Review: Metamorphoses (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 13 – 17, 2016
Creators: Imogen Gardam, Lulu Howes, Saro Lusty-Cavallari (based on the poem by Ovid)
Dramaturg: Pierce Wilcox
Cast: Lulu Howes, Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
Turning Ovid’s two thousand year-old poem into a work for the theatre in Sydney today, is an exercise in adaptation full of possibilities. Every choice is a reflection of the interpreters’ relationship with the world, and with the art form itself. The very decision to take on a project of this nature, is indicative of a desire to experiment with the social aspects of both; theatre, and that immortal classic being interrogated. Imogen Gardam, Lulu Howes and Saro Lusty-Cavallari explore what a work represents when it refuses to be forgotten, and what it means in contemporary society when individuals meet at the theatre to relive it.

Each scene that corresponds to Ovid’s fifteen books, is given its own distinct identity and stylistic genre. Even though there is a conscious effort in manufacturing something quite erratic as inspired by the original, the use of only two actors with infrequent alterations to their appearance limits our ability to perceive the staging with as much variety as is evidently attempted. Our minds give in to a habitual need to create a sense of consistency with the faces we see before us, and the big range of characters is often conflated into a simplification of understanding involving one man and one woman. Perhaps the performers bring along a passion to their performance that has a tendency to appear homogeneous. It can also be said that although energetic in their approach, an ambiguity to their engagement with the work delivers an experience that can be elusive and frustrating. We wish for greater finesse either in the poetic nature of what is being created, or in the meanings that it is able to evoke.

There is abstract beauty to be found in this version of Metamorphoses, as well as political ideas that hold importance and relevance, but neither is willing to become concrete enough for us to grasp with a greater sense of enthralment. If a work aims to alienate, it should keep our feelings at bay but our minds captivated. Art is not always about earning likes, but it should secure attention, especially when it actively rejects the conventional and banal. Little of what we do can endure millennia, but the promise of a resonant instant is all it takes to keep us striving.

Review: Tammy & Kite (Montague Basement)

montagueVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 13 – 17, 2016
Creators: Hannah Cox, Caitlin West
Cast: Hannah Cox, Caitlin West
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
We are at home with two very funny sisters. Kite is in year three, and although Tammy is seven years older, the siblings are extremely close, spending almost all of their stage time making each other, and their audience, laugh with joyful glee. We watch the playful pair weather thick and thin, and when things get rough, Tammy & Kite shows us that life can be cruel even for the very young. Hannah Cox and Caitlin West’s play is remarkably sensitive in its portrayal of childhood and innocence, with an impressive authenticity that lets any person, of any age or background, relate to its characters and all its situations. Their feelings are real, and we cannot help but share in them, happy or sad.

Our protagonists find it difficult to express their emotions through words, but the play accurately depicts their inner world through imaginative means. The show’s creators assemble precise and powerful manipulations of atmosphere to communicate through signs and symbols, helped by excellent work from lighting designer Saro Lusty-Cavallari and sound designers Josephine Gibson and Alexis Weaver. The audience’s instincts are called upon to find an understanding of the sisters’ story beyond what is being said to one another. In Tammy & Kite, important information is conveyed through everything that happens in the room, not just the words that manage to find their way out of the girls’ mouths.

Some things you can never be prepared for, no matter how old you may be, but to witness children deal with deep losses is truly heartbreaking. It must be noted that the production makes it a point not to wallow in the story’s dark sides, but the delicate glimpses of sorrow it does provide, are very moving indeed. We discover a love in Tammy & Kite that is wonderfully pure, uplifting and life-affirming. The special moments of togetherness enacted by Cox and West, are a reminder of the most important kind, but also the very simplest; to cherish and to hold, everything else can wait.

5 Questions with Lulu Howes and Caitlin West

Lulu Howes

Lulu Howes

Caitlin West: So you’re condensing 15 books and 250 stories down to a single show. Is there a theme or set of themes that have guided and tied together your telling of these stories?
Lulu Howes: I’d say our approach to adapting such a large body of work was inspired by the vastness of Ovid’s original text. Metamorphoses is such a sprawling book, it picks up threads of myths and then drops them, tells half stories, revisits characters sporadically. Ovid really seems to pick and choose what he’s interested in, then loosely ties everything up in the theme of ‘metamorphoses’. So the myths we’ve chosen to work with and the way we’ve decided to adapt them is pretty eclectic. We were all drawn to different stories for different reasons, and I think this boundlessness is what binds them together, embracing that vastness rather than running away from it. That being said, there are definitely some themes that have continued to crop up. If I had to pick, the big three would probably be gender, politics and power.

How closely has the language of the original text shaped your telling of these stories?
I’m not even sure how many translations of Metamorphoses we now have between us – probably too many. Trying to find the right mode of expression to represent a myth has been half the battle of adaptation, so language has definitely played a massive part. Sometimes we’ll quote directly from a translation, or use the Elizabethan adaptation, or delve into how Ovid has presented a particular idea. More than anything else I think the comedy of the original text has worked its way into a lot of the play. There’s a lot of satire and a lot of silliness.

Saro has directed you in a few shows in the past. How have you found working with him as an actor?
The same but different. It’s been a very collaborative process – everyone’s open to each other’s ideas and feedback so in that regard it feels very familiar. Having done shows together in the past we went into Metamorphoses with a great friendship to work off and a good idea of what it might be like devising together. I think it’s been a really natural transition, especially with Imogen stepping into a more directorial role and just generally being amazing. Saro’s got great comic timing and likes improvisation more than I do, which is good because it keeps me on my toes and terrible because I can’t always keep a straight face.

Can you tell me a bit about how you’re approaching the task of characterisation in a show that presumably is dealing with multiple character voices?
There’s such a huge array of characters in the show, there hasn’t been a set approach. As almost none of the characters reappear in more than one scene, it’s been about establishing really strong voices or images in a short amount of time. Different methods have worked for different scenes, whether we’re improvising and working off each other in the room, or painstakingly going through the script to create these really defined voices for a two-minute scene. We’ve both been able to pick and choose who might play which character, with no expectation that if the character is a man it should be played by Saro or vice versa. In general there’s been a lot of freedom with how we tackle these characters, and way, way too many costume changes.

Seriously, will there be Kanye West references?
There are already too many, we need to be stopped.

Caitlin West

Caitlin West

Lulu Howes: Tammy & Kite is delving into the world of children and the things they ‘do or don’t see.’ What first drew you to this idea?
When Hannah and I first came together to make this show, we both knew that we wanted to talk about children, siblings and the imagination. As someone with a much younger sister, and with a personal interest in child play therapy, I was keen to look at how children process and express difficult emotions. This was complemented by Hannah, who came at this as an artist, and as someone with an incredible visual imagination. She had a million ideas for how we could translate those concepts into something really beautiful and tangible. So I guess it was kind of a crossover of our own personal interests and skills, and a shared desire to try to communicate and think about the way a child sees the world.

I am so excited to see you and Hannah (Cox) onstage together; you’re both such energetic, engaging performers. What does the inside of your rehearsal room look like at the moment?
Well, at the moment, I’m sitting here writing this, while Hannah plays a pretty intense game of handball with herself against the wall. There’s a pile of discarded toys and books on the floor, a half-finished Lego spaceship on the bed, and Phillip the duck is sitting next to me. We’ve just finished rehearsing a scene where Kite saves Tammy from a monster armed only with a light sabre, so we’re taking a break before we move on to some of the more tightly choreographed puppet scenes.

A ten year old wants to come see Tammy & Kite. How do you describe the play to them?
In this show we’re trying to use a language that will be accessible to both young people and adults (although perhaps for different reasons and in different ways) so to be honest, I think I’d tell them the same thing I’d tell an adult. In a nutshell in Tammy & Kite we’re taking the best and the worst parts about being a kid, and trying to translate them into something that grown-ups can understand.

What’s the scariest/hardest/most challenging part of devising your own show?
I think the scariest thing, when creating a show from scratch with another person, is knowing how to trust that person enough to fail. When you’re rehearsing a show with a bunch of other actors, or with a pre-written script, or with a director who’s always in the room with you, it can be easier in a sense to hide behind those things or to use them to fall back on when you get it wrong. Hannah and I were already great friends before we started working on this show, which was a big help, but over the rehearsal process I think we’ve both gotten a lot better at trying out new things, and not being afraid to do that. I think once you let go of the fear of trying something that might not work, that’s when you end up finding the seeds of the best stuff.

If you could go back in time and give kid Caitlin one piece of advice, what would it be?
When the ice cream truck plays “Greensleeves” that does not mean it has run out of ice cream and don’t let anyone tell you that it does.

Lulu Howes and Caitlin West can both be seen in Sydney Fringe Festival shows by Montague Basement.

Tammy & Kite
Dates: 13 – 17 September, 2016 at 8pm
Venue: Erskineville Town Hall

Dates: 13 – 17 September, 2016 at 10pm
Venue: Erskineville Town Hall

Review: Telescope (Montague Basement)

montageubasementVenue: Leichhardt Town Hall (Leichhardt NSW), May 12 – 21, 2016
Playwright: Charles O’Grady
Director: Charles O’Grady
Cast: Shevvi Barret-Brown, Caillin McKay
Image by Omnes Photography

Theatre review
Experimentation often happens behind the scenes. A wealth of weird and wonderful things must happen in rehearsals before an audience is introduced to the mix. For Telescope, the experiment happens before our eyes but without us knowing. Each night, actors in the two-hander swap roles, which means that most would only ever see half of the picture. Charles O’Grady’s script is interested in the meanings of gender as experienced at home, and the surprising extent to which it pervades every corner of family life, insidious but unintended. Joss and Vic have a child going through early stages of gender transition. We do not meet Jem, but his presence is felt through the play, like a dark cloud that hangs over the living room in which all action is set. Sequences of mundanity and theatricality combine to form a plot that attempts to demonstrate the turbulent effect of gender coming into consciousness, and to explore the subtleties of how gender informs our relationships.

In between engaging scenes of argument and conflict, the production’s efforts at representing the banal can be overly indulgent. It takes a lot of time to cut to the chase, but while the audience desires drama, Telescope is interested in what happens in quiet moments. Joss and Vic are a very regular couple, but we are not allowed to disregard the minute conventionalities that inform us of their identities. We look for signs and gestures, usually hidden and ignored but sonorous on this stage, to come to an understanding of their relationship. We need to know who is the wife, who is the husband, but in that process of misgendering and determination, question the necessity of that very information. With our discovery of their respective genders, we consider its relevance to the story that unfolds, and indeed its machinations in real life outside of the auditorium.

Performances by Shevvi Barret-Brown and Caillin McKay are uneven, but effective when they find passion and when they are able to demonstrate hints of connection. There is a sense of detachment on the stage that, although challenging for a two-hour show, helps us observe human intimacy from an unusually critical standpoint.

Joss and Vic are unable to live and let live. They struggle to come to terms with Jem’s deviation, and are tormented by his self-determination. Their emotions are true, but also absurd. Vic and Jem are in a tug-of-war at opposite ends of the gender conceit, both insistent on what they deem irrefutable and real. Telescope not only makes us examine that binary, it leads us to its dissolution. The characters in the play speak only in terms of female and male, but what O’Grady puts on stage is a disruption of those simplistic and myopic ways of approaching life. Like feminism that works for the elimination of patriarchal systems, a revision to how we understand, practise and enforce gender in society would lead to greater equity, but that revision is of immense complexity, and we are only at the dawn of that political movement.

5 Questions with Shevvi Barrett-Brown and Caillin McKay

Shevvi Barrett-Brown

Shevvi Barrett-Brown

Caillin McKay: What is gender?
Shevvi Barrett-Brown: Lies, identities, forced roles, aesthetics, fluid, oppression, occasionally fun, mostly something to escape.

What is the most challenging things about doing this show?
Learning 88 pages of dialogue, playing a character that I wouldn’t want to talk to in real life – and so finding an in to the character is difficult, as I’ve actively tried NOT to identify with 40 year old cis male upper middle class transphobes. I’ve also been curled up in the foetal position for a lot of rehearsal with a mysterious illness. Cailin bought me a lot of mandarins.

Answer as your character Vic: why haven’t you taken the washing down yet?
I had a double shift at work, I took Chloe to tutoring, took my dad to his doctors appointment and organised things with the bank, I’m busy. I’ll get to it.

Answer as your character Joss: what’s your favourite thing about having children?
Teaching them about the wonders of the world.

If you could be any animal what would you be?
Unicorn. I am queer.

Caillin McKay

Caillin McKay

Shevvi Barrett-Brown: What is gender?
Caillin McKay: Pretty simple really! Of course, it depends on the person you talk to. For example, my gender is *a truck drives past, blaring its horn. Suddenly foghorns sound and air raid sirens shriek*. Hopefully that explains it.

What is the most challenging things about doing this show?
The intense focus on how I move and hold myself has been the hardest part of the show for me.

Answer as your character Vic: why haven’t you taken the washing down yet?
Joss, I did. Two hours ago. That is the new load on the line. Which, I’d like to remind you, you promised to put up.

Answer as your character Joss: what’s your favourite thing about having children?
I’ve always wanted to be a parent! I always knew I’d be a good one. And I have been! The kids love spending time with me.

If you could be any animal what would you be?
A cat. Being able to comfortably sit on the floor sounds like heaven.

Shevvi Barrett-Brown and Caillin McKay are appearing in Telescope by Charles O’Grady.
Dates: 12 – 21 May, 2016
Venue: Leichhardt Town Hall

Review: The Big Bruise (Montague Basement)

montagueVenue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Apr 5 – 16, 2016
Playwright: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Samuel Brewer
Image by Omnes Photography

Theatre review
A young man is contemplating suicide. At work, at play and at home, it is all that he thinks about. Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s meditation on the subject is neither emotional nor intellectual, but what he does present in The Big Bruise is an honest representation that many are able to recognise. It is a work about the lightness and indeed meaninglessness, that life can appear to possess. The character in the play is lost and aimless, with only the temptation of death offering him a true force of gravity. In comparison, everything else is inconsequential and impotent, so he hangs on to his obsession and the certainty it provides.

Performing that strange amalgamation of angst and frivolity is Samuel Brewer, an engaging actor whose confident presence is called upon to give solid grounding to the piece. Brewer is an energetic performer, whether playing brash or subdued, with an audacious power to his delivery that keeps us transfixed. The one-man show is beautifully placed on a raw stage, thoughtfully designed by Lusty-Cavallari to convey the calm but troubled state of being in which his creation resides. Improvements could be made for a more absorbing experience, but its visceral and surprisingly sensual qualities leave a strong impression.

The protagonist in The Big Bruise wants so much of life, but spends all his efforts at ending it. It is true that identifying one’s passions can be the biggest challenge a person can face, for what happens thereafter is simply to follow that calling. For some, that revelation never arrives, but for most, it is only a matter of time. We can wait for that divine moment in passivity or we can be constructive and find ways to speed up that process. If all else fails, one should simply stop the narcissistic act of perpetual introspection and look beyond the individual, for much of the world is in need of love and care, if only we could shift our fruitless vanity onto something altruistic and altogether more selfless.

Review: Hamlet (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Dec 1 – 5, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Zach Beavon-Collin, Robert Boddington, Christian Byers, Lulu Howes, Patrick Morrow
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
If Hamlet lives today, his claims about seeing the ghost of his recently deceased father would probably not be taken very seriously at all. In Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s adaptation, the Prince of Denmark deals with his bereavement by locking himself away with Disney films, and spends too much time online. We also only ever see the apparition in Hamlet’s presence (through television sets), which allows us to bring his sanity to question. This version of Hamlet explores youth and its detachment from reality, especially in the context of modern technology. It is about isolation, delusion, and that sense of entitlement often attributed to the privileged lives of children born in the economic boom of late twentieth century.

Lusty-Cavallari’s vision is focused and powerful. Substantial omissions are made to serve his reinterpretation, but his choices are interesting and thoughtful ones that challenge our preconceived notions about the text, and urges us to look with fresh eyes. We are made to consider if this Hamlet presents the same man in a different light, or whether this rendition is indeed an entirely different character from the one we had known. Performances do not always live up to the demands of Shakespeare’s writing, but Christian Byers brings good tension and drama with the title role, even if there is little variation in his approach to the prince’s temperament or gesticulations. Supporting player Patrick Morrow leaves a strong impression as Polonius, with effortless charm and a natural pace that help him stand out on a stage that does not shy away from outlandish theatrics.

Set design is beautifully executed, with components of media and technology strewn across the space, representing Hamlet’s room, and illustrating the disposable nature of our contemporary lives. “To be or not to be” almost becomes a flippant statement for a generation that struggles to find meaning, but the team in this production of Hamlet is determined to locate, in Shakespeare, relevance and resonance for themselves, and subversion it seems, is the only way.