Review: Kill Climate Deniers (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 23 – Apr 7, 2018
Playwright: David Finnigan
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Eden Falk, Sheridan Harbridge, Emily Havea, Rebecca Massey, Lucia Mastrantone
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
In the current state of evolution with information technology, it can often seem that everyone has extremist tendencies. As social media becomes an increasingly rudimentary part of modern existence, we are compelled to contribute to its constant stream of content creation, by discovering voices that we never before possessed. We manufacture opinions and outrage, in order to participate in the new society, to feel that sense of belonging every human requires.

As a result, we are more fractured than ever. Everything turns into contestable binaries, and every person must take a position on all matters. Ambivalence or disinterest has no place in this iteration of Western civilisation. In David Finnigan’s Kill Climate Deniers, the idea of an extremist shifts from anomaly to commonplace, and all its characters hold strong adversarial views about the strangely contentious issue of climate change. As its title suggests, “terrorist activity” fuels the narrative of Finnigan’s play, but it is only good intentions that we find guiding its ruminations.

In an anarchic fantasy, where our real-life passions are transformed into radical action, it is not the decimation of the other side that Finnigan wishes to accomplish, but an understanding of opposing perspectives that he hopes for. By imagining a worst case scenario, in which everyone loses, doors are open for a discussion that aims to unite us. We are accustom to looking at all the differences between left and right, but Finnigan is interested in finding similarities.

It is however, a stylistically progressive piece of writing, with an aggressive sense of the haphazard driving its plot, in firm repudiation of traditional storytelling structures. Director Lee Lewis brings a wildness to proceedings that captivate with a caustic energy. Trent Suidgeest’s lights and Steve Toulmin’s sounds bring organised chaos to the stage, for a show that is unpredictable and messy, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately persuasive with its spirit and conviction.

Actors are charismatic, each one proving themselves to be seasoned and skillful, consummate entertainers we can rely on. Sheridan Harbridge and Rebecca Massey are irresistibly appealing with the broad comedy that emanates effortlessly from every fibre of their being. Emily Havea and Lucia Mastrantone deliver stronger acerbity to the politics at play, both impressive with the authentic gravity they introduce into the important issues being dissected. Eden Falk is perfectly cast as narrator/author, tenaciously believable and endearing, offering us a marvellously coherent interpretation of the text’s complex nuances.

The point of Kill Climate Deniers is neither controversial nor unexpected, but the experience it provides is unforgettably exhilarating. It is theatre that grabs you and throws you around, impressive in its inexhaustible capacity to keep us fascinated. At the end though, it is an extremely tall order for any work about climate change to be satisfying. Art can help us move towards resolution (if we allow ourselves to be completely optimistic), but there is perhaps no way any artist can give us a solution to those problems. What the play wants to say, is anticlimactic, but it remains true, that change requires action, and we are poised at a crossroads where our choices will determine our very survival.

Review: Fag/Stag (The Last Great Hunt / Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 10 – 27, 2018
Playwrights: Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Chris Isaacs
Directors: Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Chris Isaacs
Cast: Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Chris Isaacs
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Corgan and Jimmy are best friends who live the easy Australian middle-class existence. Fag/Stag sees them fumble and struggle through episodes of triviality, as young men with few legitimate worries, save for the difficulties of having to negotiate the perils of modern masculinity. Without the burden of work and children, nothing very serious ever happens to them, yet anxiety and pain are constants. Their concerns are often silly, but we nonetheless understand that first-world problems are real, for we recognise those symptoms to be genuine, and identify with what is being presented through the creators’ admirable honesty.

Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs create an amusing hour examining the privileged lives of our young white men, straight and gay. Fag/Stag is a dynamic work, compelling and entertaining, even though its persistent earnestness seems somewhat misplaced. As writers, directors and performers of the piece, Fowler and Isaacs seem never to be critical of Corgan and Jimmy, but it is evident that much of the problems the boys encounter, are a result of their self-absorption. The characters do nothing for society, spending all their days inside their own little inconsequential dramas.

Fowler is more vibrant and animated an actor than his counterpart, tenacious with every nuance, eager for his audience to gain a deep understanding of his Jimmy. Straight guy Corgan is suitably restrained, played sensitively by Isaacs whose portrayal is memorable for its sense of familiar authenticity. The pair is tremendously endearing, and warmly comedic in their depiction of a very close friendship. We like them, and many will allow ourselves to be convinced of the hardships being proclaimed.

White men may be in positions of power, but it is questionable if things are necessarily easier for them. Sexism is detrimental to all genders. In many ways, we can see that Corgan and Jimmy have it easy, but all of that convenience adds up to an aimlessness, that causes meaning to be elusive. We watch them suffer, as a result of having nothing substantial to live for. They turn to each other, for comfort and support, and for affirmation that something of value and import, can ultimately be discovered.

Review: Virgins And Cowboys (Motherboard Productions)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 30 – Dec 16, 2017
Playwright: Morgan Rose
Director: Dave Sleswick
Cast: Katrina Cornwall, George Lingard, James Deeth, Penny Harpham, Kieran Law
Image by Ashley de Prazer

Theatre review
The characters in Morgan Rose’s Virgins And Cowboys are in a constant state of struggle. Unable to identify anything authentic in their lives, they go about their days acting upon desires that never seem to come from within. We observe these derivative existences, and wonder how much of our own being, is a result of the control that others exert. The question of self-determination, it appears, is always a tricky one, even though it is clear that narcissism is never in short supply.

The play is a cryptic and therefore challenging one, although the nature of our libido is unquestionably at the centre of its explorations. Sexuality motivates the five personalities, and fuels our imagination. The things we do as a matter of course; the fucking, the procreation, the careers, are put under a microscope, devoid of delusion and romance, so that we may examine our behaviours, with perhaps, some sense of objective accuracy. It is an interrogation into our unconscious masochism, an attempt to locate what it is that we do to ourselves, that makes us so miserable.

Beautiful and quietly surreal, the production is inventively designed by a team of creatives impressive in their artistic rigour. Sound by Liam Barton is edgy, often quirky, in its definition of a space, both fragile and phantasmal. Lisa Mibus’ lights are sensual, surprising, and entertainingly dynamic. The evocative set and costumes establish the tone of the show, succinctly assembled by Yvette Turnbull.

Director Dave Sleswick’s academic approach can be confounding, but his ability to manufacture intrigue, keeps us on tenterhooks. There is a lot to be curious about, and Sleswick does a marvellous job of sustaining our attention without ever damaging the mysterious qualities of Virgins And Cowboys. He never reveals too much, and only very little is explained.

The cast is splendid. Uniformly and cohesively vivacious, each actor brings a sense of luxuriant depth to the discussions that they facilitate. Even when we lose sight of the point being made, the people on stage are full of conviction, infallible with their undisclosed narratives at the heart of Virgins And Cowboys‘ absurdist aesthetic.

We can show each other all kinds of practices and all manners of wanting, but for an individual to discover the essence and truth of their own being, the exercise of introspection is imperative. So much of how we spend each day is reliant on emulation; people will tell us how we should act, and what is required of us, but it is not always clear to the self, when the social and personal are melded, and confused. When we observe the dissatisfaction of characters in Virgins And Cowboys, and recognise our universal conundrum, the impulse is to stop, for a moment of evaluation. Consumed by the world, we rarely take stock of things habitual. We settle for being lesser, when we forget to question.

Review: Merciless Gods (Little Ones Theatre)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 1 – 25, 2017
Playwright: Dan Giovannoni (based on the book by Christos Tsiolkas)
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Cast: Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Charles Purcell, Jennifer Vuletic
Image by Sarah Walker

Theatre review
Art can reshape lives. It provides new perspectives and an accompanying freedom, so that we are able to imagine a way of being that is better, than what had been available before. Christos Tsiolkas’ books might have a penchant for all things gloomy, but their refusal to adhere to dominant myths of our culture, helps us define an Australia that is more authentic, and certainly more inclusive, than paradigms that persist in spite of their diminishing relevance. We all want to belong, it is only human to wish for acceptance.

In Merciless Gods, eight short plays, adapted by Don Giovannoni from Tsiolkas’ book of the same name, explore the bleaker recesses of our psyche, paying particular focus to universal concepts of family, violence and sex. The writing is lyrical, faithful to Tsiolkas’ own renowned style, though dialogue can sometimes sound stilted through its translation of forms.

Operatically evocative, the work involves huge emotions and flamboyantly devised contexts. Six powerful performers are called upon to manufacture a rhapsodic sense of theatricality, in the absence of more extravagant manoeuvres by director Stephen Nicolazzo, who approaches the show with a misplaced and redundant restraint. Merciless Gods contains a spirit that feels boundless, and very wild, yet the staging is adamant in its preference for abstinence, and presumably, good taste.

Actor Jennifer Vuletic is unforgettable in two of the stories, converting the literary into intimate moments thrilling and visceral, through her sensational portrayals of contrasting parental types. We meet Dan the benevolent father, just as his light dims into the unknown thereafter, and we meet the phenomenal Lisbeth, an evil mother whose destructive darkness, threatens to outlive us all.

There is no good, without the bad. In Merciless Gods, we encounter them both, with little judgement, only an acceptance of their inevitability. The exotic creatures resist our moralising, and reveal to us instead, with brutal honesty, the unrelenting imperfections of our humanity. Rendered immediately recognisable, our ugliness demands to be owned, but what happens after the curtains fall, is that eternal battle between hope and hopelessness, with neither emerging the decisive victor.

5 Questions with Paul Blenheim and Jennifer Vuletic

Paul Blenheim

Jennifer Vuletic: Had you read Merciless Gods or much else of Christos Tsiolkas’ work prior to becoming involved in the stage production of Merciless Gods? 
Paul Blenheim: Yes, I’m a big fan of Christos Tsiolkas and Tina Arena. When Stephen asked me to develop Merciless Gods, I was like, ‘where do i sign?’ and he was like, ‘just here on the dotted line like every other contract, you idiot’. And I was like, ‘ok, calm down sister’ and then we had some chardonnay and celebrated with $7 worth of chips and some meats. 

Did you bring to bear any of your own experiences of growing up as an ethnic queer kid in Melbourne to the rehearsal process?
No. I am part Italian but I grew up on the central coast and i may have been forced to do a bucket bong in a sand dune in the 90s but I’ve never chopped limbs off or been made to jerk-off a fat pimp on ecstasy so I’ve had to go and be imaginative. 

How does Merciless Gods sit within the context of other Little Ones Theatre productions that you’ve performed in? 
It’s similar to other Little Ones productions in that I take my clothes off and kiss men that are four times the size of me but, other than that, I’d say this is new territory in terms of content and style. It’s still an event. It still throws a plate of asparagus at the wall of heteronormativity in similar fashion to that plate throw in American Beauty. It’s still beautiful in design but it has a quietness or stillness to it that gives room for the text to grip your heart, rip it out, give it a lick like it’s a well-cooked piece of kangaroo from the (insert whatever pub in Sydney needs a boost) and then put it back in and revive it. It’s my favourite. My drama teacher once told me that I was the Annette Bening of the Central Coast. Ok, she didn’t. 

Little Ones Theatre have been described by The Age’s Cameron Woodhead as ‘a leading light on Melbourne’s indie scene’. How do you think Sydney audiences will respond to the company’s work, and this production in particular? 
Look, I’m happy for the company to take the credit for that one even though Cameron told me he was talking specifically about me in the Little Ones production of Nine back in 2002. No, Little Ones have been putting on some spectacular shows in Melbourne but I think Merciless Gods is the perfect show for them to bring to Sydney. It has Jennifer Vuletic in it. Whenever someone says Jennifer Vuletic and Christos Tsiolkas in the same sentence, you get on the Griffin website and pre-book your tickets to the Berlin Helpmanns. 

You’ve also worked with the likes of Hayloft Project, Sisters Grimm, Elbow Room and Dirty Pretty Theatre – is it an exciting time to be working in independent theatre?
It’s always exciting. I mean, it’d be more exciting if I was married to someone who owned a brewery or an airline. But this year has been the best year in a while for theatre in Melbourne and every time i fly back to Sydney on Ansett there is another incredible theatre company starting up that has to close the bar by the second interval (is Gladys invited to opening?) or new writers smashing it out of the ballpark. And the standard of acting in both cities never fails to blow me away. I can’t wait to bring this baby home via the West Connex. I’m so excited i could pee myself. Does Alan Joyce read this? Is Tanya Plibersek coming? Who the fuck is on the guest list? OMG have we invited Clover? I’ll trade you all of St Kilda for Clover Moore. 

Jennifer Vuletic

Paul Blenheim: What’s your favourite story in Merciless Gods and why?  
Jennifer Vuletic: Pauly, YOU’RE my favourite story in Merciless Gods – I find you endlessly hypnotic, quixotic, charming, enigmatic and compelling. In fact, why aren’t we doing the whole show about you, Annette? Nude of course, cos that’s how you roll. In fact, that’s how several of us roll in this show, nude or semi-nude. The entire show is revelatory – a peeling away of onion-skin layers, revealing not so much the onion, but the experience of what it is to be pungently, rawly, diced, sliced and julienned by the brutal sous chef that is life… OK, I think I’ve exhausted the vegetable metaphor, so to the question again… favourite story, to be in? “Hair Of The Dog”, as it’s so deliciously horrific to wrestle to the death with you and  the divine Brigid Gallacher like some kind of demented panther. To watch? Merciless Gods – civilised sociopaths being awfully beautifully awful to each other – a crazed car accident.  

You’ve done it all and your resume is ridiculous. Big musical theatre stage or small intimate drama stage? Discuss.
Dahhhhhhhling the frocks! the chory! the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the… well, you get the drift. I love musicals, because everyone works so fkn hard for joy. To bring joy, sheer joy. But small intimate drama? Nothing to touch it for electricity, for the smell of fear, for nakedness (see above) of both flesh and soul.

How the hell did Nicolazzo convince you to come back to share the stage with the likes of me? (Or what drew you to the material/the company?)
He promised me vast sums of cash, tickets to the Palme D’or and an instant smash hit. Well, one out of three ain’t bad… I met Nicolazzo and fell immediately in love. He’s the best thing to hit Australian theatre in decades. Maybe ever. So we bonded over that quintessential Italian experience Brunettis, and I’ve been grovelling at his feet on the rehearsal floor ever since. And then there’s that Christos guy – he’s a beautiful, big-hearted bruin of a writer-person and I have loved watching the mutual regard and generosity and sheer artistry spiralling up out of the Dan Giovannoni/Christos Tsiolkas collaboration. The material is EVERYTHING. What actor wouldn’t leap at the chance to inhale this heady stuff? To play a grieving Italian mother, a vicious alcoholic German writer and a dying man? And then there’s this divine cast – Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Charles Purcell, Peter Paltos and you, my love. Who’s that sixth cast member, I keep forgetting her name….. Add to that the genius of Katie Sfetkidis, Eugyeene Teh and Daniel Nixon and, well, I was a goner. They had me at “Hello, and would you consider wearing yellow socks?”

Proving that you’re capable of anything because you’re actually from heaven, you’re in the process of becoming an International Relations superstar. Following on from my suggestion that you play Norma Desmond as soon as possible, I’d like to know whether you would you prefer to play her or Ban Ki Moon? As in, Broadway or the UN? It’s crunch time.  
You are one funny bastard, Blenheim. You’ve got me there… Norma or Ban Ki Moon (now of course superseded by Antonio Guterres, but I kinda wish Helen Clark had been successful cos I would’ve LOVED to have played her:  “I’m riddy for my closeup Muster De Mulle”)… oh, I don’t know! The more I interrogate the vagaries and vicissitudes of International Relations, the slings and arrows of outrageous sanctions, and the notion that the leader of the free world is a giant infant with garden mulch for hair, I don’t know which way things are gonna go… hang on, hang on, that’s it – I play Norma AS Ban Ki Moon! Brilliant. Solved.

To be on stage with you is the best. I get genuinely terrified because it feels like I’m looking into the eyes of a completely different person but I feel like I don’t need to do anything except listen… hang on, sorry, this isn’t a question, it’s just me being in love with you. Um. Do you have any ideas of two-hander plays that you and I could do next year maybe? You know, just two emerging artists putting on a show? Dinner and a show, preferably. If you don’t have an answer for that, what was the best piece of advice you were ever given in the theatre? 
You’ll really say anything for a free dinner, won’t cha? OK, I confess – I am a different person. When I’m with you. Something comes over me. It could be hives. Pollen allergy. Gluten intolerance. But, yes, I do feel myself transmogrifying in your presence. I welcome the chance to emerge with you Pauly. From something warm, silken and preferably knitted. Two-handers? why stop there, let’s do four-handers! Six-handers! Throw in a couple of feet! Best piece of advice? Never act with animals (too late) children (too late) or Paul Blenheim (too soon?) Truly, I adore you.

Paul Blenheim and Jennifer Vuletic star in Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods by Little Ones Theatre, part of the Griffin Independent season.
Dates: 1 – 25 November, 2017
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre
images by Sarah Walker

Review: Diving For Pearls (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 8 – Oct 28, 2017
Playwright: Katherine Thomson
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Michelle Doake, Jack Finsterer, Steve Rodgers, Ebony Vagulans, Ursula Yovich
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We ascribe only noble values to the Aussie battler, because we believe hard and honest work to be the greatest of virtues. In our celebration of the underdog, it is easy to forget the injustices that society inflicts on our disadvantaged. Katherine Thomson’s Diving For Pearls shows us the struggles of the poor, but instead of indulging in a pointless admiration of their fortitude, we question how it is that we allow these extreme discrepancies in wealth to exist, as though it is a completely natural and healthy phenomenon.

Barbara is a brassy broad who is more than willing to give life a go, naive in her trust that dreams do come true, that all you have to do is to play your cards right, and all the appropriate rewards will eventually be delivered. She dates Den, less ambitious but equally accepting of his place in the world. The couple do not complain about their lot in life, hardly aware of the forces at work that are determined to keep them at the bottom of the food chain.

Steve Rodgers and Ursula Yovich are the charismatic leads, both tremendously likeable and hence highly effective, in having us empathise with the stories they present, even as their characters make some very questionable choices. Playing young Verge is the remarkable Ebony Vagulans, who leaves a strong impression with her vibrant and animated presence. She brings to the role exceptional nuance, in both physical and psychological terms, that reflects sensitivity and a sophisticated theatrical instinct. The production does not always speak with great power, but audiences will find the tale nonetheless meaningful.

Poverty is required so that the wealthy can retain social dominance. Those at the bottom are made to believe that they are owed nothing by society, and that all the riches of the universe are available to them, if only they were smarter, worked harder, or simply luckier. When Barbara and Den find themselves unfulfilled, we wonder if there is ever recourse for those in their position. If we are comfortable with access becoming increasingly restricted, it will only be radical action that can bring us to something fair and balanced.

Review: Rice (Griffin Theatre Company / Queensland Theatre)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 21 – Aug 26, 2017
Playwright: Michele Lee
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Kristy Best, Hsiao-Ling Tang
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Yvette cleans Nisha’s office, but it is not the company employing them, that brings them together. Both are Asian-Australian women, and although their personal concerns and interests are miles apart, there is something intrinsic about being ethnic minorities, and of being “the fairer sex”, that makes it easy for them to bond. In Michele Lee’s Rice, we encounter two distinct and fascinating personalities; people we see everyday in our cities, but who rarely make an appearance in the stories we tell in the arts and media. They are regular people, as all our surface pretences portray us to be, but Nisha and Yvette have revelations that are rich enough for any stage or screen.

The two women are imagined with beautiful detail by their playwright. We learn about their worlds, their problems and the way they negotiate life at every turn. Through these keen observations, Lee is able to offer an accurate reflection of how many of us are, in today’s Australia. These ideas however, do not necessarily combine readily for great drama or comedy. The play begins very slowly, with excessive focus on Nisha’s tiresome corporate career, which she pursues with admirable ferocity and little humour. When we discover Yvette’s difficulties at home, the narrative suddenly tightens, but our focus is made to disperse, in Rice‘s ambitions for a more complex structure of storytelling.

We watch Nisha and Yvette go through an emotional time, but we are rarely moved. There is much to cover, and we are rushed through every scene and every possible piquancy. Actors Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang are the model of conviction, both unshakeable and glorious in their confidence. Best in particular is extraordinarily energetic, especially impressive when playing subsidiary roles, but there is a sense that the actors are compensating for a piece of writing that can otherwise feel muted and underwhelming. We are engaged with the show, usually because the performances are so intense.

The women are an unlikely pairing, and the trust they have for each other is reassuring, though surprising. Against the oppressive power wielded by white men, that attempts to destroy all that they hold dear, Nisha and Yvette find a friendship that offers support and strength. The disparities that exist between them, in the illusory shape of social status, education, wealth and sophistication, are dissolved by a patriarchy that is determined to leave them stripped of all but the perceived weakness of being feminine and coloured. We see them forming an alliance through those very qualities of disparagement, and we await retaliation.,au