Review: Undertaking (Sydney Fringe Festival)

Venue: HPG Festival Hub (Erskineville NSW), Sep 6 – 30, 2017
Playwrights: Duncan Maurice, Sharon Zeeman
Director: Duncan Maurice
Cast: Rizcel Gagawanan, Jasper Garner Gore, Moreblessing Maturure, Benjamin Wang, Sharon Zeeman

Theatre review
In a very large disused office, an audience gathers to solve the mystery of 11 murders. There are clues littered everywhere, and we roam around using mobile phones as torches, with suspicious characters in our midst who may or may not be part of the show that we have come to see. Over the course of an hour, drama unfolds, with the cast revealing itself, in their highly unorthodox presentation of a contrastingly conventional serial killer story.

Duncan Maurice and Sharon Zeeman’s Undertaking works with the enveloping of space around bodies, which is the essential nature of the theatrical art form. Strangers congregate, awaiting time and space to transform in the hands of collaborating artists, who have constructed a plan, to orchestrate a process of communication above the mundane. In Maurice and Zeeman’s vision, passivity is the ruin of both art and life. To be a participant of their staging, our spectatorship extends beyond the mind. A kinetic response is required of us, but how much we are willing to give, always remains a personal choice.

The journey fluctuates between moments of bustling activity, and creepy stillness. Some of us are compelled to make things happen, while others are content to wait for the next bout of drama. The wandering group consists of personalities who engage ardently in the investigative process, as well as those who observe quietly; we choose our own adventure. The show is most effective when actors are in close proximity, but the space is large and we are too often left to our own devices. Musical director David Herrero creates an omnipresent soundscape that assists in keeping us involved, especially potent when tensions escalate in the closing minutes. Actor Benjamin Wang is memorable for his terrifying depiction of a man on the brink of death.

Undertaking is a spirited work that takes seriously, its artistic responsibility to inspire its viewer. It is democratic and political, and even if the immediate narrative in the “whodunnit” genre can seem perfunctory, the experience is unforgettable. Whenever the making of art falls into repetitive predictability, we must call for a new challenge. Immersive theatre is just the way to tackle the tedious obedience, that has today become so pervasive.

5 Questions with Rizcel Gagawanan and Jasper Garner Gore

Rizcel Gagawanan

Jasper Garner Gore: Describe Undertaking in five words.
Rizcel Gagawanan: Mysterious. Unexpected. Exciting. Unpredictable. Enlightening.

Who should see this show and why?
First of all, people who love thrillers, scary movies etc. People who are looking to have a good time and take a risk. People who are okay with putting themselves in a situation where they don’t know what’s going to happen. And anyone who loves theatre! You go to watch shows to experience something different and new and this show will definitely be a theatre experience you’ve never had before. Immersive theatre is quite a unique form, there’s not many happening in Sydney so this could be people’s chance to see it for the first time.

What has been the most challenging part of rehearsing this show?
Our rehearsal process hasn’t been the typical rehearsal process that I’m used to, like you get your script, you memorise your lines, you work out your blocking etc. There’s a script and a plot but a lot of the scene stuff we’ve put together through improv and collaboration which is a first for me but it’s been super fun. But I would say the most challenging has been trying to rehearse with an audience that’s not there yet. We won’t know how it’s going to go and what’s going to happen until we get our audience on previews, opening night and every night the show is on. To prepare, you can come up with all the possibilities but there’s always going to be something that the audience will give that you didn’t think of, so that’s scary but also exciting at the same time.

What is the scariest place you have performed in?
This place. I have always performed on a stage with a spotlight and cues and wings. This is immersive theatre, so there’s no wings to hide in or take a break here! There’s no backstage or green room. You are on “stage” the whole time. Also when I first came to this space I was already freaked out even in daylight. The space has a weird feel to it. It’s even worse when all the lights are out.

Are you afraid of the dark?

Jasper Garner Gore

Rizcel Gagawanan: Since we can’t give too much away about this show, describe Undertaking in 5 words.
Jasper Garner Gore: A Big Scary Space, Murders.

Because the show is “immersive theatre”, how do you feel about not performing on a stage but performing with the audience?
I’ve done a little bit of this sort of this stuff before, nothing quite as involved. I think it makes rehearsing interesting because you do have to guess a bit, it’s like rehearsing a dance without the other person you’re gonna be dancing with. But it’s also really really exciting because I think like there is an appetite for this kind of work and for work that activates environments and audiences this way. And you feel kind of like you’re in the vanguard of something which is fun.

What’s the funniest, weirdest or most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you on stage?
One time I was doing a production of Amadeus and I had taken my costume stockings home to wash and I left them there. And I realised shortly before I was getting dressed to go on that I didn’t have any stockings. So I had to turn to the girl playing Constanze, who’s a friend, and be like, “please give me your stockings”, not her show stockings but her actual human stockings and they didn’t quite go all the way up, they covered just above my knee. So the whole show the pantaloons I was wearing were very breezy. During the whole thing I was worried, y’know, hoping no one would look up my pants, ‘cause they would just see bare thigh. That probably wasn’t the worst but it was pretty bad.

What’s great about rehearsing and performing in the space in The Enclosure at the HPG Festival Hub?
Nutting it out. We’re solving a novel space, which is super fun, finding out where you can play, where you can be seen, where you can be heard. It’s new, it’s exciting and it’s weird. It’s a weird place with all sorts of strange possibilities.

Jasper, as the king of puns, can you make a pun or a funny dad joke about Undertaking?
Undertaking? Ha, the morgue the merrier!

Rizcel Gagawanan and Jasper Garner Gore are appearing in Undertaking, part of the Sydney Fringe Festival 2017.
Dates: 6 – 30 September, 2017
Venue: Sydney Fringe HPG Festival Hub

Review: Like Me (Mongrel Mouth)

Venue: Merchants House (Sydney NSW), Jun 18 – Jul 11, 2015
Playwrights: Angela Blake, Charles Upton, Duncan Maurice, Moreblessing Maturure, Sharon Zeeman
Director: Duncan Maurice
Cast: Angela Blake, Adam Connelly, Ali Crew, Eli King, Moreblessing Maturure, Latisha Owens, Charles Upton, Ben Scales, Sharon Zeeman
Images by Chris Evans

Theatre review
Social media is probably the truest sign of our times, which means that our awareness of its manifold implications is not yet fully formed. We are overwhelmed by its swift evolutions and embroiled in its persistent intrusions, riding its waves of euphoria without a thorough understanding of what it all means, and more pressingly, its impact upon modern and future lives. Like Me delves into the technological manifestations of our narcissism to explore the worst aspects of our self-obsession, in a surreal language that articulates fluently our emotions and incoherent thoughts about this new slice and era of human history. The show is scathing and critical of selfie culture, finding ways to question its pervasive consumption, and exploring its dangers and famous fatalities. Without ever naming names, it discusses platforms and personalities that fuel the compulsive need for popularity, egomania and greed, thereby creating an updated artistic expression to the way we juxtapose the now classic relationship between capitalism and love.

Duncan Maurice’s direction is interested in the grotesque and morbid, yet a sickening cuteness is omnipresent. His work brings to the fore, a conflation of our deceptive and hypocritical style of contemporary communications, à la Jekyll and Hyde, that presents a very public face that betrays the truth behind our computerised selves. 9 characters, sensationally dressed by Alex PF Jackson to look like Teletubbies at a Comme des Garçons fashion show, frantically and maniacally scamper around us, feeding an absurd need for affirmation, slaves to a non-existing, imagined higher calling that demands their energy and allegiance.

Beautifully and innovatively created by set designers Gemma O’Nions and Louie Diamontaye, and lighting designer Christopher Page, the place is a mad house with players that are intimidating and intrusive, but we do not leave. It is pleasurable and seductive, and we comply. The cast is extraordinarily cohesive with its style, dialect and presence. They are one organism that pulses the same, even though individual personalities are brilliantly cultivated. Latisha Owens is frighteningly bold as Poppy, an ultra vivacious self-styled sex bomb of the internet whose torturous desperation dictates the tone of proceedings. Moreblessing Maturure portrays an adorable innocent Sarah-Jay , pure of spirit but nonetheless entangled and sadly corrupted. The performers are all wide eyed and entranced, intoxicated by tech, but their souls tell a different story, which we hear quite subconsciously in the thrilling soundscapes and music of David Herrero.

Scenes in Like Me can at times be repetitive, and its cataclysmic aura can become predictable, but its resonances catch you by surprise, and they hit home. The work offers a solution to the problems it rants about, but it feels futile. The pessimism we encounter, not only in the show, is overwhelming, but it is truthful. There is no easy answer to our predicament, but what the production does achieve is to put in perspective what our instincts know to be wrong in our culture today. It is complicated and complex, and this is no watered down interpretation of issues. How we progress beyond this point in time is anybody’s guess, but for now, there is no better snapshot on offer, of our online beings, warts and hashtags and all.

Review: The Age Of Entitlement (Mongrel Mouth)

mongrelmouthVenue: Merchants House (Sydney NSW), Dec 3 – 20, 2014
Playwright: Saman Shad
Director: Duncan Maurice
Cast: Adam Connelly, Ali Crew, Amelia Tranter, Aston Campbell, Charlie Upton, Christina Sankari, Danny Gubbay, Eli King, Ezequiel Martinez, Guilia Clemente, Julia Landrey, Latisha Owens, Mark Williamson, Moreblessing Maturure, Paloma Alma, Rowan McDonald, Sage Godrei, Sharon Zeeman, Tess Marshall

Theatre review
Nineteen actors in a beautifully preserved old building present a simple story about politics. We navigate our way through rooms and characters, observing and speaking with these mysterious people, trying to piece together narratives, and to find an understanding of each personality’s agenda, and also what the artists are attempting to convey. The action centres around Lara, who is presented on the ground floor as a student leader of the left, and in a different room upstairs, she is an older politician raising funds to become the head of her right-wing party.

There is a certain amount of chaos from the immersive experiment that keeps us on our toes. It is challenging work that does not let its audience feel comfortable at any point, and director Duncan Maurice is determined for his work to be intriguing and thought-provoking. Placing his actors at such close proximity, we are forced to engage and interpret. Maurice leaves us no room to hide, and we are pressured into taking a stand. The performance feels slightly longer than its eighty minutes. The unusual format leaves us to compose a cohesive tale from many disparate fragments, but unravelling the riddles does not take much time. We are then left to loiter around the hallways waiting for a conclusion of some description to occur, which fortunately, does eventuate, and in quite spectacular style.

Julia Landrey plays X, a member of the student union who proves to be more radical than her peers. X is often positioned alone, so that when we encounter her, she is free to express hidden beliefs that might be too controversial for her comrades. The nature of the work requires a good amount of thick-skinned daring from its cast, and Landrey’s strength ensures that she connects well, even though the role’s presence is an intimidating one. Her impressive improvisational skills allow for brilliant conversations to unfold, and we find ourselves becoming more involved than ever anticipated.

Some of the group is less effective, but they all contribute to the unusual carnival flavour that the production will be remembered for. There are instances where characters seem narrow in scope, which often lead to a shallow sense of plot and oversimplification of ideas. A substantial part of the discussion The Age Of Entitlement aims to inspire, is the tension between the left and right of politics, and the way Australian society shapes its attitudes according to convenient alliances.

The production is well designed. Alex PF Jackson’s work for makeup, hair and costumes especially, are noteworthy. Set and lights are slightly less polished, but spaces are adequately dressed to evoke a sense of fantasy and transportative theatricality.

Political theatre gives voice to causes and groups, and on occasion, it changes minds. This show does not tell us what to think, but it espouses the importance of holding beliefs and standing up for them. Almost contradictory is the way it interrogates our practice of identifying with political sides, but that conflict gives the work a meaningful complexity that feels resonant with our lived experiences. Maybe a few people will begin to think differently of their political attitudes from attending Entitlement, but more likely is its effect on how we think of theatre’s relationship with the public and its modes of expression. There is so much to be explored when artists and audience meet, especially when all the old rules are broken.