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

Review: Marisol (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall(Erskineville NSW), Sep 3 – 7, 2019
Playwright: José Rivera
Director: Erin Louise Cotton
Cast: Chloe Baldacchino, Isabelle Fredericks, Sarah Maguire, Elizabeth Nicholls, Simon Thomson, Matthew Vautin

Theatre review
Marisol Perez is informed by her guardian angel that there is a revolt in the heavens. God is old and senile, no longer able to serve the universe, and a struggle for power is now under way. This means that earthlings are for the moment, no longer protected by the divine, and in José Rivera’s Marisol, it appears that when left to our own devices, we can only devolve into chaos and violence. The writing is surreal, and although approaching 30 years old, its apocalyptic sensibility seems more relevant than ever.

The production is at its most gratifying when actors are able to embody the play’s bizarre qualities, and approach the performance with an unabashed extravagance, whether dramatic or comedic. Matthew Vautin and Elizabeth Nicholls have strong moments on stage, both able to convey the dehumanised madness of the play’s dystopian vision. The eponymous role is taken on by Chloe Baldacchino, who brings a delicate timidness that can seem out of place. Director Erin Louise Cotton shows us the utter confusion of a world abandoned by all that is celestial, but without communicating anything particularly powerful with the text, Marisol leaves us with little more than an empty nihilism.

When we once again feel as if everything is going to hell in a handbasket, and the pessimism cripples us from being able to take any meaningful action that would make this world better, it is perhaps useful to indulge momentarily in delusions, that there are higher beings in the ether who have a greater purpose beyond our comprehension. It is one thing to feel disappointed with the way things are, but quite a lot worse when we turn hopeless, thinking that life is absolutely meaningless. The truth is that we know nothing outside of our tiny individual existences, but dreaming up gods and deities has always proven to be useful in making the human experience at least tolerable. We manifest the divine in our image and imagination, relating to them as separate superior entities, but actually, we can only ever pray to the sacred that resides within.

www.gradco.studio

Review: Matriarch (Jinda Productions)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 3 – 7, 2019
Playwrights: Sandy Greenwood, Lauren Jarrett, Oliver V. Cowley
Director: Jasmin Sheppard
Cast: Sandy Greenwood
Images by Seiya Taguchi

Theatre review
Sandy Greenwood is a Koori woman deeply invested in her cultural heritage. In her one-woman show Matriarch, we learn that the experience of inter-generational trauma, makes it almost impossible for an individual like Greenwood to live without an intimate understanding of historical events that have affected her family. Greenwood’s story reaches back to her great-grandmother and beyond, involving Aboriginal women from three clans who had to battle unfathomable hardship, through colonisation, massacres and stolen generations, to raise children and to preserve bloodlines.

At just over an hour, the material we encounter is at once refreshing, and extraordinarily rich. The text of Matriarch often utilises slang and dialect unique to this land, and the voices that Greenwood channels in her portrayals of these marvellous mothers, are truly sublime. We witness their triumphs and their challenges, share in their humour and feel tremendous sadness for the injustices imposed upon them. Greenwood’s performance is relentlessly powerful. Her physical discipline, and her emotional range, insist that we are engaged and moved, by her honest expressions about life for Indigenous peoples in Australia.

Directed by Jasmin Sheppard, the show is both poignant and consistently entertaining. Every moment is given accurate focus, so that the audience responds precisely as the artists intend. Music by Sean Ryan enhances a sense of cultural specificity to the production, helpful in transporting us to regional locales that are so fundamental in the weaving of narratives about belonging and about land.

Before we can properly move forward, we need to own up completely to all the atrocities that have been committed in this process of colonisation. Problems cannot be adequately fixed, if the truth of these problems are not wholly revealed. The continual denial of responsibility, total or partial, means that those in power can only ever try to mend the surface of these issues. The passage of time means that the roots of our ills can only grow deeper. Indigenous voices must be listened to, and obeyed, right now.

www.jindaproductions.wordpress.com