Review: Gloria (Outhouse Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jun 6 – 22, 2019
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Annabel Harte, Reza Momenzada, Michelle Ny, Georgina Symes, Rowan Witt
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The story happens at the most innocuous of places. In offices and a Starbucks cafe, characters from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria do their best to stay afloat, in what feels like a never ending rat race. These humans are flesh and blood, but we see them caught inside machines, trying to navigate circumstances that are highly unnatural, and failing to do anything with integrity. Almost everyone ends up looking like a bad person, but it is hard for the audience to cast blame on any individual. It becomes clear that it is the environment that is toxic, and collectively we encourage horrible behaviour in one another. Gloria is about culture; the state we are in, and how we are trapped in a quagmire of our own doing, yet unable to figure a way out of it.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ penetrating look at Western civilisation is composed of fascinating dialogue and scintillating diatribes. A passionate expression of the frustrations we experience of city life, Gloria offers in theatrical form, an astute and scathing reflection of the games we play on a daily basis, that only serve to drag us down. The production opens with absorbing exuberance for a first act that portrays regular moments between colleagues at a publishing house. Jeremy Allen’s set design is commendable for its very persuasive insistence on incorporating a conventional proscenium, perhaps as representation of “the establishment”.

Director Alexander Berlage’s rendering of a bitchy workplace, communicates with a mischievous familiarity that many will find irresistible; we laugh at how mean-spirited we can be, with people we see every day, who should be our closest allies and compatriots. Acts 2 and 3 turn much darker, and the show’s energy dissipates slightly. Where it should begin to speak more stirringly, as we get closer to the crux of the issue, the staging struggles to maintain a focus on the essence of what is being said, leading us to a conclusion that feels somewhat cool.

Enjoyable performances include Michelle Ny as Kendra and Jenna, both roles sassy and strong, with the actor’s beaming confidence holding us captive, and head-over-heels dazzled. Rowan Witt is very funny as Dean and Devin, and highly impressive with the inventiveness that he is able to summon in bringing them both to life. Georgina Symes as the diametrically opposed Gloria and Nan, proves herself effective at each end of the hierarchy, powerful whether playing high or low on the social scale.

Like nature documentaries with predictable predator-and-prey patterns of behaviour in all manner of species, Gloria shows us to be a tribe engaging in ruthless activity, as though free will is but a figment of some crackpot imagination. The truth however, is that although there is no question of our causing harm to one another, many of us do think and try to do better. The argument therefore, is about how much control we believe ourselves to possess, and how much each person is able to manoeuvre themselves to try evade these narratives to which we seem to be condemned. If we understand ourselves to have been indoctrinated, we must believe that deprogramming is possible. The nature of culture is that it is pervasive, but history shows that it is never insurmountable. Change happens all the time, and it might as well begin with the self.

www.outhousetheatre.org

5 Questions with Reza Momenzada and Michelle Ny

Reza Momenzada

Michelle Ny: What is the one piece of advice you’d tell your 10 year old self?
Reza Momenzada: I would tell myself to never give up on my dreams. Never ever. Never lose hope and never stop trying. It’s something that I probably wouldn’t have understood straight away but I would’ve definitely understood later and used for the rest of my life. It’s something I’m still struggling with, perhaps because I didn’t get that advice when I was ten.

You’re stuck on a desert island and you only have three movies to watch for the rest of your desert island life. What would they be?
If you had said a TV show I would’ve said Friends. I’d never get tired of it!

I think the performance that Heath Ledger gave as the Joker in The Dark Knight is something out of this world. Something that’ll never be repeated again. And it just shows what an actor is capable of doing once they’re fully committed to the role.

Django Unchained. Everything about this movie is just perfect, especially the performances DiCaprio and Christopher Waltz give. They’re the kind of actors whose performances just keep getting better and better.

And The Kite Runner. I’m not gonna tell you what it’s about and why I like it so much. I invite you to watch it, then you’ll know.

Describe your life when you are 60 years old in one sentence.
I’m retired, living with my beautiful wife in a big house surrounded by our children and grandchildren.

What is your favourite food and why?
There’s a dish called Kabuli/Quabili Palaw. It’s the most popular dish in Afghanistan (one might even say it’s the national dish). It consists of steamed rice mixed with fried raisins, carrots, orange peel strips with pistachios and almonds. It’s made with slow cooked lamb that’s placed in the middle of all this delicious mix. My mouth is already watering! Although right now I love anything that my wife makes and I prefer it to anything else.

What is your favourite line in Gloria?
“Why are we like this?” It’s probably the shortest line in the play but I think has a lot of meaning. It’s a question that I think the writer wants us to ask ourselves. Hopefully we can find the answer to it. I won’t say which character says it, when or why do they say it. If you’re reading this, come see the play and you’ll find out.

Michelle Ny

Reza Momenzada: You play two different characters in Gloria. In what ways are these characters similar to you?
Michelle Ny: Okay, Kendra is kind of a mean person who wouldn’t give a second thought to throw someone under a bus to get what she wants, but what I really connect with her ambition. She is highly ambitious and driven, and will do whatever it takes to be successful in her career. She’s also very honest and sometimes can be a bit hurtful. I’ve definitely learnt the hard way about being too honest with people and others reading it as being bitchy, but I’d rather just say what I mean than giving a white lie to make someone feel better. Jenna is a smaller character but, in a sense, much the same as Kendra — i.e. a power bitch.

What’s the most exciting thing for you about this play or the characters you portray?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing is so incredible; I love discovering more things about it every day. Half of the characters are nasty to each other but I think/hope you fall in love with them because of their desire and ambition of success in their industry. And, also, how good is a spat when you have juicy, well written text? And some side trivia, the play used to have the subtitle after Gloria: ‘Or Ambition’.

And what’s the most challenging?
Definitely the amount of talking I do and justifying taking all this time and space for my opinions. Sometimes I hear myself speak halfway through some big text and I think “IS MY VOICE ANNOYING?”, but that’s probably just my anxiety talking plus my own need to work on justifying my character’s beliefs in what she’s saying and really wanting to make the other characters in the play believe it too.

What’s the rehearsal process been like so far, working with Alex Berlage [the director] and everyone else in the room?
Everyone is so, so, so great; I feel spoilt. Alex is a wonderful director who makes the room feel really safe and super fun as well! I love his process of asking heaps of questions after we’ve run a section of the piece so we’re thoroughly detailing every moment. I also love talking so much shit at Rowan Witt (Dean). It’s so much fun to play an awful character and know we can both berate each other without actually hurting the other actor’s feelings (or so I hope, hehe.)

Is acting something you always wanted to pursue as a career and, if so, when did you realise this? If not, how did you discover your passion for acting?
I actually wanted to become a ballet dancer! I danced ballet for 14 years, so I did drama in high school to help with acting when I was dancing and from there, fell in love with it. I was really lucky to be a part of Long Cloud Youth Theatre in New Zealand where the artistic director, Willem Wassenaar, truly changed my life by really believing in the power of young people telling stories.

Reza Momenzada and Michelle Ny can be seen in Gloria, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Dates: 6 – 22 Jun, 2019
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Made To Measure (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), May 16 – Jun 1, 2019
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Tim Jones
Cast: Tracy Mann, Sam O’Sullivan, Megan Wilding
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Society’s hatred for fat bodies is placed under scrutiny, in Alana Valentine’s Made To Measure. Ashleigh, our protagonist, is preparing for her wedding, and the process of getting a gown made, is provoking tremendous anguish and frustration. Her dress designer Monica is nice enough, but it seems neither is able to talk about Ashleigh’s large figure, without turning it into a problem. We see an insidious prejudice in operation, a pervasive attitude of disrespect that constantly subjects fat people to criticism and chastisement. Not only does Monica struggle to avoid comments that make her client feel bad, Ashleigh herself often believes those degrading remarks to be true. Society is her worst enemy, but Ashleigh’s own opinions about her own body, are not much better.

The playwright’s elucidations are detailed and often very powerful. With an important agenda to push, Valentine’s play has a tendency to be didactic and slightly dry, but Made To Measure is ultimately highly effective, in pointing out the objectionable nature of our fatphobia, and may even succeed, over its ninety minutes, to change the way we think and act. The production is beautifully assembled, with Melanie Liertz’s set and Verity Hampson’s lights particularly delightful and well-considered. Director Tim Jones’ straightforward approach imbues the work with a sense of integrity, but a more imaginative use of space could provide an improved theatrical experience.

Leading lady Megan Wilding brings to the stage, an exceptional vulnerability that does at least as much as the writing, to help us understand the gravity of the issue at hand. Her depiction of pain is thoroughly convincing, with a potency that defies any audience member to regard the play with even a minutiae of scepticism. Also impressive is Tracy Mann, whose multi-faceted interpretation of Monica prevents the show from oversimplification. It is an authentic performance that encourages us to appreciate the story’s themes with complexity and humanity. Sam O’Sullivan plays a variety of roles with admirable gusto, able to represent both the best and worst of our community, with charm and humour.

It seems that very few of us in capitalist societies are able to be satisfied with our physical appearance. The free market takes aim at our self-esteem, relentless in its attempts to make us insatiable consumers, by ensuring that we feel eternally inadequate. The issue is not whether there is anything wrong with Ashleigh’s body. The problem is that we think we have a right to an opinion about it. We routinely remove bodily autonomy from fat people, always allowing that transgression to occur under the pretence of concern and compassion. When we know to bestow genuine kindness upon one another, differences between persons fade away. When there is no capacity for kindness, even the most perfect creature can be made a monster.

www.seymourcentre.com

Review: Cake Daddy (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 16 – 22, 2019
Playwrights: Ross Anderson-Doherty, Lachlan Philpott
Director: Alyson Campbell
Cast: Ross Anderson-Doherty

Theatre review
When we first meet Ross Anderson-Doherty in his one man show, he plays a success story at Cakewatchers, an internationally renowned weight-loss programme. The performer’s large body is the location on which the farce takes place, as he takes us through a series of absurd guidelines, that claim to help individuals achieve some semblance of satisfaction for one’s own physicality, by becoming thin. Cake Daddy by Anderson-Doherty and Lachlan Philpott is an incisive summation of what is termed “diet culture”, the horrendous relationship many of us have with food and body image; that bottomless pit of cruelty, dealt by the self and by society, determined to infect each of us with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy.

As the jokes and songs pass us by, we see Anderson-Doherty shedding the spokesperson’s plastic facade, to reveal real experiences of a fat person who struggles to find self-acceptance. The disclosures are by no means original or new, but the honesty of the performer’s display of emotion, is channelled by director Alyson Campbell to communicate a remarkable poignancy that turns the show subtly, into a discussion about compassion, both for the self and for others. As Anderson-Doherty oscillates between hating his reflection, and loving the freedom of an emancipated mind, we witness the most authentic portrayal of humanity. Even when we have the answers to life’s big mysteries, there will always be hard work waiting to be done, in order to get through some of the days.

Musical numbers in the piece can sometimes feel extraneous, as we tend to lose a powerful sense of immediacy when Anderson-Doherty drifts into song, but to encounter his exceptional singing voice is an unequivocal pleasure. As comedian, his ability to read the audience is uncanny, and we find ourselves always kept on our toes by his vigilant stage awareness, although some of his pacing can be needlessly languid, in a production that is most effective when manic in tone. Cake Daddy skates close to self-deprecation, but its subject is never humiliated. In fact, we watch him in all his glory, and wonder if he actually shares in our vision of his greatness. However each person comes to dislike parts of themselves, it is crucial that one is committed to finding peace within, even if it proves an endless task.

www.wreckedallprods.com

Review: The Moors (Siren Theatre Co)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 6 – Mar 1, 2019
Playwright: Jen Silverman
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Romy Bartz, Thomas Campbell, Enya Daly, Brielle Flynn, Alex Francis, Diana Popovska
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the Victorian era, and Emilie has left London for the countryside, looking for love and employment. Out on the wily moors, she encounters all manner of strange people and occurrences, in Jen Silverman’s spoof of the gothic romance The Moors, a comedy that brings gentle subversion to a world that is often too corseted and restrictive, in its portrayal of what it means to be female. Through its surreal renderings of familiar tropes, old scenes are turned odd, and where there is usually softness, we find instead ideas that are sharp and twisted. Women are much more interesting than genres can portray, even in the early 1800s.

Directed by Kate Gaul, it is a fabulously moody atmosphere that supports the play’s dark humour. A queer sensibility frees up all its characters, including animals, to become unexpected, almost beyond our grasp; they just refuse to be pinned down. The production is probably slightly too restrained and not as extravagant in style as it could be, with the exception of Diana Popovska’s splendidly wild performance of the maid, alternately named Marjory/Mallory/Margaret, bringing us endless mirth by making creative choices that are as weird as they are joyful. Romy Bartz is a glamorous Agatha, a solid presence whose nuances add texture to the show, especially valuable in manufacturing a quality of heightened austerity so specific to the times.

The actors are well-rehearsed, and impressive with their mastery of the revolving stage, always perfectly timed with positions and gestures that offer up a series of sumptuous tableau. Fausto Brusamolino’s lights take us to where it is dreamy and erotic, and Eva Di Paolo’s costumes make certain that desire is kept a central theme. Composer Nate Edmondson surpasses all expectations with the astonishing detail in the sounds that he provides. We are spooked and tickled at the same time, thoroughly entertained by the purposefully arty approach to his portion of the storytelling.

We should always try to see people as atypical, even if the way we construct narratives, and thus understand the world, always insists that individuals are turned into types. We become more human when we display contradictions, and when women turn inconvenient, is when we can begin to fathom the truth about who we are. In a world that only sees us as madonnas and whores, we cannot hope to be real, when we are cast merely as objects that facilitate power structures in which we must be the losing party. When we dare to imagine ourselves as complex and unconventional, leaving behind all notions of categories to live out original lives, is when things can feel meaningful, even if we have to learn to get used to being thought of as prickly and difficult.

www.sirentheatreco.com

5 Questions with Romy Bartz and Enya Daly

Romy Bartz

Enya Daly: If our characters, Huldey and Agatha, went on the X Factor, who do you think would get further in the competition?
Romy Bartz: Agatha is the ultimate strategist and excels in competition. Although her singing voice may leave something to be desired, she would surpass Huldey and most likely go on to win X Factor. She would locate a weak spot in each contestant and use it to destroy them, pegging them off one by one until, by default, she was the last one stranding. Simon Cowell would be gobsmacked, but there you have it.

What have you learned from the character you’re playing, Agatha?
I am learning to be still and let other people do the work. I am learning to squash self-doubt and maintain a sense of self-assurance at all times. Agatha is incredibly ambitious and single minded in the pursuit of an objective. She is not afraid to use unorthodox methods to get what she wants, and she has an unwavering belief in her own power to bring about change. I love this, and I delight in playing such a strong and uncompromising woman!

What is your favourite stage of working on a production?
Definitely the technical rehearsal. The cast and crew are all trapped in a darkened theatre for around 12 hours and slowly the world of the play starts to form. All the elements – lights, sound, set and costume – are integrated like puzzle pieces and you sort of allow yourself to be enveloped by it. It can feel quite magical.

Do you keep a diary? If so, tell me (and the nosy public) the best secret you’ve got in there. If not, tell me the secret you WOULD put in there.
I kept diaries all through my teens and into my early twenties. I still have them somewhere. The ravings of a pubescent, emotional wreck! Everything that every happened went into them. I’m sure most of it was ‘shameless’, saucy and highly passionate. The secret that I would put in my diary, if I had one today, would be that I am terribly attracted to red heads who play the lute.

Have you ever harboured murderous thoughts about a sibling? Please elaborate.
No, but my children, who are two years apart, harbour murderous thoughts about each other constantly. Harbouring may not be the right word, more blatant thoughts constantly manifesting as violence. I suppose there is nothing more frustrating than sharing the space with someone who has known you forever and knows exactly which buttons to press in order to achieve maximum results.

Enya Daly

Romy Bartz: What do you enjoy most about playing Huldey and what are the challenges?
Enya Daly: I love her heart. She’s been given more than enough reason to be guarded and cold, but has miraculously remained earnest, transparent and hopeful. I think the most challenging thing about this play, from a technical standpoint, is finding and maintaining the lightness of touch and truthfulness required to make the comedic moments sing.

What was it about the play, The Moors, that made you want to audition?
Honestly, when I read the audition brief, I smelt the whiff of a period drama costume and thought, “I’m there!”. I’m a period drama fanatic. I love how heavily loaded with subtext and coded behaviour they are. When I discovered that this play is not a traditional period drama but takes that familiar form and turns it on its head by subverting traditional representations of gender, I was hooked.

If Huldey had a gaming avatar, what would it look like?
I’m visualising a gauche combination of Daenerys Targaryen from Game Of Thrones, Miss Scarlet from Cluedo and Carmen Sandiego (that last one is for the 90s kids). The design should clearly be an attempt to conjure up an air of mystery and intrigue. The more elaborate, the better.

If Huldey was alive today in Sydney, Australia what would her circumstances be?
There is no doubt in my mind that she’d be a budding social media influencer. She’d have an Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube channel, Twitter and blog. Somehow, I think she has what it takes to be quite a fabulous social media influencer. She’s dramatic, loves attention and has no filter. A long-term goal of hers would be to have her very own reality TV show. She’d definitely still be living with, and supported by, her parents.

What is your favourite part of the rehearsal process?
I love the freedom you feel when you’ve gotten off book but are still sculpting each moment in the piece. I find that stage of rehearsal to be very playful.

Romy Bartz and Enya Daly can be seen in The Moors by Jen Silverman.
Dates: 8 Feb – 1 Mar, 2019
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Eleanor & Mary Alice (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Dec 5 – 8, 2018
Playwright: Peta Tait
Director: Deborah Leiser-Moore
Cast: Petra Kalive, Sarah McNeill

Theatre review
Mary Alice Evatt was wife to Doc Herbert Evatt, Australia’s Minister of External Affairs during WWII. When the USA first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt arrived on our shores for a Sydney visit, the two women struck up a friendship, and in Petat Tait’s Eleanor & Mary Alice, we watch them bond over being married to power, both keenly aware of responsibilities they have to manage. They talk about art, politics and justice, finding solace in a mutuality based on implicit understanding. The play imagines, in a charming realistic style, conversations that could have taken place, but in the absence of more audacious artistic liberties, the cultivation of dramatic tension becomes a challenge. The personalities are fairly likeable, but they exist in a world too distant, and we fail to find enthusiasm for either of their narratives.

Deborah Leiser-Moore’s direction attempts to deliver a sense of unconventionality by immersing the actors in the aisles, and having them perform very close to the audience. The unusual positioning of their physical presence helps prevent monotony, but it is arguable if the imagery being created, is actually effective in keeping us engaged with Eleanor & Mary Alice. Actor Petra Kalive exudes a warmth that makes Mrs Evatt seem a empathetic character, whilst Sarah McNeill takes a more formal approach for Mrs Roosevelt. They establish an enjoyable rhythm with the dialogue, aided by cellist Adi Sappir who provides ethereal accompaniment throughout the piece.

The production is staged on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as developed by the United Nations, through the original committee of which Mrs Roosevelt was head of. The concept of human rights is as resonant today as it had been all those years ago. Even in the most peaceful of countries, we remain vigilant, wary of how people’s freedoms can be encroached upon, usually in surreptitious ways. In the name of security, of religion, and of tradition, we seem never to be able to stop the urge to oppress. Minority groups especially, are constantly in danger of being identified as enemies du jour. Old war stories can sometimes be uninspiring, but they all remind us of the monsters within, the ones who wait for moments of careless negligence, to once again rear their ugly heads.

www.seymourcentre.com