Review: On The Border Of Things Part One (PACT)

Venue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Jan 17 – 20, 2018
Creators: Cong Ai Nguyen, James Nguyen
Cast: James Nguyen
Image by Carla Zimbler

Theatre review
In part one of On The Border Of Things, James Nguyen talks about his travels in search of family and his discovery of personal histories. It all begins with the memory of his uncle Cong Ai Nguyen who had left home for a nomadic regional life, working in transient jobs at disparate locations for over twenty years. James’ need to reconnect sparks a three-year odyssey that takes him to country Australia and also to Vietnam, and we catch him as he drives into Sydney, probably momentarily, to talk about his findings.

Essentially a one-man show, with a storyteller proficient in visual arts who rejects the approach of a conventional acting piece, The Border Of Things has a startling immediacy rarely encountered. When our theatres are working well, we are able to come in touch with truths of the world, and here, the first-person narrative is taken to a new level of intimacy. Artifice is stripped away, for an account of adventures recalled not from rehearsals but from actual experience.

James Nguyen’s investigations into the Vietnamese diaspora and his exploration of our farmlands, creates a potent combination that all Australians should find relevant. Discussion points about the migrant experience, along with diverse notions of home as personal and universal conceptions, as well as the meaning of land in relation to commerce and colonisation, all find consolidation and resonance through the Nguyen family’s tales.

The presentation concludes with a short documentary film, as sensitive and tender as the monologue prior, with a quiet melancholia permeating its depiction of new bonds being formed, as uncle and nephew reunite on farms in country Victoria and South Australia. We get a sense that both are black sheep, each able to see himself in the other’s eyes. To know oneself, questions must be asked, and the answers come best, from those we identify with the most. Our protagonist has had to travel afar to reach someone close, but it is evident that the rewards are joyous, and profound.

Review: Rizzy’s 18th Birthday Party (Curiousworks)

curiousworksVenue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Oct 1 – 4, 2014
Screenplay: S. Shakthidharan, G. Gonzalez
Director: S. Shakthidharan
Cast: Varun Fernando, Firdaws Adelpour, Henry Vo, Jamie Meyer-Williams, Patrick Uly, Sophie Hawkshaw, Anandavalli

Film review
The film is projected with incidental music performed live by two-person band Kurinji whose vocalist Aimée Falzon recalls the singing of Sarah McLachlan and Róisín Murphy. The band provides an ethereal start to the night, but the film is more earthy in tone. Set in the recent past, just before 9-11 had changed the world, it features a cast of multiracial characters, which stands distinct because it is a rare representation of our daily Australian realities. It is not a vision we often see on screens, but the diversity looks entirely natural, making a strong political case against the persistent ethnocentrism of Caucasian faces in our media landscape.

The story is a curious one about the anxiety that young people of Western Sydney experience. It showcases rarely articulated societal concerns through Rizzy, who pretends to be a resident of the affluent suburb of Crows Nest, where he is in fact, a member of the working classes in the stigmatised Fairfield region. He is aspirational but perhaps for the wrong reasons. The film makes an effort to contradict Rizzy’s belief that his background is inferior by depicting great friendships and colourful environs, but it results in a very alienating protagonist. We never reach any meaningful understanding of his feelings, so the film remains distant. Its insistence on focusing only on young men, and having women characters exist at its periphery, further restricts its ability to find relevancy with wider audiences.

It is a strong cast, carefully directed by S. Shakthidharan who retains the rawness of the young actors, while drawing good commitment in their performances. Anandavalli plays Rizzy’s mother Helen, with a beautiful sensitivity that moves us with her minimal but authentic approach. It is unfortunate that her role is a deeply subservient one, but the actor’s work is the film’s standout element. Leading man Varun Fernando is less accomplished, but his comic abilities provide some entertainment value in lighter sections. The young men are a group with excellent chemistry that gives energy to many of the earlier scenes, and the film suffers as attention is shifted away from them as the plot progresses.

The work has issues with pace and structure that prevents tension from building satisfactorily. Also, the stakes in the narrative are never high, so we do not respond with much excitement. Rizzy’s 18th Birthday Party is a quiet and earnest movie that attempts to provide a voice to a segment in our community that is not often heard, but it needs to amplify its assertions in volume and in poignancy if it wishes to leave a greater impression.