Review: Retrograde (The Sandking Collective)

12026466_10153178590912683_932214705_nVenue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Sep 16 – 27, 2015
Playwright: Peter-William Jamieson
Director: Michael Yore
Cast:  Peter-William Jamieson, Mark Lee
Image by Michael Yore

Theatre review
One of the things about gender is that we make the quality of vulnerability inaccessible to the sterner sex. Damage to mind, body and soul follow, all of which are hard to unravel. Peter-William Jamieson’s Retrograde looks at two men, through a series of psychotherapy sessions, to explore the hardened emotional landscapes that reside in half of our population. Both characters are realistically drawn out. They are familiar archetypes, a young criminal and a semi-retired counsellor, who we investigate at depth, as the play ventures to bring illumination to the mystery behind the often impenetrable surfaces maintained by the male of our species. The writing is straightforward, with clear intentions, but its style is simple and sometimes too obvious. The narratives are dramatic, but the plot’s predictability prevents intrigue from taking hold. There is a sensitivity to the way each scene unfolds, as more of the characters are being revealed, but none of it is surprising. We feel one step ahead of the game, and resist the tension that the production tries to build.

Michael Yore’s direction is faithful to the directness in Jamieson’s writing. There are few embellishments, except for the frequent use of video footage that is a key and clever component to the play. Unfortunately however, the poor quality of projected images prevents us from engaging sufficiently with the performance therein. Mark Lee does splendid work as Earl, the older and wiser of the two, but who struggles with addiction and an unresolved past. The actor is powerfully present and accurately detailed in his portrayal. His work is consistent and sharply focused, and is the unequivocal highlight of the production. Playwright Jamieson is cast as the wayward Sonny, a young man trying to escape the remains of a bruised childhood. His performance is committed and studied, but too restrained and not always believable. The voice and physicality that he creates does not match our imagination and experience of that personality type, and some of his depictions of emotion require greater authenticity, in order that we may identify more closely with Sonny’s plight.

The themes in Retrograde are valuable points of discussion. Problems associated with our obsession with masculinity are pervasive, and the importance of articulating and dealing with them cannot be understated. We need to redefine socially, what it is to be a man, so that we can identify truer virtues and shift prominence to them. Silence in the play is a cancer, a force that destroys individuals and relationships, and it is the opposite of that silence that can heal us all.

Review: Ljubičica – Wild Violet (Seymour Centre)

ljuibicicaVenue: Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Sep 17 – 19, 2015
Playwright: Melita Rowston
Director: Melita Rowston
Cast: Josipa Draisma, Mara Knezevic, The Squeeze Box

Theatre review
Josipa Draisma’s show is composed of stories and songs from her mother’s childhood. Born in a Croatian village, Ljubičica – Wild Violet details her days as a young girl missing her absent father, and her subsequent journey to Australia in search of a better life. The stories are sentimental, and the songs are romantic. The bitter-sweet show, written and directed by Melita Rowston, strikes a thoughtful balance between biography and entertainment, with surprising variations in atmosphere that help hold our attention. The piece could benefit from a trim to speed things up slightly, but it is ultimately a delightful insight into one of our many migrant experiences, with a special poignancy that seems to arise uniquely from true stories.

Draisma’s performance is a passionate one, and we are swept away by the many beautiful Croatian songs she presents with gusto. Several humorous impressions of characters in her mother’s life are especially effective; the actor’s talent seems to be stronger with comedy, but the show is presented mostly in a serious tone. Mara Knezevic provides fine support as the secondary voice of the production. The women’s harmonies together are sublime, and a rare treat for our Anglocentric city. The handsome Gypsy jazz trio The Squeeze Box adds a sophistication and polish to the stage with their sensual and confident accompaniment on accordion, guitar and violin. Draisma’s monologues help the music communicate with our foreign ears, but it is the music that gives soul to the show.

Our nation is composed of a million exotic tales. Attempts to obliterate our diversity from public discourse occurs everyday, but the fact remains that a vast majority of lives on this land have roots in places far away. Ljubičica – Wild Violet tells of one migrant’s experience, but we should not look upon it as unique or foreign. It should be embraced as the true face of normal, with all its individual colours and melodies.

Review: Our Father Who Art (Nearly) In Heaven (Seymour Centre)

ourfatherVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 15 – 19, 2015
Playwright: N. Gregory Finger
Director: Stuart Owen
Cast: Richard Clark, Catherine Davies, Chris Heaslip, Daniel Hunter, Douglas Kent, Michelle Millgate, Nid Oswald, Stuart Owen, Kate Parker-Frost

Theatre review
N. Gregory Finger’s Our Father Who Art (Nearly) In Heaven takes the form of a classic farce, with fast paced, frivolous and wise-cracking scenes of amusement emerging one after another. The show is old-fashioned in ways, but many of its jokes are genuinely funny, often with a pointed flamboyance that prevents it from being a dowdy imitation of its forebears. Its characters are clearly defined ones who reference familiar archetypes that we are more than comfortable making fun of. These less than dignified personalities are placed in the predictable situation where they find the patriarch with one foot in the grave, all scrambling to secure a slice of the estate. Hilarity does ensue, quite surprisingly, proving that wit and flair can trump innovation under the right circumstances.

Direction of the piece by Stuart Owen is suitably speedy and madcap. The script’s many short sequences are deftly handled by Owen who uses stage space intelligently, although lighting design could be more responsive to his attempts at shifting our attention. Efforts at imbuing energy into every interchange gives the show an exuberance that keeps us engaged, although the wide range of abilities in the cast of nine is a major weakness that is hard to ignore. Some of the players are clearly inexperienced, and even though there is never a shortage of enthusiasm, the inaccuracy of their portrayals can be punishing. Owen saves the day however, with an excellent performance as Ben, one of the dying man’s son. He is charming and rambunctious, with perfect comic timing that elevates the show with his every appearance. Owen’s ability to present varying styles of humour, and his versatility at depicting his character’s temperamental transformations, is delightfully memorable. The very animated Chris Heaslip plays Damian, the other son, also to good effect, with an infectious confidence and a steadfast love for performance that shines through. Heaslip can be repetitive with his manic approach to the role, but his vigour is crucial to the delirious experience that the play delivers.

Fashion comes and goes, but when it comes to entertainment, we can always go back to the tried and tested. Our Father Who Art (Nearly) In Heaven is a new play that reminds us of special moments of laughter in movie and live theatres in years past, and its stylistic revival is remarkably welcome.

Review: All About Medea (Montague Basement)

montagueVenue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 15 – 19, 2015
Playwright: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Christian Byers, Lulu Howes
Image by Patrick Morrow

Theatre review
In Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s All About Medea, the ancient Greek mythological characters of Medea and Jason are transformed into generic versions of modern day “girl and boy”. We know little about them, except for their time together; their initial meeting, their pregnancy and marriage, and the eventual devastation that befalls their story. The breakdown of this relationship is the main focus of the play, but it occurs with little explanation. Jason is painted as the villain, but his infidelity is too convenient and his transformation to apathy unconvincing. It might appear that Lusty-Cavallari’s eagerness to portray Medea’s innocence in this sad state of affairs has guided him to a narrative that is far too simplistic.

Medea is an intriguing and dynamic character, but her legend’s value in feminist terms is debatable. It is doubtless that she possesses immense strength, but the sacrifice of her children is made, ultimately to punish the man who abandons her. Her vengeful obsession gives her her power, but in All About Medea, her implied purpose is to cause suffering to Jason, and then to win him back by her delusional attempt to turn back time. Her happiness depends squarely on the manipulations she can effect on her husband’s life.

Nevertheless, the production is an engaging one, with short and sharp scenes that manage to surprise within its purposefully conventional plot structure. Performances by Christian Byers and Lulu Howes are uneven, but the team’s easy and confident chemistry is an outstanding feature. There are some refreshing and subversive approaches to the portrayal of sexuality that will leave an impression, including its liberal amount of nudity at a particularly conservative time in our civilisation. Also, the play provides insightful commentary on youth culture in Australia, and on the trend for the formation of families at a significantly younger age than had been the norm in recent decades.

When imagining Medea as a modern woman, one would hope that society can afford her greater freedom to establish a life in accordance with her desires, but with much smaller reliance on her husband and children. The concluding moment of All About Medea is a controversial one that pushes its audience to reach for their own vision of alternatives that we wish for our heroine, and luckily, that task is not a difficult one.

Review: Tender Indifference‏ (Arrive Devise Repeat)

arrivedeviserepeatVenue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), Sep 8 – 12, 2015
Playwright: Arrive Devise Repeat (after Albert Camus)
Director: Alexis Hammerton, Victor Kalka
Cast: Joanne Coleman, Ryan Devlin, Alexis Hammerton, Patrick Howard, Victor Kalka, Troy Kent
Image by Jack Gorman

Theatre review
Through the absurd, we can examine what it is that gives life a sense of coherence. Albert Camus’ L’Étranger tells of a man who does not grieve his mother’s death. In Tender Indifference, he is distanced from the world, floating through scenarios almost like an apparition, never involving his emotions with all that occurs in the environment. His alienation is ubiquitous in the play, and we struggle to find a point of connection with his story. It brushes us off, pushes us away, and only the extremely persistent can afford attention for its entirety.

Direction of the work is adventurous but lacking in maturity. Scenes are created for superficial effect, without offering enough innovation to affect fascination, and with characters and narratives that fail to engross. The cast is well rehearsed, but quality of performance is uneven. Stand-out players include Alexis Hammerton whose presence is strongest in the group, and who displays a confidence that addresses our need to be entertained. Patrick Howard takes on the more daring parts, with a flamboyance that keeps us amused. His comedy in the piece is simple and coarse, but refreshing nonetheless, in an atmosphere that aims to be comprehensively dark.

It is challenging to find value in alienation if what follows is emptiness. A work of art can have the best intentions, but if it falters with its communication, the theatrical event represents a missed opportunity. The viewer gains little from Tender Indifference, but its participants probably are conversely enriched by its process. The nature of performance however, requires a kind of partnership between those on and off stage, and both must benefit from that shared experience, no matter what the message therein may be.

Review: Unend‏ (Never Never Theatre Co)

neverneverVenue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), Sep 10 – 12, 2015
Playwright: Harry Black
Director: Jess Arthur
Cast: Emma Harvie, Eliza J Scott

Theatre review
Abstraction in theatre can bring tremendous pleasure or great boredom, depending on the kinds of communication that do or do not happen between the stage and its audience. Unlike media such as paintings and sculpture, one is trapped in a seat, unable to simply walk away to a different work. Harry Black’s Unend is entirely abstract, and although elements of reality and points of reference are peppered through, it persists with its sublime incoherence, unafraid to cause alienation. The themes are broad, and characteristically open to interpretation. The work talks about the creative process, and the obstacles to progress. It might also be concerned with the relationship between artist and muse, and the self-jeopardising nature of humanity. Many things can be read into Black’s writing, and it is that vagueness that allows an appreciation of Unend to be a dynamic and involving one.

Adding to the sophistication of the script is Jess Arthur’s direction, which delights in manufacturing a sensual and ghostly beauty (ably materialised by Jeremy Allen’s set and lights, and Gayda de Mesa’s sound) to accompany the free-flowing ideas that occur in the text. Dialogue is relayed with impressive detail, and even though its ephemeral quality evades our instinctive need to rationalise every sentence, we never doubt the truth that is being explored on stage. A solid and palpable chemistry is established early on and stays for the entirety of this two-hander. Emma Harvie’s work is thorough and complex, with motivations that feel powerfully honest. The actor balances an inner authenticity with a robust physical portrayal, to create a character that encourages identification in spite of her many ambiguities. Similarly buoyant is Eliza J Scott’s depiction of an earthy angel, reverberating with conviction and enthusiasm. Her vibrant energy gives grounding to a show that can easily turn impenetrable, and the playfulness she introduces reflects a passion to entertain.

This production of Unend speaks differently to each viewer. It requires intellectual investment on our part, so it follows that passive consumption of the work may not gratify, but if one is able to connect with some of its assertions, a rewarding theatrical experience will emerge. The world is full of mystery, but its participants must find ways to understand their very existence. Like an author with a blank screen, meaning begins with that singular leap of faith.

Review: Everything I Learned At NIDA‏ (Pact Centre For Emerging Artists)

kylewalmsleyVenue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), Sep 8 – 12, 2015
Playwright: Kyle Walmsley
Director: Kyle Walmsley
Cast: Kyle Walmsley

Theatre review
The beauty of youth cannot be divorced from its anxieties, frustrations and arrogance. Kyle Walmsley’s Everything I Learned At NIDA is about a young man’s experiences with acting teachers, and his struggles at balancing his ego with the acquisition of skills that promise fame and glory. It is also extremely funny and outstandingly detailed in its observations of clichés in that particular field of education. Walmsley performs the show not as a student, but as the condescending and self-absorbed instructor who treats his crowd as though we are desperate and ignorant parish at his church. His style ranges from very subtle to ridiculously bombastic, and the show’s comedic effectiveness keeps growing through the duration. It is a caustic tone that drives the production, and although the approach can seem juvenile, the material is substantial enough for rumination after the laughter subsides.

Walmsley’s abilities as comedian, writer and director are all impressively showcased. It is a highly idiosyncratic presentation, but with finely tuned nuances that engage us in often clever and unexpected ways. There is a bold and crass sensibility to his brand of humour, but Walmsley does not rely on cheap or vulgar laughs. His punchlines are genuinely hilarious. In many ways similar to a stand-up format, his very acute sensitivity to our responses and his hunger for attention, creates a level of engagement that is immediate and thrilling. His fondness of audience participation certainly keeps us on edge.

The work is cagey when it comes to the artist’s own feelings and beliefs about his time at NIDA, but a lot is revealed through his portrayal of the culture he had experienced. The tension between talent and effort, and the conundrum of being true to oneself while abandoning the ego, are questions about art education that come into focus. Institutions can provide answers, but the student has to choose whether to learn. Places and personalities hold valuable opportunities for development, and the individual must decide how best to make their dreams come true.