Review: Visiting Hours (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 7 – 17, 2018
Playwrights: John Harrison, Constantine Costi, Michael Costi
Directors: John Harrison, Michael Dean
Cast: Keiren Brereton, Tara Clark, Rose Costi, Laura Djanegara, Sarah Evans, Cheyne Fynn, Jasper Garner Gore, Richard Hilliar, Derbail Kinsella, Sheila Kumar, Yannick Lawry, Kianah Marlena, Suz Mawer, Tom McCracken, Jim McCrudden, Joshua McElroy, Rebecca Claire Moret, Mansoor Noor, Heather Prowse, Monica Sayers, Katherine Shearer, Emma White, Elijah Williams, Nicole Wineberg, Arisa Yura
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The people who work in hospitals are among some of the best human beings we have, but the experience of visiting medical institutions is often harrowing. We are at our most vulnerable, quite literally putting our lives in the hands of others. The immersive theatre production Visiting Hours, written by John Harrison, Constantine Costi and Michael Costi, investigates that very notion of having to submit to health experts and authorities, of being in a situation where one’s mortality is constantly under threat and question. We venture through ten or so spaces, guided by strange or menacing personalities, never knowing what is to come.

The experience is often terrifying, but in a humorous, often childlike way, where we engage in the sensation of fear, understanding that no real danger is ever present. The spaces are marvellously designed to deliver a sense of nightmarish foreboding, whilst stimulating all our senses in a range of unexpectedly pleasurable ways. Benjamin Brockman’s lights are almost inappropriately sexy, in their many spectacular evocations of tension and anxiety. Production design by Anna Gardiner offers spatial configurations that constantly surprise and amuse. Tegan Nicholls’ sounds are powerfully hypnotic, in how they coax us into strange realms of fantasy.

Visiting Hours is a thrilling show, and its demands of us as active participants in the story, are rich enough to elicit genuinely complex reactions, without ever crossing any lines. The first half involves a high level of interactivity, delivering intensely fascinating sequences that captivate all our senses and intellect. As it progresses however, we are released into more conventional and passive modes of audienceship, and even though we continue to be gripped by its continual atmospheric fluctuations, our minds struggle to focus on the show’s sudden reliance on spoken text. Our minds and bodies remain preoccupied with the multidimensional appeal of spaces, and can only listen sporadically to the words being said. Nonetheless, there is no question that the work is beautifully performed, by a huge cast of 26 actors, all convincing, charming and playfully provocative with their individual roles.

We all have to live inside power structures that keep us subjugated. Being at the bottom of the pile is sometimes involuntary, sometimes complicit. Visiting Hours challenges us to think about compliance and choice, and to examine the meaning of free will, when society seems to have a persistent appetite for deception and oppression. False gods in white coats can often appear to be all we have, but the ability to think for oneself and the courage to obey one’s own intuition, are always on hand.

www.kingsxtheatre.com

Review: Tonsils And Tweezers (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 12 – 27, 2018
Playwright: Will O’Mahony
Director: Michael Abercromby
Cast: Travis Jeffery, James Sweeny, Megan Wilding, Hoa Xuande
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Will O’Mahony’s black comedy Tonsils And Tweezers centres itself on two young men, who share not only a very close relationship, but also the unyielding malaise of modern masculinity. We see them bond as outsiders in school, and witness how that relationship shapes the adults that they try to become.

The narrative might be fairly simple, but the plot is a deliberately beguiling one that ends up delivering more confusion than it intends. We sense an emotional crescendo being constructed thoughtfully as each scene progresses, but its inability to have us sufficiently identify with either Tonsils or Tweezers, takes us to a conclusion that never manages to be more than lukewarm.

The actors however, are full of conviction and reliably entertaining. Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande are the leads, both authentically present and impressive with the gravity they bring to the stage at crucial junctures of drama. Even more appealing, are supporting players James Sweeny and Megan Wilding, memorable with the scintillating humour they are able to introduce throughout the piece. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but it is a cast that we are glad to have spent time with.

Director Michael Abercromby takes us through the play’s many blunt atmospheric shifts with admirable elegance and efficiency. Lights by Liam O’Keefe and sound by James Yeremeyev have a tendency to work slightly too literally, but are highly effective with the way time, place and mood are calibrated for our subliminal comprehension. Patrick Howe does remarkable well as set designer, creating a space beautifully sleek in its minimalism, whilst portraying a cold brutality that is consistent with emotions relevant to the text.

In Tonsils And Tweezers, the Australian man’s problem with self-expression is, characteristically, looked at, but not looked into. The inability of our boys and men, to articulate and to understand their own feelings is, as the play points out vigorously, clearly detrimental, but how all this transpires, is all but neglected. We know the effects of toxic masculinity, but are yet to examine it in a way that can bring us satisfactory solutions. The dismantlement of old structures that we continue to live within, is necessary but strenuous. Some have begun work on that process, but more will have to come on board, if we wish to truly progress.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com

5 Questions with Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande

Travis Jeffery

Hoa Xuande: Before you read Tonsils And Tweezers, going purely from the name, what did you think the play would be about?
Travis Jeffery: I had absolutely no idea what the play was about before I read it. I love the title, but the only thing it gives away is two of the characters names, and even that’s not crystal clear. Will O’Mahony is a very intelligent human and writer so I gathered the title wasn’t going to be literal, but the thought did cross my mind that ‘hey maybe it’s just set at the dentist’.

What kind of kid were you at school?
I was the funny chubby kid at school. Or at least I tried to be funny, I was definitely chubby. My passport photo was taken in 2009 when I was around 107 kgs, these days when I whip it out at the airport I occasionally get laughed at… at least I’m getting laughs 😦

What are the similarities or differences between you and your character?
The importance of friendship is definitely something myself and Tonsils have in common. My friendships are one of the most important parts of my life, whether it’s on or off stage it’s wonderful knowing you have people that will be there for you, including you, Hoa Xuande. At the heart of Tonsils And Tweezers is two best friends trying to help each other work through something traumatic, it’s their friendship that drives the play.

What do you think your character’s name actually is and why?
Interesting question Hoa, lets go with Peter. Purely because in one of the rehearsals James Sweeny, who plays Max, called me Peter when he wasn’t cut off in time. Or maybe his name really is just Tonsils, like Cher!

Where do you go to get your dance moves?
I learnt my moves at the school of hard knocks! Don’t be fooled into thinking I woke up one morning and they were there. Years of hard work and dedication has been put into my skills. Hitting the D-Floor rain, hail or shine to keep my moves in peak condition. Actually to be honest I was born with absolutely no rhythm so dancing is incredibly hard for me, come watch the show and see for your self.

Hoa Xuande

Travis Jeffery: What do you enjoy about Tonsils And Tweezers and Will O’Mahony’s writing?
Hoa Xuande: I’ve had the chance to work with Will twice now on his plays, including the original development of Tonsils And Tweezers, and the thing that really sticks with me about his writing is how frivolous and fun his plays are until it drops you into the deep end and puts you into an emotional mess. Without trying to sound smart he creates these ideas and clues along the way, which ironically makes his plays really clever. In Tonsils And Tweezers we just get to be silly and play until we hand the audience the play’s actual intentions and emotional truth. It’s really fun to do that every night!

What’s the biggest difference between this production and the original?
The biggest difference between this production and the original would have to be the pace between the two shows. The original was put on as part of a double-bill of theatre at the Black Swan State Theatre Company in Perth so we had some time constraints so Will, who also directed the piece himself, really got us to rapid-fire the text. I mean, we really spoke quite fast! But this production has allowed me to just re-discover the text and give the play a little more ‘breathing room’ so it’s nice to be able to just take your time a bit more in this version of the production and make new choices that you hadn’t previously thought about before. It’s just been great to be able to do the same text again but in a different way!

This question has 2 parts! Part 1: What do you like most about rehearsals? Part 2: What do you like most about working with me?
Haha, well… early on in rehearsals, it was interesting to re-discover the play with Travis and Michael and because I had done the play before, I thought, “Nah, I’ll be right.” But as they kept mining the text and discovered things I had completely missed before, I found myself questioning what I actually knew and what my choices were in the previous production and whether I had even understood the play in the first place. So stepping through the play once again in these rehearsals has actually been quite a refreshing feeling. Travis, mate, I like your can-do attitude! Strong choices even if they might be wrong, or always wrong, haha! Nah, actually that was me every day!

Is it true you only own one white shirt and wear it every day?
False, my friend, I actually own more than one white shirt. Three, to be precise. One of which is being used in the show right now! But I choose to wear my ‘rehearsal’ white shirt every day for rehearsal purposes. FYI, it does get washed every week, I think!

Did you ever have a nickname that you hated? Do you have one now?
I’ve had plenty of nicknames or more like mis-pronunciations of my name that’ve probably turned into a nickname at some point in time. The strangest reading of my name once was ‘hon’ and I was like, ‘Interesting, don’t know where the ‘n’ came from but I’ll take it!’ It’s pronounced ‘hwa’ by the way, like a karate chop! That phrase has become attached to my name every time I introduce myself now, haha! But no, never really hated any nicknames. Do I have one now? Don’t know, probably, but Xanadu’s been making the rounds because it looks similar to my last name!

Travis Jeffery and Hoa Xuande can be seen in Tonsils And Tweezers by Will O’Mahony.
Dates: 12 – 29 Jan, 2018
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: A Christmas Carol (Lies, Lies And Propaganda)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Dec 14 – 24, 2017
Playwright: Melissa Lee Speyer (from the Charles Dickens novel)
Director: Michael Dean
Cast: Aslam Abdus-Samad, Dymphna Carew, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Jacqueline Marriott, Monica Sayers, Bishanyia Vincent, Michael Yore
Image by Omnes Photography

Theatre review
The famous Mr. Scrooge is resurrected, in Melissa Lee Speyer’s retelling of A Christmas Carol. The notorious characteristics remain, but his story is updated for our times, with new resonances for the Trump era. This new Scrooge belongs to the tribe that believes in the “trickle-down effect” of conservative politics; the kind of man who tells his employees that they have to work harder, whilst he dreams up new ways to cut their wages. Scrooge’s sin is not that he has an aversion to Christmas, but that he is selfish and unkind. On that one day his workers are away, and he is unable to scheme and torture, ghosts come to haunt him as he faces his own desperate loneliness. On Christmas Day, money proves ineffectual, and he has no recourse but to confront the man in the mirror.

It is a strong adaptation, poignant and accurate with its melancholic observations of contemporary life. Michael Dean’s direction of the piece turns A Christmas Carol into a pantomime for grown-ups, silly in parts, but impressively enthusiastic in the way its message is communicated. Music by Miles Elkington brings a quirky edge, and although not always calibrated to perfection, its function as guide for our emotional responses from scene to scene, is indispensable. The cast is adorable, and very sprightly, with Bobbie-Jean Henning as a captivating, if not entirely convincing, Scrooge. Michael Yore is memorable as the Ghost of Christmas Past, with splendid comic timing and an endearing sense of mischief. Similarly noteworthy is Bishanyia Vincent, especially in the role of Mrs. Cratchit for the production’s most moving sequence, with a contribution surprising in nuance, proving to be remarkably powerful.

When Scrooge is shown the error of his ways, we are reminded of tyrants everywhere who refuse to acknowledge the damage they do, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence. Our cynicism in the age of “fake news” has taught us to expect the worst from men in power, who will deny all their crimes, no matter how plain the truth that is laid out before their eyes. We cannot afford to do nothing and wait for bad men to come to their senses, but their dominance in our world means that we have little at our disposal, in terms of remedy or retribution. It is idealistic, indeed fairytale-like, to wait for the miraculous return of kindness in today’s climate, but on the darkest days, it does seem to be the only thing left. It is perhaps pertinent at Christmas time to remember that Jesus Christ had said, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

www.liesliesandpropaganda.com

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.

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5 Questions with Danielle King and Johnny Nasser

Danielle King

Johnny Nasser: Is theatre dead?
Danielle King: Fuck, I hope not! Maybe it’s starving. But it’s, historically, proved resilient. And, surely, somebody who has the insight, ability and fortunes to recognise the benefits of having a thriving arts scene to the mental health, education, evolution and tourism trade of a society will realise that it needs support….? Aren’t there studies saying this by far, far greater minds than mine? It’s hard enough trying to justify being involved in productions within the Independent Theatre scene where the actor is sponsoring the production with their time and resources for free without holding onto the ideal that Theatre will, any day now, be restored to health. Risks are still being taken, new writing still being discovered and classics still being performed- we just need to turn up and support the companies doing it.

Why do you act?
Because- you’ll be relieved to know- I’m not qualified to diagnose you, operate on you in surgery, defend you in a court of law, educate you in a classroom or even mix you a cocktail but I can be part of a company that tries to tell you a story to make you think differently, laugh, fall in love, chill you, break your heart and help you forget a shitty day. And I think that should have its place, and I’d like to be a part of that.

You have a lot of experience with classical text, does your approach as an actor differ with new writing?
I don’t think so. You’ve still got to find the truth and humanity in any text and attempt to communicate that. The difference is that you may be one of the first, if not the first, performer to attempt to find that characters voice in new writing, whereas you’re often following in other actors footsteps- sometimes extremely well documented and lauded and, therefore, intimidating footsteps. In new writing, you often have the writer there to be able to develop the piece and the language within it with the cast. Phil is handling our mangling of his writing with a gracious patience and, at times, a stick…

Have you ever been involved in a riot?
I haven’t. Especially not like the one Sharon describes in the play. I guess I can understand how a group of people can quickly and seemingly inexplicably become a mob and its terrifying. Even something as innocuous as a group of fans for a celebrity or a football match that’s particularly heated can become dangerous if the hysteria gets out of hand. To have that number of people powered by protest, frustration or passion it doesn’t seem to take much for civil human behaviour to become riotous. Maybe it’s something about being a group, you’re faceless and so the consequences feel removed. That seems to be Sharon’s experience in the play.

Do you have racist friends?
That’s such a tough question. Yeah, I probably do. Thoughtless, careless comments are made by some, which I may or may not call out at the time. So that’s something for me to address.. Snap judgements made, and shared, whilst watching the news etc. Having conversations with the cast and other creatives around events and sentiments in this play has been really challenging, however, with what’s happening around the world these are conversations to be had- and our medium happens to be the theatre.

Johnny Nasser

Danielle King: This is the first time we’ve worked together. Who are you and how’d you start acting?
Johnny Nasser: I’m someone who still doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up, so I will continue to act until that happens. When will that be I wonder? I got a taste for acting as a teenager and had an older brother who was an actor who introduced me to the storytelling caper.

You recently did a creative development on another show and Night Slows Down is a new work, is this a coincidence or do you particularly enjoy being involved in the new writing process?
75% of the theatre work I have done has been new or actor supported devised work and I think I’m naturally drawn to that. Working on a new work takes a lot of commitment, energy and there’s no guarantees of an amazing product. When a show you’ve been involved in from its infancy works and resonates with an audience it’s very satisfying.

The subject of the play is pretty close to the bone looking at world events. Have you ever experienced similar behaviour to Martin, though not to the extent of the events in the play?
I’m of Lebanese descent and growing up got called the usual names: Wog etc… can’t say I enjoyed that and didn’t understand why I was being belittled when I felt like any other Australian kid. Even in terms of casual racism people should consider how a comment is received rather than intended.

When is violence acceptable?
When a cockroach invades your home. That sounds like a Seth comment from the play doesn’t it? My answer is never and sometimes. I have great admiration for those who refuse to resort to violence in the face of violence and tyranny. Could I be that brave? I doubt it.

What music are you listening to and are you discovering anything new?
In the play, Martin and Seth get into a passionate discussion about Kendrick Lamar, so I’m listening to plenty of Kendrick. Especially “M.A.A.D City” which is totally…… dope? Is that what the cool cats say? It’s quite a departure from my usual diet of ABC local radio I tell you!

Catch Danielle King and Johnny Nasser in Night Slows Down, by Phillip James Rouse.
Dates: 17 Nov – 9 Dec, 2017
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

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