Review: Hitchcock’s Birds (Edgeware Forum)

edgewareforumVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 27 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Laura Johnston
Director: Laura Johnston
Cast: Laura Johnston

Theatre review
Even though Alfred Hitchcock’s films were usually about male protagonists, it is his leading ladies that remain unforgettable. In Hitchcock’s Birds, Laura Johnston presents a compilation of anecdotes, ranging from the cautiously dubious to the downright objectionable, by a series of legendary blonde bombshells who had worked with the master of suspense. Misogyny in Hitchcock’s films is a common topic of discussion, so the insight that Johnston’s one-woman show wishes to provide, will not be new to many. It is however, wonderfully nostalgic, with characters and a performance style that harks back to the golden age of 1950’s Hollywood, and because “they don’t make them like they used to,” this is a production that will appeal to many who continue to hunger for that old world glamour.

As actor, Johnston is most effective in sultrier and heavier sections. At home in the skin of the femme fatale, she brings excellent theatricality to the likes of Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak. Zanier personalities like Doris Day and Janet Leigh on the other hand, can seem less confident, and slightly laboured. Even though Johnston does well in creating different voices and mannerisms for her various roles, it is clear that Hitchcock’s penchant for archetype does not make it easy for a greater sense of differentiation between each woman, and the use of slide projections is required to help us identify the stars being depicted. Hitchcock’s Birds is a strong concept and there is good work to be found in the way mood is manufactured for this staging, but its duration is too brief for our emotions to engage at a gratifying level of intensity.

Hitchcock’s is a man’s world, and the women in it must play by its rules or risk condemnation. When workplaces are patriarchal, as so many continue to be, its women must choose whether to obey, withdraw or defy. Whichever option is selected, it is uncommon that power imbalances are ever subverted or given redress. Film in Hollywood and everywhere else, is still dominated by men, but theatre is an alternative to the art form that is currently experiencing a vigorous progression towards gender equity. It is only when we tell our stories, on our own terms, that empowerment for our sisterhood can truly begin to materialise.

Review: Late: A Cowboy Song (Ladylike Theatre Collective)

ladylikeVenue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 27 – Oct 1, 2016
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Sarah Dunn
Cast: Andreas Lohmeyer, Annabel Mathieson, Eliza Oliver

Theatre review
The simpler the story, the deeper we can delve into the nature of being human. We have a tendency, in life and in art, for complication. Believing in the more the merrier, we cloud up our transient existences with illusory fixations that distract from the truth. Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song takes the shortest distance between two points, and in the process, deconstructs some of the biggest myths that govern our every day. It questions the meaning of things like marriage, reproduction, money and work, central tenets that dictate how we live from minute to minute. We see Mary fall pregnant and marry Crick, who goes to get a job to provide for the family. It all happens without thought and passion, completely automatic. Their lives take shape as though controlled by an external entity, until they chance upon something else that truly moves them.

It is a funny play, though not always overt with its humour. Delightfully sarcastic, with a distinctly queer sensibility that informs its representations of gender, sexuality and relationships, Sarah Dunn’s work as director is very charming indeed. Mary is played by Eliza Oliver who brings nuance and poignancy to the piece, through an understated style that encourages understanding of her character’s peculiarities. Less quiet with his presentations is Andreas Lohmeyer whose eccentric approach provides great amusement, along with an intriguing but bizarre aura appropriate to the subversive material being explored. The eponymous cowboy is a mysterious figure, with Annabel Mathieson cast against type to bring focus to the text’s interest in exploring issues of identity and conformity.

Who we think we are, may not always be an accurate estimation of the person who walks the earth, but that self-perception must always be allowed to change. To know oneself can be a difficult process, but what is infinitely harder, is to pretend to be someone else. Mary and Crick try to come to terms with their own desires, but arriving at that state of honesty proves to be an elusive privilege. The cowboy is completely out of place, but what they experience, is a serenity and fulfilment that many others fail to attain. It is human to want to fit in, but it takes courage to stake one’s claim for a share of the world, without playing by all the stupid rules.

Review: Pedal & Castles (House Of Sand)

houseofsandVenue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 20 – 24, 2016
Creator: Eliza Sanders
Director: Charles Sanders
Cast: Eliza Sanders

Theatre review
Pedal and Castles are a pairing of individual pieces that demonstrate the genius talent of Eliza Sanders, whose boundless exploration into performance and theatre creation that deliver experiences that are full of joy, surprise and wonder. Amalgamating the clichéd triple threat of singing, dancing and acting, Sanders redefines the stage artist into a singular agent with capacities limited only by imagination. Her multi-disciplinary skills are showcased perfectly in both works, along with the most inventive approach to writing and choreography for a style of show that is striking for its effortless originality and distinctive sense of beauty.

These are not simply stories, but abstract expressions that find a purpose in time without the reliance on logic and narrative. In tandem with brother Charles Sanders’ direction, the siblings’ ability to move us, to cease our attention and connect with our emotions, without the use of anything remotely formulaic or conventional, is evidence that a purity of intention and an instinctive acuity are at play here.

Eliza Sanders’ physical presence is that of a dancer’s, all discipline and agility, but her personality refuses to be subservient, the combination of which results in a powerful state of being that puts on stage, the very vibrancy of life itself. Without the distraction of reason, we are in direct contact with a living, breathing and in this case, enthralling, organism, whose various representations of our complex existence, draw us into a state of sharing, listening and acknowledgement, that seems to make life that much more meaningful. Observing Sanders is to be at one with nature, and the resonance she provides, is akin to the excitement one receives when enraptured in the vision of early spring’s blossoming flowers.

Where there is no need to ask why, we abandon the past and the future, to stay firmly in the now. Eliza and Charles Sanders are important artists who give us an alternate view of the world. Knowledge and experience are limitless, and in art, we can find catalysts to help us grow. The language in Pedal and Castles is not a translatable version of the familiar, but a different course of communication for arriving at somewhere new. The danger of becoming small and narrow is ever-present, but when art does its job well, we are shown the way to emancipation, and we must take every step that leads us there.

Review: Crocodile Tears (Brevity Theatre)

brevityVenue: Tatler Sydney (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 21 & 28, 2016
Playwright: Olivia O’Flynn
Director: Alexander Butt
Cast: Olivia O’Flynn

Theatre review
Tilly Devine was a legendary personality of the Sydney underworld. Violent and ruthless, the Darlinghurst madam is brought back to life in Olivia O’Flynn’s short play Crocodile Tears, which cashes in on the glamorous mystique of clandestine criminality. It is an archetypal bad girl story that appeals to our curiosity and thirst for sordid details on things we never dare experience first-hand. Although severely condensed, the play is a powerful representation of Devine’s heyday that offers glimpses into her notorious exploits, and the impulses behind them. For a monologue, O’Flynn makes the right decision to keep the work brief, but its drama prompts many questions that leave us wanting more.

O’Flynn’s own vibrant interpretation of the role builds a strong and satisfying narrative, but there is a significant distance between the actor’s youthful qualities and Devine’s much darker, seedy existence that never really gets breached. We hear amazing tales that inspire wild imaginary visions, but the activity we actually see on stage is subdued by comparison. Nevertheless, the production is an entertaining one that delivers energy and amusement in abundance.

Only a narrow scope of historical figures is ever remembered. Myths are perpetuated to serve dominant ideologies, and subversive types are conveniently forgotten. Modern Australia is built, uniquely, on the backs of many indecorous women and men, and much as we try to wipe away our ignoble past, its presence can never be denied. Tilly Devine may have left us a long time ago, and the memory of her legacy continues to fade away, but human nature will continue its replication of experience, warts and all, generation after generation.

Review: Bathhouse: The Musical (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 19 – 23, 2016
Music & Lyrics: Esther Daack, Tim Evanicki
Director: Alex Robson
Cast: Valentino Arico, Marcus Rivera, Alex Robson, Dyan Tai, Lucas Thomson
Image by Priya Prakash

Theatre review
In Esther Daack and Tim Evanicki’s Bathhouse: The Musical, we discover all the goings on in that longstanding institution of the gay experience. Of course, providing a venue for sexual activity is its primary purpose, but where a community exists, a distinct culture can be found, and in this case, a very funny slew of shenanigans is brought to light for both the uninitiated, and the veterans. Its bawdy humour is charming, sharp and surprisingly refreshing, and although deeply conventional, its music is nonetheless enjoyable.

Billy is a smalltown young man in the process of coming out. We follow him as he navigates the dark, mysterious world of the bathhouse, trying to find companions, and more importantly his own sense of self. Performed by Lucas Thomson, the innocent and naive qualities of our protagonist are splendidly conveyed, and through his eyes, an unusual microcosm of human behaviour begins to make sense. The cast begins with unmissable tentativeness, but slowly gain confidence as the show progresses. The production can often feel under-rehearsed, and its performers do seem inexperienced in the specific requirements of the musical’s form and genre, but a vibrant accompanist (Antonio Fernandez on piano) ensures that the show is kept cohesive and jaunty. Alex Robson provides some clever ideas with his direction, but it is his work with live voice over that is truly endearing.

Daack and Evanicki’s creation is ten years old, but the advent of smart phones over this short period, is a factor that plays in our minds through the piece. Life is change, but the need for human connection is an uncompromising constant. Billy went to the baths looking for other souls who may make him feel less alone, but if he had begun his journey today, it is likely that the phone is where he goes most, ironically, to escape solitude. Technology can give us plenty, but flesh is unlikely to be replicated or replaced. The touch of another person, stranger or friend, can at times seem a lot to ask, but life without sex is not an existence anyone of any sexuality, should endure.

Review: Transience (Leftofcentre Theatre Co)

leftofcentreVenue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 13 – 18, 2016
Playwright: Clare Hennessy
Director: Clemence Williams
Cast: Julia Christensen, Kate Pimblett, Eve Shepherdson Beck
Image by Charlie O’Grady

Theatre review
Gender has always been a means of policing behaviour. We look at one’s genitals at birth and assign a whole universe of expectations that have nothing to do with the individual’s own nature and desires. The world is split in two halves, male and female, and any deviation that threatens to transgress that dichotomy is traditionally prohibited.

In Clare Hennessy’s pseudo sci-fi Transience, society continues to monitor us through gender expression, but this time only one mode of existence is permitted. The script is rich with modern ideas, and memorable for its progressive and discerning attitude. Although its concepts are deeply contemplated and well articulated, its plot does not develop far enough to create a stronger sense of narrative. A quirky comedy is effectively manufactured throughout, but its character’s emotions are depicted too gently to elicit a more empathetic response.

An accomplished cast of youthful actors is impressively connected with the material at hand. Passionate and accurate with the play’s messages, their portrayals convey an inspiring and firm sense of purpose. There are issues however, with conversational rhythms causing the show’s pace to feel excessively ambling, but proficient work from lighting designer Liam O’Keefe and composer Nick Turton offer valuable variance to the production’s mood that helps retain our attention.

Transience is concerned not only with gender. It is also a discussion on matters of free speech and social cohesion. With the advent of information technology and social media, democracy has evolved into a new beast that demands a constant evaluation on how our voices are heard. As individuals gain ever-increasing access to platforms for their unitary thoughts and politics, it is tempting to see humankind as being fractured and divided. Our egos want to feel special and we want always to be recognised as different from the rest, but in fact, our humanity is only, if ever, slightly divergent. Unity of life is an ultimate truth, but our minds do not easily come to terms with it.

Review: The Measure Of A Man (New Theatre)

gavinroachVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 13 – 17, 2016
Playwright: Gavin Roach
Director: Lauren Hopley
Cast: Gavin Roach
Image by Jarrod Rose

Theatre review
The monologue begins with Gavin Roach talking about penis size, a discussion indicative of the inadequacies that men can feel. The Measure Of A Man is not entirely about genitals, but it is about sex, and the effects on one’s emotional well-being when sexual dysfunctions appear. Roach’s writing endeavours to be absolutely revealing, and its vulnerability can be disarming, but for a context of physical and mental health, his disclosures have a tendency to dwell on symptoms rather than a deeper exploration into the causes of his worries. We find out in great detail, many of the issues the unnamed character faces with regard to sexual activity, but there is little insight into the reasons that might let us identify more closely with his circumstances.

Roach is a charming performer, able to present both humour and pathos with excellent conviction. His strong presence has a vivacious energy that provides an essential liveliness to the one-man-show format, but the play’s strong tendency for melancholy misses many an opportunity for scenes of comedy and mirth. Sex is a serious matter, but it is also very funny, and joking about it does not diminish its resonance. We connect more with Roach when he is self-effacing and camp. When performing his distinct style of flirty and transparent frivolity, we sense an ironic but truer depiction of his inner-self than when he shifts into high drama. Perhaps the stakes are too low to match.

Frank descriptions of unreliable body parts and lustful misadventures in The Measure Of A Man represent a progressive sex positive attitude that many will find refreshing and liberating. Queer artists have often faced the problem of having to play to mainstream heteronormative audiences, and in the process, become compromised and misleadingly puritanical in their expressions. As societies become more embracing of diversity and honesty in how we talk about sex, sexuality and gender, queer work can begin to be less pandering. Good taste will always exist, but artists must find a way to let their truths protrude, even if just a few meagre inches.