Review: The Natural Conservatorium For Wise Women (Clockfire Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 3 – 21, 2017
Director: Emily Ayoub
Cast: Alicia Gonzalez, Sam Newing-Stern, Catherine Parle, Laura Turner, Tony Weir
Image by Geoff Magee

Theatre review
The patriarchy is constantly at war. In a system that benefits few, it has to protect itself from many enemies, especially those who have awoken from its deceptive manipulations, and are now aware of the injustices it generates. The Natural Conservatorium For Wise Women is an allegorical expression of the nature of patriarchy, in which we meet a man sitting atop a lonely throne, inside the strict boundaries of his miserable home, whilst others are outside engaged in blood-drenched combat on his behalf.

A highly imaginative work with only a slight reliance on dialogue, it is the sheer theatricality we encounter that truly excites. The characters tell a meaningful story, but it is the craft being put on display that is most captivating. There is much to admire, in the very specific discipline cultivated by this team of artists, with its strong emphasis on human physicality, rather than a more conventional use of emotional and verbal capacities as devices of communication. Informed by traditions of dance and mime, it is a style of performance that we rarely see in the landscapes of Australian art and is hence, an immediately refreshing experience for our audiences.

It is a very accomplished cast, with Tony Weir sensational as the decaying patriarch. Mesmerised, we watch closely as he mobilises every fibre of his being to turn the stage into a living, breathing thing that insists on our undivided attention. Weir’s commanding presence, and his powerfully seductive eyes, guide us through each moment with commendable precision and an inspiring sense of wonder. Alicia Gonzalez and Catherine Parle too, are terrific with their eccentric concoction of personalities, and the beautiful simplicity built into their unique language, is quite sublime. Space and atmosphere are finely tuned by director Emily Ayoub, who delivers a creation elegantly minimal in its aesthetic, but rich in resonance.

There is no end to the things we can talk about in the theatre, and there is no end to the different ways in which we can have those conversations, yet we seem to go about things in predictable fashion, choosing to persist with refining usual modes of presentation, instead of investing in the new. Our conservative art is symptomatic of the conservative times in which we live, and one might begin to interpret this unmistakable apathy as though there is nothing left to fight for. The opposite is true of course, but until we wake from the dulled and disillusioned dormancy of an existence that has resigned itself to the parochial, events like The Natural Conservatorium For Wise Women can only be an exception and not the norm.

www.clockfiretheatre.com

Review: I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son Of A Bitch (Théâtre Excentrique)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 22 – Sep 2 2017
Playwright: Rodrigo Garcia (translated by William Gregory)
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Gerry Sont, Sister Ursuline
Image by Emma Lois

Theatre review
It is unlikely that one should lose sleep to something sacred. We worry about money, work, and all other things that feed the ego, but art and philosophy tend not to keep us awake at night. In fact, they can be relied on to offer the comfort that lulls us into slumber. Rodrigo Garcia’s 50-minute monologue I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son Of A Bitch, is about a middle-aged man resisting the profanities of daily life that can so easily overwhelm our existence.

His two young sons, dreaming about visiting Disneyland, are the inspiration for his attempts at shifting focus onto a higher plane of consciousness. The importance of art and philosophy is all he wants to impart, and he stakes his entire life’s savings of 5,000 Euro on the exercise. Indeed, to be able to gift the best to your dearest, is worth every penny, even if all one gets in return is intangible.

The work is hugely passionate, almost hysterical in its desire to expound its anti-capitalistic ideals. Rarely overtly political, it talks little about what it rejects, choosing instead to delve fervently into its earnest and fantastical explorations, involving in part, the Prado Museum and a long cab ride. Director Anna Jahjah creates a sense of urgency appropriate to the writing, along with a whimsical optimism that helps open us up to the play’s intellectual provocations. Gerry Sont is effervescent as actor of the piece, a warm, likeable presence although not quite humorous enough for what is required. Live music by Sister Ursuline (cello and vocals) provides a romantic dimension, to the discussion of sacred versus banal, art against commerce.

The staging encompasses both the earthy and the ethereal. In being human, we are of the mundane, but also inseparable from the many greater realms that our minds allow. Social forces will insist on our compliance with regards all things pragmatic. Rules, regulations and bills will attempt to shape our lives in a certain way, but our spirit cannot be contained. As long as we understand that the capacity for imagination is real, then what we become, is beyond repression.

www.theatrexcentrique.com

Review: Little Borders (Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 4 – 15, 2017
Playwright: Phillip Kavanagh
Director: Dominic Mercer
Cast: Lucy Goleby, Brandon McClelland
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Elle and Steve are moving houses, because they have convinced themselves that their Middle Eastern neighbour is a terrorist. Little Borders by Phillip Kavanagh, is about the paranoid, fearful and narcissistic people that many of us have become, in a confused world that has us believe that things will go wrong in an instant, and that other people are to blame.

The young couple is bestowed every social and economic privilege that could give them the best opportunity at a comfortable existence, yet they are full of volatility and hostility, obsessed with the idea that their lives are going to fall apart at any given moment. Their self-destructive behaviour is depicted with biting astuteness by Kavanagh, who reveals the insidious nature of hate in our contemporary communities.

The production is suitably dark, if slightly too predictable in its despair. The important messages of Little Borders are given remarkable elucidation by director Dominic Mercer, and we leave shaken by our disastrous reflection, but the show has a tendency to feel too safe and slightly unambitious in its interpretations of Kavanagh’s bold writing. We sense that the words provide room for a greater theatricality, although its minimalism is nonetheless effective, and beautifully executed. Set design by Charlie Edward Davis and Jeremy Allen, is understated but charming, and undeniably memorable.

Actors Lucy Goleby and Brandon McClelland prove themselves to be highly accomplished in the piece. Goleby’s intensity, although quiet and contained, is a captivating study of Elle, a woman gripped by insecurity and irrational anxiety. She keeps us inquisitive, and terrified, by her authentic manifestation of a person that we sometimes find ourselves being. McClelland is a charismatic presence, with immaculate hair and perfect teeth providing disguise for a character that has no redeeming features. His juxtaposition of clean cut suburban wellness against the pure evil of Steve’s words and actions, is chilling, and perversely entertaining.

It is a frightening look at the psyche of our worst neighbours. The play resonates with an alarming accuracy, even though the events that unfold are very dramatic and extreme. It is truthful in what it says about modern life; the interminable feeling of inadequacy, and the need to infringe upon the lives of others, as we proceed to suppress everything that we have no understanding of. We are not told however, how it is that Elle and Steve have become such monsters; Kavanagh’s deliberate omission is provocative. We should really know those reasons for ourselves. These are our middle class lives, and we know these people. All the evidence that would explain their madness must already be in plain sight, if we choose to examine it.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: This Is Not Mills And Boon (Glorious Thing Theatre Co)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), May 23 – Jun 3, 2017
Playwright: Erica J Brennan
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Alison Bennett, Emma Chelsey, Gabe Fancourt, Lynden Jones
Image by Liam O’Keefe

Theatre review
When we first meet Abby, she surprises us with her prudishness. We think of sex as being universally appealing, and in this day and age, talking about sex is certainly de rigueur, if not interminable, so we wonder what problems Abby is struggling with, that makes her so uncomfortable with the topic.

The story unfolds as Abby begins reading, in secret, a collection of erotic stories. Written by her boyfriend’s mother, Nikki Sex’s book is titillating and wild, but also deeply cheesy and frequently nonsensical. We watch as the far-fetched tales begin to unravel the riddle surrounding Abby’s mystifying sexual nature.

Erica J Brennan’s This Is Not Mills And Boon is a smart, ambitious piece that deals with a young woman’s sexual awakening, or more accurately, it is about Abby’s self-discovery beyond the indoctrination and traditions that our young are subject to. There is good attempt at depicting sexuality as being individualistic and idiosyncratic, and hence, a fundamentally deviant feature of what we consider to be human nature, but Brennan’s characters remain bound to an ideal of monogamy and heteronormativity, which prevents the play from foraging deeper into its philosophical interests, thus losing an opportunity to be truly subversive, or edifying, with its declarations.

Director Richard Hilliar introduces a wanton sense of humour to fantasy sequences that makes the show very enjoyable, but a tendency to be overly earnest with our protagonist’s central predicament, can make its naturalistic scenes needlessly severe. Abby needs to lighten up, as does the show.

Funny lady Alison Bennett delivers laughs in all of her extravagant guises. Sharply intuitive, and wonderfully campy, it is a very bawdy performance that pushes all the right buttons (look out for some physical work featuring Bennett’s extraordinarily dexterous tongue). Also very comedic is Gabe Fancourt as the endearing boyfriend Sol, whose unabashed approach to the portrayal of sex object, is as refreshing as it is hilarious.

Although Emma Chelsey’s interpretation of a plain and reserved personality can often feel too literal and hence lacklustre, her Abby is dignified and honest, with a sincerity that makes the whole exercise convincing. The troubling relationship between Abby and her father is a crucial part of the narrative, and Lynden Jones is strong in that role. His lines are perhaps not written with sufficient elegance, but Jones demonstrates excellent conviction even when the dialogue turns precarious.

The show makes fun of “Fifty Shades Of Beige”, but is itself shy with its own interrogations. It may not be Mills and Boon, but it is certainly no Marquis de Sade either. There is a naivety in how it thinks about sex, but its fervent need to reject convention in favour of a self-determined experience of sexuality and of identity, must be celebrated.

What makes each person feel good, is rarely the same, but what makes us all the same, is the need to discover the truth that lies within. It is human to want to poke and prod, to find something that feels resolutely at the core of our existence. Whether through art or through fucking, we can get to the thing that resides deep at the centre, that holds the meaning of life.

www.gloriousthingtheatreco.com

5 Questions with Emma Chelsey and Gabe Fancourt

Emma Chelsey

Gabe Fancourt: What’s the most challenging aspect of revisiting a character you’ve already played?
Emma Chelsey: I think it’s always important not to bring judgements or preconceived ideas of the character or comparisons to what you have done previously and just start again with a fresh set of eyes. This was challenging to do but I feel it was helpful. There was a lot of development to the script so a lot of it was new and hadn’t been investigated yet so I was able to go deeper having explored this person before and learn a lot more about her the second time around. It’s also easy to fall into a previous way of delivering lines so you have to break that vocal pattern and discover it again as if for the first time!

What did you learn about the play getting it in front of an audience the first time?
That it’s silly, funny, absurd and a thrill!

What is your character’s spirit animal?
Abby is a horse for sure. Flighty, skittish, easily affected by the energy around her, sensitive and can display both dominant and submissive behaviour depending on the situation!

How do you prepare for/ approach scenes that are sexual or intimate in nature?
With laughter. Literally that’s all you can do. You obviously make sure you and your scene partner are comfortable, you rehearse very specifically, everything is choreographed and then you laugh about it a lot…

What’s the strangest/ most unconventional thing about this play?
Sex on stage. It’s confronting and quite foreign to see in theatre and I am intrigued by what the audience reaction will be. Also, the sexual fantasies are strange and wonderful!

Gabe Fancourt

Emma Chelsey: Describe the play This Is Not Mills And Boon in five words.
Gabe Fancourt: Irreverent, playful, honest, dynamic, fun.

What is one of the questions you hope this play asks or answers?
I think with a large part of itself this play is grappling with the extent to which our identity, and in particular our sexual identity, is shaped by our sense of shame. How can we connect with our tastes and preferences when those impulses are met with reflexive shame?

What is the craziest acting related thing you’ve ever done?
In my first school play I was cast as a question mark. For research I interrogated people relentlessly with questions. I also hurt my back trying to get the physicality right.

What has been your favourite part of the process so far?
It sounds nerdy, but I really love the dramaturgical element involved in the development. Sitting down with a script and really sharpening in on how the scenes function and how the story is told in a clear and compelling way is something I find very satisfying.

What do you think is the naughtiest part of this production?
Definitely the fish on fish sex scene. (Spoiler alert)

Emma Chelsey and Gabe Fancourt can be seen in This Is Not Mills And Boon by Erica J Brennan.
Dates: 23 May – 3 June, 2017
Venue: Old 505 Theatre

Review: Perhaps, Perhaps… Quizás (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), May 2 – 13, 2017
Playwright: Gabriela Munoz
Director: Gabriela Munoz
Cast: Gabriela Munoz
Image by Ricardo Castillo Cuevas

Theatre review
It is so sad when a woman is unable to find a man to marry her. When a man stays single however, the situation is not nearly as dire. In Perhaps, Perhaps… Quizás, Greta spends all her time lamenting her spinsterhood, and goes about creating fantasy weddings to escape her misery. It is a woeful context for a show, but when coming face to face with a sad clown, we discover the unique discipline that conflates depression with comedy, and makes everything work.

In art, we have to be careful about the messages we send, but we must also be authentic with how lived experience is represented. Gabriela Munoz’s work may be highly stylised, but the accuracy at which she presents her character’s feelings, persuades us to connect with the unquestionably real human emotion that is being recreated. For a moment, we put judgement aside and share in her melancholy.

Munoz is a funny lady, and her show is often hilarious. We laugh because we recognise the struggles she face, and also because so much of what she does, makes us feel uneasy. A significant segment involves audience participation, and one lucky viewer gets to be on stage for more than a few minutes to help Greta indulge in her craziest delusions. It is as unnerving as it sounds.

The best of theatre happens when safety nets are removed, and everything comes to life. Munoz’s face might be hiding under chalk white pancake, but she opens herself up to our incontrovertible presence, accepting and encouraging our input into her performance. The vulnerability is moving, and the fragility is beautiful.

The truth is that we are sad about Greta’s sadness, rather than her failure to find a mate. Some of us wish that she gets her man some day, and some of us wish that she finds something else more meaningful on which to expend her energy. Life promises so much, but for most of us, it gives so little. There is always more to want, but to be in love with what we do have, is how the days become a bit sweeter.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: The Sylph (Harlos Productions / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 18 – 29, 2017
Playwright: Jodi Rose
Director: Colleen Cook
Cast: Gertraud Ingeborg

Theatre review
The legacy left behind by the celebrated 19th century ballerina Marie Taglioni, can be found in the world of dance, but in Jodi Rose’s The Sylph, we come to meet with her in a play. Stories from her life are relayed directly, to an audience curious about Taglioni’s biography. When we see dancers, they are picture perfect. What we see is effortless, often sublime, with all that happens behind the scenes kept tightly under wraps.

The monologue provides information about Taglioni’s history, but there is little in terms of drama that could be gleaned. There are no great eruptions of emotion, no spicy scandals, and few dark secrets. It is a meaningful existence from a distant past, discussed with a simplicity that is perhaps underwhelming for a generation accustom to much more outrageous tales of unrelenting impropriety by famous types.

Gertraud Ingeborg is in the starring role, impressive and convincing with her physical expressions as ballet expert. The graceful beauty she brings to the piece is commendable, along with an undeniable strength in her presence that keeps us engaged. It is a flattering image of both actor and character that the show presents, under the directorship of Colleen Cook, who demonstrates an elegant and effective use of space, but the plot structure would benefit from greater effort in manufacturing a sense of tension for The Sylph‘s storytelling.

Female geniuses are consistently obliterated from our history books and our consciousness. Works like The Sylph are important in finding redress to this injustice. To know that women have achieved as much as, or more than, our male counterparts, is crucial to how we see ourselves today and how future generations will be able to live out their potentials. For women who wish to be great mothers and wives, there are plenty of success stories, but for the rest of us who desire anything else, we need every opportunity to encounter our predecessors.

www.old505theatre.com