Review: The Taming Of The Shrew (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Nov 29 – Dec 10, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Caitlin West
Cast: Travis Ash, Tel Benjamin, Robert Boddington, Sam Brewer, Hannah Cox, Jane Watt
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew is about society’s need to subjugate women. The play takes issue with Katherine, characterising her as headstrong and troublesome, a young woman to be brought under control. The plot is kept basically the same under Caitlin West’s direction, but comedy is turned into tragedy in her version of events.

The production is a heavily edited, compressed revision of the, now objectionable tale. A more detailed approach to Katherine’s and her beau, Petruchio’s perspective backgrounds would allow us to feel more involved in the story, but the main concern here is the argument between West and Shakespeare, between where we are today and how we had been yesterday. The ideas are simple but powerful, and although the methodology would benefit from finding more nuance in its expressions, the resultant show is nonetheless, an exciting one.

There is good conviction from the actors who take the stage. The rapidity of their performance keeps things enjoyable, but by the same token, we are prevented from getting to know any of the characters very well. Robert Boddington and Hannah Cox are combustive as the lead couple, both passionate for the work, and able to achieve a valuable volatile connection that gives the show its dangerous, astringent quality.

We can leave the past behind, but have to acknowledge its influence on how we think and behave. In order to move forward, we must look back and address history. This cyclical concept of time requires that the scars we carry are being attended to, in order that progress may be found. Much of Shakespeare’s legacy involves the ugliness of humanity. Each generation of theatre makers that comes along will have amongst them, those who fall for the Bard’s words, and who must bear the burden of his failures.

Review: Macbeth (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Nov 29 – Dec 10, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Travis Ash, Robert Boddington, Hannah Cox, Alex Francis, Barret Griffin, Lulu Howes, Jem Rowe
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
It is a story of greed and betrayal, arising from unbridled ambition, but it is also a parable of retribution and punishment. The transgressions in Macbeth reveal dark and buried parts of our psyche, although neglected in much of daily life, we all know to exist beneath our amiable surfaces. Our conscience keeps things in check, but some of us use divine inspiration as permission to carry out less than pleasant deeds. Shakespeare’s characters know that the supernatural forces they conspire with are evil, but in our realities, they are never quite so undisguised.

Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s rendition of the play is a straightforward telling of the story. A few artistic licenses are taken in his effective conflation of characters, but the plot is left soundly, almost radically, unaltered. Good work on music selection by Lusty-Cavallari brings drama to the production, but the frequent use of stage blood has a tendency to look puerile. Flashes of strong acting by Hannah Cox as Lady Macbeth and Jem Rowe as Malcolm, introduce moments of elevation to a cast that is generally underwhelming. Robert Boddington as Macbeth is insufficiently expressive, in body and in voice, neither to entertain nor to provide psychological insight into one of Western theatre’s most infamous characters.

Countless other productions of Macbeth have come before, many of which have been huge successes. Artists have the right to take on any classic, should they think themselves capable, but they must remain conscious of their audience’s relationship with the text in question. It is highly likely that any performance of a work like Macbeth would be compared to memorable versions that have come prior. Young artists can choose between cutting their teeth with challenging material in the public domain, or settle for something more attainable. Impatience usually results in clumsiness, but it is also a valuable quality necessary for us to soar at great heights.

Review: iDNA (PACT Centre for Emerging Artists)

pactVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Nov 16 – 26, 2016
Created & performed by: Bonnie Cowan, Emily Dash, Alison Eaton, Alex Ford, Cheryn Frost, Jorjia Gillis, Cath McNamara, Keila Terencio, Anna Thomsen, Sam Wang, Natalie Wilson
Directors: Fred Copperwaite, Katrina Douglas

Theatre review
Whether cyclical, linear or however else we wish to conceive of time, being human will always require that we look at the past in order to achieve an understanding of the phenomenon that ensnares us today. The investigation into who we are, will always be deemed necessary. Being human is a constant process of philosophical reflection, and art is one of its best manifestations.

iDNA is a series of meditations on identity, as inspired by the very contemporary interest in DNA. The science of DNA promises to reveal things about us that we yearn to know. It might be thought of as a kind of religious text that we access, a form of knowledge that seems to exist outside of our bodies, that informs on our very corporeality. Science and religion is how we talk about ourselves, by reaching out, if only for a moment, to discover what it is that feels like truth.

There are eleven performers in the piece, each with a distinct personality, each given space to articulate something personal about identity. The resultant work struggles to find cohesion, but its fractured nature communicates an important notion of diversity, that although our instincts wish for us to see the self in everybody else, we must come to an acceptance that each creature who walks the planet is an individual, and our survival depends upon an understanding, that much as we wish, difference will never be obliterated from our essence. We have to live together somehow, flora and fauna, water and earth. The science shows us unequivocally, that we exist means that we are all connected, but how we prevent destruction inside and outside of our species, is the key to a good life, natural as that annihilation may seem.

Review: Keep Calling (PACT Centre for Emerging Artists)

keepcallingVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Sep 13 – 17, 2016
Playwright: Chelsea Ingram
Director: Herman Pretorius
Cast: Chelsea Ingram, Luke Edward Smith
Image by Isabelle Munhos

Theatre review
Chelsea Ingram’s Keep Calling is about an unusual relationship, and the agony of existence when taboo becomes an integral element to one’s identity. The play presents a valuable opportunity to take a rare look at something deemed objectionable, and even though it stops short of advocating any specific ethical perspective, it nonetheless confronts the way we think of the themes being portrayed. For some, the material might prove controversial, but for others, its depictions can seem coy; it is a delicate balance that Ingram tries to maintain, but an edgier approach would make the show more memorable.

There is an undeniable mystery built into the plot, even though the production struggles to effectively manufacture a sense of intrigue. Its characters are vulnerable, but Keep Calling‘s immersion in their suffering is insufficiently convincing for us to respond with empathy. The style of presentation is wild and loud, allowing us to access the emotional upheavals taking place, but we rarely make contact with an authentic foundation on which the drama should be built upon, and the play leaves us feeling somewhat detached.

We can all understand Stacey and Sam’s desolation even though few of us have experienced their circumstance. Their story is unique, but only a flimsy membrane away from our realities. How we formulate rules for living is often arbitrary, and Keep Calling</em is a reminder of the ambiguity that can exist in what we wish to be incontrovertibly true. Societies have come to accept that love can take many forms, but there are limits to what they can accept. What is considered illicit in a particular time and place, is legitimate in another. It is easy to say "as long as nobody gets hurt," but how we define and detect damage is yet another quandary.

5 Questions with Chelsea Ingram and Luke Edward Smith

Chelsea Ingram

Chelsea Ingram

Luke Edward Smith: What inspires you?
Chelsea Ingram: I am inspired by life. I am an extremely sensitive person and embrace the crazy energies that are constantly surrounding us. I guess I am inspired by others stories, most people in this world underestimate their strength and tales and I have always wanted to express their stories and triumphs through my art.

What advice would you give to other young female actresses and writers?
Learn to hussle. Have your mum on speed dial. Be strong, humble and most importantly love and embrace yourself. Geoffrey Horne my teacher at Strasberg and a gifted actor once wrote “I’ve lived my life expecting things to take care of themselves. I told myself that all I had to do was be a good actor. Believe me, that’s not the way it works.” – I kind of live by this.

Do you have a method to prepare for your roles?
After studying at The Lee Strasberg theatre and film Institute for 2 years, I am a huge believer in the method. I personalize my characters emotions by using my personal experiences to embody and find the truth of the characters journey. To prepare I will study their lives, loves, woes and highs to understand and fully embrace their stories.

How was working in the big apple?
Incredible and unbelievable. Actors in New York are so giving and have immense respect for the art and its craft. I can’t really put into words how magnificent life is as a actor in NYC, but it’s like nothing I had ever experienced. I worked on the stage, feature and short films and web series – every project was amazing. New York is a hard city, most months it’s a struggle to even pay rent. I can’t help but respect every actor who throws themselves into the NYC world of arts and embraces that extreme and yet amazing life style.

Do you have any upcoming projects to watch out for?
Currently I am working on an upcoming film. My play Keep Calling plans to move over to NYC in later 2017. I am connected to an unbelievable theatre company in NYC, Primitive Grace, directed by Paul Calderon and David Zayaz, with shows coming out soon. I have a few other projects that I am unable to speak about but please keep an eye out on social media.

Luke Edward Smith

Luke Edward Smith

Chelsea Ingram: What made you come back from NYC to do Keep Calling as part of the Sydney Fringe?
Apart from the convenient excuse to visit friends and family? It was the punch in the guts the script gave me. I read it and was still thinking about it a few days later. Always a good sign. I’m always looking for that element of fear in bringing something to life in a performance and this role left me thinking, “can I pull this off?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew I’d like to give it a red hot go.

How did you approach working on the role?
It wasn’t too different an approach from any other. I always start with what about them is similar to me. It’s much easier to work from those similarities and then layer in those things that make us different. It helps me ground the performance and hopefully it makes it all the more believable when an audience comes to see it.

Did you find much that was similar between you and Sam?
I recognised that attraction to something you know isn’t good for you. I’ve never been in the same shoes exactly (thank God), but I saw the behaviour, the longing, the need to belong and that I think is universal. It’s something anyone can identify with, being attracted to or trying to please someone or something that can’t or won’t be pleased. That coupled with the huge regret and confusion and anger that comes with not being strong enough to give it up. I like to work very personally so I’ve gone back to moments in my life where I’ve felt the same way as Sam.

What do you do to come down from working on something that intense and personal?
I go home and do the complete opposite of what I’ve been doing in the rehearsal room that day! I listen to upbeat music, I watch TV, lots of comedies, or curl up with a trashy novel. And tea. Tea makes everything better. Anything that puts the balance back into life. Everything I put into that day’s work I try to leave in the room. It’ll be there tomorrow.

When you’re in New York, what do you miss most about Australia?
Tim Tams. I’ve eaten way too many packs since I got back. I always take two big jars of Vegemite with me when I go back, so I’ve got that covered. But Tim Tams? You can get them but they go for about $7 a pack in the States, and if any other Australian knows you’ve got them…

Chelsea Ingram and Luke Edward Smith can both be seen in Keep Calling in the Sydney Fringe Festival.
Dates: 13 – 17 September, 2016
Venue: PACT, Erskineville

Review: Black Hands Dead Section (Sydney University Dramatic Society)

sudsVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Aug 3 – 13, 2016
Playwright: Van Badham
Director: Zach Beavon-Collin
Cast: Adrien Stark, Alice Birbara, Amelia McNamara, Anna Rowe, Anna Williamson, Bianca Farmakis, Cameron Hutt, Charlie Meller, Elliott Falzon, Eloi Herlemann, Emma Throssell, Hal Fowkes, Hannah Craft, Helena Parker, Henry Hulme, Isabella Moore, Jimmy Pucci, John Kenedey, Joshua Powell, Julian Hollis, Laura McInnes, Louisa Thurn, Maddie Houlbrook-Walk, Nick Jackman, Nell Cohen, Oliver Ayres, Patrick Sunderland, Victoria Boult, William Hendricks
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Group were a far-left militant group in the early 1970’s, that had orchestrated acts of terror, including bombings and assassinations, in its efforts to instigate social and political change. In Black Hands Dead Section, playwright Van Badham provides a history lesson on the gang, looking at past events through a contemporary lens, mindful that terrorism is the hottest of today’s issues. No society thinks of itself as aggressors; in Australia, terrorists are foreign and we are its innocent victims. The simple but dishonest dichotomy frees our conscience, so we can continue with life as we know it, without having to understand the complexities of how we are responsible for our own woes.

Characters in the play begin as perfectly reasonable Western middle-class individuals, passionate about what they believe to be right, and although sometimes radical with their ideas, these personalities are familiar ones that we relate to readily. We want the same things of life, and our world views coincide. Gradually however, their actions become increasingly reprehensible, and we struggle to find the line at which us had become them. It is this ambiguity that is missing from public discourse about “religious extremists”. Dehumanising the enemy makes things convenient, but the lack of transparency and truth in how we talk about perceived threats, compounds our fears and prevents us from solving problems.

This student production features 29 enthusiastic actors, some more talented than others. The unevenness in ability certainly makes for challenging viewing, and although nuances and details are sorely lacking in their interpretations, they make their point loud and clear. Acts I and II feature an inordinately large number of characters and scene changes, which would test even the most accomplished directors and designers, so it comes as no surprise that this simple staging often leaves us confused with its every who, what, where and why. Thankfully, Act III turns uncomplicated and is more successfully rendered, eventually leading us to a cogent conclusion.

There are no easy answers in any war, because all life must be valued equally. If we believe that those in opposition must be annihilated, then no one is safe, and human nature is nothing but a perpetual death wish. We have to find the root of every evil before we can genuinely be rid of them, but this is not how we do politics (never have and probably never will), and when we look at the past, the truth is unquestionably full of doom and gloom. War has always been, but so has the longing for peace, and we cannot give up the desire for something better as it is that very desire that defines humanity. Characters in Black Hands Dead Section wishe for a better future, but it is their refusal to include every adversary in their vision of the ideal, that keeps them fettered.

Review: Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness (Polyamorous Productions)

polyamorousVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), May 4 – 7, 2016
Playwright: Anthony Neilson
Director: Natasha Pesce
Cast: Ralph Andrews, Will Hickey, Jonathan Lagudi, Nicole Wineberg
Image by Liam O’Keefe

Theatre review
Edward Gant runs a vaudeville specialising in tall tales of loneliness. Even though the theme is one of sadness, his show is full of rambunctious fun, designed to elicit squeals of pleasure with outrageous and flamboyant sequences featuring his troupe of three mad performers. Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness is Anthony Neilson’s take on the “show within a show” format, brilliantly scripted to deliver extraordinary spectacle accompanied by disarming humour and an unrelenting melancholy. It is the most sophisticated of writing, traversing the basest of human experience to the most profound of our emotional landscapes. Subtly philosophical yet undeniably poignant, the audience is offered a plethora of ways to access its meanings, at whichever level of depth we choose to receive its wisdom.

The wild stories are brought to life by Natasha Pesce’s exuberant direction. Her style is exciting, bold and very funny, particularly effective in the production’s first half where the text presents greater opportunities for ostentatious tomfoolery. Pesce’s eye for beauty is reflected in charming design details that provide a visual splendour, delightful for our senses while helping to convey story and sentiments. Four dedicated actors form a tight ensemble, boundless in mischievous energy and unified in what they convey. Nicole Wineberg is a perfect blend of slapstick, nuance and sexual allure for her demanding role. The actor is captivating in all her guises, whether coy, gruesome, rugged, or ludicrously vivacious in a bear suit, Wineberg is completely engrossing and very entertaining indeed. Equally madcap in approach is Ralph Andrews, memorable for his confident frivolity and distinctly wanton sense of comedy. His work is not the most physically disciplined, but the presence he brings to the stage is replete with an enthusiastic whimsy that appeals to our need for something more tender.

In loneliness, longing is the ringmaster who takes centre stage, controlling thoughts, decisions and behaviour. It is a driving force that can lead one to many possibilities, but its motive is self-obliteration. Longing may replace loneliness with some other sensation, but desire will always remain albeit in a different form, for life simply cannot be without desire. Edward Gant faces a dilemma with the eradication of his own loneliness and the show that must go on. Joy can take the place of pain, but it only exists in relation to its dark other. The pursuit of a happy life is meaningless without sadness, and the resolve of its existence is to be ignored at our own peril.