Review: Carmen, Live Or Dead (Oriel Entertainment Group)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Apr 28 – May 13, 2018
Music & Lyrics: iOTA
Book: Craig Harwood
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Natalie Gamsu, Stefanie Jones, Andrew Kroenert
Images by David Hooley

Theatre review
It is true that Frida Kahlo had had an affair with Soviet politician Leon Trotsky, but it is entirely fictional that a lovechild was born as a result of that brief relationship. Nonetheless, Craig Harwood’s vividly imagined Carmen, Live Or Dead almost has us believing in its fantasy, that Kahlo’s offspring does exist, and that Carmen Frida Leon Davidovich had once lived in Australia.

It is an appealing fabrication; the idea that Kahlo’s magnificence lives on beyond her legendary paintings, and Harwood does create a persona that is as colourful and spirited as any fan could wish for, even if the writer’s plot structure has a tendency to be unnecessarily convoluted. Prominent in the presentation, are eight original songs by iOTA, all of them charming, often very quirky in style, and thankfully not too derivative of the Broadway genre.

Visually sumptuous, the production features a whimsical set, exquisitely decorated and painted by designer Dann Barber, evoking quintessential Mexican beauty, alongside enchanting imagery that pays tribute to the art of Kahlo. Benjamin Brockman’s lights are sensual and alluring, providing a sensation of transcendence that convincingly elevates the theatrical experience, whilst retaining its delicious and unique aura of street-smart griminess.

Director Shaun Rennie manufactures a series of captivating moods, allowing every scene to intrigue, with moments of visceral engagement that leave an impression. Performer Natalie Gamsu is a warm presence who shines in each song, but the character being portrayed does not always feel authentic; her true emotions are elusive and the connections we make can feel tentative. Stefanie Jones and Andrew Kroenert provide musical accompaniment, as well as actorly support, both accomplished with their contributions, for a show memorable for the surprising effectiveness of its restrained approach to instrumentation.

Carmen announces her impending death early in the show, inviting us to partake in flashback summations of her life and times, that constitute this piece of musical theatre. We are also inspired to consider our own deaths, and how our individual stories will eventually be told. Footprints will fade, but nothing matters more than how much good we are able to leave behind.

5 Questions with Stefanie Jones and Andrew Kroenert

Stefanie Jones

Andrew Kroenert: Who do you think should have a fictional lovechild?
Stefanie Jones: Of all our most loved and most famous cultural icons, a child between Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio (once they’d separated) would have been pretty cool. She would have made a great mother, and we know how much he loved her. On top of all that, what a gene pool! So all the right ingredients, I say.

If it were the last day of your life, how would you spend it?
Without a doubt, Brisbane. My parents created the most beautiful family home there for us to grow up in, with an outdoor terrace and a pool surrounded by palm trees to watch the sun go down over. Being able to sit there with a glass of wine in my hand, with my mother’s cooking on the table and surrounded by family and friends would be absolutely perfect.

If you could play any role of the opposite gender, what would it be?
The Emcee in Cabaret would be oodles of fun! He is confused, in some ways debased, yet he is intelligent and has that rare ability to turn tragedy into satire / comedy. Cabaret is a very smart, important and relevant story so any role in that show would be a dream and also a great way to continue talking about our political and social history.

Any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
No, although I wish I had a few to help with my nerves sometimes! Mainly I just like to not feel rushed, to have the time to check in with fellow cast mates and to get ready at a comfortable pace, unlike Andrew Kroenert.

If you could have written any pop song, what would it be?
‘Never Give Up On The Good Times’ by The Spice Girls. It just came to me, and I’m sold on this choice.

Andrew Kroenert

Who do you think should have a fictional lovechild?
Doesn’t everyone want Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to have a ridiculously funny, quirky (and most likely wonderfully camp) little boy? He would be absolute heaven.

If it was the last day of your life, how would you spend it?
Last day on earth I would probably host a BBQ at my house with all my family during the day, hang out with the nephews and have a few beers with my siblings and parents. Then I’d send them home and have a quiet evening with my partner, Jess. Maybe split a bottle of wine, play some cards listen to all my favourite music.

If you could play any role of the opposite gender, what would it be?
I think it would be super fun to play Cathy in The Last Five Years. It would be interesting to see how the themes and people’s feelings towards those characters would hold were they played by members of the opposite sex.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I don’t have any pre-show rituals but I’m never in costume before the 5 minute call, in fact I try to stay out of costume for as long as possible before a show starts! And I’ll always have a coffee before a show.

If you could acquire any one skill to add to the strings of your bow, what would it be?
I would like to be fluent in another language. Having just been to Mexico currently that language is Spanish although I have long wished to be fluent in French.

Stefanie Jones and Andrew Kroenert can be seen in Carmen, Live Or Dead , by Craig Harwood and iOTA.
Dates: 28 Apr – 6 May, 2018
Venue: Hayes Theatre

Review: I Am My Own Wife (Oriel Group / Red Line Productions)

orielVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 5, 2015
Playwright: Doug Wright
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Ben Gerrard
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
There is something unique about representing queer life on stage. Like many minority groups who have experienced persecution, LGBT stories need to create a legacy from hardship and struggles, so that injustices are prevented from recurring, and also for future generations to understand the histories from which they emerge. Unlike issues around ethnicity and religion that can have greater levels of visibility, LGBT identities have a tendency to be subsumed by a sense of normativity. The more gender and sexual diversity becomes accepted, the more it disappears from public discourse. A tension exists between the attainment of equality and the loss of nuances in individual differences.

Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife documents the controversial life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German museum curator and transgender celebrity, through the tumultuous years of the Third Reich and East Berlin. The play takes the form of a monologue, but does feature a multitude of minor characters, including the playwright himself. As von Mahlsdorf’s story unfolds, we are reminded of Wright’s presence as an interpretor of events, and correspondingly, the ambiguities between truth and fiction in the details being uncovered. The writing is full of charm and humour, with a plot that intrigues at every juncture. Vividly descriptive, we find ourselves immersed effortlessly in its slightly alien but seductive narrative.

Direction is provided by Shaun Rennie, whose outstanding use of space keeps our senses engaged and active, astutely controlling our perceptions of the show’s frequent contextual transformations, in terms of personalities, time and place. Excellent work on lighting by Hugh Hamilton and a subtle but highly effective set by Caroline Comino add greatly to the quality of unpredictability of the viewing experience. Nate Edmondson’s complex sound design is executed with impressive refinement and is noticeably adventurous with its concepts.

The play could however, benefit from a graver exploration into the darker aspects of von Mahlsdorf’s story. There seems a reluctance to portray her duplicitous nature with a stronger sinister edge, and we are kept somewhat distanced by that jovial artifice, perhaps just the way she would have wanted. Ben Gerrard is marvellous in the production. The speed and clarity at which he alters voice and physicality to depict all his different characters, whilst maintaining psychological accuracy and an air of authenticity through every change, is astounding, and very satisfying theatre. The actor exhibits wonderful commitment, along with an exquisite creativity that is remarkably intelligent and sensitive.

I Am My Own Wife entertains and fascinates. It is strangely lighthearted, given the brutalities that appear in the text. The production should hold more poignancy in its observations of war, Nazism and queerness, but as though borrowing from Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s strength of character, unpleasant parts of the story are diminished with an unconscious ease. There certainly are lessons to be learned here, that may pertain to personal identity or to social concerns, but they require an investment of thought and attention. Alternatively, a very pleasant jaunt is offered by the show, with resonances that last until the inevitably enthusiastic curtain call. |