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.

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5 Questions with Jack Walton and Sheree Zellner

Jack Walton

Sheree Zellner: When friends ask you, “What is Distorted about,” what do you tell them?
Jack Walton: When I think about Distorted I often see it as is a fractured story about fractured people. We get to glimpse into key stages of people’s deepest relationships as well as witness the most isolated moments in their lives. So much of the play is flavoured with this brilliantly witty humour but then you get to have these beautiful, intimate moments of just living with these people as they go though things like addiction, mental health, pregnancy and loneliness.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about yourself through playing the role of Alex?
I feel like there’s a new discovery after each run but what sticks out to me is just how much I value the key people around me. When I think about the people I’m closest there’s a bond that I also see Alex discover with his girlfriend where they each allow their best and worst versions of themselves be presented to one another which creates all kinds of drama but it’s also the kind of relationship that you don’t always fully appreciate until it’s at risk of being taken away.

Without giving too much away, what is your favourite scene or character from Distorted and why?
There’s a great scene near the middle of the play where my character and Poppy Lynch’s character have this wild screaming match. It’s hilarious because what they’re arguing about is so ridiculous and off topic but under the surface we start to see a new side to their relationship. That’s definitely the scene I feel most free in as well, there’s no point where you can hide from the audience so you just have to dive into it head first.

What do you think people will take away with them after seeing Distorted?
Each character in the play has some surface level identity. Some kind of stereotype that people would attach to them passing by on the street. I think what’s so great about Distorted is that it gives the audience a chance to see the humanity that lies below these assumptions. You suddenly have more empathy for people when you get to see their story in front of you. So in short, if there’s anything an audience could take away from this show I hope it’s some version of empathy.

What was your initial reaction after we did our first full run of Distorted?
I was exhausted! I have most of my scenes with one other actor so I didn’t actually get to meet most of the cast until we all came together for our first run. Having not rehearsed with everyone in the room before that point I was really impressed with how everything slotted into place. Usually doing a first run of any production is pretty bumpy but because this play moves at a such lightning pace everyone was switched on and ready to pounce onto whatever cues were thrown at them. There was a great sense of achievement after that run.

Sheree Zellner

Jack Walton: Distorted has such a distinctly energised writing style. How does it feel to perform something that is always so active?
Sheree Zellner: I love the energetic style of Xavier Coy’s writing, really keeps us on our toes, there’s always something happening onstage and off, it’s a great lesson in keeping the ball in the air at all times. For my 62 year old brain that’s got to be a good thing! Thankfully I love to be challenged and there’s always Berocca… Seriously though, because the writing is so energised, it informs our performances naturally, so it’s like getting caught in a theatrical vortex.

What do you find exciting about playing with new works?
Being involved from the ground up is so satisfying because we are the first ones to put our stamp on these characters. We’re not following in others footsteps, we’re making the first forays into the lives of our characters and everything we experience as actors in creating these characters is completely original. For an actor that’s pure gold, we’re a very fortunate ensemble.

Why do you think people value relationships so intensely?
Generally speaking I’d say that it’s about connection. I think it’s something we’re always looking for in every aspect of our lives, at home, at work, on social media. Connection can bring out the best and worst of humanity and I think we see that very clearly in Distorted. This play really shows all aspects of how we connect, the lengths we go to for connection and the lengths we go to when we want to avoid connection because it’s too painful. Our director Richard Hilliar has been instrumental in bringing those connections, or lack thereof, into sharper focus. He’s been so unwaveringly supportive, we’re all very thankful for that.

What have you found most challenging about rehearsing Distorted?
Ha ha, how long have you got! Well let me see… firstly my character Louise is a bit of a hot mess and her way of coping with her issues is not something I’m familiar with at all on a personal level. Let’s just say that the research was very interesting! Then of course, as an actor I have to find my way of playing that, of inhabiting her world and her views. Also as an older actor I have to keep my focus laser sharp for every second of this play, whether onstage or off. I’ve got notes pinned to walls everywhere so I don’t forget anything!

This play has changed a lot since we got the initial script. How has your view of your character changed/developed?
It’s changed so much since the initial script, but one thing was very clear to me after that first table read, which is that I was going to have to just surrender to each development. After deciding on backstories to suit, Xavier then reworked all the scenes incorporating the original scenes, but adapting them to suit and expanding exponentially on our characters, as did Richard in the rehearsal room. The changes and developments just kind of happened, and my views about my own character Louise became a part of the whole ‘surrender’ philosophy. Looking back I am amazed by the process and how much I’ve learned from it. This season of Distorted is going to be a wild ride, that much I do know!

Jack Walton and Sheree Zellner can be seen in Distorted, by Xavier Coy.
Dates: 10 – 22 Mar, 2020
Venue: Old 505 Theatre

Review: Hairworm (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 1 – 5, 2019
Playwright: Emma Wright
Director: Jess Davis
Cast: Phoebe Atkinson, Bernadette Fam, Jennifer Hart, Alex King, Rebekah Parsons, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame, Grace Stamnas, Sophie Strykowski, Laura Wilson
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Emma Wright’s first play Hairworm is about anorexia. It details the experience of an unnamed protagonist, as she suffers that very severe form of mental illness. We watch her go through tremendous anguish, in a writing style that is often clinical, able only to have us regard the condition from an intellectual distance, without having to invest heavily in emotional dimensions of the subject. As a theatrical work, Hairworm does not connect with immediacy, but is valuable in terms of the insight it no doubt provides, into something real and troubling.

Directed by Jess Davis, the production is dynamic and exacting, with Priyanka Martin’s lights and Cecelia Strachan’s sound, conspiring to carefully render a sense of texture for each of its scenes. A disciplined cast brings further polish to the staging, with Rebekah Parsons’ conviction as the afflicted lead character, giving urgency to the show’s pace and rhythm. Alex King plays the sister, memorable for introducing a moment of genuine sentimentality to proceedings.

Theatre does not always have to engage our emotions, but it should find ways to make us care. Conventional narrative structures can seem banal when we have them deciphered and deconstructed, but the way we choose to tell stories, are in direct relation with our very nature, and it seems humans are mostly predictable beings. We see the suffering in Hairworm, just as we see all the suffering in real life, and as is commonplace, our instinct is to respond with an insulating nonchalance that is perhaps inevitable. Art can pierce through that veil of apathy, to get to what one would hope is an essential compassion that unites us. Without art and compassion, hope becomes unimaginable.

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Review: Are You Listening Now? (Fixed Foot Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 29 – Feb 2, 2019
Playwright: Xavier Coy
Director: Ed Wightman
Cast: Martin Bell, Xavier Coy, Fiona Mahl, Emily J Stewart
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Mez and Gaz are intruders in a 6-million-dollar house, with intentions not only to burgle but also to teach the affluent homeowners a lesson. Even though Xavier Coy’s Are You Listening Now? makes its point about wealth distribution with no concern for subtlety, the message is nonetheless an important one. By embedding plenty of comedy and drama, the writer ensures his play to be an amusing one, and laughing about class is certainly a worthwhile activity, at these times of unprecedented prosperity for the top end of town.

Directed by Ed Wightman, the staging is energetic, with a high level of intensity fortifying the hour-long piece. Coy himself performs the role of Gaz, adept at delivering laughs in his portrayal of a surprising innocent. His criminal mentor Mez is played by Fiona Mahl, who in her strongest moments, can prove impressively convincing. Emily J Stewart is riveting as Claudia, one-half of the rich couple under siege, a persuasive presence who brings much needed nuance to the production. Multimillionaire Charles is a predictable personality that Martin Bell is able to make believable, for a familiar portrayal of Sydney-style privilege.

It is sometimes surprising to observe the degree to which Australia has embraced neo-liberalism. For generations we have prided ourselves on our egalitarianism, but it appears that greed is truly indomitable. The moral at the centre of Are You Listening Now? is timeless and pertinent; money is a complex beast that if left unchallenged, will inflict harm and turn us inhumane. Mez’s refusal to obey rules that are designed to subjugate her, is admirable, but without compatriots joining her rebellion, we see that a one-woman movement can amount to nothing more than empty gestures.

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