Review: American Beauty Shop (Some Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 25 – Sep 16, 2017
Playwright: Dana Lynn Formby
Director: Anna McGrath
Cast: Charmaine Bingwa, Caitlin Burley, Amanda Stephens Lee, Jill McKay, Janine Watson
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The times might be a-changin’, but the American Dream goes on strong. Sue is a hairdresser who runs a small business in the town of Cortez in Colorado, and although she lives hand to mouth, her dreams of escaping poverty never fade. Dana Lynn Formby’s American Beauty Shop is about an underclass of the USA, that believes in hard work as deliverance. They may or may not understand the systematic oppression that they suffer under, but they focus only on labour and enterprise, without any attention placed on political action. Sue accepts her place in society, and plays by the rules, thinking that a commitment to drudgery is her only way out.

Amanda Stephens Lee is an affable presence as Sue. We understand her struggles, and wish the best for her, but let down by lacklustre direction, the women’s stories in American Beauty Shop fail to move us. The production feels under-rehearsed, and although most of the cast is able to demonstrate a good grasp of their individual roles, we are kept waiting for sparks that never fly. The stakes are high for the characters, but dramatic tension is sorely missing from this stage. Conflict and altercations are rarely convincing, as though we sense that all will be good in the end. It is a false sense of security, and the desperation of the Cortez poor, remains an abstract, and distant, concept.

The system is broken, but it was always designed to fail the vast majority. It is an illusion that all who have wealth are deserving of it, implying that those without, are wholly responsible for their own misfortune. The women in American Beauty Shop have ambition and the appropriate fortitude to push for better days, but the cards are stacked firmly against them. They know only to participate in a game that gives them miserably poor odds, and as we watch their fates unfold, it is the lack of fairness in our increasingly capitalist worlds that must leave an impression.

www.facebook.com/somecompanyproductions

Review: Dry Land (Mad March Hare / Outhouse Theatre Co)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 28 – Aug 19, 2017
Playwright: Ruby Rae Spiegel
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Sarah Meacham, Michelle Ny, Patricia Pemberton, Julian Ramundi, Charles Upton
Image by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
Teenage years are but a flash in any lifetime, yet they are the most formative, and in many cases, offer the most exciting of experiences and memories. Before we are tamed into adults, and before we understand the price to be paid for every decision, the teen is a new person unleashed from childhood, ready to explore all that had been previously prohibited. In Dry Land, Ruby Rae Spiegel writes about the locker room at a girls’ swim squad, except where we expect banter, we discover some very hard truths being learned. Amy and Ester are in the process of figuring out the women they want to be, and with the bravery and fortitude they had gained from training in elite sport, they put themselves through the most brutal loss of innocence.

These fearless characters see the immensity of the world and rush head-on to devour its every promise, limited only by that same flesh and blood that is determined to keep each of us contained. It is a story about the spirit of youth, and how every person has to come to terms with their own corporeal limitations, as well as those psychological and social. Ester is fighting tooth and nail to excel in her swimming, while Amy exploits every resource to obtain an abortion without parental consent. They know what is best for them, regardless of our judgements, and Spiegel’s ruthless need to put on display every explicit detail of their confronting endeavours, makes Dry Land an extremely edgy work of theatre that challenges our personal and collective values.

It interrogates notions of youth and gender, and seeks to dismantle bourgeois constructs that dominate discourse in Western art. Claudia Barrie, as director of the piece, demonstrates a real passion for those subversive and feminist ideals, in her creation of a work that is absolutely uncompromising and forceful with what it has to say about our realities, and their accompanying structures of artifice, pretence and hypocrisy. Collaborative outcomes with designers are perhaps slightly predictable, but their efforts are undeniably effective in the production’s ability to manufacture atmosphere and pace, keeping us completely engaged with its narrative.

Barrie’s strength as guiding light for actors, shines brilliantly in Dry Land. All performances, including Julian Ramundi’s very small part as the apathetic Janitor who has seen it all before, are deeply evocative and resonant. No stage moment is allowed to go to waste, and we are thus enthralled. Sarah Meacham’s explorations as the ambitious Ester are as exhaustive as they are delightful. A character study that feels utterly intelligent and inventive, Meacham elevates the show from one that can easily be monotonously dark and serious, to something that is unexpectedly very funny, and overwhelming with compassion. Her comedy sits mischievously under every expression of trauma, giving Dry Land a unique quality of tragicomedy that brings perverse joy to those who can stomach it. Amy is played by Patricia Pemberton, whose resolute refusal to portray a simplistic victimhood, compels us to interpret her grievous circumstances beyond its instance of desperation. It is an extraordinarily rich and defiant personality that Pemberton presents, one who demands admiration over pity, and who reinforces the female as gloriously sovereign and interminably powerful.

When we look back at the salad days of one’s youth, it is with contradictory feelings of pride and embarrassment, exhilaration and regret. No matter how we choose to regard the past, there is no denying that the tougher the lessons, the greater we are today in every aspect of being. We have to try always to protect our young, but allowing them to face difficulty in every mishap and blunder will, as they say, build character. The young women we encounter in Dry Land are caught in a snapshot of suffering and struggle, but their futures are not diminished, only emboldened and bright.

www.madmarchtheatreco.com | www.outhousetheatre.org

Review: Before Lysistrata (Kings Cross Theatre / Montague Basement)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 10 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Ellana Costa
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Ellana Costa, Alex Francis, Michaela Savina
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
We know Lysistrata as the one who convinces the women of Greece to deprive themselves of sex, in order that their men would cease fighting each other in the Peloponnesian War. In Before Lysistrata, playwright Ellana Costa imagines a scenario that leads up to that audacious act. Lysistra and Lampito are the first ladies of Athens and Sparta, each representing a different side of politics.

It is the left and right wings of society, again at loggerheads. Whether 400 BC or 2017 AD it seems, we are determined to make enemies of one another, unable to be at peace with the idea of disagreement. The men go to war, determined to quash the other side, so that the world only needs contain one uniform ideology. With the death of sons that inevitably result, the ladyfolk band together, and hatch a plan to end the atrocities.

At points where the lines of good and evil are blurred, when us and them are disrupted, the show becomes refreshing. Its message can however, feel simplistic, as do its characters and dialogue. Wit and drama can be found in Costa’s well-meant text, but performances are unfledged, and the production never really builds enough tension that would allow sparks to fly. Few artistic risks are taken that will offer elements of surprise or intrigue. Its political interest holds court, central and singular.

Where there is solidarity, great things can be achieved. For each generation that experiences increasing social fragmentation, the idea of organised processes of action becomes correspondingly alien. That we can be unified, must not only be an abstraction, but how we get there, is more bewildering than ever before.

www.montaguebasement.com

Review: Jatinga (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 9 – 24, 2017
Playwright: Purva Naresh
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Sapna Bhavnani, Karina Bracken, Claudette Clarke, Jarrod Crellin, Faezeh Jalali, Sheila Kumar, Suz Mawer, Bali Padda, Monroe Reimers, Trishala Sharma, Teresa Tate Britten, Amrik Tumber
Image by Natasha Narula

Theatre review
In the north-eastern region of India, a tourist hot-spot exists in the village of Jatinga, known for the mysterious phenomenon of birds plunging to their death, every year after the monsoon season. In Purva Naresh’s play Jatinga, it is the phenomenon of “runaway girls” that takes focus. Journalist Madhumita discovers five young women escaping harrowing fates, and in her efforts to publish a story that draws attention to their plight, she finds herself thinking like villagers hungry for tourism dollars, deciding whether to resort to sensationalism, in order that the greater good can be served.

The play is purposeful, and undeniably powerful. Addressing issues of poverty, Jatinga is relevant to audiences of all nations, at a time when economic inequality is a serious social concern. We may not suffer the same symptoms in the developed world, but the fact that the refugee crisis is unsolved and escalating, and that we continue to obsess over “terrorist threats”, show that persistent disparities, that our first-world systems thrive on, are creating problems that have landed us in a state of emergency. The rich will always want the poor separate and contained, but the poor can often break through the barriers of money. Radical action is always an option, when people have nothing to lose.

The women in Jatinga tell simple stories, but the production is strangely convoluted. Shifting timelines and interweaving narratives provide a sense of theatricality, but unnecessary confusion often gets in the way of our empathy. The show must be lauded however, for not turning to “disaster porn” to keep us engaged. The women are victims, but they are also spirited and strong individuals. Director Suzanne Millar’s resolve in portraying them as such, is certainly admirable.

An excellent cast, wonderfully cohesive, perform a colourful work replete with vigour and sincerity. Suz Mawer is captivating, and tremendously persuasive, as the journalist Madhumita. Her thorough authenticity holds the piece together, even though the stakes are admittedly lowest for the character she portrays. Also noteworthy is Nate Edmondson’s work on music, transportative and transformative in its effect, from scene to scene.

When the birds take to suicide, we wish for it to be an act of nature, and convince ourselves that things stay in balance with their sacrifice. Murmurs of the birds actually being killed by villagers, are disregarded by the tourists who wish to witness something romantic and extraordinary. We bury the truth, in order that our fabricated realities can be sustained. We want to think that refugees have proper channels to seek asylum, and we want to believe that terrorists are mentally ill. We insist that the poor only need work harder to create better lives, and we sweep the truth under carpets, sit back and watch as towers are burnt to ashes.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au

Review: Between The Streetlight And The Moon (Mophead Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 5 – 27, 2017
Playwright: Melita Rowston
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Joanna Downing, Ben McIvor, Lucy Miller, Suzanne Pereira, Lani Tupu
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Talent is a thing of mystery, and one of its elusive qualities surrounds the faith that an artist should have in their own abilities. In Melita Rowston’s Between The Streetlight And The Moon, we examine the ways in which painters are able to find a sense of belief in themselves, or more accurately, how their spirits can be dampened, by longstanding institutions that thrive on their own elitism and the implied deterrent of new individuals who wish to join the ranks.

The number of female names in the world of celebrated Western artists, is unquestionably paltry. The play looks at the way women painters and their work, are routinely subjugated and subsumed by their male mentors and counterparts. This chauvinism seems systematic, and it feels dangerously instinctual, and we wonder if this dynamic exists everywhere else in life.

Rowston’s writing is at its best when wistful and poetic. Her words are powerfully evocative, always passionate with advocacy for something meaningful. The plot is however, not as gripping as it wishes to be. Intrigue builds slowly, and when the story eventually becomes dramatic, we find ourselves more interested in Rowston’s philosophical ideas than the narrative being woven over them. Dialogue has a tendency to sound stilted when scenes attempt to be conversational, but the language turns beautifully sublime when characters move into more heightened modes of theatricality.

Actor Lucy Miller is an entrancing presence as painter-turned-academic, Zadie. Vulnerable, with an unmistakable gravitas, Miller brings authenticity to a protagonist who exists between shifting states of self-doubt and self-belief. Also impressive is Joanna Downing as the enthusiastic emergent, Dominique. Precise and considered, Downing’s portrayal of a brainy Millennial is truly delightful, even if her French accent is comically exaggerated.

Visual design is sparing but elegant. The use of projections to assist with our imagination of classic paintings is effective, and very gratifying, but an interpretation of The Seine requires much bolder execution. Live accompaniment by Benjamin Freeman on piano, adds brilliant flair to the show, a rare treat that theatregoers will find thoroughly enjoyable.

Zadie suffers humiliation when she mistakes a streetlight for the full moon. It is hard to conceive of creativity without sensitivity, but it is the artist’s responsibility to weather attacks on their pride, and return with greater vigour. It is also the responsibility of society to provide support to those who have the ability to give expression and meaning, to the human experience. In Australia, we have to give mindful emphasis to those artists whose voices continue to be silenced by a history of colonialism and its accompanying white patriarchy. Our art must strive for an accurate reflection of Australian life, and the white male artist is far from enough.

www.mophead.com.au

Review: White Rabbit Red Rabbit (Freefall Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 4 – 15, 2017
Playwright: Nassim Soleimanpour
Cast: Ylaria Rogers
Image by

Theatre review
The play requires that its actor comes to the performance “blind”, not knowing anything about what lies on the pages of the playbook. It is a complete mystery to the person on stage, and also to those in the audience who are seeing Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit for the first time. It is significant that the 2010 work was created when its 29-year-old author was forbidden from leaving his country Iran. The autocratic regime that he had to endure is not directly denounced in Soleimanpour’s writing, but its presence and influence on the piece, are clear.

We are made to consider how a police state operates, especially in terms of the complicity and compliance of citizens that allow inhumanity to thrive. The play shifts attention away from the way authorities intrude upon private lives, and looks instead at how the everyday person monitors and subjugates one another unconsciously, especially in cultures where freedoms are severely restricted. We are urged to think about the deficiencies in free will, and how easy it is for society to manipulate our empathy and deprive us of compassion. It wants us to see the tragedy that exists in our exploitable susceptibility to mistreating each other, and our readiness at forming habits of intolerance, hate and violence. It is to the writer’s credit that these grave and important issues are not only communicated powerfully in spite of its need to be cryptic, White Rabbit Red Rabbit is surprisingly humorous and entertaining.

Like Soleimanpour at the time of writing this script, actor Ylaria Rogers is in a position of vulnerability as she moves through the lines and instructions of every page. She submits to the text that she holds in her hands, but like those of us who have gathered to witness this unusual theatrical moment, our volition is constantly called to question. Ylaria’s obedience, and ours, come into examination, leading us to confront the nature of authority, and how it is constructed. Authority is often imagined, but even when it is real and life-threatening, the power of the masses can overthrow any dictator that sits atop. The conundrum is in our inability to perceive that collective force, and our failure to understand that the fear we experience is shared and can only manifest if we allow it to.

www.freefallproductions.com.au

Review: The Laden Table (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 10 – 25, 2017
Playwrights: Nur Alam, Raya Gadir, Chris Hill, Marian Kernahan, Ruth Kliman, Yvonne Perczuk
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Alex Chalwell, Doron Chester, Suz Mawer, Sarah Meacham, Mansoor Noor, Jessica Paterson, Abi Rayment, Monroe Reimers, Gigi Sawires, Geoff Sirmai, Donald Sword, Justina Ward
Image by Natasha Narula

Theatre review
A resplendent, but homely, dining table awaits, with twelve empty chairs anticipating two families and their stories about cultural displacement and historical discord. The Laden Table features Jewish and Muslim Australians, and the baggage they continue to carry after centuries of religious hostility. Their lives are in Sydney, but they exist beyond the here and now. What had happened in the past and what is yet to come, are crucial to how they act and think today.

It is a magnificent piece of writing, that interrogates, with unyielding severity, the nature of prejudice and more specifically, the way good people make enemies of each other through their religious affiliations. The Laden Table offers insight into how the layperson of the Jewish and Muslim faiths conceives of their own oppression, and how that manifests into hateful beliefs and behaviour. Structurally intricate, but with a vivid and coherent plot line, the play addresses issues of great profundity in a manner that is both elucidative and deeply affecting. It teaches some of the biggest lessons any individual could wish to learn.

The production is arresting in its poignancy, and thoroughly captivating. Director Suzanne Millar does a marvellous job of creating a work full of texture and nuance, with regular shifts in dramatic tone that secure our attention for the show’s entirety. Lighting designer Benjamin Brockman provides instinctual logic to every one of The Laden Table‘s startling scene changes, and amplifies emotional impact throughout its narrative, whether subtle or sensational. Will Newnham’s sound design adds to the carefully calibrated atmosphere, moving us between unpredictable spaces, and leaving a remarkable impression with a special moment that fuses prayers of both faiths in surprising harmony.

Stakes are high in the story, and the ensemble overwhelms us with an authentic gravitas. War is happening elsewhere but in these two Australian households, we feel the reverberations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sense of mortal danger faced by millions is more than a bleep on the nightly news. Gigi Sawires and Geoff Sirmai are the elders, both flamboyantly engaging and unconventionally colourful with what they bring to the table. Jessica Paterson and Monroe Reimers introduce convincing depth to their characters’suffering, and Suz Mawer is a powerful presence as a modern Muslim woman, constantly having to negotiate past and future, spirituality and logic. The vulnerable complexity that Mawer portrays so well, is embodiment of what the play represents; and to expect easy answers is impracticable.

Religion does a lot of good, but the harm it causes cannot be denied. Atheists will say that the eradication of religion will solve many of the world’s problems, but that utopia will never come, even within the next few lifetimes. The way our faith is ingrained, has a tenacious permanency that endures over generations. It shapes many minds and guides many deeds, but it is never beyond reproach or provocation. God will always be there, but how we relate to them changes, and how we want them reflected in our lives, is up to us.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au