Review: Torch Song Trilogy (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Aug 1 – 26, 2018
Playwright: Harvey Fierstein
Director: Stephen Colyer
Cast: Hilary Cole, Simon Corfield, Imraan Daniels, Tim Draxl, Stephen Madsen, Kate Raison, Phil Scott
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the perfect time to revisit Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. The play premiered in New York 1982, right before the AIDS crisis crippled the LGBT community. Fierstein’s vision was full of hope, daring to see queer people break into the mainstream, with portrayals of gay men in serious monogamous relationships, thriving in family units that incorporate legally adopted children.

Almost immediately after the completion of this work, the LGBT movement experienced a setback of at least thirty years, finding itself in a new fight, in many ways even harder than before, with the world laying the blame of AIDS entirely on us. What had been a burgeoning era of equality post-Stonewall was all but decimated. Today’s revival is an appropriate resumption of progress; much of the West has now succumbed to the demand for marriage equality, and that discussion about marginalised identities gaining parity not only of rights, but also respect, can now once again be sincerely salient.

Actor Simon Corfield plays Arnold, a gay Jewish New Yorker, whose resilience forms the centrepiece of this saga. Corfield’s performance is often very moving; his depictions of suffering are absolutely enthralling, ensuring that the show’s politics remain foregrounded. Comedy aspects, however, are less consistently rendered. Kate Raison offers a redemptive energy boost, with her potent entrance in the third act as Arnold’s mother, restoring lustre to the play’s humour. Incidental songs are magnificently presented by Hilary Cole and Tim Draxl, accompanied by Phil Scott’s exquisite piano playing. Both singers use music to their magical advantage and leave remarkable impressions, enhanced by strong acting in their roles as Laurel and Ed.

The production can at times be insufficiently ebullient, but an authentic soulful quality permeates, and sustains, all the action. It is a visually sumptuous staging, boldly lit by Benjamin Brockman, whose extravagant approach for Torch Song Trilogy imbues it with a captivating sense of theatricality. There is a beautiful melancholy to director Stephen Colyer’s style that adds a richness to the play’s concerns; Arnold never dwells on his pain, but Colyer insists that we see all of it.

Back in the day, the idea that gay men could start their own normative family lives, was a completely subversive notion. Today, it can still be a surprising thought, although some of us are more taken aback, by the fact that any queer person would choose an existence that seems so ordinary. For LGBT people in places with adequate legal protection, our choices are broader than ever before. Some want to emulate their parents, others wish to break new ground, and most would probably find their peace somewhere in between the extremes. The whole point of this long battle, is so that people can become whomever they desire. Love thy neighbour as you love thyself, no matter how different they appear to be.

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Review: The Hypochondriac (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Jun 9 – Jul 1, 2018
Playwright: Molière (a new version by Hilary Bell)
Director: Jo Turner
Cast: Gabriel Fancourt, Darren Gilshenan, Sophie Gregg, Emma Harvie, Lucia Mastrantone, Jamie Oxenbould, Monica Sayers
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Argan is convinced that he is riddled with disease. His wife Beline, has heard it all before, and tired of waiting for his death, is now plotting to steal his entire estate without the help of sickness to deliver the goods. Molière’s The Hypochondriac is given new interpretation by Hilary Bell, who makes adjustments to the language and story for yet another generation. The essence of Molière’s farce is retained, and it proves still to be effective and very enjoyable, but a more modern sensibility is introduced, most notably in terms of its women characters, who are now full of nerve and agency.

First glimpse of the production is impressive. Designer Michael Hankin’s set is an opulent creation, gloriously lit by Verity Hampson to convey both the wealth at the centre of Argan’s story, and the traditions from which it is derived. The show however, is slow to start. Energies are subdued, and a misplaced hush pervades much of the action, even if the cast looks to be raring to go. Things do fall into place however, when an air of chaotic ruckus that so defines the genre, eventually kicks in, to replace the strange tentativeness of its beginnings.

Performer Darren Gilshenan’s marvellous comedic presence makes him the perfect candidate for Argan; he brings to the role a rare combination of precision and raw impulse, keeping us firmly on track with the plot, but always feeling as though anything could happen, as is crucial in this style of live comedy. It is a thoroughly accomplished ensemble that takes the stage, and although chemistry in-between is not yet at perfection on opening night, each player is as enthused and skilled as the next, and we find ourselves fawning over all of their colourful characterisations.

Marriage is increasingly strange a phenomenon. As we move towards ever more rational forms of existence, the fact that people hold on to that ancient practice, is quite curious. Young ones in The Hypochondriac wish to have marriage legitimise their love, whilst their older counterparts think of marriage in direct accordance with the possession of property. Love and property can exist today independent of that institution, but we cannot help returning to it, maybe for its symbolism, or maybe we are simply always in search of something to make ourselves feel better.

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Review: The Sound Of Waiting (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 31 – Apr 22, 2018
Playwright: Mary Anne Butler
Director: Suzanne Pereira
Cast: Reza Momenzada, Gabrielle Scawthorn
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Hamed is stranded at sea with his small daughter, after having lost the rest of their family to explosives in their war-torn home. Escape is the only option, but with no apparent destination, their scurry can only be treacherous and agonising. Mary Anne Butler’s The Sound Of Waiting gives voice to those we term asylum seekers, whose stories are routinely exploited by politicians and media outlets for selfish gain. Here, however, we attempt to hear from the source, a first-person narrator untarnished by intrusions of our prejudice.

Also present is the Angel of Death, a mystical creature and a force of nature, but at times also a human enemy, who pursues Hamed, determined to annihilate. Both are in fierce opposition, but they speak almost in tandem, sharing a rhythm that drives the plot and action. Although in sync, the two characters develop in divergent trajectories, with Death always pulling attention away from our concern for Hamed. It is appropriate that they are not telling a cohesive story, and perhaps revealing, in the way director Suzanne Pereira allows a degree of distraction from the real tragedy.

Pereira’s work is powerful in its treatment of atmospherics. Together with Samuel James’ video projections and Tegan Nicholls’ sound and music, it is a spectacular collaboration that enchants the senses. Also very strong are both performers, Reza Momenzada and Gabrielle Scawthorn, who bring depth and intensity to the production. Momenzada’s ability in conveying authenticity is particularly valuable in this very contemporary tale of loss and hope.

Australia’s reaction to Hamed’s adversity is not explicitly written into The Sound Of Waiting. The audience is given a plain version of facts, so that our mettle is tested. It wants us to rise to the challenge of a compassionate response, which it accomplishes successfully. The consequences of war, as we see here, are undoubtedly bleak, but more significant is the play’s implication that compassion has become a challenge of our times, and although pervasive and banal, our cruelty is deplorable and deeply shameful.

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Review: An Act Of God (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Feb 2 – 25, 2018
Playwright: David Javerbaum
Directors: Mitchell Butel, Richard Carroll
Cast: Mitchell Butel, Alan Flower, Laura Murphy
Image by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
The Christian God comes to deliver a new set of ten commandments in David Javerbaum’s An Act Of God. It is an intriguing proposition, that God would admit to being imperfect. He remains omnipotent, fret not, but this version of the Almighty concedes he had made some very big mistakes, and has decided that it is perhaps time, finally, to rectify two millennium worth of erroneous beliefs.

The play is a fascinating evaluation of religion, and its impact on all of us, regardless of where our faiths reside. It shapes our values, as they stand today, in contrast with outdated precepts that many still insist on upholding. The transformation of God into something closer to a modern day being, as opposed to a purely idealistic creature of fantasy, pushes Javerbaum’s humanist arguments with great efficacy, although the humour of An Act Of God can be inconsistently compelling. Directed by Mitchell Butel and Richard Carroll, the show is relentlessly effervescent, with a flamboyance that sustains our attention confidently, but the writing offers punchlines that seem overly polite within its raucous atmosphere.

Leading man Butel is near faultless in his portrayal of the big man himself, meticulous in approach, with expert timing in his delivery of every line, even when the jokes struggle to meet their comedic objective. Exposed and vulnerable, Butel has nothing to hide behind, in this very immediate staging of God’s presence, and the actor emerges triumphant with a brilliant display of sheer skill and grit. Also noteworthy are the many significant adaptations to the script, in its transposition from America to Australia. Presenting an Aussie version of the Lord above is a shrewd decision, proving so popular, one could hardly imagine any viable alternative.

An Act Of God does not attempt to change our minds about His existence, but it urges us to take responsibility for life on earth regardless. It wants us to give up any notion that the faults of the world are of hallowed design; we have to take charge no matter what we believe about prayer. There may not be any controversial or new ideas in the play, but it provides clarity to secular and religious conceptions of our being, that are often entangled and rarely identified with sufficient veracity. Whatever we wish to happen in the hereafter, our part in the now can never be taken lightly. If humanity is made in God’s image, what we are able to accomplish, must never be underestimated.

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Review: Silent Night (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Nov 10 – Dec 10, 2017
Playwright: Mary Rachel Brown
Director: Glynn Nicholas
Cast: Amanda Bishop, Richard Sydenham, Aaron Glenane, Michael Denkha
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is Christmas in the suburbs of Sydney, and the Lickfolds are freaking out, because of course, there is just so much to be done. In Silent Night by Mary Rachel Brown, we take a look at our behaviour during what is meant to be the most sacred time of the year. We may not be a religiously homogeneous nation, but the silly season of December insists that we all act at a surprising degree of uniformity.

Australians take Christmas seriously, but rarely for the right reasons. In the Lickfold household, an occasion for charity and goodwill is turned into an opportunity for exacerbated narcissism and magnified paranoia. Anne wants at all costs, to win her neighbourhood’s annual competition for the best decorated house and yard. Her husband Bill’s doomsday preparations are at fever pitch, fuelled by the incessant talk of diversity, in politically correct representations of Jesus’ birth on rooftops, and other places. Their son Rodney is determined to get in the way of everything; even at Christmas time, he refuses to share his parents’ attention with anyone, God included.

It is a moralistic tale, predictable in its messaging although imaginatively conceived. Clever ideas abound in Brown’s play, but they are not presented well. Its comedy is relentlessly laboured in the first half, and when things get serious later on, its dialogue turns confusing. Director Glynn Nicholas makes sure that we know when punchlines are delivered, but moments of genuine laughter are few and far between. There is no doubting the grace and spirit that motivate the creation of Silent Night, but intentions on their own are rarely insufficient.

Production design is competently rendered, as are performances from the cast of four. Energy and conviction are delivered in spades; we see the actors work hard, and their determination to keep us engaged is, to some extent, effective. Richard Sydenham impresses as Bill, animated and precise in his approach, able to communicate a hint of complexity that is absent from other characters.

It is true that Christmas makes our ugly sides more pronounced. When we compare our lives to the best of the Bible’s stories, we can only see beings contemptible and profane. All the wasteful decadence and hollow frivolity that inevitably take over our celebrations of that sacred dawn, expose our values to be no more than utterly dismal. We are not bad people, but when we are careless, there is little than can differentiate us from the scum of the earth.

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Review: In Real Life (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 15 – Oct 15, 2017
Playwright: Julian Larnach
Director: Luke Rogers
Cast: Anni Finsterer, Elizabeth Nabben
Image by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
Although a completely natural state of being, we think of emptiness as a kind of malady. It is that sense of lack, that so often drives us to action. At our best, we are productive and inspired, but at our worst, it is our decisions that can cause unimaginable harm. In Julian Larnach’s In Real Life, we meet Theresa, a highly successful entrepreneur and innovator, whose own emptiness moves her to create two entities that define her life. Her invention Drum is a technological device that has captivated the world and is used by 2 billion people. Eva, her daughter, is the other source of pride.

The play deals with the dichotomy of organic versus synthetic, and the increasing conflation of the two in today’s lives. It explores our fears of technology, as innumerable others have, but provides space for its audience to determine independently, the morality, of its characters and of its narrative, within which we are inexorable participants. Larnach’s work is valuable in its timeliness, as it is vitally important that we discuss phenomena as they occur, but its concepts, although pertinent, are not always presented with sufficient salience, to be effectively engaging.

The two actors however, provide clear commentary on motivations and emotions represented by each character. Anni Finsterer is operatic in approach, telling Theresa’s story with great panache. We recognise all her psychological states, and the plot is made satisfying as a consequence, but it is a relentlessly intense performance that can seem deficient in authenticity. Elizabeth Nabben plays Eva, along with a host of secondary characters, demonstrating excellent focus and versatility. The two-hander is directed by Luke Rogers, who ensures that a sense of theatricality always accompanies the show’s intellectual interests. It is a well designed production, if slightly too literally rendered, with Sian James-Holland’s lights proving memorable in their playful liveliness.

Theresa constantly reaches outside of herself to seek answers for her anxieties. Even though there is no denying the greatness she has achieved, it is the profound sorrow of which she is architect, that remains. That singular desire, arising from an ineffable emptiness, has delivered both the best and worst of her existence. It is true, that our choices are good and bad. Regrettable decisions should be regarded as such, so that errors are not repeated. Regret, and disappointment, are crucial to how a person grows. Perhaps this is also how we can view our relationship with technology. Movement is inevitable, but trajectory and velocity can always be manipulated, in accordance with the lessons we learn.

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Review: Kindertransport (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Jul 28 – Aug 20, 2017
Playwright: Diane Samuels
Director: Sandra Eldridge
Cast: Camilla Ah Kin, Annie Byron, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Sarah Greenwood, Emma Palmer, Christopher Tomkinson
Image by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
In 1938, an estimated ten thousand Jewish children from families in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, were moved to safety in the United Kingdom, before the commencement of the second World War. Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport is the fictional story of one such child, nine-year-old Eva who finds herself sent away from Hamburg. She ends up in Manchester, north of England, eventually changing her name to Evelyn. Decades later, we discover that she has all but forgotten her life as a Jewish child. To leave the past behind, Evelyn’s survival instincts have created a kind of amnesia, in order that she may make the most out of her present circumstances. The play is about the relationship between yesteryear and today, and how our histories are constantly under threat of obliteration.

There are many theatrical works about Jewish experiences during the Nazi era, and Kindertransport can often feel generic in its approach to telling its story. It is a narrative that has to be reinforced, because there are wounds yet to be healed, and antisemitic threats have yet to disappear. There may be nothing particularly unpredictable about the show, but its capacity for the expression of genuine emotions, is nonetheless valuable, in the ongoing process of catharsis for many who continue to be affected by events of the war.

Sandra Eldridge’s direction introduces a gentle touch, working on the tenderness between characters rather than on exploiting the more sentimental elements of the play. Sections can feel underwhelming, with dramatic tensions kept subdued, but a highlight occurs in a fantasy sequence where Evelyn confronts her mother, both speaking as adults, putting to words their respective struggles. Actors Camilla Ah Kin and Emma Palmer find remarkable chemistry in this moment, and the stage becomes briefly incandescent. Also noteworthy is set design by Imogen Ross, with a backdrop composed of open cardboard boxes, symbolising the movement of peoples and cultures, as well as the human need to bring illumination to our darker inner selves.

There is much to be sad about what Evelyn has had to endure, but it is her ability to emerge strong and flourished that should be celebrated. None of us should hope to reach our graves unscathed by the ravages of mortality, if we are to seek a life well lived. It may be considered unfortunate that some of us have had to abandon religion, tradition and culture in order to find a way forward, but survival is key, and we must attain it however possible.

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