Review: Marisol (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall(Erskineville NSW), Sep 3 – 7, 2019
Playwright: José Rivera
Director: Erin Louise Cotton
Cast: Chloe Baldacchino, Isabelle Fredericks, Sarah Maguire, Elizabeth Nicholls, Simon Thomson, Matthew Vautin

Theatre review
Marisol Perez is informed by her guardian angel that there is a revolt in the heavens. God is old and senile, no longer able to serve the universe, and a struggle for power is now under way. This means that earthlings are for the moment, no longer protected by the divine, and in José Rivera’s Marisol, it appears that when left to our own devices, we can only devolve into chaos and violence. The writing is surreal, and although approaching 30 years old, its apocalyptic sensibility seems more relevant than ever.

The production is at its most gratifying when actors are able to embody the play’s bizarre qualities, and approach the performance with an unabashed extravagance, whether dramatic or comedic. Matthew Vautin and Elizabeth Nicholls have strong moments on stage, both able to convey the dehumanised madness of the play’s dystopian vision. The eponymous role is taken on by Chloe Baldacchino, who brings a delicate timidness that can seem out of place. Director Erin Louise Cotton shows us the utter confusion of a world abandoned by all that is celestial, but without communicating anything particularly powerful with the text, Marisol leaves us with little more than an empty nihilism.

When we once again feel as if everything is going to hell in a handbasket, and the pessimism cripples us from being able to take any meaningful action that would make this world better, it is perhaps useful to indulge momentarily in delusions, that there are higher beings in the ether who have a greater purpose beyond our comprehension. It is one thing to feel disappointed with the way things are, but quite a lot worse when we turn hopeless, thinking that life is absolutely meaningless. The truth is that we know nothing outside of our tiny individual existences, but dreaming up gods and deities has always proven to be useful in making the human experience at least tolerable. We manifest the divine in our image and imagination, relating to them as separate superior entities, but actually, we can only ever pray to the sacred that resides within.

www.gradco.studio

Review: Chemistry (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 18 – 22, 2018
Playwright: Jacob Marx Rice
Director: Rebecca Blake
Cast: Amelia Campbell, Erin Louise Taylor
Image by Sam Marques

Theatre review
Two women meet at a psychiatrist’s waiting room; Jamie is seeking treatment for mania, and Stephanie is undergoing a lifetime battle with depression. They fall in love quickly, in Jacob Marx Rice’s Chemistry, each seeming to be the perfect complement for the other. It is an intimate examination of mental illness, with both characters revealing their deepest and darkest, so that we reach new understandings of these increasingly prevalent conditions. The play also offers a fascinating look into the meaning of death and suicide, from the perspective of those who exist precariously close to their own mortality.

It is an intense piece of writing, made captivating by a clever combination of dangerous ideas and amusing dialogue. Director Rebecca Blake’s sensitivity ensures that we endear to the characters quickly, and that we find ourselves embroiled in their ill-fated story from the very start. Changing Jamie from male, in prior productions, to female here, is a stroke of genius that allows us to interpret with more accuracy, issues surrounding mental health. We are unburdened of troublesome gendered implications that could corrupt the essence of what Chemistry wishes to say.

Actors Amelia Campbell and Erin Louise Taylor are very accomplished in their roles; we are convinced of all that they present, and find ourselves impressed by their tenacious dedication to the work (especially when having to fight against portions of sound design that seem determined to counteract and overwhelm what the actors attempt to create).

Things get better for Jamie in time, and she tries hard to support Stephanie, who continues to suffer the crippling effects of her illness. We may be able to get by with a little help from friends and romance, but no one can ever escape being their our own person. Stephanie’s destiny was never an optimistic one, yet our humanity is determined to respond with nothing less than persistent hope.

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Review: What I’ll Never Say (Sydney Fringe Festival)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 6 – 9, 2017
Playwright: Stuart Englund
Director: Dan Graham
Cast: Stuart Englund

Theatre review
We often think of politicians as liars. We wish for them to be persons of extraordinary integrity, but believe them to be quite the opposite. Stuart Englund’s What I’ll Never Say is a monologue featuring a Member of Parliament talking, unsurprisingly, about himself. The piece is not particularly revelatory, containing nothing controversial, but its depiction of a man trying to shed a persona, in order that we may get to a sense of truth, is refreshing. Plot and pace are calibrated well for the piece, and we find ourselves able to remain attentive even when the anecdotes lose lustre.

Performed by Englund himself, who is not an actor by any stretch of the imagination, we struggle to glean every detail of the narrative. His presence is relentlessly droll, but a sincerity allows broad strokes to be painted, that give us adequate information and impressions of the personality being portrayed. Englund reads the entire show from sheets of paper on a rostrum, so even though we hear every word clearly, meanings are not always communicated with palpability. If a piece is written for the stage, an appropriate skill set is required to have it come to life, and on this occasion, the right person has not been elected for the job.

The things we read on the news are often stranger than fiction. Our political figures are larger than life, and the tales spun around these personalities can seem nothing short of fantastical. What I’ll Never Say is restrained, almost subdued by comparison, but it feels truthful in what it has to say about our leaders. It is in our culture as Australians to be anti-authority, and in its efforts to humanise the protagonist, we are encouraged to see the ordinariness of those who hold office. It is the intention of the work that individuals will be inspired to embrace politics, and have an increased awareness of insidious power structures that surround us. There can never be enough good people working in the public service, if only to undo the damage caused by the unscrupulous.

www.facebook.com/WhatIllNeverSay

Review: DNA (Last One Standing Theatre Company)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 5 – 9, 2017
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Jeremy Lindsay Taylor
Cast: Holly Fraser, James Fraser, Alfie Gledhill, Jesse Hyde, Jess-Belle Keogh, Alex Malone, Josh McElroy, Bardiya McKinnon, Xanthe Paige, Millie Samuels, Emm Wiseman

Theatre review
It is a terrible existence that the teenagers in DNA endure, but none are truly aware of the repugnance that is thrust upon them. Injustice and suffering is completely normalised. Life simply is often unbearable; they see it all around, people finding ways to put up with a world that is never good enough. Dennis Kelly’s play talks about the cycle of poverty and disadvantage, and an idea akin to fate that makes people settle for very little, in places like England where much has been taken from the lower classes.

One of the group has died in an accident, and the rest scurry and scheme to evade blame. They make no effort to retrieve the body, and are certainly unwilling to provide authorities with any assistance. Kelly puts on show a sickening reality, that when viewed from a position of our bourgeois objectivity, is painfully reprehensible. It confronts aggressively, our sense of social responsibility as developed nations who should know better, but who are culpable in the woeful damage caused by the persistent continuance of inequities, reinforced by the ever-increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The production appeals strongly to our capacity for curiosity. Director Jeremy Lindsay Taylor keeps us questioning the motives and behaviour of his characters, by enacting an inner logic for DNA that always feels alien, in spite of its dramatic cogency. We understand the story, but we cannot believe how things have got to this point. It is a marvellous cast of eleven young stars who draw us in, with excellent conviction and discipline, having us convinced of the bizarre cruelty that occurs in our midst. Their work is revelatory, powerful in their unflinching dedication to the text’s inherent darkness.

It is not an entirely pessimistic exercise. We witness an urge to break these patterns of despondency in Leah (poignantly performed by Millie Samuels), who resists conventions of ignorance and resignation. While others continue with narratives of captivity, her impulse is to escape. It may be the only sensible thing to do, but it is also the exception, and a serious conundrum that requires our rumination.

www.lastonestandingtheatreco.com

Review: Hitchcock’s Birds (Edgeware Forum)

edgewareforumVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 27 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Laura Johnston
Director: Laura Johnston
Cast: Laura Johnston

Theatre review
Even though Alfred Hitchcock’s films were usually about male protagonists, it is his leading ladies that remain unforgettable. In Hitchcock’s Birds, Laura Johnston presents a compilation of anecdotes, ranging from the cautiously dubious to the downright objectionable, by a series of legendary blonde bombshells who had worked with the master of suspense. Misogyny in Hitchcock’s films is a common topic of discussion, so the insight that Johnston’s one-woman show wishes to provide, will not be new to many. It is however, wonderfully nostalgic, with characters and a performance style that harks back to the golden age of 1950’s Hollywood, and because “they don’t make them like they used to,” this is a production that will appeal to many who continue to hunger for that old world glamour.

As actor, Johnston is most effective in sultrier and heavier sections. At home in the skin of the femme fatale, she brings excellent theatricality to the likes of Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak. Zanier personalities like Doris Day and Janet Leigh on the other hand, can seem less confident, and slightly laboured. Even though Johnston does well in creating different voices and mannerisms for her various roles, it is clear that Hitchcock’s penchant for archetype does not make it easy for a greater sense of differentiation between each woman, and the use of slide projections is required to help us identify the stars being depicted. Hitchcock’s Birds is a strong concept and there is good work to be found in the way mood is manufactured for this staging, but its duration is too brief for our emotions to engage at a gratifying level of intensity.

Hitchcock’s is a man’s world, and the women in it must play by its rules or risk condemnation. When workplaces are patriarchal, as so many continue to be, its women must choose whether to obey, withdraw or defy. Whichever option is selected, it is uncommon that power imbalances are ever subverted or given redress. Film in Hollywood and everywhere else, is still dominated by men, but theatre is an alternative to the art form that is currently experiencing a vigorous progression towards gender equity. It is only when we tell our stories, on our own terms, that empowerment for our sisterhood can truly begin to materialise.

www.edgewareforum.com

Review: Late: A Cowboy Song (Ladylike Theatre Collective)

ladylikeVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 27 – Oct 1, 2016
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Sarah Dunn
Cast: Andreas Lohmeyer, Annabel Mathieson, Eliza Oliver

Theatre review
The simpler the story, the deeper we can delve into the nature of being human. We have a tendency, in life and in art, for complication. Believing in the more the merrier, we cloud up our transient existences with illusory fixations that distract from the truth. Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song takes the shortest distance between two points, and in the process, deconstructs some of the biggest myths that govern our every day. It questions the meaning of things like marriage, reproduction, money and work, central tenets that dictate how we live from minute to minute. We see Mary fall pregnant and marry Crick, who goes to get a job to provide for the family. It all happens without thought and passion, completely automatic. Their lives take shape as though controlled by an external entity, until they chance upon something else that truly moves them.

It is a funny play, though not always overt with its humour. Delightfully sarcastic, with a distinctly queer sensibility that informs its representations of gender, sexuality and relationships, Sarah Dunn’s work as director is very charming indeed. Mary is played by Eliza Oliver who brings nuance and poignancy to the piece, through an understated style that encourages understanding of her character’s peculiarities. Less quiet with his presentations is Andreas Lohmeyer whose eccentric approach provides great amusement, along with an intriguing but bizarre aura appropriate to the subversive material being explored. The eponymous cowboy is a mysterious figure, with Annabel Mathieson cast against type to bring focus to the text’s interest in exploring issues of identity and conformity.

Who we think we are, may not always be an accurate estimation of the person who walks the earth, but that self-perception must always be allowed to change. To know oneself can be a difficult process, but what is infinitely harder, is to pretend to be someone else. Mary and Crick try to come to terms with their own desires, but arriving at that state of honesty proves to be an elusive privilege. The cowboy is completely out of place, but what they experience, is a serenity and fulfilment that many others fail to attain. It is human to want to fit in, but it takes courage to stake one’s claim for a share of the world, without playing by all the stupid rules.

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Review: Metamorphoses (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 13 – 17, 2016
Creators: Imogen Gardam, Lulu Howes, Saro Lusty-Cavallari (based on the poem by Ovid)
Dramaturg: Pierce Wilcox
Cast: Lulu Howes, Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
Turning Ovid’s two thousand year-old poem into a work for the theatre in Sydney today, is an exercise in adaptation full of possibilities. Every choice is a reflection of the interpreters’ relationship with the world, and with the art form itself. The very decision to take on a project of this nature, is indicative of a desire to experiment with the social aspects of both; theatre, and that immortal classic being interrogated. Imogen Gardam, Lulu Howes and Saro Lusty-Cavallari explore what a work represents when it refuses to be forgotten, and what it means in contemporary society when individuals meet at the theatre to relive it.

Each scene that corresponds to Ovid’s fifteen books, is given its own distinct identity and stylistic genre. Even though there is a conscious effort in manufacturing something quite erratic as inspired by the original, the use of only two actors with infrequent alterations to their appearance limits our ability to perceive the staging with as much variety as is evidently attempted. Our minds give in to a habitual need to create a sense of consistency with the faces we see before us, and the big range of characters is often conflated into a simplification of understanding involving one man and one woman. Perhaps the performers bring along a passion to their performance that has a tendency to appear homogeneous. It can also be said that although energetic in their approach, an ambiguity to their engagement with the work delivers an experience that can be elusive and frustrating. We wish for greater finesse either in the poetic nature of what is being created, or in the meanings that it is able to evoke.

There is abstract beauty to be found in this version of Metamorphoses, as well as political ideas that hold importance and relevance, but neither is willing to become concrete enough for us to grasp with a greater sense of enthralment. If a work aims to alienate, it should keep our feelings at bay but our minds captivated. Art is not always about earning likes, but it should secure attention, especially when it actively rejects the conventional and banal. Little of what we do can endure millennia, but the promise of a resonant instant is all it takes to keep us striving.

www.montaguebasement.com