Review: Space Cats (Brevity Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 1 – 12, 2016
Playwright: Samantha Young
Composer & Musical Director: Matthew Predny
Director: Samantha Young
Cast: Jonny Hawkins, Graeme McRae, Gautier Pavlovic-Hobba, Eliza Reilly, Samantha Young
Images by Andre Vasquez

Theatre review

It takes a considerable amount of egomania for people to reach the highest positions of government, and in Space Cats, the same is true for alien cats in outer space. Queen Cat is a fascist leader with enormous arrogance, and the ignorance to match, on a rampage to destroy all that she deems to be inferior or objectionable. Her planet is now close to complete eradication, and we wonder if her thirst for annihilation will ever find satiety. This is of course, not at all a serious musical, even if the felines do pontificate on immigration, homelessness and sexual discrimination. In fact, the show does its best to create a ridiculous havoc for an audience that it wishes to amuse in the most outrageous ways possible. The darkness at its heart only makes the experience edgier, and is the element that remains after waves of manic laughter have subsided.

Samantha Young does not play the Queen, but is the indisputable triple-threat boss of the production, responsible not only for its writing and direction, but also for playing the key role of Bin Cat. Young’s script is wildly imaginative and relentlessly humorous, and while it may lack complexity, Space Cats contains sufficient poignancy to prevent its persistent hilarity from becoming banal. Direction of the work will be remembered for its incredible exuberant spirit, with Young’s boundless sense of playfulness littered through every moment. The degree at which her show is determined to entertain is almost merciless. Young also happens to be the strongest singer in the production, and along with Eliza Reilly, the funniest performers in the cast. Reilly plays the aforementioned Queen Cat with splendid flair and a fierce wit, leaving an excellent impression with her enthusiasm for extremely bawdy comedy.

Equally accomplished is Matthew Predny’s work as composer and musical director, simultaneously mocking and embracing the Broadway musical genre for a refreshingly joyful take on something that is often too conceited and cheesy. Set and lighting designer Benjamin Brockman transports us to a parallel universe where every molecule of air seems to be impregnated with glitter, and an involuntary shimmer emanates from each object and being. The team appears to be in competition for turning up the camp, and there is no clear winner with every aspect of production pushing at the limits of all things gay, gaudy and gasp-inducing. Pearls are certainly recommended for spontaneous clutching at Space Cats, no matter what gender, creed or species.

Review: The Ultimate Lesbian Double Feature (Old Fitzroy Theatre)

ultimatelesbianVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 23 – Mar 4, 2016
Playwright: Zoe Brinnand
Director: Lucy Hotchin
Cast: Kristen Adriaan, Kristina Benton, Joseph Lai, Tamara Natt, Shamita Sivabalan, Lana Woolf
Image by Sarah Walker

Theatre review
Zoe Brinnand’s half-hour plays Love In The Time Of Sexting and The Party traverse past and present in their examination of feminine desire and lesbian politics, to reflect a modern sensibility about queer identities in contemporary Australia. What the playwright presents is sassy, bold and funny, but most memorable for its celebratory spirit and a knowing rejection of tragedy and victimhood that tend to figure prominently in literary works about gay life.

Attempts at plot coherence are somewhat perfunctory, but Lucy Hotchin does a marvellous job of engineering amusing and lively episodes, while challenging conventional representations of gender and sexuality. The women in the work are neither consistently feminine nor masculine, and that fluidity extends to the way their libidos find expression. They are not one thing, and refuse to be restrained. Indeed, it is the freedom manifest in all their thoughts and actions that keeps us seduced and fascinated. Strong performances by Kristina Benton and Francis Lai bring excellent vibrancy to the production, both introducing a quality of passionate abandon that connects well with their audience.

The Ultimate Lesbian Double Feature may be radical but it is not pedantic with its world view. It is an inspiring work that can liberate, but one must remain open to the daring propositions it expounds especially when they seem much too boundless in relation to our prohibitive real lives. Theatre must spark our imagination, and provide a vision of what things might be. Utopia will always be found in the stories that we tell, but it is when they feel close to home that they are at their most powerful.

Review: The Killing Of Sister George (G.bod Theatre)

gbodtheatreVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 24 – Mar 4, 2016
Playwright: Frank Marcus
Director: Peter Mountford
Cast: Deborah Jones, Sarah Jane Kelly, Natasha McNamara, Helen Stuart
Image by Richard Hedger

Theatre review
Sister George is a real piece of work. A radio star adored by many who know only her fictitious persona, George is insufferable for those who have to be in her actual presence. Fame gets to people’s heads, and our protagonist is a self-obsessed monster who uses and abuses all in sight, especially her doll-like lover Childie, a feeble woman struggling to discern love from exploitation in their codependency in 1964 London.

Under Peter Mountford’s direction, the sexual nature of that relationship is emphasised. Homosexuality is not swept under the carpet, and we are confronted by the overt BDSM quality of George and Childie’s union with its depiction of consensual and subversive eroticism. Although fascinating, there are issues with plot consistency as a result, and the production is a couple more days from being well-rehearsed. The show does however, pick up pace gradually for an experience memorable for its thorough unconventionality.

In taking on the responsibility of playing George, Deborah Jones is required to portray villainy in a way that is both repulsive and compelling. Jones does not quite reach that level of starry charisma demanded of her role, but it is a believable performance which brings up the right issues of contention and asks appropriate questions regarding power imbalances in same-sex relationships. Natasha McNamara’s work as Childie is authentic and complex, with a conflicting duality that provokes us into considering the meaning of love, and the many scandalous forms of its manifestations.

The women in The Killing Of Sister George explain the way they treat themselves and each other, but they do not explain their lesbianism. Peter Mountford has ingeniously reached back 52 years to find a text that allows an expression of gayness that is above the need for justification, and beyond our tired boundaries of sexual differences. This is no “tragiporn” that feels emburdened by its mere existence to make itself accountable to some vague authority of social expectation, but gives voice to real personalities who rarely find their way into our run-of-the-mill narratives. It is a juicy story about love, sex, power and fame, except believe it or not, there are no men in it.

Review: The Ritz (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 5, 2016
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: David Marshall-Martin
Cast: Les Asmussen, Meagan Caratti, Samuel Christopher, Jarryd Clancy, Ricci Costa, John Edwards, John Farndale, Lisa Franey, Ivan Hui, William Koutsoukis, Adam Kovarik, Rosane McNamara, Marty O’Neill, David Ross, James Smithers, Barton Williams
Photography © Bob Seary

Theatre review
It may be argued that there was only a small window of time in LGBT history, when stories were being published and told in theatres about vibrant queer experiences. The emergence of the gay rights movement alongside the sexual revolution of late 1960’s opened the doors to artistic expression that began to take queer lives out of the closet, but before much momentum was able to be achieved, the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980’s signalled the return of oppressive powers, and although LGBT stories continued to be produced, they were turned much darker to reflect the sombre times of death and community destruction.

Terrence McNally’s The Ritz first appeared on Broadway in 1975, and although its protagonist Proclo is heterosexual, the action takes place in a gay bathhouse in Manhattan, with a host of vivacious gay men providing the core structure to its narrative, along with an endless stream of campy punchlines. Their proud and exuberant sexuality is its central appeal, in fact Proclo’s story is almost ancillary, existing only as an excuse for the rambunctious humour to unfold. The infamy of pre-AIDS bathhouse culture finds itself represented here in all its shame-free glory, in the form of a classic American farce (admittedly not to everyone’s tastes), complete with accents, stereotypes and show tunes.

Director David Marshall-Martin brings to the production a potent nostalgia that many will appreciate, and an energetic madcap style of comedy perfect for the script. The old-fashioned quality of the show takes some getting used to, but it does get increasingly charming through the course of the evening, aided by the bawdiness of the writing that Marshall-Martin is able to present with a surprising edginess, despite its use-by date.

Leading man Les Asmussen is an endearing and effervescent presence, with an ability to communicate and connect with his audience effortlessly. The actor’s strong instincts ensures that on-stage chemistry is consistently buoyant, and his generous nature as a performer keeps us engrossed. Similarly engaging is Samuel Christopher in the role of Chris, an extremely flamboyant character who has a joke ready for every situation. Christopher’s comedic skills are a highlight of the show, leaving a lasting impression with bold choices and immaculate timing. Also very funny is Meagan Caratti, who embraces the boisterous tone of the show to deliver some of its biggest laughs. Her passionate commitment is paralleled by an emotional warmth that allows her character Googie to become one of the more believable personalities in this outlandish presentation.

The style of The Ritz might not be innovative, but the portrayal of unbridled joy by its community of gay men is refreshing. We might be in a new century, but we remain burdened by the darkest days of AIDS and its indelible negative impact on sexual freedoms. The rampant sex and promiscuity of The Ritz was a result of emancipation that was meant to be celebratory. Its intention was to welcome a new era of equality and acceptance, but we now look at those behaviour as an archaic oddity. It is a vision of pride that we have lost, replaced by something less assertive, maybe even slightly ordinary.

Review: The Punter’s Siren (Blood Moon Theatre)

blancmangeVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Feb 17 – Mar 4, 2016
Playwright: Gina Schien
Director: Stephen Carnell
Cast: Jacqui Robson, Laura Viskovich
Image by Phyllis Wong

Theatre review
Originally conceived as a one-woman play, Gina Schien’s The Punter’s Siren is presented here with an additional actor giving life to the monologue’s secondary character. Instead of letting the protagonist evoke our imagination, the siren is literally materialised on stage by Laura Viskovich, who although says little, is a formidable presence. This creative touch by director Stephen Carnell represents a meaningful gesture that gives power to the play’s sexuality, as though coming out of the closet, its homosexuality lies not only in words, it is irrefutably in existence.

Jacqui Robson’s 50 minutes on stage as Helen, the punter, is scintillating. There are moments where our attention struggles to find focus with an ancillary actor by her side, but her energetic precision never fails to keep us on track with her narrative, engrossed and atingle with excitement. Robson delivers moment after moment of splendid comedy, ranging from subtle impulses that take us by surprise, to loud displays of humorous passion. Her tenacity is relentless, and although the ride she takes us on is ultimately a predictable one, it is full of amusement and exhilarating joy.

The sole driving force of Helen’s story is lust. In Schien’s play, a woman’s libido takes centre stage and its temperament is an aggressive one. Undisguised, unadorned and unashamed, it is her wild desire that gives propulsion to every action in The Punter’s Siren, forcing us to confront the anomaly of its honesty, and we are left wondering what it is about our culture that insists on keeping the universal and everyday truth about strong feminine sexuality, veiled and concealed. Immodesty is star of the show and we are thrilled.

Review: Ladies Day (Griffin Theatre Company)

griffinVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 5 – Mar 26, 2016
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Matthew Backer, Wade Briggs, Lucia Mastrantone, Elan Zavelsky
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is not a promising start to the play. There is a lot of old-fashioned talk about “how gays have different lives from straights”, “how many shades of gay are there”, and “look, there’s a gay man enjoying himself in a dress in a country town”. We are reminded that Priscilla happened 22 years ago and that things have thankfully moved on a considerable amount. Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day does however, take a turn for the better when its central concern begins to take shape. Sexual assault is a tricky subject for art because it can seem to lack complexity, and making work about the topic can often feel somewhat obvious, as if preaching to the choir, but Valentine’s script finds surprising nuance, and provides new insight to help us gain a deeper understanding of the victim’s experience. The structure of the play can be further refined, but there are strong elements to be found. For every scene that feels excessively derivative, we discover riveting moments in later sections where its superficial conceits are shed to reveal the devastating honesty that lies beneath.

Darren Yap’s direction gives the production an enjoyable texture with sensitive and regular transformations in atmosphere, and its amplified emotions make for a compelling dynamic range that keeps us attentive. Sound and music by Max Lambert and Roger Lock add great drama to the piece, and quirky interludes of song give the show its character. All four actors contribute powerful performances, with Lucia Mastrantone’s incredible vulnerability leaving the greatest impression. Through her depiction of suffering, we observe that it is often the strength that emerges from pain that is truly moving. Mastrantone is passionate, articulate but also subtle, elevating her relatively simple roles into something altogether more substantial. Similarly compelling is Elan Zavelsky as the sad and bitter Rodney, with a quiet intensity and meaningful introspection that keeps us captivated. Strangely miscast as a man past his prime, the clearly attractive and youthful Zavelsky’s depiction of desperation is nevertheless committed and very accurate.

It might not be very elegant at Ladies Day, but its concluding moral is a surprising, sobering one. At the theatre, we tell the truth through fabrications because our minds can prefer them over facts. We are receptive to stories if they are told well, regardless of how veracities are achieved. From the storyteller perspective too, it is often through analogy and metaphor that truths can be better portrayed, especially when actualities evade expression. Facts are hard to capture, but our humanity can hear the truth ringing no matter what guise it takes.

Review: Alpha (Old Fitzroy Theatre)

oldfitzVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 9 – 20, 2016
Created and performed by: Tamara Natt, Sebastian Robinson
Director: Sebastian Robinson

Theatre review
Tamara Natt and Sebastian Robinson meet in Alpha, a juncture at which poetry and physical theatre are combined to explore two queer identities and their place in the world. Along with the electric guitar and vocal accompaniment of Milla O’Sullivan, rhymes and rhythm are the key currency of the piece. Natt and Robinson’s bodies and voices fill the stage to connect with dormant sensibilities of the audience, making us look and hear with parts of our selves seldom employed, to discover the alternatives of our parochial existence, and to look beyond the fences we erect.

Natt and Robinson alternate between vulnerable and defensive in what they choose to present. We are drawn in and pushed away, as the piece fluctuates between impenetrability and its desire to excite. Gender and sexuality are often brought into discussion, with the subversion of female/male and gay/straight binaries taking centre stage. It offers new things as well as concepts that might be described as derivative, but it comes as no surprise that tried and tested elements should feel more effective. Like any work that rejects narrative, Alpha can be challenging to the more logical inclinations of our minds, but both performers are charismatic and spirited, with a tenacious grit that keeps us seduced.

We are not used to shows of this type, because we only allow poetry to be a cursory presence in our lives. We can make sense of it, but we prefer meanings pre-packaged and ready-made for our cultural consumption. We want to remain idle in audienceship, and leave creativity to the artists, but this distinction can be disrupted when artists find courage to prioritise their authenticity over the need to accommodate conventions. In Alpha, investment of the self is required for any significant interpretation to occur, and it is the installation of a universal I as first person that gives it purpose.