Review: Giving Up The Ghost (Pop Up Theatre)

Venue: Limelight on Oxford (Darlinghurst NSW), Oct 17 – Nov 3, 2018
Playwright: Rivka Hartman
Director: Rivka Hartman
Cast: Elaine Hudson, Chris Orchard, Andrew Wang, Madeleine Withington

Theatre review
There is a coffin in Lana’s living room, because her husband Ben had just died. Although the corpse lies securely within, Ben’s ghost is up and about, teasing and bantering with his wife, as they might had done for forty years of marriage. They argue over their daughter Gemma, who is considering giving up a valuable career opportunity for her less than ideal boyfriend. Lana tries to offer surreptitious parental guidance, with Ben interfering in the background, whilst everyone frantically gears up for the funeral.

Rivka Hartman’s Giving Up The Ghost is a screwball comedy about the grieving process. Looking at how we deal with loss, the play examines the consequences that we suffer, when a loved one passes on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is not the giddy humour, but the serious ideas in Hartman’s show that really engage. Discussions relating to euthanasia are particularly stimulating, and we are left somewhat bewildered that the controversial topic does not occupy a more substantial portion of the plot.

Actor Elaine Hudson’s exuberance as Lana has us charmed. Along with Chris Orchard, who plays the very lively ghost of Ben, both prove to be confident personalities able to hold our attention with little effort. Their performances become palpable when the story turns solemn, allowing for a more naturalistic approach than earlier scenes of quite laboured madcapery. Madeleine Withington demonstrates good capacity for nuance in the role of Gemma, and Andrew Wang plays her depthless boyfriend with a laudable, albeit slightly green, boldness.

Gemma is not a woman completely of her parents’ invention, but it is a pleasure to observe her values reflect those of Lana and Ben’s. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and we delight in the idea that the best of our persons could potentially be bequeathed to future generations. It is true that we are ultimately no more than ash and dust, but all that we do while we walk the earth, whether good or bad, deliberate or accidental, will have reverberations beyond the grave. Only a fool will believe that all of life is within one’s control, but to be careless with the time that we do have, is unconscionable.

Review: Let’s Talk About You (Pop Up Theatre)

popupVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Nov 16 – 26, 2016
Playwright: Rivka Hartman
Director: Rivka Hartman, Christine Mearing
Cast: Elaine Hudson, Taylor Owynns, Anne Tenney
Image by Vicki Skarratt

Theatre review
Ernestine’s marriage and career are adequate, but clearly far from perfect. She has a high level of self-awareness, constantly in dialogue with herself (quite literally) to examine thoughts and feelings as they emerge, but she keeps things under strict control. Ernestine is not one to rock the boat. Her husband is philandering, and job promotions are lost to less qualified male persons, but she grins and bears it, determined to fulfil the part of the good girl. When the beautiful Joy enters the picture, however, our protagonist is inspired to let all hell break loose.

Rivka Hartman’s Let’s Talk About You is about a woman whose time has come, admittedly a little late in life, but Ernestine is finally at a point where she realises that following all the rules has paid her poor dividends. It is a deeply charming play, witty and spirited, with depth and humour effortlessly guiding us through its simple but delightful narrative.

The production is directed with a warm vibrancy that keeps us connected with its characters, but spacial configurations could be more imaginative to allow scene transitions to occur with less fuss. Performance for the piece tends to be overly declarative in style, but what it lacks in terms of an empathetic naturalism, it atones with genuine passion and excellent stage presence from its smart team of actors. Elaine Hudson is a sagacious leading lady, imparting wisdom and flair through her incisive interpretation of a personality that we will all find familiar, and honest.

It should be easy living in a country that is free and rich, but we can often find ourselves held back from happiness. What happens in the mind is endlessly complex, but in Let’s Talk About You, we can see that fear and delusion are luxury items many of us in developed nations possess, and like that Patek Philippe or that Lamborghini, completely unnecessary and irrelevant to finding a good life. Ernestine understands her own irrationality, but what she does with it, is the million dollar question.

Review: My Mother And Other Catastrophes (Pop Up Theatre)

20150307_193636Venue: Gleebooks (Glebe NSW), Mar 7 & 14, 2015
Playwright: Rivka Hartman
Director: Rivka Hartman
Cast: Florette Cohen, John Grinston, Elaine Hudson, Taylor Owynns, Anne Tenney, Madeleine Withington

Theatre review
This staged reading of Rivka Hartman’s My Mother And Other Catastrophes is deeply revelatory of Hartman’s inner world, with several broad themes brought into focus through the filter of personal and lived experience. Hartman discusses the Jewish diaspora from an Australian perspective, the inter-generational transference of tradition through motherhood, and the karmic effects of catastrophes that seem to endure an eternity. The play does not break new ground, but it is in the nature of storytelling that what remains relevant, will always resurface. Where suffering remains, old stories never fade, although they may take on new forms, morphing with the times. Hartman’s script is not quite feminist theatre of the militant variety, but it certainly features strong and interesting women expressing their vulnerabilities, flaws and triumphs.

The structure of the work is swift and sharp, never overly self indulgent. Its anti-chronological timeline keeps things unpredictable and engaging, and encourages rumination about the evolutionary, as well as the repetitive, nature of how people live. We question what it means to be free, even though the script is not convincingly optimistic. Hatman’s words are charming and witty, but there is little variance between characters to create distinctions in speech styles and patterns. They seem to share one voice, which is reasonable for a show about one family, but more dramatic effect might be achieved if each character’s use of language demonstrates greater juxtaposition with each other.

Creative work exploring the Holocaust rarely provide new insights, but they are almost always poignant. Hartman creates vivid and emotional imagery from her stage directions, narrated by Taylor Owynns, and also through the lines of 117 year old survivor Gitl, performed with extraordinary gravity by Elaine Hudson. Indeed, the dark side of My Mother And Other Catastrophes is captivating, because its universality allows us to connect with it almost spontaneously, but its comedy is less compelling. It truly is a significant thing, to find humour when days are tough, and it is the belief that laughter can exist no matter how dire the circumstance, that helps keep our humanity perpetuating.

5 Questions with Florette Cohen

florettecohen1What is your favourite swear word?
With two little boys listening I don’t get to swear much these days. Poo-face doesn’t count, does it?

What are you wearing?
My staples – jeans, a t-shirt and the high top green Connies that I’ve had forever. In the future I may be the first granny sporting Connies and a Zimmer frame.

What is love?
Love is wonderfully consuming!

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Snail And The Whale by Tall Stories at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a gorgeous story and the production was both witty and haunting – from 2 to 36 years old we loved it. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Yeah it is! Who doesn’t love a black comedy? I think the show has something for everyone, there’s even a film component. You’ll be crying one minute and laughing the next.

Florette Cohen stars in My Mother And Other Catastrophes, by Rivka Hartman.
Show dates: Sat 7 and 14 March at Gleebooks, and Sun 8 and 15 March at the Sydney Jewish Museum