Review: Simple Souls (Fringe HQ)

Venue: Fringe HQ (Potts Point NSW), Nov 13 – 30, 2019
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Alison Benstead, Julia Christensen, Lisa Haanssens, Simon Lee, Thu Nguyen, Madeleine Withington

Theatre review
Frustrated with the senseless jibber-jabber she encounters on the internet, Marguerite embarks on creating a work of theatre, with people who have responded to a paper sign she had stuck onto a lamppost. Using the parody of a TV game show, Marguerite and her new friends proceed to criticise their audience for the stupid things being said on social media, but soon discover the exercise to be futile, as they fail to move beyond this easy act of castigation.

With Simple Souls, playwright Paul Gilchrist expresses a burning desire to determine how we can be better persons, in this age of high technology and deep divisions. He passionately explores why we are so poorly behaved, asking if our nature is capable of improvement, or if we are in an immutable state, on the road to no return. Simple Souls implores us all to be more reflective, and is itself very analytical, about how we are with one another, and how it thinks we might be able to learn to get along.

Gilchrist’s approach for direction is much more basic than how he writes. Early sections of the staging are enjoyable, with less complicated ideas accompanied by a playfulness that keeps us amused, as it prepares us for more sophisticated ideas to come. As the text gets increasingly dense, the performance ramps up in intensity, which may be appropriate in terms of the tension it conveys, but the speed at which Gilchrist dispenses his philosophy can prove too challenging. His thoughts are undoubtedly fascinating, but they race past too quickly for us to attain full appreciation.

Actor Madeleine Withington brings a convincing despondency to Marguerite’s story, and a dissatisfaction with the world that is understandably emphatic. Julian Christensen and Simon Lee play Trudy and Thomas respectively, flamboyant characters with admirable energy, both effective in injecting a valuable sense of theatricality that sustains our attention. The introverted Veronica who is never without her glove puppet, is brought to life by Alison Benstead whose depiction of naivety and idealism, gives the play unexpectedly meaningful balance.

Marguerite toys with the notion that stupid people have it easier, but there really is no way for anyone to know if other people’s lives are truly any better. The weight of the world is heavy on the shoulders of our protagonist, who is doing the right thing by resisting evils, and trying to invent solutions for the problems that she has identified. However admirable her efforts, it seems that the only one facing defeat is herself, as we watch Marguerite gradually consumed by anger and resentment. There is much that needs to be done, but part of the project is to survive one’s own darkness, even if unjustifiable optimism that makes one look a simpleton, is required.

www.subtlenuance.com

5 Questions with Alison Benstead and Thu Nguyen

Alison Benstead

Thu Nguyen: What aspect of your character, Veronica, do you relate to the most?
Alison Benstead: Veronica could definitely be seen as being a bit of an air head. Her whole vibe is introspection, and commenting on the world in a way that only she sees it. I very much relate to this (can I blame my star sign?), however I wish that I had answers like she does. I’m definitely more concerned about how my peers might interpret my what I say, and I think this sometimes restricts our ability to look at the world from that beautiful child-like, uninhibited perspective. I think there’s nothing wrong with taking a leaf out of Veronica’s book.

Who do you draw most inspiration from for your character, Veronica?
Veronica definitely has a Luna Lovegood vibe about her. I haven’t watched the Harry Potter series since this was mentioned at our table read for fear of re-creating that character, but I think a HP marathon is definitely on the cards once we close the show.

Your character Veronica carries around a hand puppet. When you were younger did you have a favourite item/toy that went around with you everywhere?
I had this doll when I was a child that had big, curly hair. My aunty named her Curly Mop Head, and said that she looked like me because her hair was so big. I loved her so much. I didn’t take her everywhere with me like Veronica does her puppet, but she did move house with me four time. I wish I could have kept her forever, but she got a bit old and crusty so I threw her out in my most recent house move. It was time, though it wasn’t easy saying goodbye.

If Veronica had a favourite colour, what do you think it would be?
Silver, for sure. It has something ethereal about it, and its metallic, reflective quality is very fitting.

Simple Souls pokes plenty of fun at social media interactions – have you been guilty of any of the behaviours the play satirises? If so, which one? (e.g. I know I’ve posted up a picture of some natural disaster and told people to share it haha)
I remember when the Je Suis Charlie tragedy happened in Paris and everyone was putting #prayforparis up on their Facebook walls. I got to work that day and was questioned by my colleague as to why I cared so much about Paris and didn’t acknowledge a particular event that had just occurred in India, which was equally as horrible. I was definitely taken aback, and it absolutely made me stop and think about what we choose to acknowledge in our social media, and that it doesn’t give us as much awareness of the world as we think it does. We still only see what others want us to see.

Thu Nguyen

Alison Benstead: Simple Souls is ‘an experiment in comic magical realism’. Which of these words would your character Bridget resonate with the most and why?
Thu Nguyen: I think Bridget would identify most with realism because she takes everything to heart. She is down to earth and very of this earth. There are many times in the play that she doesn’t seem to get sarcasm or she would question flippant remarks way too earnestly!

What was your first impression of Bridget?
My first impression of Bridget was that she was upbeat and chirpy but a little bit too eager to please, kind of like a lap dog. It became clearer as we went along that underneath all that, she is a really lonely person who just wants to connect with other people. She means well and has a kind and caring soul, but for some reason, people don’t tend to see her. 

Your dog goes missing, so you put up posters in the street. A stranger calls to offer their condolences, though they haven’t actually seen your lost dog. How do you react?
I would be really weirded out but I think I would be too polite to hang up! I would most likely listen to them for a while and then eventually make up some excuse like I’m late for work and then be apologetic for ending the conversation even though they are the weird ones for calling me!

What do you hope audiences will come away from Simple Souls with?
Simple Souls is a fun but poignant play commenting on the way the modern world deals with political and social issues. I hope it gives audiences some food for thought in terms of how to make our interactions with each other less superficial and more meaningful. It definitely pokes fun at some of the things I have done in the past!

Alison Benstead and Thu Nguyen can be seen in Simple Souls by Paul Gilchrist.
Dates: 13 – 30 Nov, 2019
Fringe HQ

Review: Seed Bomb (Subtlenuance / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 5 – 9, 2019
Playwright: Daniela Giorgi
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Matthew Abotomey, Kate Bookallil, Lindsey Chapman, Sonya Kerr, Julian Ramundi
Image by Matthew Abotomey

Theatre review
Kat dreams of moving out to the country, so that she can escape the ugly rat race of city life. Upon meeting guerrilla gardeners Gridlock and Pax however, her mind changes, as she begins involvement in a political movement that helps her feel an integral part of community. Daniela Giorgi’s Seed Bomb talks about the responsibility of individuals, in an environment where the power to influence our own destinies, is routinely made to feel diminished. Kat discovers that she is not helpless in her home, and to leave it for greener pastures is in some ways a selfish act.

Giorgi’s benevolent writing is idealistic but not naive. Although its didacticism has a tendency to turn obvious, the immediacy of its concerns bear a pertinence that keeps us engaged, with Kat’s awakening bringing a sense of hope to our humdrum passivity. Directed by Paul Gilchrist, the show is tender and earnest, insufficiently dynamic but certainly authentic with its representations. Actor Sonya Kerr is particularly genuine in her convincing portrayal of Kat, our mild-mannered protagonist who learns to carve her own niche in micro activism.

Other cast members are similarly accomplished. Matthew Abotomey and Kate Bookallil bring conviction to their roles as provocateurs of the piece, both distinct and specific with their respective interpretations of the modern social justice warrior. Excellent comedy by a very cheeky Lindsey Chapman, who plays an ignorant financial adviser, leaves a lasting impression. The frustrations of Kat’s partner Toby are conveyed persuasively by Julian Ramundi, whose depiction of the one left behind, serves as caution against political apathy.

Whether we like it or not, to exist is to be political. We can choose either to participate or withdraw, but there is never neutrality in any of our decisions. Everything we say and do, causes reverberations, like dominoes toppling in all directions. Kat does not become radical, but her new awareness of things beneath the surface, has sparked a fundamental shift in how she behaves. We can never be sure if knowledge will necessarily improve lives; after all, ignorance is bliss. There is however, no possibility for reversal, once the truth is out. This is only the beginning of Kat’s story, what is to follow is a test of our optimism and faith.

www.subtlenuance.com

Review: TickTickBoom (Subtlenuance Theatre)

Venue: The Actors Pulse (Redfern NSW), Oct 10 – 20, 2018
Playwright: Melissa Lee Speyer
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Rose Marel, Emily McKnight

Theatre review
When the story begins, Jodie is seventeen and finishing up high school, but instead of exams and puppy love, it is her failing health that becomes all-consuming. To have her dug out of doldrums, chirpy schoolmate Clara is sent by parents to be the gallant lifter of spirits. In Melissa Lee Speyer’s TickTickBoom, the heart is the subject, literal and figurative, as we observe two young women navigate life and friendship, with a constant and unassailable reminder that death is always around the corner.

Big existential themes are cogently woven together by Speyer, who presents her observations in a manner that is indelibly tender and benevolent. The production struggles to establish an effective sense of humour, but its heavier sections are certainly sensitively rendered. Director Paul Gilchrist’s earnest approach makes for a warm, contemplative experience, and although chemistry between actors can seem inconsistent, both demonstrate undeniable talent, as they proceed to find authenticity, as well as integrity, for their respective roles. Rose Marel brings a valuable vulnerability to Clara, so that we can have an appreciation of the character beyond her shiny exterior. Emily McKnight is convincing in her performance of Jodie’s recalcitrance, for a portrait of teenage angst that we are all familiar with.

Time means nothing to this earth. It is the vanity of our mortal selves that creates the notion of time, and the notion of life running out. When Jodie is fearful of death, she is paralysed, unable to pay reverence to the ticking seconds that she so anxiously counts. To believe in time, is to imbue it with meaning. Species can come and go, but the world will evolve regardless of our individual fates. For each of our personal domains however, to make this fleeting existence bearable, will require a thing we name spirit, whatever one would like for it to mean.

www.subtlenuance.com

5 Questions with Melissa Lee Speyer and Rose Marel

Melissa Lee Speyer

Rose Marel: Are the 90s your favourite decade? Why did you decide to set TickTickBoom within this particular era?
Melissa Lee Speyer: Every decade is my favourite decade. I chose the 90s mainly for the millennium New Year’s Eve countdown. A single second that splits two millennia, according to an arbitrary marker in time. Also, they’re fun and nostalgic. I love nostalgia. I get nostalgic over every time and everything. I get nostalgic over two months ago. I build moments of future-nostalgia into my day. There is probably something real deep in that, like living in the past to avoid the future, or fearing change. Whatever. I probably shouldn’t ever say yes to time travel.

Which character in TickTickBoom is most similar to you and why?
Whoever is being the most awkward at any given moment. Not limited to my plays. Because, have you met me?

What’s the most exciting thing and the scariest thing about having your play being transformed from page to stage?
It’s all exciting and it’s all scary. I get nervous, wild-eyed, clumsy, sweaty. If there are stairs, watch me trip on them. I like feeling an audience listen. The communal experience. I love seeing what other artists bring to this thing I gave them. The communal act of creation. Foyer chat is terrifying. Mainly because I only remember people’s names on the train on the way home. My brain is allergic to names. Even my own.

What was your high school experience like? Love it or hate it?
I was a nerd, but not intelligent – intellectually, socially or emotionally. High school is always fraught. It’s life’s first social crucible, where you test out who you are and who might be.
Suddenly, the people who mean the most to you don’t have to love you unconditionally. I hated it at the time, and for years after. Now I’m glad I didn’t peak too early. All of life is high school, in some way. Ahhh. Nostalgia.

Who are your favourite playwrights?
Anyone who finishes. Writing is hard! It’s hard to play “favourites”. But you asked, and you’re great, and the full list is too long,
so here are three who are important to me. No order. Caryl Churchill, Nakkiah Lui, Michele Lee.

Rose Marel

Melissa Lee Speyer: How do you remember all those lines? Seriously. I don’t and I wrote them.
Rose Marel: You probably don’t because no one is expecting you to act out both characters 😉 For me, lots and lots of study – going over the lines; reading them out; rehearsing with other actors; speed runs; writing them down; working through the script methodically. Plus, really understanding it and analysing it. Once you figure out the intentions, the thoughts and images behind the lines, I find that it all starts crystallising.

Who was Rose Marel in high school and which clique were you in? Be honest.
I was a good old floater. (I like to think) I got along with everyone reasonably well, but I did drift around throughout the years and have close friends from various cliques. Although, I was also someone who also enjoyed – or found myself – floating around in her own world.

Can new Australian theatre compete with Netflix, and if so, how?
It’s tough. No doubt people love staying home these days – that idea of relaxing in their own space and ‘bingeing’ on shows – which is absolutely great, but I think in terms of accessibility, a lot more people, regardless of whether or not they’re involved in the arts, turn to Netflix. Less people are willing to, or aware of, all the incredible independent shows in Sydney / Australia. But it can be such a fantastic night out – grab a couple of friends or a date, have some dinner, go see a show, and then hopefully engage in great conversation about the themes and ideas that it brought up. Theatre is arguably a more visceral and raw experience for the audience members, so in that way it can definitely have the edge. 

Ultimately, they’re such different mediums, but at the same time, there’s potential for them to complement each other. Netflix has some incredible content, and is pushing the boundaries in so many ways conceptually and thematically that it can only be a good thing in terms of the wider arts community and also society in general.

Tell me about the first time you fell in love. 
The few times I’ve felt on the precipice of love, I’ve later realised that ‘that’ wasn’t it. The first, more mythical time, was back in junior school, when I clapped eyes on an elf called Legolas in Lord Of The Rings. For the next, who knows how long, I existed somewhere in the cross-zone between obsession, love and delusional infatuation. As in, I would research Orlando Bloom facts, had over 300 pictures of him on my wall, would count the pictures as a hobby and did a speech on him for a school speech competition. It was the first time I considered the possibility of ‘love’ and what that could feel like. God help me. 

Living your life: are you aiming to be here for a long time or here for a good time? Which is better? Is that actually 7 questions?
Do they have to be mutually exclusive? I’d like to say a healthy combination of the two. It can be really difficult to seize the moment, and capture that freedom and adventurousness within ourselves, especially as you get older and  encumbered with more responsibility, but I think it’s certainly a balance. One of my favourite quotes that encompasses this is from Buddha: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Something that I really admire in Clara (the character I play in TickTickBoom) is her gratitude of, and openness to the present moment. She’s a soul who’s certainly alive and receptive to the potential of the world in ‘now’. 

Rose Marel can be seen in TickTickBoom by Melissa Lee Speyer.
Dates: 10 – 20 Oct, 2018
Venue: Actors Pulse Theatre

Review: Sex & Death (Blood Moon Theatre)

Venue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Apr 10 – 28, 2018

Something In The Basement
Playwright: Don Nigro
Director: Garreth Cruickshank
Cast: David Luke, Annette van Roden

It’s Time
Playwright: Garreth Cruickshank
Director: Garreth Cruickshank
Cast: Russell Cronin, Jack Douglas, Kitty Hopwood, Annette van Roden

Theatre review
Two short plays, both concerned with marriage, form a double bill entitled Sex & Death. The first, Something In The Basement by Don Nigro is ostensibly about the mystery of sex, and the second, It’s Time by Garreth Cruickshank, deals with family violence. They both point to some fundamental ideas about the traditional unity of two persons, perhaps questioning the validity of that ancient institution for our current times.

Something In The Basement is a comedic exploration of sex, using the basement of a couple’s home as allegory, for the strange workings of compatibility and the libido. Humour is obscure for the piece, and its performers never quite manage to make it a sufficiently funny show. The meanings, as represented by their relationship with each other and with their house, too are rarely satisfactorily conveyed, left abstract with scant resonance. The production’s naturalistic approach seems an inappropriate choice, exposing only the mundanity of married life, and little else besides.

It’s Time dwells on the harrowing experiences of a housewife from the 1950s, who receives regular beatings from her husband. We meet her later in life, but it is her recollections of her darkest days that she wishes to share. Mrs O’Brien tells all, as flashbacks are introduced, with regrettable inelegance as actors walk in and out of view for sequences that last mere seconds. Annette van Roden plays the role with great sensitivity and maturity, exhibiting exceptional strength as a woman put through the wringer, and who emerges victorious. We wish to see how she escapes abuse and grows stronger in the aftermath, but the play ends abruptly, allowing only her suffering to define this version of Mrs O’Brien.

The people in Sex & Death fail at marriage, but we see them work hard at salvaging things to fulfil their commitments. Marriage is full of promise. We are told that it is essential to a good life, although arguments are never more than tenuous. Tethering the self to another, through measures religious and legal, is a bizarre habit that continues to prove hard to break. We aim to understand ourselves through science, logic and facts, but it often appears that irrationality plays the biggest part in being human. There is no rhyme or reason for so much of what we do, and hence we are prone to repeat our foibles time and again. Marriage will never live up to the grandness of its pitch, but we will nonetheless keep buying in. It is romance, idealism and delusion, but we are only human.

www.bloodmoontheatre.com

Review: One Way Mirror (Blood Moon Theatre)

Venue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Mar 14 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Matthew Abotomey, Alison Benstead, Angus Evans, Sylvia Keays, Sonya Kerr, Mark Langham, Linda Nicholls-Gidley, Ash Sakha, Sheree Zellner

Theatre review
In the living of each day, humans use their mental and physical capacities for an endless variety of reasons, but whether conscious or unconscious, it is always a pursuit that involves us engaging with something quite mysterious. Nobody can know for certain, the purpose of being here, but we all participate in the project of figuring it out, whether we like it or not.

Paul Gilchrist’s One Way Mirror, involves a group of American actors in the 1960’s, hired to work with scientists conducting experiments to determine the nature of human conformity. Within this conflated microcosm of art and science, we observe all the individuals in a process of uncovering truths, whatever a truth might be.

It is a philosophical work, vast in its scope and therefore challenging for those who need a greater sense of certainty to hang on to. Gilchrist’s point of course, is that none of this can be certain, and to fabricate a narrative that is convenient and secure, would contradict its central interest, which is to arrive at some sort of knowledge about this thing we vaguely understand to be, and that we name, the truth.

The show features an intentionally fractured plot structure, with scenes differing in ideas and styles, some more appealing than others. Actor Matthew Abotomey is an intriguing presence in early sections, playing various subjects under institutionalised interrogation, intense and compelling with what he brings to the stage. Alison Benstead and Ash Sakha play young lovers, demonstrating good chemistry but also impressive with their diligence and focus as individuals.

Various storylines weave through the plot of One Way Mirror, but they come and go quickly, as though to evade our grasp. We wish to know these personalities better, because it feels natural to want to get to the bottom of things. Our curiosity is instead, turned outside in. One Way Mirror makes it vital that we examine for ourselves, that concept of truth, whether it be a matter of instinctual resonance, or rational meaningfulness, or enduring legacy, or whatever else one might find fulfilling. The conclusion is inexhaustible, and the journey inevitable.

www.subtlenuance.com | www.bloodmoontheatre.com