Review: Queen Bette (G.bod Theatre / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 15, 2015
Devised by: Jeanette Cronin, Peter Mountford
Director: Peter Mountford
Cast: Jeanette Cronin
Images by Richard Hedger

Theatre review
Heroes are worshiped for their exceptional lives and for their extensive contributions to society. Legends persist through the passage of time, especially when they are trailblazers who provide inspiration and guidance, showing us extraordinary ways to be. Examining how someone leaves a mark on the world, is how we can come to find the meaning of life, for their legacies hold the key to our existential angst. Queen Bette is a biographical tribute to one of the greatest screen sirens of the Hollywood golden age, Bette Davis. The text draws material from Davis’ autobiography and from various interviews she had given, not intending to give an in-depth account of sordid gossip, but to depict a great talent, her brilliant career, and an incredibly formidable drive. Davis’ outspokenness allows for the play’s devisors to assemble a script that is vibrant, funny, and tremendously expressive, and the largely chronological plot is a sensible mechanism to satisfy our need for creating a sense of coherence from fragments of a very big life.

In Jeanette Cronin’s company, the show’s 60 minutes go by in a flash. The performer’s work is more exciting and engaging than anyone can hope for in a role this iconic, and like Queen Bette Davis herself, Cronin’s ability to have us fall in love simultaneously with both actor and character, is sublime. We feel as though suspended in time, watching her genius in action, with all its technical proficiencies, emotional astuteness and physical splendour. Her mastery turns the audience into putty in her hands, captivated and gleeful at every twist and turn she introduces to the theatrical experience that we are subject to. Direction by Peter Mountford is dynamically paced, with unexpected stylistic changes developing between scenes to keep us attentive and fascinated. There is a conscious use of Davis’ words to spark activity, colour and energy on stage, so that the work is more than just the recitation of her admittedly engrossing speeches. Interesting perspectives and commentary are added to the star’s history, and a seemingly endless range of variance is achieved in the creation of her presence, so that we come into contact with a Bette Davis who evolves before our eyes, and who is always capable of surprising us.

Queen Bette may be about a departed film idol, but it keeps its sentimentality firmly in check. There is little intrusion into the personal, only revealing very key events, or situations that have an impact on her work. What we see are her professional achievements, how she had attained them and her basking in many moments of glory. It is not the whole story, but it is how we want to remember a role model, and how we want to tell stories so that there is a basis for emulation, or at least, an indication of our human spirit’s magnitude. Women like Davis, and Cronin, help us envision what success looks like, and their magnificence is a reminder that we too, can be brighter and better. We too can be sovereign.

Review: Blue Wizard (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 19 – Mar 15, 2015
Playwright: Nick Coyle
Dramaturg: Adena Jacobs
Cast: Nick Coyle
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Post-apocalyptic stories are intrinsically moralistic. They make us think about our actions today that may lead to the utter devastation that is being presented. In Blue Wizard, an alien arrives from outer space but there is no longer any sign of human inhabitation. He is stranded, alone, except for an egg and its subsequent incarnations. Blue Wizard is unfamiliar with our planet but the very human-like visitor’s quest for survival and his disorientation are instantly recognisable, and our empathy for the misplaced being is effectively cultivated by an intuitively playful script by Nick Coyle. He declares upon arrival that he hails from a planet where all are gay, establishing a parallel with our own need for identity definitions based on sexuality orientation. Indeed, the one-man show is filled with cultural signifiers of male gayness and their affectations. Music by Britney Spears, Karen Carpenter and Cher add inspiration to the already camp sensibility of the artist, and his costuming, which is derivative of transvestism and drag.

The staging relies heavily on its talented team of designers to deliver a compelling context in which the action takes place. Damien Cooper’s lights are often show-stealing, and Steve Toulmin’s music and sound provide some of the most entertaining moments of the piece. Coyle’s performance is quirky and lighthearted, with the actor’s mischievous presence providing the absurd comedy with a playfulness that helps make the narrative strangely believable. His skills as a puppeteer are most impressive, with characterisations of the young aliens, Grubby and “Meryl Streep”, leaving powerful and lasting impressions. Dramaturg Adena Jacobs has guided Blue Wizard from its previous frankly bizarre manifestation when performed some seventeen months ago at PACT Centre for Emerging Artists, to its current form which is an engaging and brightly humorous show that sometimes surprises us, but always thoroughly amusing.

There is a sincere and earnest expression that underlies the frivolous tone of the production, and while its deeper meanings, if they do exist, are unclear, we do not feel as though we had been taken for a hollow ride. The moral of the story is one that the audience can decide for itself, but it is work of this nature that recalls the eternal question of whether art needs to serve any specific purpose. In other words, what is taken away from the theatre on this occasion is probably a lot more about the viewer than the creator.

Review: Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom (Brevity Theatre)

brevityVenue: Kings Cross Hotel (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 7, 2015
Playwright: Charles Busch
Director: Samantha Young
Actors: Jamie Collette, Skyler Ellis, Nick Gell, Pollyanna Nowicki, Olivia O’Flynn, Eliza Reilly

Theatre review

Queer culture and art are intrinsically anarchic. They are concerned with destabilising the status quo, not just for the things we talk about, but also for the ways in which they are discussed. Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom is a comedy that imagines an absurd narrative, and places it in an absurdist theatrical structure. There are rules to making a show work, and while they are not entirely disregarded in Busch’s writing, there is a thorough subversion of conventions that results in a highly unusual text that not only makes us laugh, but also encourages a more enlightened and evolved way of looking at social dynamics.

Adding to the already decadent flavour of Busch’s script, is a burlesque sensibility brought on by the incorporation of Musical Director Matthew Predny’s original compositions. The songs are sharp-witted and rousing, helping to propel our glee to dizzying euphoric heights. Also wonderful is Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design, successfully transforming a very ordinary venue into a theatre buzzing with a sordid and libidinous fecundity.

Central to the show’s themes is a playful but resolutely emancipated view of gender and sexuality, and emanating from that, a kind of paradigm that challenges the heteronormative imperative that affects every life. Director Samantha Young does exemplary work with the comedy as well as the politics of the piece. Part John Waters and part Mel Brooks, she brings a powerful and specific sense of humour that will prove to be curiously amusing to some, and uproarious for others. There is an intense and adventurous spirit that seeks to explore the limits of performance, philosophy and taste, conjuring a night of wild entertainment that pushes the right buttons.

The cast of six is cheeky and exuberant, with a unified comedic tone that truly delights, although it must be noted that each impressive player is given ample space to showcase their distinct and considerable talents. Eliza Reilly as Madeleine Astarte is sure-footed and engaging, adding an unexpected polish to the very bawdy material. Her Mae West-style delivery of punch lines is charming and effective, and the actor displays a natural flair for timing that endears herself to the audience with seemingly little effort. Astarte’s arch nemesis La Condessa is played by Nicholas Gell, whose very energetic and extravagant performance never feels out of place no matter how over the top he pitches it. It is a rare opportunity to witness an actor be completely ridiculous, and enthralling us with the hammiest presentation one can possibly imagine.

Edgy theatre is easier to dream up than to actualise (especially in conservative spaces like the Sydney theatre scene), but this version of Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom is certainly mad, bad, and dangerous to know. There will be some who find it too frivolous, and yet others who think it too gruff, but this is not a show that aims to please everyone, for it knows its crowd, and caters only for its own kind.

Review: Pope Head (Théâtre Excentrique)

r0_3_1200_678_w1200_h678_fmax[1]Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 24 – Mar 6, 2015
Playwright: Garry Roost
Director: Paul Garnault
Cast: Garry Roost

Theatre review
Francis Bacon’s art is among the most revered of the twentieth century. His paintings continue to travel the world’s museums, and his following grows with each year and generation.The power of his work is immediate and compelling, often arousing visceral responses in the viewer before their intellectual, political and historical dimensions can even begin to be explored. Garry Roost’s play is a biography on Bacon that takes cues from stage conventions, as well as from Bacon’s work with its sense of abstraction and energetic expressionism.

Roost’s writing is manic and intense, with a pace and structure that presents a serious challenge to any actor. The unconfined and free-wheeling thought and speech patterns that emerge from the text is frequently incoherent, but fascinating. The words have a definite rhythm that reflects an understanding of the personality it represents, one that is unrelenting, passionate and thoroughly original. An actor usually takes to the stage in order to share narratives and ideas, but Roost is not quite a storyteller on this occasion. His performance focuses on a re-creation of Bacon’s very being that delivers, his idiosyncratic presence and unique mannerisms. We are presented with something of an apparition, accurately imitated and fabulously convincing, but also alienating and at times, puzzling. There is a difference between knowing someone through facts and figures, and gaining insight from observing a creature as it goes about its business, as though from a detached and empirical position. We learn a little about the painter from Roost’s script, but it is from his intuitive portrayal that we acquire a greater appreciation of the man whose legacy has touched many.

We rely on artists to do things differently. It is a thankless task to discover rules and then dismantle them in the public sphere. Audiences need to be disoriented and provoked, even though we prefer to be fed the same formulaic nonsense at every outing. Bacon’s paintings are at their best, upsetting and offensive, and this theatrical manifestation of Pope Head does its best to pay tribute. It is not an easy show to digest, and it is not the most amusing hour of live entertainment, but it does reinforce the memory of a great career and provides the most valuable of all creative endeavours, divine inspiration.

5 Questions with Benjamin Brockman

benjaminbrockmanWhat is your favourite swear word?
It is a mixture of Cum-Dumpster and Bitch-Tits the hyphen makes it dirtier.

What are you wearing?
Emotionally I am currently wearing me heart on my sleeve but physically I am naked wrapped in my leopard spotted sheets, I feel like Cruella de Vil if Cruella de Vil had a sex change and moved to Dulwich Hill.

What is love?
What’s love got to do got to do with it? (Tina, bless) But if you must know Love is Lust over a longer period of time with some glitter thrown on top and baked at 220 for a few months (I am in an on and off relationship with theatre, and let me tell you just between us he is a very ruff top)

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Shit, I haven’t seen other shows in a long time other then my own shows and I don’t mean to be biased but my own work is at least 26 out of 5 pretzels. I just watched The Theory Of Everything, 5 out of 5 pretzels.

Is your new show going to be any good?
I think you meant to ask me where to buy tickets, because this show is going to be the hottest thing you will see this year! Ingredients include: Bubbles, music, lesbians(fem and butch), Cher, Glitter, Skin, more Glitter, High Heels, Sequins, Hairy Cleavage, Spice Girls, Vampires, Non Hairy Cleavage & a 2000 year old Hyman did I mention CHER?! How could the show not be any good?

Benjamin Brockman is designing set and lights for Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom by Charles Busch.
Show dates: 25 Feb – 7 Mar, 2015
Show venue: Kings Cross Hotel

Review: Mother Clap’s Molly House (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 11 – Mar 7, 2015
Playwright: Mark Ravenhill
Music: Matthew Scott
Director: Louise Fischer
Cast: Debra Bryan, Bradley Bulger, Stephanie Begg, Steve Corner, Andrew Grogan, Patrick Howard, Deborah Jones, Chantel Leseberg, Tess Marshall, Brendan Miles, Thomas Pidd, Garth Saville, Dave Todd
Photographs © Bob Seary

Theatre review
Mark Ravenhill’s writing is wild and exuberant. He uses theatre to express parts of life that are passionate, fun, taboo and brutal. In Mother Clap’s Molly House, Ravenhill places gay life under scrutiny, examining its relationship with capitalism, and the implications of an increasingly liberated community that loses its way in the struggle for freedom and acceptance. The play’s in-depth look at the subculture may not be accessible to general audiences, but it is a necessary and unflinching reflection at a significant segment of modern societies. Louise Fletcher’s direction addresses the political aspects of the play, as well as the deeply carnal flavour of its live experience. The production begins in an abundance of confused frivolity, but takes shape when its more serious themes set in and when the cast becomes more vibrant in its endeavour.

Mother Clap is played by Deborah Jones, who takes her character through drastic transformations over the course of two-and-a-half hours. As the narrow-minded version of Clap in early scenes, Jones is less convincing, but upon emancipation in the production’s second half, Jones is a spirited and confident performer, who delivers an interesting allegorical embodiment of queer empowerment. Steve Corner’s portrayal of Princess Serafina is complex and delightfully intriguing. His thoughtful approach is balanced nicely with an enthusiasm for broad comedy, although the actor can benefit from slightly less restraint. Chantel Leseberg brings a professional polish to the show, impressive in two dynamic and diverse roles, Amy and Tina. Her understanding of her parts is thorough, and her execution is consistently creative and exciting. The cast brings a warmth to the stage, and there is a charming intimacy that many of them share, but performances in general can be sharper and tighter for a greater sense of urgency, and while comic timing is not poor, there is room for improvement.

The term “molly” referred in the past, to male homosexuals and transvestites. Today, the word connotes recreational drug use. Ravenhill’s script is concerned with the evolution of gay identities, and the way societal permissiveness and the profit motive have encouraged a false sense of freedom, where men are made to believe that the pleasure principle equates to liberation and happiness. The show does not pass harsh judgement on “misguided” individuals, but it is critical of how gay communities can sometimes view themselves. To elucidate his point, Ravenhill makes a dichotomous relationship out of money and love. Of course, there is no need to think of them as essentially oppositional concepts, and we can expect to have both in our lives, but finding the right balance in moderation, as always, is key.

Review: Playing Rock Hudson (Old Fitz Theatre / Left Bauer Productions)

FEATURE5[1]Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 3 – 15, 2015
Playwright: Cameron Lukey
Directors: Jason Langley, Cameron Lukey
Cast: Paul Dowson, Kim Knuckey, Tyran Parke, Peter Talmacs, Mark Taylor, Grace Victoria, Benjamin Winckle

Theatre review
The act of “coming out” by public figures remains a contentious issue. Rock Hudson was a prominent American actor from the 1950s, who had kept his homosexuality a dark secret up to his AIDS-related death in 1985. Playing Rock Hudson offers a look into the star’s final years and his lover Marc Christian’s lawsuit against Hudson’s estate after his passing. Cameron Lukey’s script is detailed and ardent, with shades of tabloid style revelations accompanying passionately political interpretations of events and personalities. It satisfies our need to catch a glimpse of the gay man that had been hidden from view and promotes discussion about the way LGBT history is tainted by deceit, and how it can be amended.

Direction of the work by Lukey and Jason Langley, feels like a nostalgic homage to films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Scenes are reminiscent of romantic and courtroom classics, achieved by thoughtful costuming (by Georgia Hopkins) and specific acting styles, but the show’s rhythm and energy are consequently slightly lethargic by today’s standards. Sequences are not sufficiently differentiated to prevent a sense of repetition, which also results in a plot momentum that is less than dynamic.

Performances are consistently strong, with a support cast that is especially noteworthy. Grace Victoria is a compelling Elizabeth Taylor, leaving a lasting impression by bringing complexity and humour to a legendary character that most are familiar with. Benjamin Winckle plays multiple smaller roles, but each is distinct, colourful and memorable. Leading men Paul Dowson and Mark Taylor are committed and alluring. Dowson plays Rock Hudson with an astonishing likeness and quiet confidence, and the mysterious love interest Marc Christian is played by Taylor with intriguing ambiguity and charm.

The importance of role models for oppressed minorities cannot be overstated. Those who choose to live in the closet will always have their own reasons, but their actions are an obstruction to efforts for the eradication of discrimination everywhere. Even though he continued denying his sexual orientation from the public, it is believed that Hudson’s announcement of his illness 3 months before death, had had a critically positive impact on funding in the USA for AIDS research. People in positions of power and influence owe a debt to the communities who reward them with privilege and prestige. When acting in self-serving hypocrisy, the debt they owe us all is immeasurable.