Review: Merciless Gods (Little Ones Theatre)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 1 – 25, 2017
Playwright: Dan Giovannoni (based on the book by Christos Tsiolkas)
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Cast: Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Charles Purcell, Jennifer Vuletic
Image by Sarah Walker

Theatre review
Art can reshape lives. It provides new perspectives and an accompanying freedom, so that we are able to imagine a way of being that is better, than what had been available before. Christos Tsiolkas’ books might have a penchant for all things gloomy, but their refusal to adhere to dominant myths of our culture, helps us define an Australia that is more authentic, and certainly more inclusive, than paradigms that persist in spite of their diminishing relevance. We all want to belong, it is only human to wish for acceptance.

In Merciless Gods, eight short plays, adapted by Don Giovannoni from Tsiolkas’ book of the same name, explore the bleaker recesses of our psyche, paying particular focus to universal concepts of family, violence and sex. The writing is lyrical, faithful to Tsiolkas’ own renowned style, though dialogue can sometimes sound stilted through its translation of forms.

Operatically evocative, the work involves huge emotions and flamboyantly devised contexts. Six powerful performers are called upon to manufacture a rhapsodic sense of theatricality, in the absence of more extravagant manoeuvres by director Stephen Nicolazzo, who approaches the show with a misplaced and redundant restraint. Merciless Gods contains a spirit that feels boundless, and very wild, yet the staging is adamant in its preference for abstinence, and presumably, good taste.

Actor Jennifer Vuletic is unforgettable in two of the stories, converting the literary into intimate moments thrilling and visceral, through her sensational portrayals of contrasting parental types. We meet Dan the benevolent father, just as his light dims into the unknown thereafter, and we meet the phenomenal Lisbeth, an evil mother whose destructive darkness, threatens to outlive us all.

There is no good, without the bad. In Merciless Gods, we encounter them both, with little judgement, only an acceptance of their inevitability. The exotic creatures resist our moralising, and reveal to us instead, with brutal honesty, the unrelenting imperfections of our humanity. Rendered immediately recognisable, our ugliness demands to be owned, but what happens after the curtains fall, is that eternal battle between hope and hopelessness, with neither emerging the decisive victor.

www.littleonestheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Paul Blenheim and Jennifer Vuletic

Paul Blenheim

Jennifer Vuletic: Had you read Merciless Gods or much else of Christos Tsiolkas’ work prior to becoming involved in the stage production of Merciless Gods? 
Paul Blenheim: Yes, I’m a big fan of Christos Tsiolkas and Tina Arena. When Stephen asked me to develop Merciless Gods, I was like, ‘where do i sign?’ and he was like, ‘just here on the dotted line like every other contract, you idiot’. And I was like, ‘ok, calm down sister’ and then we had some chardonnay and celebrated with $7 worth of chips and some meats. 

Did you bring to bear any of your own experiences of growing up as an ethnic queer kid in Melbourne to the rehearsal process?
No. I am part Italian but I grew up on the central coast and i may have been forced to do a bucket bong in a sand dune in the 90s but I’ve never chopped limbs off or been made to jerk-off a fat pimp on ecstasy so I’ve had to go and be imaginative. 

How does Merciless Gods sit within the context of other Little Ones Theatre productions that you’ve performed in? 
It’s similar to other Little Ones productions in that I take my clothes off and kiss men that are four times the size of me but, other than that, I’d say this is new territory in terms of content and style. It’s still an event. It still throws a plate of asparagus at the wall of heteronormativity in similar fashion to that plate throw in American Beauty. It’s still beautiful in design but it has a quietness or stillness to it that gives room for the text to grip your heart, rip it out, give it a lick like it’s a well-cooked piece of kangaroo from the (insert whatever pub in Sydney needs a boost) and then put it back in and revive it. It’s my favourite. My drama teacher once told me that I was the Annette Bening of the Central Coast. Ok, she didn’t. 

Little Ones Theatre have been described by The Age’s Cameron Woodhead as ‘a leading light on Melbourne’s indie scene’. How do you think Sydney audiences will respond to the company’s work, and this production in particular? 
Look, I’m happy for the company to take the credit for that one even though Cameron told me he was talking specifically about me in the Little Ones production of Nine back in 2002. No, Little Ones have been putting on some spectacular shows in Melbourne but I think Merciless Gods is the perfect show for them to bring to Sydney. It has Jennifer Vuletic in it. Whenever someone says Jennifer Vuletic and Christos Tsiolkas in the same sentence, you get on the Griffin website and pre-book your tickets to the Berlin Helpmanns. 

You’ve also worked with the likes of Hayloft Project, Sisters Grimm, Elbow Room and Dirty Pretty Theatre – is it an exciting time to be working in independent theatre?
It’s always exciting. I mean, it’d be more exciting if I was married to someone who owned a brewery or an airline. But this year has been the best year in a while for theatre in Melbourne and every time i fly back to Sydney on Ansett there is another incredible theatre company starting up that has to close the bar by the second interval (is Gladys invited to opening?) or new writers smashing it out of the ballpark. And the standard of acting in both cities never fails to blow me away. I can’t wait to bring this baby home via the West Connex. I’m so excited i could pee myself. Does Alan Joyce read this? Is Tanya Plibersek coming? Who the fuck is on the guest list? OMG have we invited Clover? I’ll trade you all of St Kilda for Clover Moore. 

Jennifer Vuletic

Paul Blenheim: What’s your favourite story in Merciless Gods and why?  
Jennifer Vuletic: Pauly, YOU’RE my favourite story in Merciless Gods – I find you endlessly hypnotic, quixotic, charming, enigmatic and compelling. In fact, why aren’t we doing the whole show about you, Annette? Nude of course, cos that’s how you roll. In fact, that’s how several of us roll in this show, nude or semi-nude. The entire show is revelatory – a peeling away of onion-skin layers, revealing not so much the onion, but the experience of what it is to be pungently, rawly, diced, sliced and julienned by the brutal sous chef that is life… OK, I think I’ve exhausted the vegetable metaphor, so to the question again… favourite story, to be in? “Hair Of The Dog”, as it’s so deliciously horrific to wrestle to the death with you and  the divine Brigid Gallacher like some kind of demented panther. To watch? Merciless Gods – civilised sociopaths being awfully beautifully awful to each other – a crazed car accident.  

You’ve done it all and your resume is ridiculous. Big musical theatre stage or small intimate drama stage? Discuss.
Dahhhhhhhling the frocks! the chory! the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the… well, you get the drift. I love musicals, because everyone works so fkn hard for joy. To bring joy, sheer joy. But small intimate drama? Nothing to touch it for electricity, for the smell of fear, for nakedness (see above) of both flesh and soul.

How the hell did Nicolazzo convince you to come back to share the stage with the likes of me? (Or what drew you to the material/the company?)
He promised me vast sums of cash, tickets to the Palme D’or and an instant smash hit. Well, one out of three ain’t bad… I met Nicolazzo and fell immediately in love. He’s the best thing to hit Australian theatre in decades. Maybe ever. So we bonded over that quintessential Italian experience Brunettis, and I’ve been grovelling at his feet on the rehearsal floor ever since. And then there’s that Christos guy – he’s a beautiful, big-hearted bruin of a writer-person and I have loved watching the mutual regard and generosity and sheer artistry spiralling up out of the Dan Giovannoni/Christos Tsiolkas collaboration. The material is EVERYTHING. What actor wouldn’t leap at the chance to inhale this heady stuff? To play a grieving Italian mother, a vicious alcoholic German writer and a dying man? And then there’s this divine cast – Brigid Gallacher, Sapidah Kian, Charles Purcell, Peter Paltos and you, my love. Who’s that sixth cast member, I keep forgetting her name….. Add to that the genius of Katie Sfetkidis, Eugyeene Teh and Daniel Nixon and, well, I was a goner. They had me at “Hello, and would you consider wearing yellow socks?”

Proving that you’re capable of anything because you’re actually from heaven, you’re in the process of becoming an International Relations superstar. Following on from my suggestion that you play Norma Desmond as soon as possible, I’d like to know whether you would you prefer to play her or Ban Ki Moon? As in, Broadway or the UN? It’s crunch time.  
You are one funny bastard, Blenheim. You’ve got me there… Norma or Ban Ki Moon (now of course superseded by Antonio Guterres, but I kinda wish Helen Clark had been successful cos I would’ve LOVED to have played her:  “I’m riddy for my closeup Muster De Mulle”)… oh, I don’t know! The more I interrogate the vagaries and vicissitudes of International Relations, the slings and arrows of outrageous sanctions, and the notion that the leader of the free world is a giant infant with garden mulch for hair, I don’t know which way things are gonna go… hang on, hang on, that’s it – I play Norma AS Ban Ki Moon! Brilliant. Solved.

To be on stage with you is the best. I get genuinely terrified because it feels like I’m looking into the eyes of a completely different person but I feel like I don’t need to do anything except listen… hang on, sorry, this isn’t a question, it’s just me being in love with you. Um. Do you have any ideas of two-hander plays that you and I could do next year maybe? You know, just two emerging artists putting on a show? Dinner and a show, preferably. If you don’t have an answer for that, what was the best piece of advice you were ever given in the theatre? 
You’ll really say anything for a free dinner, won’t cha? OK, I confess – I am a different person. When I’m with you. Something comes over me. It could be hives. Pollen allergy. Gluten intolerance. But, yes, I do feel myself transmogrifying in your presence. I welcome the chance to emerge with you Pauly. From something warm, silken and preferably knitted. Two-handers? why stop there, let’s do four-handers! Six-handers! Throw in a couple of feet! Best piece of advice? Never act with animals (too late) children (too late) or Paul Blenheim (too soon?) Truly, I adore you.

Paul Blenheim and Jennifer Vuletic star in Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods by Little Ones Theatre, part of the Griffin Independent season.
Dates: 1 – 25 November, 2017
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre
images by Sarah Walker

Review: Diving For Pearls (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 8 – Oct 28, 2017
Playwright: Katherine Thomson
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Michelle Doake, Jack Finsterer, Steve Rodgers, Ebony Vagulans, Ursula Yovich
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We ascribe only noble values to the Aussie battler, because we believe hard and honest work to be the greatest of virtues. In our celebration of the underdog, it is easy to forget the injustices that society inflicts on our disadvantaged. Katherine Thomson’s Diving For Pearls shows us the struggles of the poor, but instead of indulging in a pointless admiration of their fortitude, we question how it is that we allow these extreme discrepancies in wealth to exist, as though it is a completely natural and healthy phenomenon.

Barbara is a brassy broad who is more than willing to give life a go, naive in her trust that dreams do come true, that all you have to do is to play your cards right, and all the appropriate rewards will eventually be delivered. She dates Den, less ambitious but equally accepting of his place in the world. The couple do not complain about their lot in life, hardly aware of the forces at work that are determined to keep them at the bottom of the food chain.

Steve Rodgers and Ursula Yovich are the charismatic leads, both tremendously likeable and hence highly effective, in having us empathise with the stories they present, even as their characters make some very questionable choices. Playing young Verge is the remarkable Ebony Vagulans, who leaves a strong impression with her vibrant and animated presence. She brings to the role exceptional nuance, in both physical and psychological terms, that reflects sensitivity and a sophisticated theatrical instinct. The production does not always speak with great power, but audiences will find the tale nonetheless meaningful.

Poverty is required so that the wealthy can retain social dominance. Those at the bottom are made to believe that they are owed nothing by society, and that all the riches of the universe are available to them, if only they were smarter, worked harder, or simply luckier. When Barbara and Den find themselves unfulfilled, we wonder if there is ever recourse for those in their position. If we are comfortable with access becoming increasingly restricted, it will only be radical action that can bring us to something fair and balanced.

www.griffintheatre.com,au

Review: Rice (Griffin Theatre Company / Queensland Theatre)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 21 – Aug 26, 2017
Playwright: Michele Lee
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Kristy Best, Hsiao-Ling Tang
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Yvette cleans Nisha’s office, but it is not the company employing them, that brings them together. Both are Asian-Australian women, and although their personal concerns and interests are miles apart, there is something intrinsic about being ethnic minorities, and of being “the fairer sex”, that makes it easy for them to bond. In Michele Lee’s Rice, we encounter two distinct and fascinating personalities; people we see everyday in our cities, but who rarely make an appearance in the stories we tell in the arts and media. They are regular people, as all our surface pretences portray us to be, but Nisha and Yvette have revelations that are rich enough for any stage or screen.

The two women are imagined with beautiful detail by their playwright. We learn about their worlds, their problems and the way they negotiate life at every turn. Through these keen observations, Lee is able to offer an accurate reflection of how many of us are, in today’s Australia. These ideas however, do not necessarily combine readily for great drama or comedy. The play begins very slowly, with excessive focus on Nisha’s tiresome corporate career, which she pursues with admirable ferocity and little humour. When we discover Yvette’s difficulties at home, the narrative suddenly tightens, but our focus is made to disperse, in Rice‘s ambitions for a more complex structure of storytelling.

We watch Nisha and Yvette go through an emotional time, but we are rarely moved. There is much to cover, and we are rushed through every scene and every possible piquancy. Actors Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang are the model of conviction, both unshakeable and glorious in their confidence. Best in particular is extraordinarily energetic, especially impressive when playing subsidiary roles, but there is a sense that the actors are compensating for a piece of writing that can otherwise feel muted and underwhelming. We are engaged with the show, usually because the performances are so intense.

The women are an unlikely pairing, and the trust they have for each other is reassuring, though surprising. Against the oppressive power wielded by white men, that attempts to destroy all that they hold dear, Nisha and Yvette find a friendship that offers support and strength. The disparities that exist between them, in the illusory shape of social status, education, wealth and sophistication, are dissolved by a patriarchy that is determined to leave them stripped of all but the perceived weakness of being feminine and coloured. We see them forming an alliance through those very qualities of disparagement, and we await retaliation.

www.griffintheatre.com,au

5 Questions with Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang

Kristy Best

Hsiao-Ling Tang: What role do you see yourself playing in 5 years time?
Kristy Best: I see myself in a comedy that I’ve written for myself, after all, that’s probably the only way you can play the kind of roles of want to play!

You’ve used cats before as your animal influence for particular characters, what animal best describes you?
I would say I’m a dog, and then I figured that there may just be an online quiz that determines your animal, and hey presto there is, it agrees, I’m a dog. Obviously a dog that googles everything.

Whats your fave meal that prepares you before a show?
In Brisbane we discovered that a beetroot salad and vegan chocolate cake did the trick, right Hsiao-Ling? In Sydney, now that I’m home, it’s most definitely sushi. Anything light but filling really.

Which iconic male character, in film or stage would you like to play?
Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. I’m not too sure with theatre, I’ve always wanted to be a part of an all-female Glengarry Glen Ross. I think that would be fun. It’s obvious I prefer the flawed types.

Next project?
I have more hosting for Nickelodeon coming up and I’m hoping I will get the chance to do more comedy in the new year, I’d really love that.

Hsiao-Ling Tang

Kristy Best: What has been your favourite role in your career and why?
Hsiao-Ling Tang: I loved playing Pearl in Single Asian Female earlier this year. She not only was a strong three-dimensional female diverse character but she had real heart, a real story and she’s funny. Comedy is a joy to do plus I got to sing as well. That role had it all.

If you could play any kind of character, who would you play?
I’ve always wanted to play a villain. I don’t get cast as a baddy. I think they’re fun to play and more interesting in their intentions.

If you weren’t acting, what would you be doing?
Well, I’m doing it now as well as acting. I’m a mummy of two beautiful girls. Also travelling and eating my way around the world. I’m a massive foodie.

What would you like to see more of in the Australian theatre scene?
That’s easy, women and diversity. I think its happening more and there’s much more discussion about the issues so its in the theatre-makers consciousness, but we have a long way to go.

What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you on stage?
End of a long schools tour, we had a trunk on wheels that we stood in as a ship. We stacked it, nearly fell out then got the giggles and took a while to recover.

Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang are appearing in Rice, by Michele Lee.
Dates: 21 July – 26 August, 2017
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre

Review: Sunset Strip (The Uncertainty Principle / Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 14 – Jul 1, 2017
Playwright: Suzie Miller
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Emma Jackson, Simon Lyndon, Lex Marinos, Georgina Symes
Image by Patrick Boland

Theatre review
Phoebe has lost custody of her children, due to a history of illicit drug use. Her sister Caroline has been battling cancer, while dealing with a relationship breakup. Their father Ray is suffering dementia. Life is hard, as we well know, but it is not all doom and gloom with these sisters. They are determined to get on with it, making the best of the cards they were dealt.

In Sunset Strip, playwright Suzie Miller brings a family together at a time when they are in desperate need of each other’s support. None of them realises this kindred reliance of course, for it is easy to take these relationships for granted, and like many of us, Phoebe and Caroline have resentments, jealousies and unresolved issues from the past, so their reunion was always going to be precarious.

Miller’s detailing of that delicate balance, between joy and pain in how they love, is full of tenderness, subtle but powerful. Their interchanges are nuanced, splendidly complex, and always with a gentle, familiar ring that will remind us of our own homes. When families talk, it is what we say between the lines that matters most, and Sunset Strip‘s sensitive explication of those dynamics, is what makes it feel like every person’s story.

Director Anthony Skuse’s quiet approach to storytelling is a perfect fit for the play. In this intimate venue, the drama envelopes as it unfolds, and we fall deeper and deeper into its emotional grip. Skuse’s work for Sunset Strip transcends the need for a dominant narrative, getting us to the heart of its characters by simply presenting four individuals who are so thoroughly authentic and vulnerable, that finding a meaningful connection with them is inevitable. This is theatre at its most moving (sans manipulative show tunes and fantastical storylines), made even more affecting by audience members sobbing uncontrollably in neighbouring seats.

Emma Jackson and Georgina Symes play the siblings, both laid bare spectacularly, allowing us to peer right into their fractured souls. The part of their ailing father is performed by Lex Marinos, who has us transfixed in the precision of his approach, and heartbroken by his depiction of a parent who can no longer provide guidance and care. Simon Lyndon is the love interest who offers much more than meets the eye, with an ability to introduce disarming and devastating poignancy, when you least expect it. These actors are truly wonderful.

No amount of love, can prevent people from growing apart, but it is in the capacity to make sacrifices, that the depths of love is revealed. Love is not about holding tight, in fact, it is more often about letting go, but there will come moments where people are required to sit together, maybe to laugh, or maybe to fight, so that love can do its job. When life turns too hard, loneliness will only add fuel to fire. Not every problem will have solutions, but a warm embrace makes everything, miraculously, easier.

www.griffintheatre.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