Review: The Wind In The Underground (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), May 23 – Jun 3, 2017
Playwright: Sam O’Sullivan
Director: Lucy Clements
Cast: Michael Abercromby, Rowan Davie, Whitney Richards, Bishanyia Vincent
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
Wanderlust is meaningful only to those who understand that irresistible urge to travel. Simon returns home from a long trip away, and has to explain to his siblings why he had left them. There is resentment, and a lot of discontentment at home, but the love is nonetheless palpable. Sam O’Sullivan’s The Wind In The Underground is about seeing the world, but all the action lies within a domestic setting. The four characters are a volatile group, but they are not fragile. They fight only because they will always be able to reconcile.

There is little in terms of a compelling narrative that we can hang on to, and dramatic tensions are intermittent, but a superb cast enchants with their extraordinary chemistry. The actors share family secrets that we are only partially privy to. Its characters struggle with disclosures, but the performances leave no room for doubt that something deep and real underpins the exchanges we see on stage. It is a feeling we are all familiar with, and the remarkable talents represent it with an admirable accuracy.

Some people are comfortable with a parochial existence, but others need to explore further afield. This does not have to be about the physical movement that takes place. Our minds are all-powerful, and our beings can be transformed, as long as we wish to seek something higher. The play is about travel, and evolution. For those of us who can sail the seven seas, we will grow that way, but for those who prefer to stay home, every work of literature and art can provide the key to expanding life, far beyond the walls that try to hold us in.

www.oldfitztheatre.com

Review: Talking To Terrorists (Emu Productions)

Venue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), May 23 – Jun 3, 2017
Playwright: Robin Soans
Director: Markus Weber
Cast: Mathew Costin, David D’Silva, Kira Fort, Zuzi Fort, Tiffany Joy, Alyson Standen, Kyle Stewart, Joseph JU Taylor, Markus Weber
Image by John Keenan

Theatre review
Robin Soans’ Talking To Terrorists premiered in England just 3 months before the London bombings of 2005. Disasters seemed to strike like never before, and we tried desperately to understand the rapidly changing world, post-9/11. The play investigates the psyche of those touched by horrific events, from perpetrators, to hostages and politicians. Composed largely of interviews with people who had experienced those states of trauma, this work of verbatim theatre opens up discussion about the most pertinent of subjects today. We examine the motivating factors behind these unimaginable atrocities, and in the process of seeing extremists as people, we gain knowledge that had been previously hidden. Humanising evil allows us to gain insight into what was once beyond comprehension.

A wide range of personalities take to the stage, but the production does not always make clear, the identities of all its characters. The confusion that arises does not help the show’s cause. The actors offer glimpses of poignancy, but can be impeded by their emphasis on creating cosmetic impressions, rather than always finding resonance through the very meanings of what they say. Actor Alyson Standen is the most consistent of the group, demonstrating conviction in all of her four roles, and through her enactment of emotional accuracy, we are able to access the truths in what her scenes attempt to communicate. There is no lack of passion in the cast, but their approach requires more detail, and greater nuance, so that we obtain something richer, a result that feels less surface.

As long as we regard terrorists as animals and monsters, we will never be able to convince them of our perspectives. If we can only think of them as absolute enemies, we will never be able to convert them to our way of life. When people are shut out, excluded and ostracised from our existence, then our security means nothing to them. Terrorists will continue to cause us harm, if they know nothing of us. In humanising the foe, we can both begin to see ourselves in the other, and so it is only in the talking that we can hope for a change.

www.kingstreettheatre.com.au

Review: Mr Burns (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 19 – Jun 25, 2017
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Music: Michael Friedman
Lyrics: Anne Washburn
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill, Ezra Juanta, Jacqy Phillips
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
There are three distinct acts in Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play. First, we discover that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket; it is the apocalypse, and we have run out of electricity. A small group of survivors huddle together, trying to keep themselves sane by retelling episodes of The Simpsons. They each contribute fragments, but memory, like all human ability, proves to be considerably less than infallible.

Over the next decades, this compulsion to hark back to when things were better, grows in magnitude. The act of storytelling becomes grander, so do the increasingly fabricated remembrances of how things had been, back in the day. Eventually, we see that The Simpsons is turned into a kind of origin story that no longer accurately recreates the real thing.

Anne Washburn’s play is wildly imagined, but not always successful in its ability to aid our suspension of disbelief, as is necessary for all styles of science fiction. At each step of the narrative, we are bothered by questions left unanswered, that create an expanding sense of implausibility to the narrative. It is appropriate then, that the show turns progressively extravagant, until in Act Three, where we are presented with something that looks no different from standard Broadway musical fare.

The production begins dour, perhaps understandably so, but its long and enduring dullness marks a disappointing start for a crowd that has clearly amassed for that very particular Simpsons sense of humour. Satisfaction eventually arrives with Act Two, as the tone turns quirky and playful, and stimulating philosophy is introduced to its existentialist explorations.

The first musical number appears, quite unexpectedly, weaving American pop references into a kind of campy postmodern mash-up, to excellent effect. We see the characters desperately trying to hold on to all things bright and shiny from the past, much like the conservatives in our real life, unable to come to terms with their new circumstances. Entertainment continues to be dispensed henceforth, but we discover that the show had reached its peaked too soon. It all comes to a somewhat underwhelming conclusion.

It is a proficiently designed production. Mr Burns’ black sequinned catsuit by Jonathon Oxlade is very fabulous indeed, an unforgettable vision for the theatrical annals. Oxlade’s sets are appropriate to each sequence, but the show offers only a few surprises with its imagery, presumably restrained by its context of resource depletion.

Mitchell Butel leads an endearing cast of enthusiastic and colourful performers. As Mr Burns, Butel’s gangly limbs attempt to steal the show with their incredible animated dexterity, but the actor’s comedic capacities are impressive, and a real asset to this tenaciously serious creation.

It really is no joke, that we refuse to adequately address our energy crisis. Those with a stake in industries that are bringing devastation to the environment, like the villainous Mr Burns, continue to be allowed to plunder and destroy. We have to keep optimistic in order to be of any effect as opposition to their corruption, but the prevailing state of confused democracy seems to be getting us nowhere. Knowing right from wrong, is no longer sufficient in mobilising power and generating action, in our current climate of fake news, alternative facts, and insatiable greed. If history teaches us anything, it is revolution that will shift paradigm, but there is no hint even of burgeoning insurgency, in this age of despondent complacency.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Ham Funeral (Siren Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 17 – Jun 10, 2017
Playwright: Patrick White
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Andy Dexterity, Eliza Logan, Carmen Lysiak, Johnny Nasser, Jane Phegan, Sebastian Robinson, Jenny Wu
Image by Lucy Parakhina

Theatre review
At the centre of The Ham Funeral is a Young Man without the certainty of a name. Unsure of his own identity, interpretations of what goes on around him is correspondingly ambiguous. Patrick White’s surrealist work is not one to rely on for narrative pleasure, but as a platform for theatrical delight, it swells with possibilities.

Director Kate Gaul identifies the extremities in the play, whether they be comedic, dramatic, grotesque or celestial, and turns them into sequences of sheer and intense pleasure. There is a cohesive whole, but the primary enjoyment of this staging is in the savouring of all its deeply fascinating moments. A vague logic does exist, but our senses, beyond those that comprise the rational mind, are fired up and called upon to engage, in a visceral way that can only happen within a live setting.

It is a waking dream in which we find ourselves immersed. Nothing looks real, but we know that everything points to something authentic. We are gripped by its mystery, and the hypnotic ambience so expertly manufactured by its team of daring creatives. Hartley T A Kemp lights the space so that everything seems to float in an abyss of subconsciousness, and Nate Edmondson’s sensational sounds of ringing and rumbling take over our nervous system, directly manipulating our moods and responses.

Gleefully infectious, the wonderful cast looks and feels to be made up of all those voted most likely to run off and join the circus. Idiosyncratic and profoundly eccentric, we are persuaded to relate to the show in a manner that is perhaps unusual for many. Eliza Logan is the magnificent leading lady, completely enthralling as Alma Lusty; wild, depraved and primal, yet impressively precise with the design and execution of all her choices. Intelligent and inventive, Logan’s performance in the flamboyant, mad world of The Ham Funeral is truly unforgettable. The nameless Young Man is played by Sebastian Robinson with a physical proficiency that adds exceptional beauty to the production’s visual emphasis. Also remarkable is Johnny Nasser, deliciously exaggerated while maintaining a measured sensitivity, in both of his contrasting roles.

A century has past since the dawn of Dada, and all things surreal or absurd may no longer be thought of as immediately relevant, but art must never shy away from conversations that exist at the outer limits of rationality and reason. If we talk only about the things we know, the chance of us meaningfully expanding consciousness is meagre. To break free from incessantly repetitious dialogue that has become a habit of modern living, it can only be beneficial to indulge in something radically new, especially when getting to the point, is not the point of it.

www.sirentheatreco.com

Review: Guru Of Chai (Indian Ink / Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 16 – Jun 4, 2017
Playwright: Justin Lewis, Jacob Rajan
Director: Justin Lewis
Cast: Jacob Rajan
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The story begins at the Bangalore City railway station. We meet Kutisa at a street stall selling chai, a vivacious man who cannot help but tell us a wondrous story about himself, a parrot, and a family of orphaned sisters whom he adopts into his care. Supernatural beings and high drama ensue, accompanied by extravagant emotions surrounding birth, death and betrayal. Guru Of Chai is gripping, made even more compelling by the work of a masterful performer full of drive, and magnificently skilled.

Jacob Rajan is scintillating in this one-man show. Almost like magic, his presence takes over the theatre, and we fall under his spell. Playing what seems to be an endless number of characters, Rajan is crystal clear with each manifestation, weaving the most vivid of narratives through his immense talent and artistry. It is a real pleasure to be able to submit to an expert guiding hand, and perceive the confidence in the actor and in ourselves, that the play can only progress flawlessly.

Direction by Justin Lewis ensures that the story is told at great detail and precision, with great care put into showcasing the best of his actor’s abilities. Gentle assistance from Cathy Knowsley’s lights and David Ward’s music, provide us with deeply evocative suggestions that transform a black box into the busy, sweltering streets of India. It is a small production that unfolds before us, but what we are made to see in our minds, is infinitely bigger.

There is something about Guru Of Chai that feels like a fairy tale, even though its characters encounter only the brutal realities of hardship and poverty. By removing us from the here and now, into a space far away, experiencing Kutisa’s world is as though we have stepped into a dream. When art meets us in reverie, the capacity of our minds turn boundless, and we can learn great things about the universe that are unimaginable in our insular everyday. We connect with other lives, no matter how dissimilar from what we are used to, and discover that which is unambiguously human, or perhaps something like a soul, that keeps us from feeling isolated, that gives us a glimpse of the eternal.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 11 – Jun 18, 2017
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering, Brandon McClelland
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is a nondescript living room but a great deal happens in it. Edward Albee’s wild imagination is let loose in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, a modern classic that seems to be about a marriage breaking down, but the volume of themes and philosophical ideas it explores over a three-hour duration, extends beyond a person’s mental capacities within that one sitting. The incredible richness of Albee’s writing, and his insistence on disobeying conventions of literary coherence, produces something sensationally anti-naturalist, at times very strange, for all its misleading construct of a realist family drama. It all comes together beautifully, the ending result is quite sublime, but it is the disparate elements and divergence of meanings in all its interminable suggestions, that makes it a unique, rarely paralleled work.

Therefore, finding a focus becomes challenging for any production. Director Iain Sinclair uses the play’s absurdist qualities to his advantage, manufacturing a black comedy that not only delivers laughs but also, through its emphasis on uncomfortable contradictions, help draw attention to the many levels of meaning that the text implies. The show is often entertaining, but in spite of the great emotional upheaval that its characters experience, we remain at a distance, always at close observation, but from the outside. Visually pleasing, the staging draws inspiration from 1960s Americana, Michael Hankin’s set design and Sian James-Holland’s lights create a performance space that feels an accurate representation of the era, while establishing a sense of stifling oppressiveness crucial to the psyche of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Four actors conspire with unmistakable simpatico, to form a fascinating piece of theatre. Their personalities are individually distinct, but together they are harmonious, one engrossing organism that drives us through unexpected twists and turns. At the centre is Genevieve Lemon as Martha, ebullient and dedicated, determined to maintain a liveliness in the show even during its darkest troughs. The actor may not be able to sufficiently depict the rage crucial to the story, but there is no mistaking the turbulent existence Martha has to endure. Her husband George is played by Darren Gilshenan, who journeys into bleaker terrain more successfully, but who will be remembered for the mischievous approach he applies to the play’s cynical and sinister complexions. Effortlessly funny, Gilshenan is an engaging presence that keeps us fascinated at every audacious revelation. Similarly alluring is Claire Lovering, whose comedic confidence assures us that the tricks hidden up her sleeve are worth our anticipation. Honey is a small role, but the performer takes every opportunity to shine. Brendon McClelland brings out a complexity in Nick, a deceptively plain upstart, and surprises us with transformations that we never could see coming.

It is about marriage, it is about the way exercise control over one another, it is about the way we build meaning into our lives, it is about the futility of our pursuits. What a viewer will deduce from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf could be a great many things, but there is no denying the nihilistic pessimism of Albee’s creation. In art we can find the truth, and it is without doubt that life can leave us bitter and hopeless. It is also true, that conflicting truths can co-exist, and whether one can perceive light through the darkness, is sometimes about luck, and sometimes about choice.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Educating Rita (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), May 10 – 20, 2017
Playwright: Willy Russell
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: David Jeffrey, Emily McGowan
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
We meet Rita as she begins to realise her discontentment with banality. Going back to school, she wishes to make improvements to her life, although not entirely sure what a better existence should look like. Her tutor Frank on the other hand, is an alcoholic, and a poet who no longer writes. Both are subconsciously thinking “anywhere but here,” but only Rita knows to seek for answers in a productive way.

Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is about aspirations, and also, in its very British way, about class distinctions. Its humour relies on Rita’s lack of sophistication as a Liverpudlian hairdresser, but under Julie Baz’s direction, the characters speak as Australians, with our Rita in a broader, shall we say, working class type accent.

It is a bold decision that proves to be at times effective, and at others, quite awkward. The text mentions a slew of British places and personalities, and talks of Australia as a faraway country, so the production’s ability to assist with our suspension of disbelief tends to be inconsistent. However, the show remains otherwise attentive to the spirit of Russell’s writing, and we always feel that its heart is kept in the right place.

The actors take a couple of scenes to warm up, but when Emily McGowan gets comfortable in her role, Rita’s endearing qualities shine through, allowing us to engage with the play’s ideas and sentimentality. Both actors, McGowan and David Jeffrey, can on occasion slip into an unfortunate reticence with their parts, but when confident, their scenes become involving and quite amusing. Also noteworthy is Tim Linghaus’ music providing an air of melancholy appropriate to the characters’ inner worlds.

Rita and Frank cross paths, as they both embark on new trajectories. Life is change, but we do not have to think of moving up as the only meaningful way to achieve progress. We have to value the sense of surprise in all our narratives, just as we know to enjoy the simple straightforward increments in things we usually pursue. The universe will take us places, whether we like it or not. It is how we choose to understand them and delight in them, that makes all the difference.

www.thedepottheatre.com