Review: Distorted (Fixed Foot Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 10 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Xavier Coy
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Michael Arvithis, Xavier Coy, Emma Louise, Poppy Lynch, Lex Marinos, Tristan McKinnon, Kate Rutherford, Jack Walton, David Woodland, Sheree Zellner
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Xavier Coy’s Distorted comprises short episodes, involving ten main characters, all of whom are connected, and all of whom have less than joyful lives. They look like people from any Western city, who have struggles that look ordinary, yet none of which can be easily dealt with. Life is hard, by Coy’s estimation, but what he presents is perversely delightful. There is a veiled humour to the despondent scenarios being enacted, that feels like a bitter irony acknowledging that our complaints can only ever feel haughty when there are roofs over heads, and no shortage of food in bellies.

In Distorted, we observe the all-consuming nature of these personal problems, whilst forming a perspective that reveals these frustrations to be ultimately inconsequential and somewhat narcissistic. Director Richard Hilliar does an excellent job of depicting both the accuracy of these egocentric experiences, and a wider view that it all amounts to little. The show is captivating in every moment, with Hilliar’s knack for drama keeping us mesmerised.

Stage design by Hamish Elliot is gracefully rendered, and effective in facilitating the quick scene changes that happen throughout the duration. Jasmin Borsovsky’s lights too, help us instinctively navigate spacial transformations, as do Martin Gallagher’s sounds that work with our subconscious to make sense of the many abrupt shifts in time. A strong cast performs the piece, with each character believable and realistic. The team tells a cohesive story, remarkable with the even focus they provide so compellingly, to have us invest in every little detail that is being conveyed.

Most of the people in Distorted find the world a difficult place, but they do little to seek to change it. One of them spends considerable time in psychotherapy, where he tries to find ways to fix himself, even though the play gives no evidence of the young man suffering any illness. We have become conditioned to always think that it is the individual who needs improvement, that when things go wrong, we need to fix ourselves, without ever questioning if it is the external environment that requires interrogation. Happiness must come from within, but when we encounter anxiety and exasperation, we must not forget to transcend the self, and identify first, the structures we operate under that are determined to beat us down.

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5 Questions with Jack Walton and Sheree Zellner

Jack Walton

Sheree Zellner: When friends ask you, “What is Distorted about,” what do you tell them?
Jack Walton: When I think about Distorted I often see it as is a fractured story about fractured people. We get to glimpse into key stages of people’s deepest relationships as well as witness the most isolated moments in their lives. So much of the play is flavoured with this brilliantly witty humour but then you get to have these beautiful, intimate moments of just living with these people as they go though things like addiction, mental health, pregnancy and loneliness.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about yourself through playing the role of Alex?
I feel like there’s a new discovery after each run but what sticks out to me is just how much I value the key people around me. When I think about the people I’m closest there’s a bond that I also see Alex discover with his girlfriend where they each allow their best and worst versions of themselves be presented to one another which creates all kinds of drama but it’s also the kind of relationship that you don’t always fully appreciate until it’s at risk of being taken away.

Without giving too much away, what is your favourite scene or character from Distorted and why?
There’s a great scene near the middle of the play where my character and Poppy Lynch’s character have this wild screaming match. It’s hilarious because what they’re arguing about is so ridiculous and off topic but under the surface we start to see a new side to their relationship. That’s definitely the scene I feel most free in as well, there’s no point where you can hide from the audience so you just have to dive into it head first.

What do you think people will take away with them after seeing Distorted?
Each character in the play has some surface level identity. Some kind of stereotype that people would attach to them passing by on the street. I think what’s so great about Distorted is that it gives the audience a chance to see the humanity that lies below these assumptions. You suddenly have more empathy for people when you get to see their story in front of you. So in short, if there’s anything an audience could take away from this show I hope it’s some version of empathy.

What was your initial reaction after we did our first full run of Distorted?
I was exhausted! I have most of my scenes with one other actor so I didn’t actually get to meet most of the cast until we all came together for our first run. Having not rehearsed with everyone in the room before that point I was really impressed with how everything slotted into place. Usually doing a first run of any production is pretty bumpy but because this play moves at a such lightning pace everyone was switched on and ready to pounce onto whatever cues were thrown at them. There was a great sense of achievement after that run.

Sheree Zellner

Jack Walton: Distorted has such a distinctly energised writing style. How does it feel to perform something that is always so active?
Sheree Zellner: I love the energetic style of Xavier Coy’s writing, really keeps us on our toes, there’s always something happening onstage and off, it’s a great lesson in keeping the ball in the air at all times. For my 62 year old brain that’s got to be a good thing! Thankfully I love to be challenged and there’s always Berocca… Seriously though, because the writing is so energised, it informs our performances naturally, so it’s like getting caught in a theatrical vortex.

What do you find exciting about playing with new works?
Being involved from the ground up is so satisfying because we are the first ones to put our stamp on these characters. We’re not following in others footsteps, we’re making the first forays into the lives of our characters and everything we experience as actors in creating these characters is completely original. For an actor that’s pure gold, we’re a very fortunate ensemble.

Why do you think people value relationships so intensely?
Generally speaking I’d say that it’s about connection. I think it’s something we’re always looking for in every aspect of our lives, at home, at work, on social media. Connection can bring out the best and worst of humanity and I think we see that very clearly in Distorted. This play really shows all aspects of how we connect, the lengths we go to for connection and the lengths we go to when we want to avoid connection because it’s too painful. Our director Richard Hilliar has been instrumental in bringing those connections, or lack thereof, into sharper focus. He’s been so unwaveringly supportive, we’re all very thankful for that.

What have you found most challenging about rehearsing Distorted?
Ha ha, how long have you got! Well let me see… firstly my character Louise is a bit of a hot mess and her way of coping with her issues is not something I’m familiar with at all on a personal level. Let’s just say that the research was very interesting! Then of course, as an actor I have to find my way of playing that, of inhabiting her world and her views. Also as an older actor I have to keep my focus laser sharp for every second of this play, whether onstage or off. I’ve got notes pinned to walls everywhere so I don’t forget anything!

This play has changed a lot since we got the initial script. How has your view of your character changed/developed?
It’s changed so much since the initial script, but one thing was very clear to me after that first table read, which is that I was going to have to just surrender to each development. After deciding on backstories to suit, Xavier then reworked all the scenes incorporating the original scenes, but adapting them to suit and expanding exponentially on our characters, as did Richard in the rehearsal room. The changes and developments just kind of happened, and my views about my own character Louise became a part of the whole ‘surrender’ philosophy. Looking back I am amazed by the process and how much I’ve learned from it. This season of Distorted is going to be a wild ride, that much I do know!

Jack Walton and Sheree Zellner can be seen in Distorted, by Xavier Coy.
Dates: 10 – 22 Mar, 2020
Venue: Old 505 Theatre

Review: Good Mourning (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 3 – 8, 2020
Playwright: Sonia Dodd
Director: Hannah Armstrong
Cast: Gabrielle Aubrey, Coen Lourigan, Madelaine Osborn, Ben Rodwell

Theatre review
Told from the perspective of an 8 year-old, Good Mourning by Sonia Dodd is about a young family dealing with the impending death of a parent. The four children have to grapple with a diagnosis that can only be described as traumatic; their father has advanced cancer with only three months to live. It is however not a grim story that we discover. The family finds uplifting ways to spend their remaining time together, cherishing their precious days and doing what children do best, to find the light under any circumstance.

At just forty minutes or so, Dodd’s writing is concise but satisfying, with an honesty that circumvents sentimentality, for a discussion on grief that always feels authentic. Hannah Armstrong directs this story based on her own experiences, inventive and effervescent in style, surprising us with the optimism and entertainment she is able to provide. Also noteworthy are Rhys Mendham’s efforts with lighting design, successful at providing consistent visual variation to a very bare stage.

The ensemble is charming and well-rehearsed, beautifully cohesive with all that they present. Gabrielle Aubrey, Coen Lourigan, Madelaine Osborn and Ben Rodwell play a range of characters, each one spirited and cleverly imagined. Their portrayal of the children’s innocence is especially effective, able to tell a sad story without excessive despondency, thereby encouraging us to think about death and mourning in a healthy manner. The very definition of life means that we must encounter loss. Learning to cope is essential, and knowing how to live with vibrancy after saying goodbye, is crucial.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Pit (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 1, 2020
Playwright: Jackson Used
Director: Mikala Westall
Cast: Tony Barea, Margarita Gershkovich, Briony Williams
Images by Morgan Moroney

Theatre review
Bridget’s only daughter has been abducted. Needless to say, the aftermath is traumatic, and as we see in Jackson Used’s Pit, a constant state of disorientation and pain. One can attempt to find ways to move on, but there is no escaping the all-consuming damage that must result from an incident like this. Bridget tries on every kind of survival mechanism, none of which proves satisfactory, and we must confront the idea that when things go this bad, no solution can exist. It becomes a case of sink or swim, and we see that the remaining hope is about resilience and spirit, even if all they do is to keep a person breathing.

Direction by Mikala Westall is often imaginative, although a bolder approach is necessary for a more dramatic experience. Actor Briony Williams does most of the heavy lifting, focused and purposeful in the lead role. Tony Barea plays the lost girl’s father Serge, a surprising performance that has us won over at the end. Margarita Gershkovich provides sturdy support in a number of smaller parts, able to engage the audience without causing distraction from the central plot and character.

The emotions displayed on stage can feel slightly restrained, but theatre should not ask of its makers, thorough authenticity under all circumstances. What Bridget has to go through, is beyond inhumane, and no actor should have to take on anywhere near that level of torment. There are techniques however, that can help the show convey greater intensity, so that we may come closer to the reality being rendered, even if bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors are how we can get there.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: The Split (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Dec 3 – 14, 2019
Playwright: Sarah Hamilton
Director: Charley Sanders
Cast: Amy Victoria Brooks, Max Garcia-Underwood

Theatre review
We are with Jules and Tom are on a small boat, where for several days and nights, they have isolated themselves to sort out an unspeakable problem. It must be a difficult one because we see them evading the issue, indulging instead in a lot of mundane chat and frivolous activity, leaving their purpose ignored in the background.

Sarah Hamilton’s The Split demonstrates what it is like, when things are too hard to deal with, especially if they relate to matters of the heart. The work is keenly observed, although its unrelenting sense of wistfulness can prove a challenge for the 90-minute duration. The couple is in a state of fragility, and we watch them unable to access anything that might fracture their emotional equilibrium, resulting in a play that stays too much in a delicate space, refusing to deliver a more obvious drama, or comedy, that would sustain our interest.

Performers in The Split are beautifully focused, very confident and precise with their respective portrayals. Amy Victoria Brooks and Max Garcia-Underwood may not deliver convincing sizzle as lovers, but both actors bring a valuable depth to their characters, able to convey authenticity for every scene. Director Charley Sanders’ storytelling is honest, but the production is too subdued in approach, and as a consequence, insufficiently engaging. Lights and video projections by Kobe Donaldson contribute some visual appeal to the staging, although atmosphere could be further enhanced to complement the writing’s sensual melancholy.

Life is hard; all we can do is to give it our best shot. As we watch Jules and Tom fail at what they had set out to achieve, we examine the way people deal with painful situations, in the understanding that it is the very nature of pain, that makes us run away from what we acknowledge needs to be addressed. The two take it slow, waiting for the ache to subside, so that they can finally arrive at a moment of confrontation that both know to be necessary. Not everything can be ripped off like a band aid. We learn that some things deserve the luxury of time, even if everything in this moment, does feel like a real state of emergency.

www.houseofsand.org

Review: The House At Boundary Road (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 5 – 16, 2019
Playwrights: Violette Ayad, Thomas De Angelis, Chika Ikogwe, Jordy Shea
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Violette Ayad, Henrietta Amevor, Monique Calarco, Jemwel Danao, Nancy Denis, Felino Dolloso, Adam Di Martino, Jessica Phoebe Hanna, Mark Paguio, David Soncin, Angela Sullen, Mike Ugo
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
It is in Western Sydney’s Liverpool, that we find The House At Boundary Road, and the families who had lived in it over the years. Written by Violette Ayad, Thomas De Angelis, Chika Ikogwe and Jordy Shea, the work comprises four short plays, each featuring a migrant family. De Angelis writes about Italians in the 50s, Shea on Filipinos in the 60s, followed by Ayad’s Middle Eastern sisters who grew up there in the 80s, and finally Ikogwe presents today’s Nigerian inhabitants. Each segment is compact but powerful, for a meaningful encapsulation of our recent history.

The stories are an emotional tribute to difficult times, all of them offering intimate insight that pertain to the migrant working class. Truths about our economic system are revealed, along with the persistently inequitable nature of our nationhood. Directed by Jessica Arthur, the production is appropriately sentimental, presented in a simple style that conveys poignancy for every moment. A deeply evocative set by Keerthi Subramaniam, recalls interiors of modest homes that form the inner sanctum for so many Australian battlers. Kate Baldwin’s lights and Clemence Williams’s sound keep us in a beautiful melancholy, for an intimately resonant representation of both the past and the present.

Actor Felino Dolloso is especially moving as Jovy, the despondent father of the Filipino household, helping us see the pain of displacement in the most sobering way. The captivating Henrietta Amevor plays Chioma, a 14 year-old Nigerian obsessed with boys and selfies, bringing to the role exquisite humour and phenomenal star quality. Nancy Denis absolutely charms as Chioma’s mother, and their neighbour Ugo is portrayed by Mike Ugo, who impresses with an unexpected tenderness, and the effortless warmth he brings to the stage.

Many of us were allowed in, because difficult jobs needed to be done. We are built on the backs of economic migrants, yet they are routinely demonised by those who benefit most, from the smooth functioning of this capitalist way of life. Those at the top of our hierarchies understand that their positions are only tenable for as long as there are people at the bottom holding things up, yet they never fail to take every opportunity to vilify and demean those who are newer to this land, and darker in skin tone. The characters in The House At Boundary Road may look disparate to suspicious eyes, but there is little that separates them besides. The powerful will insist that we are never the same, so that they can keep trampling over us, but as soon as we reject those notions of difference, we can begin a revolution to erase these despicable disparities.

www.bontom.com.au

Review: Duckpond (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 22 – 26, 2019
Playwright: Tabitha Woo
Director: Alison Bennett
Cast: Danen Engelenberg, Melissa Hume, Rizcel Gagawanan, Rudolf Hendrikx, Samantha Lambert
Images by Alex Smiles

Theatre review
Ingrid seems to have survived a plane crash, except she wakes up in a surreal landscape, and begins to see things in a very different light. In Duckpond, playwright Tabitha Woo interrogates the notion of reality, with a particular interest in the way religion and technology not only construct meanings for our existence, but are in fact totalitarian determinants of how we perceive the world. We are ducks in a pond designed by false gods and technocrats, unable to swim out of a paradigm created by others, for the benefit of others.

It is an evocative allegory, charmingly illustrated, in a play enjoyable for its absurdity, if slightly too coy with its humour. Alison Bennett’s idiosyncratic direction delivers a production memorable for its kooky style, with frequent disruptions to theatrical conventions, that help us look into the nature and origins of normality as a general concept. Actor Melissa Hume offers an effective blend of ordinariness and inquisitiveness, in her depictions of a state of awakening, as flight attendant Ingrid begins to discover the artifice behind everything that wishes to pass as real. Her companion is a duck, played by Rizcel Gagawanan, sprightly and amusing with her representation of blissful ignorance.

Humans have an interminable desire for truth, but we are often distracted by the comfort of certainty. Capitalistic forces seduce us with that numbing gratification of phoney answers that they provide, in the form of certainties that rarely contain more than a semblance of truth. They know that when we stop questioning, we are turned into complacent consumers and obedient subjects, easily manipulated to serve their interests, as we languish in a perpetual and frustrating blindness.

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