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

5 Questions with Deng Deng and Alice Keohavong

Deng Deng

Alice Keohavong: So, who is Deng?
Deng Deng: I am a Sudanese born actor and writer who came to Australia in 2002 along with my family. I’m the eldest of seven children. I graduated from Trinity Catholic College in 2011 and also from the Academy of Film, Theatre and Television.

What drew you to Blood On The Cat’s Neck?
I was drawn by the storyline more than anything else. I do love the idea of an alien who is here to learn from humanity and exploring what makes us who we are, whether it be good or bad. Plus I also love anything sci-fi.

What has been a highlight of your acting career?
To this day the biggest highlight of my career is performing at the Sydney Opera House. Even though it wasn’t on the main centre stage, being able to perform there has been by far the best and most amazing part of my acting career. I remember coming down the steps of the Opera House and having the biggest smile on my face, ever since nothing has come close to this feeling.

What has been an influential piece of advice you’ve received?
Make your own work. I know that waiting around can be annoying at times – I think especially in this industry – but making my own work (whether it be short films or writing) has kept me busy and I never have nothing to do. It helps me stay motivated in my everyday life or last least as active as I can be, so I believe that’s the best advice that I have been given.

What would you like to tell/warn/promote to people about Montague Basement?
If you have an opportunity to work with them, do it. I’m not saying this because I’m doing this play now, it’s because of who they are as people. They care about this industry. I love the amount of work and time they put into their work, and caring. I know that these are people I can see myself working with again.

Alice Keohavong

Deng Deng: What drew you to this industry?
Alice Keohavong: As a child, I had (still do) an overactive imagination. I was constantly entertaining myself with made-up stories. In high school, when I found myself surrounded by a community of people who loved telling stories and weren’t afraid to be silly, fun and human, I was hooked. I’ve also always been fascinated by people and trying to understand why we do the things we do… I was either going to be an actor or a psychologist…

What is your favourite production so far and why?
A stand out for me has a lot to do with nostalgic reasons. I was in high school and saw The Pillowman at Belvoir. Growing up, I didn’t have many opportunities to experience theatre and whenever I did, it was always an event and forced upon us by school. This show was an extra curricular activity our drama teacher proposed and one of the first I went to outside of school hours, surrounded friends who were also keen to experience it. This is one of many reasons why I’m so grateful for the wonderful teacher we had. The show had me spellbound… and here I am.

Which are you more drawn towards theatre or screen?
Both for different reasons. I love the thrill of immediacy with theatre. I love that the medium is so transient and I enjoy the sense of community you build through the rehearsal process. With screen work, I love the naked intimacy you can get. You feel quite bare and vulnerable in a very different way.

What’s the most enjoyable part of any rehearsals process?
The first dress run. After all the weeks of hard work, you and your new family are thrown together with all the other elements of the show, and you get to see what the hell it is you’ve actually made. It is frightening and adrenalin-pumping and I love it.

Tell me something about Alice that people don’t know about?
I hate watermelon. I mean, I HATE the stuff. Why. Why would you eat that? Watermelon smelling bubble bath? Sure. Watermelon earrings? Cute. Just please don’t put that thing into my mouth.

Deng Deng and Alice Keohavong can be seen in Blood On The Cat’s Neck, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Dates: 22 May – 1 June, 2019
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Nosferatu: A Fractured Symphony (Montague Basement)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 8 – 19, 2019
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Lucy Burke, Jeremi Campese, Lulu Howes, Annie Stafford
Images by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
The play is structured around title cards of its 1922 silent film forebear, so Nosferatu: A Fractured Symphony is more than a little indebted, not only to that German classic, but also to its legitimate point of origin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is an update of sorts, but also a kind of demystification of the greatest vampire story ever told, for a 2019 audience. Themes of horror, lust and survival, converge with very contemporary concerns that include xenophobia, the me too movement, capitalism, wealth disparity and property ownership, resulting in a new version stripped of old world romance, revealing a more utilitarian dimension of the supernatural tale.

Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari demonstrates artistic innovation alongside an enthusiastic intellect, for this creative, albeit slightly clinical, reinterpretation. The production is at its most mesmerising when allowed to venture into the bizarre. When proffering the political, its approach has a tendency to be obvious. Detailed work on lighting design by Veronique Benett helps to manufacture a sense of visual dynamism, and Justin Gardam’s music brings excellent atmospheric transformations to each surprising scene change.

A motley crew of characters are played by four engaging actors, including Jeremi Campese whose remarkable conviction as the Count, delivers a realistic portrayal of evil that turns the walking dead into a living, breathing rendition of one of the world’s richest men. Lulu Howes’ intense presence gives complexity to the naive Hutton, cleverly resisting our urge to conveniently underestimate her, as we traditionally do all the women in this story. A very enjoyable flamboyance is introduced by Annie Stafford who excels in the show’s more comical and absurd dimensions, and Lucy Burke is relied upon to provide a warmth to this otherwise entirely inhumane milieu.

There is very little that could be done to hold the extremely rich to account; Dracula and Nosferatu are our 1% and they literally get away with murder. In our fantasies, they can be destroyed with a stake through the heart, a reflection of how we are never able to accept their invincibility. Humans are incurably hopeful, for life is in many ways synonymous with hope, but much of our truth, as is evidenced in the pessimism of Nosferatu: A Fractured Symphony is beyond repair. To exist however, requires that we continue searching for answers and solutions, even if we never really get anywhere, it is this motion of endeavouring that makes us virtuous.

www.montaguebasement.com

Review: Cleansed (Montague Basement)

Venue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Sep 20 – 23, 2017
Playwright: Sarah Kane
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Sam Brewer, Lucy Burke, Alex Chalwell, Kurt Pimblett, Jem Rowe, Michaela Savina, Annie Stafford
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Tinker is a figure of authority at a hospital, and the sadist antagonist in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. She is all-powerful, able to wield any form of torture she pleases. The patients are trapped, unjustly and unexplained, subject to a range of inhumane violations, in scenes of terror that constitute the savagery of Kane’s play. Also prominent are instances of nudity and sexual activity, that accompany pervasive themes of gender and sexuality, all presented as the main agents of instigation, for the brutality that we see. Everyone in Cleansed is being punished for their sex, and we wonder if the hospital functions as an allegory for the wider world.

Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s gore is heightened and viscerally affecting. His show recalls films from horror and exploitation genres, but the effect of shock here, is thought-provoking and never meaningless. Long scene changes prevent our anxiety from ever reaching a boiling point. Our minds are given space to work for clarity, during these moments of emotional release, but an opportunity for a more thrilling experience that could result from the manufacture of a truly suffocating atmosphere, is sacrificed. Live video projections are incorporated for an adventurous commentary on current states of technological voyeurism, and are used along with bold approaches to light and sound, to enhance dramatic qualities of the production.

The provocative material is brought to life by an impressive cast of actors with great conviction and nerve. The very scary Tinker needs a bigger, more foreboding presence, but Annie Stafford’s restraint allows our imagination to explore freely into the psyche that is at work here. Jem Rowe is outstanding as Robin; the fear and desperation he portrays seems thoroughly authentic, and the spectacle he creates around his role is brilliantly captivating. Sam Brewer and Alex Chalwell play gay lovers, memorable for the poignancy of their relationship and the remarkable intensity at which they tell that story.

There is no underestimating how much we control each other with sex. The essentially social nature of our genders and sexualities, have opened us up to evaluation and persecution from all corners. The fear of being labelled deviants, and the understanding of that consequence, are indicative of attempts to keep us adhering to an intolerable straight and narrow. Even Tinker is herself consumed by her self-diagnosed perversion, and proceeds to exercise her hypocrisy in the most destructive ways possible. Consenting adults are frightening. They can threaten the very fabric of a society that lives by rules that are arbitrary, cruel and profoundly wrong.

www.montaguebasement.com

5 Questions with Kurt Pimblett and Annie Stafford

Kurt Pimblett

Annie Stafford: In Cleansed, your character is a ghost for the majority of the show, do you have a favourite ghost story or have you ever had a run-in with a ghost?
Kurt Pimblett: Yeah, me and my cousins and sister saw a lot of ghosts growing up. One of them was the ghost of our dog who’d been run over the year before, which was nice. I think my favourite ghost story though is that Paul Jennings one where a boy falls down a well and there’s a ghost down there who steals all your clothes and escapes and then you become the naked ghost trapped in the well. I feel like that’s the kind of weird ghost thing Graham would do.

When you first read the stage directions “dance of love”, what dance moves came into your head?
Two things, simultaneously. One of them was this incredibly beautiful and emotive sequence that was immediately recognisable as a dance of love – no-one would ever put any other name to it. The other was the bit from High School Musical where those two kids do a weird interpretive dance to audition for the winter musical and get told they should have therapy. I hope that what we’ve ended up with is a happy medium between the two.

Now this is a classic question, in the Hollywood film version of this play, who would you want to play Graham and why?
Harry Styles. No explanation necessary.

What did you find the hardest when approaching this text? Because let’s be honest, its pretty damn out there.
With Cleansed, Sarah Kane has been quite kind with the dialogue and emotional journeys of most characters. Everything that’s happening makes sense, the logic isn’t hard to access, and it feels natural to embody and put into action. Cleansed is a huge practical challenge though, and a lot of thought has gone into realising her incredible stage directions. A lot of them seem a bit impossible, but what I found most confronting in rehearsal was the things that aren’t impossible. The things that you can totally just go and do, but wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, if you weren’t in this play. Another thing I found difficult was rationalising Graham’s relationship with Grace, in conjunction with Graham’s relationship with Tinker. I very much approached the text thinking that Graham was always right and was totally a good guy (which is a useful perspective to keep in mind as an actor), so I was pretty shaken when it started to dawn on me that sometimes his choices aren’t the most upstanding.

You’re stuck on a desert island with only one other cast member from Cleansed, who would you want it to be? And why?
Okay. I would want it to be someone whose sense of humour gelled well with mine, so that it doesn’t get boring, but also so that when I start making off-colour panic-jokes they don’t get weirded out. Are we trying to escape the island? Because then I would also want someone who’d be determined and upbeat enough to help me make a billion different palm tree boat prototypes. Also probably someone with a nice grounding in facts because on a desert island my skills probably wouldn’t extend far beyond writing poems about the ocean and I’d need someone to tell me what’s okay to eat and where snakes live so I can avoid them. There’s also a high chance that I’d get so restless and desperate for entertainment that I’d stop listening to them about which berries are poisonous and start to provoke the snakes just for something to do, so it would be great if the person could talk me down from doing things like that. Look, this is a tall order, so Cleansed cast, if any of you feel like you can adequately fill this role, hit me up.

Annie Stafford

Kurt Pimblett: Tinker has a lot of power but (arguably) questionable morals. What kind of life advice would she give? If she wrote a self-help book what would it be called?
Annie Stafford: I sincerely hope no one ever asks Tinker for advice let alone reads her self help book. How the heck did she get that book deal?! That aside, I think her incredibly deep and sage life advice would be “Get shit done. Shut shit down”. To be completely honest, that’s been my own motto for the past 2 years. But in a very absurdist way it applies to Tinker. She’s pretty proactive, getting things done. And if she’s not about something or it isn’t worth her time, she shuts it down. It’s title? “I’m not responsible.”

Shoot, shag, marry: Cleansed. Go. And try not to shag or kill anyone you’ve already shagged and killed.
Oh well that narrows it down, you’ve literally left me with 3 characters. I think I’d…Tinker would marry Woman. But they’d have to travel to make that happen, cheers Australian Government for that one. Who would have thought you’d be living the dream in a Sarah Kane play. Political moment over. Shag Carl just to add insult to injury, and oh so much injury poor ol’ Carl. And I guess kill Robin. That’s actually quite hard when you take out of it everyone I’ve already killed and shagged. I mean Tinker has already killed and shagged, don’t want to get too method over here.

It is a tricky text – is there anything that you read and thought would be difficult but turned out not to be? Anything that went the opposite?
I actually thought the sex scene between the Woman and Tinker would be really hard, maybe not simply to choreograph, which it wasn’t, but my ability to do it. To be naked in a rehearsal room in such close proximity to someone else, without the tricks of the trade you get in screen. But the process of it was so smooth, and after a while it just makes sense. After sitting in the play for so long and sitting with Tinker and her journey, that moment is so necessary and normal and just feels right-thus I felt so ready to do it when it came to that time. And the opposite? Figuring out Tinker. She’s a tough cookie. So close to performances and I’m still working her out. Which I like actually, she keeps surprising me.

What’s your favourite Sarah Kane’s Cleansed stage direction?
But there are so many excellent ones!!! Can I do a top 3? Well, I’m going to anyway.
1. “Carl tries to pick up his hands – he can’t, he has no hands.”
I’ve decided against giving 3, I want there to be some element of surprise for the audience. But I’ve definitely given you an absolute gem. Sarah Kane is actually hilarious.

Lastly, in a direct theft from the dude from Inside The Actors Studio, if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Answer as both yourself and Tinker.
Before I say, I want these answers to be read in the voice of Morgan Freeman. For some very unknown reason, that’s what my idea of God sounds like. As Annie I would like to hear “Hey mate, good work, here’s a beer”. It would preferable be a VB, taste of the old country. As Tinker, I think she will hear “You don’t even go here!” but I reckon she’d like to hear “You did what you had to do for love”.

Kurt Pimblett and Annie Stafford are appearing in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, part of the Sydney Fringe Festival 2017.
Dates: 19 – 23 September, 2017
Venue: PACT

Review: Before Lysistrata (Kings Cross Theatre / Montague Basement)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 10 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Ellana Costa
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Ellana Costa, Alex Francis, Michaela Savina
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
We know Lysistrata as the one who convinces the women of Greece to deprive themselves of sex, in order that their men would cease fighting each other in the Peloponnesian War. In Before Lysistrata, playwright Ellana Costa imagines a scenario that leads up to that audacious act. Lysistra and Lampito are the first ladies of Athens and Sparta, each representing a different side of politics.

It is the left and right wings of society, again at loggerheads. Whether 400 BC or 2017 AD it seems, we are determined to make enemies of one another, unable to be at peace with the idea of disagreement. The men go to war, determined to quash the other side, so that the world only needs contain one uniform ideology. With the death of sons that inevitably result, the ladyfolk band together, and hatch a plan to end the atrocities.

At points where the lines of good and evil are blurred, when us and them are disrupted, the show becomes refreshing. Its message can however, feel simplistic, as do its characters and dialogue. Wit and drama can be found in Costa’s well-meant text, but performances are unfledged, and the production never really builds enough tension that would allow sparks to fly. Few artistic risks are taken that will offer elements of surprise or intrigue. Its political interest holds court, central and singular.

Where there is solidarity, great things can be achieved. For each generation that experiences increasing social fragmentation, the idea of organised processes of action becomes correspondingly alien. That we can be unified, must not only be an abstraction, but how we get there, is more bewildering than ever before.

www.montaguebasement.com

5 Questions with Ellana Costa and Michaela Savina

Ellana Costa

Michaela Savina: Who do you believe is the most effective ancient Greek villain?
Ellana Costa: My favourite villains are the Sirens from the story of Jason And The Argonauts. I love that their power can be felt from a distance. I love the idea that these women play into the stereotype of the beautiful, mysterious woman that all men want, only so they can lure these men to their deaths. I also love the image of Jason, so desperate to see and hear the Siren song, that he ties himself to his ship. Talk about a glutton for punishment.

How do you find it performing your own writing?
I think every writer should be forced to perform that own writing at least once. It changes the way you see the writing process. I’ve always enjoyed working in a collaborative way and I’ve noticed a lot of changes I’ve decided to make from the script, to my character particularly, have come out of a realisation that the way I think doesn’t always translate well to the page. The exciting thing, however, about performing a character I’ve created, is that I really feel like I know Lampito. I feel like I understand her and why she is making the choices she’s making.

What’s your favourite thing about Lampito?
I think Lampito is incredibly strong, but I think what I love most about her is the way she shows her strength. She lives in a society where she is often looked down on because she is a women, but when she sees something she thinks is wrong, she say something. Even though she knows it will result in pain for her. She has a real moral backbone that I think is beautiful.

How would you define strength?
I define strength as resilience. To be strong doesn’t mean never falling, or never being upset, or never feeling like you can’t do it. For me, strength is feeling those things, acknowledging them, and then taking the steps you can to get back up. You can’t be strong without vulnerability, and when you are vulnerable you’re able to show your strength.

Who do you call to serve on your utopian action squad?
Well, it would be a combination of fictional and real world bad ass ladies. Let’s start with the obvious one: Wonder Woman. She is a n Amazonian goddess and will obviously be leading our party. I would then request Beyonce for soundtrack, general inspiration and fierce moves. I would also ask Black Widow from Avengers (for DC/Marvel mashup) and then I think I’d end with Geena Davis. That woman is an Olympian archer and super hilarious. Couldn’t image a better crew.

Michaela Savina

Ellana Costa: If you could be any one (or anything) from an ancient Greek myth, who would you be and why?
Michaela Savina: I think I would have to go for Circe because she’s got all of this badass magical power. Also in Odyssey she turned all the men in to pigs which is a move I really endorse.

Who is your feminist role model and why?
It’s like picking a favourite child this question, I think I’m going to go with Joan Didion as basically half my actions in life are just trying to make myself more like her.

What is the most interesting element of Lysistrata’s story for you?
In our adaption I think we’ve really drawn out the idea of sacrifice and what exactly that looks and feels like on a human level. I think understanding that sometimes the same sacrifice can land very differently for people is quite interesting.

What is your favourite thing about playing Lysistrata?
I really love playing her personality quirks, even though she has all this expertise and intelligence her emotional intelligence and social skills are quite lacking and that’s always fun to play. She really does mean well but she just slightly misses the mark.

Dead or alive, who is present at Lysistrata’s symposium on 21st century politics?
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Arundati Roy, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Georgia O’Keefe and Patti Smith, I’m kind of thinking about the post symposium drinks, my god that’d be some fascinating conversation.

Ellana Costa and Michaela Savina can be seen in Before Lysistrata by Ellana Costa.
Dates: 10 – 22 July, 2017
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre