Review: The Humans (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Sep 5 – Oct 7, 2018
Playwright: Stephen Karam
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Di Adams, Madeleine Jones, Arky Michael, Diana McLean, Reza Momenzada, Eloise Snape
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is Thanksgiving and as is customary for American families, the Blakes gather to mark the occasion. All do their best to make it a joyous evening, but each have individual lives that are not going at all well. Stephen Karam’s The Humans talks about the hardship of modern existence for our lower-middle classes, and explores the resilience required to survive, with family being a source of strength that can provide some degree of support and grounding. It is an exceptionally subtle work, but intensely intriguing, that lures us deep into a discussion about concerns that are perhaps not immediately apparent.

The show is surprisingly entertaining, considering the coyness of its approach. Director Anthea Williams introduces a generous quotient of dramatic tension to accompany the deceivingly mundane goings on, and comedy aspects are certainly very well executed under her supervision. Family dynamics feel authentic, with a bitter-sweetness that many will find strangely comforting.

An ensemble of six likeable personalities take us through the messy business of celebrations at home, with Di Adams especially compelling as Deirdre, whose suffering is demonstrated palpably alongside a zest for life, for a splendid depiction of human spirit at its best. Similarly poignant is Eloise Snape’s performance as Aimee, a young woman with little to be grateful for, but who we see sustained by an extraordinary inner strength. The actor delivers some gloriously funny moments, whilst portraying, terribly convincingly, a painfully tragic character.

These people face considerable challenges, but loneliness is not one of their problems. They are unable to fix each other, but their love does try to conquer all. For those who have family to rely on, it is a refuge that can soothe the ravages of life, and that provides the assurance that for all the anxieties we must endure, an embrace is always there waiting. Home is where the heart is, and those who have a way back, must count themselves lucky.

Review: Between The Streetlight And The Moon (Mophead Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 5 – 27, 2017
Playwright: Melita Rowston
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Joanna Downing, Ben McIvor, Lucy Miller, Suzanne Pereira, Lani Tupu
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Talent is a thing of mystery, and one of its elusive qualities surrounds the faith that an artist should have in their own abilities. In Melita Rowston’s Between The Streetlight And The Moon, we examine the ways in which painters are able to find a sense of belief in themselves, or more accurately, how their spirits can be dampened, by longstanding institutions that thrive on their own elitism and the implied deterrent of new individuals who wish to join the ranks.

The number of female names in the world of celebrated Western artists, is unquestionably paltry. The play looks at the way women painters and their work, are routinely subjugated and subsumed by their male mentors and counterparts. This chauvinism seems systematic, and it feels dangerously instinctual, and we wonder if this dynamic exists everywhere else in life.

Rowston’s writing is at its best when wistful and poetic. Her words are powerfully evocative, always passionate with advocacy for something meaningful. The plot is however, not as gripping as it wishes to be. Intrigue builds slowly, and when the story eventually becomes dramatic, we find ourselves more interested in Rowston’s philosophical ideas than the narrative being woven over them. Dialogue has a tendency to sound stilted when scenes attempt to be conversational, but the language turns beautifully sublime when characters move into more heightened modes of theatricality.

Actor Lucy Miller is an entrancing presence as painter-turned-academic, Zadie. Vulnerable, with an unmistakable gravitas, Miller brings authenticity to a protagonist who exists between shifting states of self-doubt and self-belief. Also impressive is Joanna Downing as the enthusiastic emergent, Dominique. Precise and considered, Downing’s portrayal of a brainy Millennial is truly delightful, even if her French accent is comically exaggerated.

Visual design is sparing but elegant. The use of projections to assist with our imagination of classic paintings is effective, and very gratifying, but an interpretation of The Seine requires much bolder execution. Live accompaniment by Benjamin Freeman on piano, adds brilliant flair to the show, a rare treat that theatregoers will find thoroughly enjoyable.

Zadie suffers humiliation when she mistakes a streetlight for the full moon. It is hard to conceive of creativity without sensitivity, but it is the artist’s responsibility to weather attacks on their pride, and return with greater vigour. It is also the responsibility of society to provide support to those who have the ability to give expression and meaning, to the human experience. In Australia, we have to give mindful emphasis to those artists whose voices continue to be silenced by a history of colonialism and its accompanying white patriarchy. Our art must strive for an accurate reflection of Australian life, and the white male artist is far from enough.

5 Questions with Joanna Downing and Ben McIvor

Joanna Downing

Ben McIvor: Jo, what do you love about your character Dominique?
Joanna Downing: I love that she can be so dry. I love her intelligence. I love that she is so considered – the way that she looks at the world, and art.

If Dom was an animal, what would she be, and why?
Cat. All lithe and bendy and somewhat mindless of other people’s space.

How do you prepare for a role?
Read the play as many times as humanly possible. Films and books invariably come up in conversation in the rehearsal room, so I try to watch/read as many as I can. I’m reading the Female Eunuch at the moment because of this one! I also started an image collection… Dom knows so much more about art and artists than I do, so I needed to familiarise myself with the images. Oh and of course, the French. I’ve been practising daily to get it up to scratch.

How has this play affected your understanding of art?
Well I hope it’s made me more conscientious. It’s definitely made me want to go to Musee D’Orsay and Marmottan to spend time with the real pieces. I think the play has given me an emotional attachment to the works, simply through Dom’s love of them, that I didn’t have before.

What’s it like working with Anthony Skuse?
Heaven! He is so considered and very open. The tone of the room was always warm and comfortable, but he also cuts through any extraneous bullshit. I have a sneaking suspicion that he can read me better than I can read myself.

Ben McIvor

Joanna Downing: What do you like most about the space at KXT (Kings Cross Theatre)?
I hope this doesn’t sound too weird, but I absolutely love the foyer! The art, the furniture, the typewriter, that stunning lamp, the egg timer, the books, that creepy dream catcher blowing around in the air conditioning under the glow of the exit sign… it feels like you’ve stepped into a strange dream.

What’s the biggest point of difference between you and your character?
I tend to think ahead a lot, whereas the thing I admire most about Barry is he lives moment to moment. He doesn’t think, he just does.

Who is your favourite artist and why?
Oooh, good question! This is particularly hard to answer because doing this play with Mr Skuse has really opened up a world that seemed so foreign to me. I’m going to go with Scottie Marsh, though. Growing up in the Inner-West, Hip-hop and graffiti played a big part in shaping my youth, and “fine art” seemed like something so far away from street art. Sipping nice wine in white-walled galleries was a world away from Posca’d train cabins and “Bombed” walls. I think Mr Marsh seems to do a great job of blurring the line between graffiti and fine art… and if I was a youth in 2017 who was into street art, this type of work might spark my interest into the world of fine art. I hope that makes sense!?

Do you have any pre-show ‘rituals’ to get you into character?
I guess it depends on the role. I like to do character work early on in the rehearsal process and I have a long list of questions that I ask my character to discover more about how they view themselves and their world… I read some of the responses before each show, and think about the images they create.

What’s your favourite music and what’s your character’s favourite music?
I think Barry is very much a jazz man. I think when he paints, he doesn’t like typically structured songs with lyrics, a beginning, middle, and end. I think he likes improvisation- instruments talking with each other. Me? At the moment I’m really into Bossa Nova. It’s the kinda stuff you can relax to, dance to, cook to, drive to or jam to. I love the variety of instruments that are used in Bossa… the sound has a certain “charm” to it.

Joanna Downing and Ben McIvor can be seen in Between The Streetlight And The Moon by Melita Rowston.
Dates: 5 – 27 May, 2017
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (Mophead Productions)

mopheadVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Oct 11 – Nov 12, 2016
Playwright: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (translated by David Tushingam)
Director: Shane Bosher
Cast: Taylor Ferguson, Judith Gibson, Matilda Ridgway, Mia Rorris, Eloise Snape, Sara Wiseman
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, we search for the meaning of love. Petra had just ended a marriage, but now finds herself enamoured with another. Through an examination on the nature of unrequited love, the play is an invitation to meditate on one of life’s biggest mysteries, by looking at the space between being in love, and being out of love. Petra has an object of desire, someone she obsesses over, who responds with nonchalance. Her devotion is both voluntary and involuntary, she gives of herself in hope of reciprocation, but continues to invest her all, even when the outcome is not as intended. She thinks only that her suffering bears a purpose of winning favour, but does not realise the masochistic pleasures that envelope the burning sensations of pain she thrives on.

The writing is phenomenally thrilling, and deeply important. Masochism is a pivotal part of our psyche, but we make little acknowledgement of it. In our human inability to be perfect, we all experience on a daily basis, the impulse to do what is not going to deliver the best results. Although we wish for a level of optimal performance in all the things we do, we are not machines, and we know that the instinctive tendencies to jeopardise are always strong. We are expected to be good, but really, we cannot stop from wanting to be bad. Our ethics prevent us from being destructive with the decisions we make at work, at home, in society, but when discussing the romantic and the carnal, destructiveness becomes personal and we have the right to choose how bad we wish to be. In his creation of Petra’s tragicomedy, Fassbinder reveals an honest aspect of humanity, and the inherent darkness of our existences. In our heroine’s pursuit of a very fiery love, she uncovers her true self, perfectly beautiful yet devastatingly vicious.

Sara Wiseman is resplendent in her warts and all portrayal of the title role. Operatic and visceral, it is a stunning performance of a woman in control, and out of control, overwhelmed by infatuation and lust, completely unhinged, motivated only by her own desires. Wiseman unleashes profound emotional and psychological accuracy that makes every debauched plot detail believable, along with a magnetic sensuality that has us entranced from beginning to end. Furthermore, it is not a narcissistic display that she puts on, but a thoroughly nuanced study of dynamics between Petra and the people around her, with the star manufacturing scintillating chemistry with every co-actor for a show that keeps us frothing at the edge of our seats. Also fabulous is Matilda Ridgway, sensational in an entirely speechless role but powerfully present at the periphery of every scene. Marlene is a controversial servant character, made even more confronting by Ridgway’s fierce dedication. It is a hugely impressive study of the only woman on stage who gets everything she wants.

The production looks sophisticated, severe and sexy. Georgia Hopkins’ set is executed with a confident minimalist edge, radiantly glamorous and intimidating in its strict glossy blackness. Shane Bosher’s direction breathes new, electrifying life into a play approaching its fiftieth year, proving that Fassbinder’s ageless legacy continues to be relevant and resonant, especially when it comes to issues of our libido. Bosher’s love of the strong female is magnificently showcased, with every woman bold and alluring in her uniqueness. His fetishistic depiction of Petra as Goddess, allows the show to bewitch and to inspire awe. The temptress and us, breathe the same air, but we are at her mercy, and anywhere she wishes to take us in the theatre, we must surrender, and revel in it.

5 Questions with Matilda Ridgway and Eloise Snape

Matilda Ridgway

Matilda Ridgway

Eloise Snape: If you could compare your character in The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, Marlene, to other wonderful women, fictional or non fictional, who would they be?
Matilda Ridgway: Mary Gaitskill’s characters in Bad Behaviour, Lee Holloway from Secretary, O from The Story of O, Lucia Atherton from The Night Porter.

Whats the most challenging thing about this play for you?
Not speaking is challenging. Subservience is challenging. Understanding Marlene’s relationship to these choices. How it affects her and her relationship.

If you had to be locked in a small confined space for 24 hours with one of the characters in the play (apart from Petra), who would you choose and why?
There is nobody apart from Petra.

Hypothetical. Would you rather have twigs for fingers or cheese toes? A hard cheese like a pecorino.
Hard cheese toes rather than twig fingers. I need my fingers for touching fruits and jellies and pink bits and babies. Twigs would pierce these soft things or break off into a million things.

If you bumped into Donald Trump and his hair in the street, what would you say to him? In one sentence only.
You’re fired!

Eloise Snape

Eloise Snape

Matilda Ridgway: Hypothetical: would you rather have feet made of cottage cheese or have super magnetic hands?
Eloise Snape: Definitely super magnetic hands. Imagine all the stuff you could steal.

Can you tell people about when we first met?
Tilly and I met in high school at SCEGGS Darlinghurst. We did a production of Secret Bridesmaids Business together with a bunch of legends. Then I watched her in all the plays at Sydney Grammar and got super jealous.

Please play fuck, marry, kill with our cast and crew who do you choose and why?
Ok – entering dangerous territory. Can I pick the same person for all three? I say Alistair Wallace because I’ve known him for years and I don’t think he would bat an eyelid if I fucked him, married him and then killed him.

What is one thing you admire about your character Sidonie and one thing that makes you feel uncomfortable?
Sidonie is proud, intelligent, sticks to her guns and wears fluffy things. That’s cool. But her entire value system and approach to life makes me totally uncomfortable. And wearing high heels all the time is pushing the comfort zone.

If you could be one character in the play who would you be in real life?
Oooh defs Gaby I reckon. I wouldn’t mind being 14 again and figuring all that stuff out. Also she’s a designer’s daughter – there are major pros to that. Also cons but you have to see the play to know what they are.

Matilda Ridgway and Eloise Snape are appearing in The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Dates: 11 October – 12 November, 2016
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: The House Of Ramon Iglesia (Mophead Productions / Red Line Productions)

mopheadVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), May 12 – Jun 6, 2015
Playwright: José Rivera
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Christian Charisiou, Deborah Galanos, Nicholas Papademetriou, Ronny Jon Paul Mouawad, Stephen Multari, Eloise Snape, David Soncin
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
No man is an island. We need to feel a sense of belonging, not only with other people, but also with places. José Rivera’s The House Of Ramon Iglesia investigates the significance of ancestry and roots, through the experience of Puerto Rican migrants in 1980 New York. The Iglesia family is dislocated in a space between San Juan and Holbrook, and its two generations illustrate the complexity of human attachment to a sense of country and home. In our modern times, populations are in constant flux, and the arbitrariness of borders is negotiated to allow for opportunities and interested parties to collide. The matter of nationalities is no longer a straightforward concept for many, and Rivera’s work questions its importance and indeed, its relevance to individual lives.

Anthony Skuse’s direction of the piece is a passionate rendering that delivers an engaging and energetic theatre, but our empathy for its characters only arrives several scenes after it begins. Early sequences feel distant, perhaps a result of their estranged temporal and geographic contexts. Its themes take time to connect, and even though many of its ideas can be universal, we only recognise them after some investment of imagination and patience, but when the show shifts into a gear of high drama, the play becomes a dynamic one, with performances that impress with emotional depth, and a compelling cast chemistry that creates an extraordinarily believable family unit.

When actors are focused and psychologically accurate, we surrender our trust and follow their journeys without hesitation. Deborah Galanos’ intensity gives her Dolores an admirable strength and although quite flamboyant in her approach, we do not question the authenticity of what is being presented. The melodrama Galanos introduces is delightfully entertaining, and allows the actor to expand her characterisation beyond the scripted lines, so that who we meet is greater than an archetypal maternal figure. In the smaller role of Charlie is David Soncin, whose memorable performance is coloured with a natural exuberance and an effortless magnetism. He plays his role with clear and simple intentions, but always discovers powerful subtleties that add surprising dimension to his work. Stephen Multari’s conviction and emotional sonority is a highlight in many scenes of confrontation and feuding. Javier’s inner world is central to the effectiveness of the play, and Multari’s depiction of it is beautifully resonant. The actor’s vigour and earnestness however, can seem out of place in the show’s more tranquil moments, and opportunities are missed that could allow the character to be more endearing, so that we care more about the lead and all the people surrounding him.

When we think of identity, we inevitably go to beliefs about bloodlines and origin. Place is important, but how we manufacture meaning between lived experience and geography is idiosyncratic and personal, yet collectivism is always a part of the discussion. We talk of nations of peoples, and we talk of partners and kins. Rivera’s story is about that conundrum, not just of how we use identity labels, but also how these labels intersect between friends and family. Each person can have an intimate and private understanding of their own space in the big scheme of things, but arbitration will always exist, even for the strongest. |

Review: Platonov (Mophead / Catnip Productions )

mophead1Venue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Nov 5 – 22, 2014
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Anthony Skuse)
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Gary Clementson, Charlie Garber, Suzanne Pereira, Amy Hack, Geraldine Hakewill, Graeme McRae, Sam O’Sullivan, Jason Perini, Matilda Ridgway, Eloise Snape, Dorje Swallow, Sam Trotman, Terry Karabelas, Edward McKenna
Image by Matthew Neville

Theatre review
“Impoverished nobility, bored gentry, long afternoons, and a gun” is Anthony Skuse’s characterisation of Chekhov’s legacy, and in this new adaptation of Platonov, Skuse constructs a languid late nineteenth century Russian town, focusing on the title character’s love affairs, and the acquisition of an estate by the underclass. Skuse’s script contains several strong narratives with complex psychological and emotional dimensions, but the work is surprisingly comical, buoyed by a young cast who seems determined to keep proceedings light and frothy.

Skuse’s use of space is aesthetically outstanding. His stage design is minimal, but through the sensitive positioning of a generous number of chairs and actors, scenes come to life and we experience a sublime transformation of time and space. Lighting design by Chris Page and sound by Alistair Wallace are subtle but powerful in effecting atmosphere with a dramatic elegance. The innovative use of chorus and Russian folk songs further enhances the theatrical experience, and this is where most of the performers excel. Direction of performance timing and energy is executed well, but motivations tend to be surface, and it is this lack of gravity that tarnishes the production. Costume is not credited, and the cast often looks as though they are still in rehearsal garb, which detracts from the social and class structures that inform much of the play’s content.

Leading man Charlie Garber is charismatic, with an impressive presence, but his approach is persistently farcical, and he anchors the production in a frivolity that sits uncomfortably with Chekhov’s weighty themes. Platonov’s spinelessness can be humorous, but it is also a serious element that ultimately represents the core reason for the destruction of lives in the story. We may perceive the responsibility associated with the lack of courage and virtue in key personalities, but the show needs to deliver something more poignant in order for its audience to connect on a personal and emotional level. Sam Trotman as Sergei demonstrates a much stronger commitment to the role’s authenticity. His ascension from puerility to anguish over the course of the play is thoroughly compelling, and his fierce vitality adds a much needed edge to a production that tends to be too understated in its storytelling.

The show successfully removes conventional stylistic touches that could be thought of as clichéd in standard representations of Chekhov’s scripts, but the vacuity left behind in their absence is not sufficiently compensated by the show’s moderate sense of originality. Skuse wishes to expose the essence of these character’s very beings, to achieve an understanding of how we function as individuals and as societies, but the language required to communicate those concepts seem to ask for something more elaborate and substantial. It turns out that stripping something bare does not necessarily give easy access to the truth, and what we think of as cosmetic could actually hold significance and meaning. |

Review: The God Of Hell (Mophead Productions / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

mopheadVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 26 – Sep 13, 2014
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Director: Rodney Fisher
Cast: Vanessa Downing, Jake Lyall, Ben McIvor, Tony Poli
Image by Gareth Davies

Theatre review
Sam Shepard’s The God Of Hell portrays patriotism as a dangerous concept. In the name of national pride, morality is distorted and human rights are nullified for the benefit of an abstract higher power. The meaning of citizenry is subversively explored, against the backdrop of a traditional and idyllic farm, where residents live honest existences without the need for labels of jingoistic identification. Emma and Frank live quietly in Missouri, with cows and plants occupying their attention, and they want for nothing. Their lives are simple but complete, and we admire their wholesome day-to-day routine, which the play presents at some level of glorification. Complications emerge when characters appear to disrupt their peace, and we observe scenes of destruction transpiring as a result of narcissism, greed and ignorance.

Helmed by Rodney Fisher who serves as director and designer, the production is inventive, exuberant and sophisticated. It is a very good looking show, with an ambitious set that is perfectly proportioned and elegantly executed, communicating a sense of rustic purity that is immediately endearing. Together with Ryan Shuker’s lighting, Fisher has materialised a blissful vision that represents an ideal we cannot bear to see tainted. Also successful is sound designer Max Lyandvert’s work, which provides a beautiful dimension of rural domesticity that eventually develops into something much more sinister.

Fisher’s direction is lively and precise, with a surprising clarity that always places emphasis on the narrative. It is very accomplished storytelling that constantly introduces fresh elements of interest to maintain a connection with the audience. Even when Shepard’s script becomes alienating or abstruse, the plot continues to be excitingly coherent. Fisher achieves a balance between naturalism and theatricality that makes The God Of Hell fascinating and enjoyable. The smell of bacon cooking on a stove top is both an ordinary occurrence and a flamboyant stage flourish. The four actors too, are impressively believable, while being quite dazzlingly entertaining.

Emma is played by Vanessa Downing who keeps us anchored in a place of reality while the play escalates to dramatic heights. Downing is charming, funny and entirely likable, so we identify with Emma readily, even if her life is probably quite unlike anybody’s in Sydney. She provides an authenticity that allows an understating and affiliation, and we form an important emotional bond with that character. Her husband Frank is equally charismatic, thanks to Tony Poli’s vibrant stage energy and immense presence. Jake Lyall as Haynes has extraordinary focus, giving valuable gravity to a mysterious role, and Ben McIvor’s playful interpretation of the villainous Welch is critical to the dynamic and buoyant quality of the production.

It is easy to be fatigued by arguments about politics, terrorism, torture and military power. Thirteen years have past since the September 11 attacks, and no one is any closer to winning either the real or metaphysical wars against terror. Governments are unable to provide effective solutions, and every form of media bombards with incessant information that we can only, at best, struggle with. These themes have become bewildering, and like Emma, we can only attempt to not be lured into convenient modes of ideology and behaviour. It is a challenge to preserve a clear conscience and a pure heart, but it is the human spirit that will always hope for Emma to stay uncontaminated, regardless of the insurmountable odds she faces at the play’s end. |