Review: Doctor Shopping / In The Bag (Cobbstar Productions)

Venue: Cobbstar Productions (Paddington NSW), Sep 11 – 22, 2019
Playwright: Shaun Angus Hall

Doctor Shopping
Director: Tamara Cook
Cast: Patrick James, Rory O’Keeffe, Monica Sayers, Kristian Schmid

In The Bag
Director: Brian Cobb
Cast: Angela Elphick, Michael Kotsohilis, Giuseppe Rotondella, Lukey Timmins

Theatre review
The late Shaun Angus Hall was only in his twenties when he wrote these two plays in the 90s. Both very broad comedies with intentions only to entertain, they bear a sensibility that seems dated now, as we go through an era of hypersensitivity in relation to issues of race, misogyny and homophobia, but Hall’s proficiency with dialogue remains evident.

Doctor Shopping takes place mainly in a living room with four people who do nothing but abuse prescription drugs, while action in In The Bag happens at the race course, with goofy men gambling big bucks to dire results. Well crafted, but lacking in sophistication, these are plays with a specific appeal, that will prove very popular with the right crowd.

Direction for both shows prove accomplished. Tamara Cook gives Doctor Shopping an enjoyable playfulness, notable for her non-judgemental representation of addiction. Brian Cobb embellishes every moment of In The Bag with an overt humour, delivering robust energy from start to end.

Each story features four performers, all of whom are focused and enthusiastic; the quality of acting is an unequivocal highlight of the event. Kristian Schmid demonstrates excellent range as Mick in Doctor Shopping, able to convey the light and dark of his character with ease. Giuseppe Rotondella’s strong presence as Angus provides In The Bag with a reliable anchor, and Angela Elphick’s multiple roles too are memorable, each one distinct and confident.

Some words seem to move with the times, but others can feel like relics. The nature of theatre allows old writing to be revived, and when necessary, it provides the opportunity for obsolete ideas to find relevance in a different era. Audiences however, can be stuck in the past, whether nostalgic or simply traditional. Theatre too, can decide whether to progress, or to ignore the future.

www.cobbstarproductions.com

Review: Trojan Barbie (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 16 – 21, 2019
Playwright: Christine Evans
Director: Maddison Huber
Cast: Anthea Agoratsios, Sophie Avellino, Deng Deng, Sam Flack, Cathy Friend, Tristen Knox, Anjelica Murdaca, Taleece Paki, Lisa Robinson, Shannon Rossiter, Amy Sole, Kristelle Zibara

Theatre review
An homage to Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Christine Evans’ 2009 play Trojan Barbie places focus on legendary women of the Trojan War. Modern day tourist Lotte, who restores dolls in her normal life, is flung back to ancient times, where she is trapped in a women’s camp, witnessing the atrocities of war. Evans’ work is suitably tragic, but also surprisingly humorous in many of its early scenes. Familiar characters are rendered with a contemporary sensibility, allowing us to relate better to their stories, and to keep us amused.

Time travel aspects are not always presented effectively in the production, leaving us confused at several points, but director Maddison Huber ensures that each personality we encounter in her show, is distinct and memorable. Actor Lisa Robinson demonstrates strong comic abilities as Lotte, adept at delivering laughs even in the midst of battleground horrors. Kristelle Zibara is a convincing Hecuba, intense with the sorrow her maternal role is charged to convey. Sophie Avellino and Cathy Friend take on different kinds of madness, for Helen and Cassandra respectively, both performers bringing appropriate flamboyance to invigorate the stage. The show succeeds at dramatic moments of catastrophe, but when the action calls for a gentler touch, its lack of nuance can make for a less than satisfying experience.

A Chinese proverb says that women hold up half the sky. Even as men insist on occupying positions of power, we are always required to be on hand to pick up the pieces, whenever they bring degradation and destruction to the world. It is important that we look beyond how things currently operate, and commit to working towards a new system that does not simply replace men with women. These hierarchical modes of organising society have proven to be severely deficient, no matter who sits on top of the pile. If we want to ensure that nobody loses, it must mean that old ways of thinking about success, about winning, must be radically eliminated.

www.facebook.com/Scribe-Theatre

Review: The Becoming (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 15 – 20, 2019
Playwright: Katie Pollock
Director: Brett Heath
Cast: Alison Benstead, Jo Goddard, Ben Hanly, Patrick Holman, Sarah Maguire, Paul Wilson

Theatre review
Greta and Gregor are rich kids from the eastern suburbs of Sydney, both going through significant transformation, as a response to the world’s current state of tumult. Katie Pollock’s The Becoming can be seen as a coming-of-age tale, but is more likely to be taken as commentary on the sociopolitical mess we are experiencing today. We see Greta deciding to be a nicer person, whilst Gregor turns angry and militant; it is as though one environment has bred two extremists on either ends of a spectrum, both of which the play presents as ineffectual and regrettable. It is an amusing context that Pollock has located, inspired by Franz Kafka, and obviously pertinent with its thematic concerns. As a work of absurdist comedy however, its characters never really depart sufficiently from the mundane, with a sense of humour that is probably too subdued.

Directed by Brett Heath, the show is thankfully raucous in atmosphere, although the players never really attain a level of authenticity that would allow its ideas to resonate. Each role is approached with an enjoyable sense of theatricality, but we struggle to connect with anything meaningful even if the text does point to matters contemporary and troubling. Sarah Maguire’s indefatigable ebullience as Greta helps sustain our attention, and Patrick Holman is suitably offbeat as the misguided Gregor, particularly noteworthy for his performance of live drums that prove to be a rousing and sophisticated touch.

It is true that so much of what we observe to be happening in society, can be infuriating. Greta and Gregor may have found radical ways to express their dissatisfaction, but they achieve nothing, other than to escape that dreadful sense of helplessness when one is crippled with inaction. When the system is broken, those of us who are more intrepid, like the siblings in The Becoming, might be moved to try for solutions, but it is revealing that the two do not confer, choosing instead to operate independently even though they live under the same roof, and share the same blood. They are unable to listen to the other, each so certain of their own beliefs. Watching the collapse of this kinship, of humans failing to connect, it becomes unsurprising that disaster should unfold.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Romeo & Julien (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Sep 5 – 14, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Jamie Collette
Cast: Ali Aitken, Jackson Blair-West, Jayden Byrne, Sasha Dyer, Daniel Gabriel, David Halgren, Ryan Hodson, Cynthia Howard, Samantha Lambert, Charles Mayer, Chiara Osborn, David Soncin
Images by Isabella Torv

Theatre review
Juliet is now Julien, so the question would obviously relate to how this new perspective of gender in Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet would result. It might come as a surprise, that turning a heterosexual love story into a gay one, does not necessarily involve a complete and fundamental transformation of the centuries old play. The Capulet and the Montagues are still at loggerheads, and the drama we encounter is still about blood and kinship. All the conflict in Romeo & Julien come from the same sources as Shakespeare had intended, and it seems that making boys of both lovers, does not change anything in their story.

If one can accept the validity of an artistic license in this gender alteration, one could probably be willing to see that the original narrative can remain, given our understanding that gender is ultimately a meaningless construct. As director, Jamie Collette’s efforts at imposing a new inclusiveness to an old icon of Western literature is laudable, but his creative spirit can seem insufficiently radical, when viewed against the inevitably conservative associations when taking on the Bard. Nonetheless, there is inventiveness and vigour in Collette’s staging, ably assisted by Scott Witt’s dynamic fight choreography, and Sara Delavere’s colourful live music accompaniment.

The ensemble is not always cohesive or balanced, but strong acting by several individuals provide moments of professional sheen. Daniel Gabriel plays an androgynous, possibly bigender, Mercutio, introducing much needed flamboyance to proceedings, leaving an impression with the sheer magnitude of their stature and bold presence. Friar Lawrence is given detailed rendering by the dazzling David Halgren, who locates unexpected, and entertaining, dimensions for the pivotal role. Romeo is on this occasion, a tentative, quiet type, as performed by an overly naturalistic Jackson Blair-West. All eyes are on Jayden Byrne, who brings surprising emotional range to Julien, and is particularly satisfying as pop star, in several enjoyable musical interludes.

We are beginning a new era in which queerness does not have to tear our families apart. We have dreamt of a time of unprecedented normalisation, when queer people no longer have to come out, and in Romeo & Julien, we are given the opportunity to imagine that possibility. Whether one is inclined to find this Shakespeare title romantic or dreary, the present re-gendering is unlikely to cause any transformation to those prior opinions. It is true that whether one is male or female should have no bearing on outcomes, but it is undeniable that we have grown to expect queerness to add spice, especially when old and painfully obsolete texts are concerned.

www.facebook.com/RomeoAndJulien19

Review: Confessions Of A Custard Melon Pan (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Sep 12 – 14, 2019
Playwright: Arisa Yura
Director: Courtney Stewart
Cast: Arisa Yura

Theatre review
Arisa Yura is of the 1.5 generation, having moved from Japan in her early teens. She bears characteristics of her home country, but is also assimilated into Australian life. In her autobiographical work Confessions Of A Custard Melon Pan, we observe the contradictions, challenges and comedy of an existence straddling two very different cultures. Scenes are set alternately in both places, but Yura remains bi-cultural no matter the location, and is therefore always accompanied by a disquieting sense of displacement. Our incontrovertible corporeality implies that home is a staunchly singular notion, but many in the 21st century have roots growing in more than one terrain, which lead to the creation of complex identities requiring an almost constant negotiation with environments and communities, wherever one finds themself situated.

It is a one-woman bilingual play about not being able to just be. Yura demonstrates what it is like, caught between two worlds, but trying to construct one coherent entity. Her writing is charming and humorous, deft at communicating weighty ideas with a light touch. The blend of languages is cleverly rendered, and proves a surprising auditory pleasure. As performer she is focused, energetic and intuitive, with a simplicity in approach that never fails to drive home any point she wishes. Direction by Courtney Stewart introduces a delicious exuberance, keeping us amused and engaged. Sound design by Michael Toisuta makes accurate calibrations to mood from moment to moment, but several instances of scene transitions, when the performer is changing costumes off stage, require greater attention.

The custard melon pan is a confectionery half yellow, half white. Racial minorities in this country do not have the privilege of forgetting the colour of our skin. To live in a place where whiteness has imposed itself as the standard, those of us who are not, must constantly have colour on our minds, and deal with the burden of always being designated the other. When Yura returns to Japan, hoping to shed the labour that none would wish to acquire voluntarily, she discovers that colour goes beyond skin. She is again inadequate, even though her flesh and blood are meant to make colour inconsequential in her home land. We watch it dawn on our protagonist, that it is no longer she who has to find a way, but Australia that needs to make peace with its own future and origins.

www.arisayura.com

Review: Cats Talk Back (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 9 – 14, 2019
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Sahn Millington
Cast: Callum Alexander, Jason Blake, Taylor Buoro, Shayne de Groot, Jodine Muir, Daniel Mulholland, Julian Ramundi, David Woodland
Image by Elissa Blake

Theatre review
Not long after the closure of Cats the musical after an 18-year run on Broadway, five of its performers converge at a small panel event, to talk about life on the legendary show, and to relive, quite publicly, their glory days. Bess Wohl’s Cats Talk Back captures a moment of limbo, during which we see people stranded, cut off from the past, yet unable to move forward. The writing is often amusing, if slightly twee and predictable with its comedy.

Directed by Sahn Millington, the production is excessively naturalistic in approach, with a humour that seems needlessly restrained. Actors with a tendency for a more exaggerated style of performance, like Daniel Mulholland and David Woodland, are able to create distinctive characters that add spark to the production, but can also at times, seem discordant with the show’s overall subdued tone. Chemistry between players is hesitant, with each personality taking on separate approaches, unable to establish a cohesive sense of play as an ensemble. Theatre critic Jason Blake presents a version of himself, acting as moderator of the panel, notable for his easy charm and a sardonic timing that delivers several memorable laughs.

Nobody cares about these ex-cats, except the artists themselves. Every human is part of something bigger, but as is so clearly demonstrated in Cats Talk Back, we are almost always interested only in our individual experiences of the world. Narcissism is relentless, and it makes us fail to see that what feels like self-preservation, is actually gradually harming us all. Like characters in the show, we obsess over our little lives, consumed by the anxiety derived from notions of personal inadequacies, of not being loved. We long for personal satisfaction, and spend all our energies in pursuit of an elusive happiness, when it is abundantly clear that there are much more important things to do.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Affliction (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: Legs On The Wall (Lilyfield NSW), Sep 7 – 8, 2019
Playwright: Lauren Orrell
Director: Steve Le Marquand
Cast: Jack Berry, Martelle Hammer, James Hartley, Deborah Jones, Isaro Kayitesi, Lauren Orrell, Luke Townson
Images by Isaro Kayitesi

Theatre review
Lucy is 12 years old, with mental health issues requiring professional medical care, but she tries to secretly tame elements of paranoia and psychosis, afraid of repercussions if the truth of her condition is made known. Lauren Orrell’s Affliction reveals the stigma surrounding mental illness, and the ignorance that still exists in relation to the subject. It offers a valuable glimpse into personal experiences that are too often hidden, allowing us to gain a better understanding of those challenges. The play is sometimes educational in tone, but its best moments are humorous in an absurdist style, with an irony that is smart and satisfying.

Directed by Steve Le Marquand, the production is macabre but surprisingly colourful in its explorations of some very dark ideas. A more intimate environment would allow us greater engagement with the characters, but the vastness of space is otherwise visually appealing. A video interlude by Marianne Khoo brings an unexpected dimension to the story, and an additional opportunity for twisted laughs that many will find enjoyable. Music by Clare Heuston offers excellent tension to some very theatrical scenes of psychological turmoil.

Playwright Orrell is also star of the show, convincing in her portrayal of a troubled child, strong not only with the emotions she is able to express, but also with the sheer physicality that she presents on stage. A grotesque nurse Doreen, is played by James Hartley whose comedic chops prove to be highly amusing. It is a small part that leaves us wanting much more. Deborah Jones is fabulous in her various roles, impressive with the range of monstrous personalities she is able to embody so effortlessly.

Affliction can feel pessimistic, but its creator makes a powerful and positive statement, about overcoming adversity with this ambitious work. Orrell talks openly about her own struggles with mental health, and to see her channelling those frustrations into art is most reassuring. We see a woman rejecting cultural impositions, choosing instead to define her own life, and to build her own identity, from what she sees to be authentic and meaningful. Disadvantage can sink us, but more than likely, the human spirit can see us swimming our way to the top.

www.catchmydisease.weebly.com