare’s intentions to portray them as useless. Robert Menzies leaves a strong impression as Polonius, animated and entertaining as the court’s chief counsellor.

In the twenty-first century, it is easy to take issue with the representation of women in Shakespeare’s work. We are far less likely to accept as reasonable, the extremely unbalanced way in which gender is expressed in his oeuvre. The current trend of placing women actors in key male roles does, to some extent, soften the blow of insults to half of humankind, but the strategy is rarely if ever, able to comprehensively address the gender problem that figures so centrally in all of Shakespeare’s narratives.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Artslab: Behind Closed Doors (Shopfront Arts Co-op)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Feb 26 – Mar 1, 2020
Images by Clare Hawley

Stalls
Playwrights: Lana Filies, Lily Hensby
Devised and performed by: Lana Filies, Olivia Harris, Lily Hensby, Cara Severino

Little Jokes In Times Of War
Written, directed and performed by: Charlotte Salusinszky

Stripped
Written, directed and performed by: Luke Standish

Theatre review
Artslab: Behind Closed Doors features five works, three of which are in the theatrical form. Created by young emerging artists, they combine to offer a refreshing experience, even if style and tone are extremely varied from one to another.

Stalls is a collaboration between Lana Filies and Lily Hensby, exploring toilet humour with a feminist approach, inspired by the concept of an idealised woman that allows no capacity for the most basic of all bodily functions, defecation. The performance is devised by the writers, along with additional cast members Olivia Harris and Cara Severino, for a riotously funny show that stridently rejects notions of sugar and spice and all things nice. Chemistry between the four is joyous, for an effervescent thirty minutes that entertains from an unmistakably political perspective.

Charlotte Salusinszky goes in search of her Hungarian roots in Little Jokes In Times Of War, and unearths a story of inter-generational trauma through an examination of her grandmother’s life. Salusinszky’s almost psychic impulses function as a mode of connection with her family history, inspiring a sort of time travel, going back to locate ancestral meanings, so that she can find, and crystallise, herself in the process. It is a rich text that comes to be, and the artist’s remarkable proficiency on stage, as performer and director, is a revelation.

The thoughts of an erotic stripper are documented in Luke Standish’s Stripped, a poetic and melancholic look at one man’s experience of employment in the adult industry. It is, appropriately, a predominantly physical presentation, but made abstract in a way that reveals, more than anything, the subject’s emotional state. Even at just half an hour, Stripped is repetitive, unable to provide significant elucidation beyond the predictable and obvious, but its imagery is compelling, whether Standish chooses to be clothed or not.

We live full lives behind closed doors, but it is what can be shown to others, that determines so much of identity. Art is most valuable when it lifts the veil on that which lays dormant. Art helps us know ourselves, and as narcissistic humans, that promise of reaching deeper into our own truths, is a huge thrill. Theatre furthers that mission, by coalescing truth into consensus, so that when we sit side by side in a darkened room, something magnanimous unites us, if and when the magic happens.

www.shopfront.org.au

Review: Veronica’s Room (Flight Path Theatre)

Venue: Flight Path Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Feb 26 – Mar 1, 2020
Playwright: Ira Levin
Director: Ehsan Aliverdi
Cast: Parisa Mansuri, Hamed Masteri, Shiva Mokri, Arash Salehi

Theatre review
At the beginning of Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room, a young woman is locked in a room by an older couple. She insists that her name is Susan, even though those who hold the key say that she is Veronica. The suspenseful mystery keeps us guessing, as its characters feud with parallel narratives. We vacillate between wondering if the story is about mental illness, or a strange tale of entrapment and gaslighting.

It is an entertaining work, featuring an appropriate dimension of eerie supernaturality rendered by director and lighting designer Ehsan Aliverdi, who fills the show with flamboyant gestures that give the experience a delicious theatricality. Performed entirely in Farsi (with English surtitles), the cast brings exceptional energy to the piece, for a passionate staging that has us absolutely mesmerised.

Actor Parisa Mansuri plays the young woman, with an emotional complexity and intensity that makes the central riddle even more captivating. Shiva Mokri and Arash Salehi take on a bizarre range of roles, each one compelling and intriguing. Both performers are powerful presences that impress with a sense of fastidiousness to their approach. A fourth character is brought to extravagant life by Hamed Masteri, whose gradual escalation to a state of lunacy is a joy to watch.

Ira Levin’s women may not feel realistic, but it remains a pleasure that they occupy central positions in his play. It is true that women can be naive, and women can be evil, as represented in Veronica’s Room, but we are also resourceful and strong. Although Levin has put on paper something that is truly fascinating, we should question his choices, especially if we believe that humans have become more sophisticated as a species, half a century on from the play’s original staging. Fiction always allows us to manipulate outcomes, and how we choose to see ourselves, is entirely in our hands.

www.nomadartgroup.com | www.flightpaththeatre.org

Review: Pit (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 1, 2020
Playwright: Jackson Used
Director: Mikala Westall
Cast: Tony Barea, Margarita Gershkovich, Briony Williams
Images by Morgan Moroney

Theatre review
Bridget’s only daughter has been abducted. Needless to say, the aftermath is traumatic, and as we see in Jackson Used’s Pit, a constant state of disorientation and pain. One can attempt to find ways to move on, but there is no escaping the all-consuming damage that must result from an incident like this. Bridget tries on every kind of survival mechanism, none of which proves satisfactory, and we must confront the idea that when things go this bad, no solution can exist. It becomes a case of sink or swim, and we see that the remaining hope is about resilience and spirit, even if all they do is to keep a person breathing.

Direction by Mikala Westall is often imaginative, although a bolder approach is necessary for a more dramatic experience. Actor Briony Williams does most of the heavy lifting, focused and purposeful in the lead role. Tony Barea plays the lost girl’s father Serge, a surprising performance that has us won over at the end. Margarita Gershkovich provides sturdy support in a number of smaller parts, able to engage the audience without causing distraction from the central plot and character.

The emotions displayed on stage can feel slightly restrained, but theatre should not ask of its makers, thorough authenticity under all circumstances. What Bridget has to go through, is beyond inhumane, and no actor should have to take on anywhere near that level of torment. There are techniques however, that can help the show convey greater intensity, so that we may come closer to the reality being rendered, even if bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors are how we can get there.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Our Blood Runs In The Street (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 19 – Mar 21, 2020
Director: Shane Anthony
Cast: Andrew Fraser, Cassie Hamilton, David Helman, Eddie Orton, Sam Plummer, Ross Walker, Tim Walker
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Violence is an indelible part of LGBTQI history in NSW. In the many years leading up to the decriminalisation of homosexuality and then the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Sydney’s gay men and trans women especially, have suffered physical harm, to the extent of murder, as a result of homophobia and transphobia.

Our Blood Runs In The Street is a work of verbatim theatre, composed of accounts by victims, as well as “family members, witnesses, historians, police officers, journalists and researchers,” presented alongside contemporary dance and physical theatre, for an examination of the prejudice and brutality that has shaped the community.

With stories mainly from the last three decades of the previous century, director Shane Anthony and his team have collated a meaningful text from which we can better understand that past. We are additionally informed that investigations are ongoing, in case new revelations should surface as a result of the show. It is a heavily fragmented work, and although able to convey the severity of incidents, struggles to elicit emotional involvement.

Visually enticing, with imaginative choreography throughout, and lights by Richard Whitehouse bringing constant colour and movement, our eyes are kept entertained. Auditory capacities are attended by composer Damien Lane and sound designer Nate Edmondson, who move us seamless from scene to scene, as they maintain an uncompromising gravity for these harrowing tales.

Seven performers, each one earnest and passionate, deliver testimonials with indisputable conviction. David Helman is particularly impressive with his clever blend of words and movement. Imagery and dialogue in the show do not always work well together, but Helman makes us watch and listen with coherence, without distraction from one or the other. A powerful speech is given by Cassie Hamilton, captivating in her stillness, recounting the serious under-estimation of violence against trans people, as reported by Eloise Brook of The Gender Centre.

The times are slowly changing, but problems for LGBTQI Australians continue, now most notably for ethnic minorities in suburbia. That the stage for Our Blood Runs In The Street is filled with white bodies, is indicative of the disparity that exists between cultures. People of colour have benefited from the work of Western activists, but there remains challenges, specific and nuanced, yet to be addressed. Pride has functioned as an effective war cry for many queers, but it is still a concept that eludes some, for which shame is still the default experience.

www.redlineproductions.com.au