Review: Betty Breaks Out (Life After Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 7, 2019
Playwright: Liz Hobart (after Maurice G. Kiddy)
Director: Ellen Wiltshire
Cast: Tommy Misa, Annie Stafford
Image by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Betty and Fred are kidnapped, locked up in adjoining rooms to ponder their fate. Both are actors, trying to take control of a situation in which there is little hope of autonomy. Set in 1919 England, when moving pictures were silent, and damsels were always in distress, Liz Hobart’s Betty Breaks Out is a quaint piece that gives voice to characters that were previously one dimensional and mute. Whimsical and experimental, it resists clear narrative structures in favour of something offbeat and playful.

Directed by Ellen Wiltshire, the show is an effervescent, if slightly puzzling, exercise in theatre making. Without a straightforward plot, it is perhaps surprising that the staging takes a naturalistic approach, instead of a more abstract mode of expression, especially with a writing style that seems intent on creating a poetic experience. It is noteworthy however, that music by Alexander Lee-Rekers is an enjoyable aspect of the production, able to enhance mood and rhythm to keep us engaged. The performing duo too, brings a gratifying charm. Tommy Misa and Annie Stafford are delightful presences, even if they do seem somewhat restrained by a presentation that feels insufficiently adventurous.

It is true that much of how we face the public, can be described as performative. We all have to operate within structures that do not always make room for what our individual beings might think to be authentic. We are urged to play along with the game, to adopt pre-determined codes and languages, so that a semblance of harmony can be attained. We rarely feel at liberty to deviate, as ostracism is a threat that few can bear to endure. When it becomes clear that the notion of a greater good, is almost certain to only benefit communities disproportionately, our commitment to obedience must then be questioned. There will always be people who want us to stay in our narrow lanes, but the second that we begin to identify our own complicity in this oppression, is the moment that we begin to set the self free.

www.lifeafterproductions.com

Review: Wink (Wheels & Co Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 2 – 24, 2019
Playwright: Jen Silverman
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Eloise Snape, Matthew Cheetham, Graeme McRae , Sam O’Sullivan
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Gregor has skinned his wife’s cat alive, so clearly things are not going well at home. Jen Silverman’s Wink begins at the point of heteronormative ruination, when Gregor and Sophie’s unsatisfying cookie-cutter life together is at breaking point, and something has got to give. Too bad about the cat. Radical transformations happen following Wink’s demise, even the couple’s psychotherapist Frans, undergoes drastic existential alterations. The plan all along to keep things buried, in order to achieve an appearance of success, has failed miserably; something more authentic emerges to take over these lives, but it looks as though this surge of humanity might have come too late.

Silverman’s writing is deliciously wild, with a strong point of view that makes her surreal and irreverent approach sing with purpose. It is a work about the complicated nature of freedom, and the difficulty in returning to one’s true self, after a lifetime of conditioning and conformity. Directed by Anthony Skuse, the show is replete with subtle humour, and its social commentary, informed by a queer feminist sensibility, is delightfully acerbic.

It is a macabre world that we are plunged into, with lights by Phoebe Pilcher and a set by Siobhan Jett O’Hanlon, cleverly conceived to help us situate the action in a range of spaces between real and fantasy. Ben Pierpoint’s sound design impresses with its intricacy, highly effective in how our collective energy is calibrated for every distinct theatrical moment.

Actor Eloise Snape is marvellous as Sophie, delivering the most understated yet powerful comedy through a narrative of frustrated despondency. Her ability to simultaneously convey tragedy and hilarity, whilst performing with deliberate restraint, is extraordinary. Graeme McRae’s portrayal of Gregor is unexpectedly delicate, remarkable for the empathy that he manages to elicit, as the feline murderer. Matthew Cheethan and Sam O’Sullivan play, respectively, the shrink and the cat, both actors wonderfully quirky, for a couple of deeply amusing characters that fascinate at every appearance.

Humans have an insatiable desire for truth, but that impulse is manifested in a million unique ways. We can see the personalities in Wink giving up the external, then turning inward in hope of exchanging their worldly delusions for something genuine. It is tempting to think that our skin is the barrier between truth and lies, that somehow, deep inside, contains something unequivocal and real. This is all conjecture of course, as the human mind, insignificant as it is, will believe what it wishes, and for any of us to think that we are capable of a comprehensive godlike truth, is in itself illusory. We can however, look instead for peace, but how we interpret that concept is, it seems, another million conundrums.

www.facebook.com/wheelscoproductions

Review: Omar And Dawn (Apocalypse Theatre Company / Green Door Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 12 – 27, 2019
Playwright: James Elazzi
Director: Dino Dimitriadis
Cast: Maggie Blinco, Antony Makhlouf, Lex Marinos, Mansoor Noor
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Dawn is 80 years of age, and a passionate foster carer. Omar is her latest ward, a wayward teenager who has little but frustration and anger to fill his days. Omar often joins Ahmed on a bridge, unwillingly selling sex to local closet cases. The two boys share an intimate relationship, bonded by homelessness, and similar cultural backgrounds that relegate them as outsiders. James Elazzi’s Omar And Dawn tells the story of gay teens from Lebanese-Australian and Muslim sections of our community. Along with its simultaneous focus on the ageing population of white Australians, the play brings together these two neglected groups, for an unexpected theatrical juxtaposition that reveals a facet of our national identity usually kept under wraps. There is a lot of shame here, but none of it is of our protagonists’ doing. The invisible character in Elazzi’s play is Australia, the part of us that is ignorant, heartless, and wholly responsible for the suffering that people like Omar and Dawn have to endure.

Elazzi’s writing is deeply insightful, exquisite in its ability to put to action, and to words, parts of life that we habitually avoid. There is a fearlessness in its interrogation of the taboo, that makes Oman And Dawn so fascinating; although it sits right under our noses, real talent is required to make us see it properly. Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, the show is extraordinarily tender, and even though sentimental in its rendering, it communicates succinctly, bringing to light with little fuss, that which we have long needed to acknowledge. The production offers an emotional experience, but there is no mistaking the coldness upon which our empathy is drawn. Lights by Benjamin Brockman and sound by Ben Pierpoint portray the steely and pitiless qualities of being Australian, with Aleisa Jelbart’s stage design of grey gravel further asserting the needlessly harsh conditions that some of us are subjected to.

Actor Antony Makhlouf is an energetic presence, and although repetitive with his expressions of Omar’s angst, an unmistakable sincerity in his performance keeps us sympathetic to his plight. Maggie Blinco plays a very dignified Dawn, to provide an elegant, and deceptively quiet, study of a self-assured woman determined to do what is right. Effervescence is brought by Lex Marinos, who is convincing, and wonderfully entertaining, as Dawn’s mechanic brother Darren. It is surprising perhaps, that the most poignant moments come from supporting actor Mansoor Noor, whose powerful depiction of Ahmed’s turmoil, has us spellbound and devastated. The authenticity in Noor’s display of despondency shows remarkable skill, and although profoundly heartbreaking, delivers some seriously delicious drama.

When people become homeless, our impulse is to question the individual, as though our lives are so conveniently detached. Many of us have faced abandonment, by people whose duty it is to love and care for us. How we move from a broken nest, to find a new space of security, will only ever be hard. Omar is always on the verge of giving up, but Dawn has enough resilience for the both of them. She understands that to give of herself, is the only way to escape emptiness. It looks very much like unconditional love, but the reciprocity of that relationship is unequivocal, even if it is not immediately evident.

www.apocalypsetheatrecompany.com | www.greendoortheatreco.com

Review: Trevor (Outhouse Theatre Co)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 14 – Jul 6, 2019
Playwright: Nick Jones
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Di Adams, Jemwel Danao, Garth Holcombe, David Lynch, Ainslie McGlynn, Jamie Oxenbould, Eloise Snape
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Sandra owns a pet chimpanzee, who in Nick Jones’ Trevor, fancies himself a professional performer, having appeared as a younger primate, on stage and screen. Work has dried up, and Trevor is increasingly restless about his career’s downward trajectory. This of course, is all in his own mind, with Sandra completely oblivious about the turmoil that is brewing inside of the animal. Trevor is given his own voice by the playwright, but he talks as though in a monologue, never expecting any of the humans to understand, thus setting up for the play an inter-species disconnect that figures heavily as its ultimate raison d’etre.

Actor Jamie Oxenbould is persuasive as the chimp, with animalistic energy emanating from all of his being, without excessive reliance on physical mimicry. We believe his ambitions and his frustrations as Trevor, and appreciate the dramatic escalations being presented, through every plot development. Similarly convincing is Di Adams as Sandra, whose own problems are revealed at a slower pace, although no less powerful. There is however, a significantly stronger emphasis on Trevor’s experience than there is on Sandra’s, and considering our predictable affinity with the human character, it is a strange choice that prevents us from a closer empathy with the story.

In allowing Sandra to be somewhat subsumed in the production, director Shaun Rennie risks a distance that could result in a degree of emotional detachment for the audience, but it is a show that is relentless lively, and we find ourselves consistently involved, if not always invested. In a similar vein, Garth Holcombe and Eloise Snape both play larger than life, and very flamboyant personalities, who amuse us at every appearance, but who do little in engaging us on more profound levels. Their costumes though, are notably striking, humorously assembled by Jonathan Hindmarsh, who also solves spatial challenges as set designer, with demarcations of the stage that are, by and large, surprisingly effective. Lights by Kelsey Lee and sound by Melanie Herbert too, are accomplished, for an overall theatrical impact that proves gratifying.

It is absurd that a creature like Trevor should ever be kept as a pet. Human environments are barely feasible for our own survival, yet we insist on removing animals from their natural habitats, to put up with what we know is completely impracticable for them. This is the extent of our arrogance and narcissism. We see nature as a resource to be plundered, and fail to consider the consequences of our incessant exploitation. Trevor is about nature fighting back, and a timely work that opens up discussions about extinction, of the human race.

www.outhousetheatre.org

Review: Mercury Fur (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 24 – Jun 8, 2019
Playwright: Philip Ridley
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Janet Anderson, Danny Ball, Lucia May, Romy Bartz, Meg Clarke, Party Guest, Jack Walton, Michael McStay
Images by Jasmine Simmons

Theatre review
Civilisation is all but wiped out, in Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur. Out of the rubble are remaining humans trying to get on with things, holding on to memories of more coherent times, so that they can try to make some sense of the meaningless now. Brothers Elliot and Darren are party planners, for a sordid event about to take place. The host’s requirements are absolutely immoral, but at a time like this, nothing should matter anymore. Yet a struggle remains, as we watch the siblings unable to come to terms with what they had agreed to undertake.

Surreal and very dark, Ridley’s play seems intent on shocking its viewer, as is typical of British “in-yer-face theatre” two decades ago. Director Kim Hardwick’s approach is more considered, for a staging that abhors cheap effects, working instead to find, within a conceit of extreme depravity, only the truth about our humanity. Early portions of the show are, as a result, perhaps too sedate, but there is no doubt that when the stakes are raised, the story becomes effortlessly gripping.

The actors are excellent, all of them distinctive and memorable in their respective parts. Josh McElroy is particularly impressive as Party Guest, the worst kind of bad guy, completely despicable, but made thoroughly entertaining by McElroy’s uninhibited portrayal. Also remarkable is Meg Clarke, luminous as the painfully innocent Naz, caught up in a filthy world, desperate for acceptance, and ending up in a treacherous crossfire.

Most of us go about our daily lives, pretending that evil does not exist. We have to believe in the best of people, if we wish for an opportunity to thrive. Evil is real however, and in Mercury Fur we see the way it manifests when untethered. In an apocalyptic aftermath, there is momentum for destruction to keep its pace, until one meets utter annihilation. Resilience is also real, and many of us will know to pick up the pieces, and build again. The extinction of our species is entirely possible, although our instinctual rejection of that truth, might be able to keep us hanging on for some time longer.

www.hbrcreatives.com.au | www.whiteboxtheatre.com.au

Review: Blood On The Cat’s Neck (Montague Basement)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 22 – Jun 1, 2019
Playwright: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (translated by Denis Calandra)
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Alex Chalwell, Jack Crumlin, Jemwel Danao, Deng Deng, Laura Djanegara, Deborah Galanos, Alice Keohavong, Emma Kew, Brendan Miles, Annie Stafford
Images by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
Phoebe Zeitgeist is an alien. She arrives disguised as a human, infiltrating what we might consider normal life, and learns to assume our behaviour. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Blood On The Cat’s Neck from 1971 might also be seen as a work about artificial intelligence, with Phoebe Zeitgeist a kind of technology, a robot perhaps, who disrupts our existence, gradually forming sentience within our midst, and eventually able to outsmart us. There is undeniable anxiety in Blood On The Cat’s Neck, whether relating to a certain perilous quality of our social interactions, or that increasing unease about being overcome by technology.

The abstract nature of Fassbinder’s writing provides a basis on which director Saro Lusty-Cavallari builds an immersive experience for his rendition of Blood On The Cat’s Neck. In the decadent surrounds of a bordello themed bar, we find ten performers scattered, as we are, floating in space with no designated stage and few allocated seats to keep us anchored. Scenes unfold one at a time, and we trace the action, eavesdropping in plain sight as though we too are aliens, scrambling to make heads and tails out of information dispensed mid-conversation, with little context for convenient comprehension.

The 70-minute show does however bear a coherent structure; a beginning, a middle and an end for a familiar flow that offers a sense of security. Hints of drama throughout help to sustain our interest, but its middle section feels repetitive and long, and we find ourselves occasionally disengaging from the artists, perhaps choosing instead to observe the more general goings on. As Phoebe Zeitgeist examines one character after another, we are on the outside, secretly scrutinising fellow audience members, as though all are curious.

A strong cast is assembled for the piece, with each personality bearing a distinct individual essence that accrue an air of gravity, that gives fortification to the production’s experimental style. Sophie Pekbilimli’s lighting design is a highlight, sensual and stealthy, rendered with a light touch that demonstrates artistic confidence. Costumes by Grace Deacon are cleverly coordinated, to depict character types, and to deliver charming imagery. Lusty-Cavallari’s sounds keep us on the right track, so that our interpretations are kept within parameters, as is our visceral experience of his unique kinetic theatricality.

Phoebe Zeitgeist’s convincing otherness is derived from her fictitious-ness. Technology on the other hand, cannot be divorced from its creator; it and us are one. The post-human story contained in Blood On The Cat’s Neck is frightening, because we know the worst of ourselves, and it requires no great stretch of imagination to see it manifested in robots. If artificial intelligence does eventually overwhelm us, we will recognise ourselves in them, and perhaps come to an understanding that evolution will take us on its natural course, and move us beyond a biology that will conceivably turn defunct. Mainstream culture has little appreciation for notions of everlasting life, but maybe we will grow smarter, and develop a new consciousness where we can find heaven, even if it lives inside a machine.

www.montaguebasement.com

Review: Sensitive Guys (Cross Pollinate Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 30 – May 11, 2019
Playwright: MJ Kaufman
Director: Blazey Best
Cast: Natasha Cheng, Nancy Denis, Alex Malone, Shell McKenzie, Samm Ward
Images by Clare Hawley
Theatre review
We meet two small groups of students at an American college. One is a Men’s Peer Education Group, and the other a Survivor Support Group comprised of women victims of sexual assault. MJ Kaufman’s 2018 play Sensitive Guys looks at young men grappling with sexual politics, at a time when boundaries seem to be shifting, as the traditionally subjugated learn to push back against injustices of many kinds. In the story are what we might term woke men, but we discover that thoughts and actions do not necessarily correspond, for those who claim to know better. There is excellent humour in Kaufman’s writing, and although didactic in nature, its clarity of intention makes for a political work that feels immediate and digestible.

It is a passionate production, cohesively designed by an efficacious team of creatives, to facilitate a simple depiction of contemporary concerns. Directed by Blazey Best, the show offers an accurate representation of our hopes and anxieties as they stand today, in relation to the development of discussions around sexual misconduct. The show is a consolidation and reiteration of recent ideas from the Twitterverse, no longer fresh but still pertinent. An excellent ensemble of five actors deliver a well-rehearsed performance, earnest but also comical, able to keep us amused as they take on the responsibility of expounding some valuable lessons.

The young men in Sensitive Guys have much to unlearn; their understanding of sex and gender is revealed to be more damaging than they had ever imagined. There is a pleasure in watching bad boys flagellate themselves on stage. We want to see them punished, as well as see them become better people. The moral of this story is incredibly basic, but the truth is that we keep imparting to our children, old values that are harmful to many and beneficial to few. How we teach masculinity and femininity must come under scrutiny, as do our reasons for insisting on those binaries.

www.crosspollinate.com.au