Review: Night Slows Down (Don’t Look Away Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 9, 2017
Playwright: Phillip James Rouse
Director: Phillip James Rouse
Cast: Andre de Vanny, Danielle King, Johnny Nasser
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
It is no secret that something very sinister is happening to our politics. For a variety of reasons, Australians have gradually become more extreme in our views, increasingly unable to tolerate differences, of opinions, lifestyles and backgrounds. In Phillip James Rouse’s Night Slows Down, a disastrous scenario presents itself, and the dark fantasy of those we call the alt-right or neo-Nazis, becomes reality.

The fascists have taken over, and they run the country by unleashing all the menacing impulses that have hitherto been forbidden. It is a regime based purely on unexamined emotion, where logic and level heads mean little. This is not the first time that we see a Nazi government, but unlike stories from the previous century, Night Slows Down is immediate, urgent and real. We recognise the people and places, and are unable to relegate these atrocities to a hazy past, a distant history that we tell ourselves is all but vanquished. Rouse’s stunning play is about a very near future, when we have taken one too many missteps, and the last straw finally breaks the camel’s back.

It is a fierce indictment of whiteness in cultures like ours; an ethnic majority that continually feels the need to exert its dominance. Even as it retains power, it never stops imagining a demise, and its imperialistic drive seems unable to be tamed. Their war cry in the play is “For The Future” through which enemies are constantly identified, for the now is never enough.

Fascism is not an idealistic state of being, but a never-ending project that discriminates and destroys. It has no meaning unto itself, except as an apparatus of ceaseless segregation and eradication. It pretends to be protecting something pure, but in fact its only true objective is to annihilate. The meaning of white is never stable, and those who seek preservation through its identification, are wholly responsible for their own anxiety.

Actor Andre de Vanny is outstanding as Seth, the racist bigot with no talent except for divisive politics. Like all the idiots in government we know who operate in the same way, it is a pointless exercise trying to reach a satisfactory understanding of their psychology, yet de Vanny has us entirely convinced of the villain’s whys and wherefores. His powerful portrayal of a simpleton overcome with hate, is as thrilling as it is distressing.

Also remarkable is leading lady Danielle King, who has us entranced with a profound capacity for depth and nuance. The emotional and intellectual scope she brings to the role of Sharon, allows us to interpret the story beyond the surfaces of good and bad. We are inspired to investigate the resonance she delivers, to discover for ourselves, what it is that consumes us as a society today, and whether we are able to offer effective resistance to corrupting forces. Johnny Nasser is a quieter presence, but no less affecting a performer, leaving an excellent impression, with a dignified emphasis on delivering authenticity to the role of Martin and his shocking persecution.

Lighting design by Sian James-Holland adds dynamism to proceedings, with a creative intricacy that sets a precise tone for each scene. The set is imagined with appropriate restraint, and cleverly executed by production designers Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt, to facilitate optimum showmanship by the very compelling cast. Night Slows Down is a tightly orchestrated work, brilliantly helmed by Phillip James Rouse as writer and director, to tell us something irrefutable and pertinent.

It is a discussion shaped by the most pressing issues of today. So much that is conceptual, buzzing in the ether, is consolidated here, for a catastrophic manifestation of our worst nightmares. It functions as warning and premonition. The drama captivates because it speaks our truth so loudly, even though the circumstances it describes, are grandiose in its fictiveness. We are terrified, because we know that the worst is only a hair away.

http://www.kingsxtheatre.com | www.facebook.com/DLATheatre

Review: She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Rocket Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Oct 20 – Nov 11, 2017
Playwright: Amelia Roper
Director: Nell Ranney
Cast: Nikki Britton, Tom Anson Mesker, Matilda Ridgway, Dorje Swallow
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
A couple attempts to have a pleasant Sunday picnic, but investment banker Amy’s mind is preoccupied with work. She obsesses about money and power, unable to enjoy her day in the park, even as she is immersed in the glorious sunshine, with her beau Henry by her side.

Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange examines our propensity to dwell on materialism and narcissistic conceptions of success, whilst ignoring the better things in life. Its characters pursue hollow dreams, making big sacrifices that amount to nothing. For all of us who participate in societies defined by commodification and consumption, that inability to find fulfilment and happiness can only ring true.

For all its pessimism, the play is humorously written, in a style that charms with its idiosyncrasy. Speech patterns are a delight in Roper’s piece. The production, helmed by director Nell Ranney, is correspondingly quirky, made memorable by Isabel Hudson’s attractive set and costume design. Early moments struggle to resonate, but the show recovers wonderfully when a second couple joins the stage.

Nikki Britton and Dorje Swallow are a vivacious pair, bringing necessary acerbity to the black comedy being performed. Their housewife and executive stereotypes are personalities we want to laugh at, and the actors allow us that opportunity by presenting those roles in a crisp, uncomplicated manner.

Tom Anson Mesker and Matilda Ridgway have more complex concerns, and although less funny with their interpretations, what they bring to the table is equally meaningful. Ridgway is especially effective in moments when we deal directly with issues of professional sexism, cuttingly salient with what she wishes to impart.

Amy and Sara may have diverse strategies in surviving patriarchy, but both are serving and preserving its dominance. The career woman plays by every rule at work, but finds herself discarded. The wife does all that is expected of her at home, then loses everything. They wager all that they have, on systems designed to fail them, and remain oblivious to the quandary that has them confined. We are taught to be good, and we spend years of our lives behaving appropriately, until a day comes when we realise our own freedom to establish a personal sovereignty.

http://www.kingsxtheatre.com

Review: Puntila Matti (MKA Theatre / Doppelgangster)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 25 – Oct 14, 2017
Playwright: Tobias Manderson-Galvin (after Bertolt Brecht and Hella Wuolijoki)
Director: Tobias Manderson Galvin
Cast: Antoniette Barboutis, Grace Lauer, Tobias Manderson-Galvin
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
We are told that the show’s departure point is Brecht’s 1940 script Mr Puntila And His Man Matti, but not much else can be certain in anyone’s reading of Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s Puntila Matti. Its deliberately bewildering enactment of a chaotic aesthetic, places us in a theatre that is less about stories, and more about experience and experiment, with time as a foregrounded instrument of its artistic practice. We look at a juxtaposition of bodies within time (and space) to garner meaning from any work of theatre, and in the case of Puntila Matti, we are challenged to find a way to appreciate and to comprehend all the riotous action, when its creators intentions seem to be to obfuscate the original narratives on which the show is built.

Manderson-Galvin acknowledges the European history so intimately entangled in the Western art of Australia. If Bertolt Brecht is present in every official form of theatre education disseminated on our land, then this relationship we endure, with a distant past from a faraway region, has to be interrogated. We can try to ignore old Europe’s stifling domination, and pretend to create new voices that are transparently offshoots of that heritage, or we can examine it with irreverence and subversion, as is done in Puntila Matti. Manderson-Galvin reframes Brecht in his own words, then makes them distorted and unintelligible, almost Dadaist in style. This is not a play about dependable dialogue and consistent characters. It is about the establishment, and how we can confront it.

The centrepiece is Manderson-Galvin himself, an imposing figure, wildly energetic and disarmingly intuitive as live performer. A fearlessness in his approach provides assurance of a man in charge, but it also keeps us on our toes, compelled and vigilant in the absence of the fourth wall convention. Grace Lauer provides a sense of anchor to proceedings, a necessary counterbalance that gives texture and dynamism to the presentation. Antoinette Barboutis is on the periphery, playing disoriented narrator with remarkable comedy, consistently, and delightfully, stealing the show from under the key performers.

When we come to recognise the bad in our inheritance, the brave will seek reparation. If our art is broken, it only makes sense that the most innovative of us, will attempt to find solutions. Reacting to the racist, sexist, homophobic, classist (you get the drift) systems in which we have to operate, requires that all participants, practitioners as well as audiences, must learn to face up to the new. It will be awkward, perplexing, even distressing, but those are sensations inherent in any true and radical emancipation. We may never be able to entirely abandon the past, but in rejecting the familiar and the comforting, we know that a genuine progression is in process.

www.mka.org.auwww.doppelgangster.com

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