Review: The Wolves (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 14 – Apr 14, 2018
Playwright: Sarah DeLappe
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Brenna Harding, Emma Harvie, Sarah Meacham, Sofia Nolan, Michelle Ny, Cece Peters, Zoe Terakes, Nikita Waldron, Nadia Zwecker
Image by John Marmaras

Theatre review
Nine American girls, approaching the end of their teenage years, are in a soccer team together, warming up their bodies and figuring out their place, both on the field and in the larger world. Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is no preachy melodrama about burgeoning womanhood. These characters may have seen little by virtue of their youth, but they all demonstrate wisdom and strength; each of their lives are richly established, not to provide some kind of tense narrative drive, but to foster, through the theatrical form, a modern social conception of our young and all the promise that they bear.

Director Jessica Arthur uses fragments of insight granted by the text, to manufacture on stage, quite marvellously, a dynamic experience that is relentlessly engaging, and unexpectedly powerful. We are only ever offered glimpses into each personality, but find ourselves forming emotional attachments as the show progresses, falling in love with all of their idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities. Unlike traditional, namely, patriarchal forms of storytelling, no protagonists and antagonists are necessary here, and for its 90-minute duration, we are intrigued, thrilled and fulfilled. The show is frequently very funny, and the poignancy it eventually inscribes, is stunning.

Performances are nothing short of brilliant. The cohesion and closeness of the cast is extraordinary, generating a warm joyful glow, palpable and wonderful, for all to share within the intimacy of the auditorium. Beautifully well-rehearsed, the actors deliver the play’s short and sharp dialogue with admirable precision and astounding nuance, precipitating meaning with impact and efficiency. The many sequences that feature legitimate sporting ability and fitness, are quite sensational, and thoroughly impressive.

Right in this moment, young people in the USA are fighting to force changes to gun control. They have galvanised in spectacular fashion and are out in droves, propelled by passion and idealism. The girls in The Wolves are no doubt part of that pack. Smart, fearless and loud, they discern the truth, along with the bullshit, and are now refusing to acquiesce where they do know better. We care for our young, but in that mode of protection, we often underestimate them. There is in fact, much to learn from the The Wolves, even if just a reminder of that youthful spirit, capable of achieving anything.

Review: Rudy & Cuthbert (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 13 – 17, 2018
Creators: Toby Blome, Zelman Cressey-Gladwin
Director: Ellen Cressey
Cast: Toby Blome, Zelman Cressey-Gladwin
Image by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
We should be thankful when artists know their strengths and give us only what they do best. Two young men appear on stage, admitting that their intentions of staging Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men have not quite come to fruition. Instead, they perform a work of physical comedy, telling a charming love story; not only of the very special connection between these two innocents, but also of their shared passion for art and performance.

The trials and tribulations of putting on a show, provide Rudy & Cuthbert the context for their eponymous presentation. Toby Blome and Zelman Cressey-Gladwin play the quirky pair, in a traditional style that recalls all the famous duos from film and television history, with an emphasis on disciplines most associated with mimes and clowns. Both are excellent in their chosen field, but it is the chemistry between the two that is emphatically superb. They make magic happen, leaving us dumbfounded by their seamless union.

Ellen Cressey’s direction gives Rudy & Cuthbert a tenderness, that prevents the show from being a mere showcase for skill and cleverness. The element of emotion gives meaning to the humour being created so precisely, and the laughter that ensues is as much about being tickled, as it is about being moved. We live in extremely cynical times, and antidotes for hardened hearts are hard to come by. Rudy & Cuthbert is not the trendiest bit of theatre, but it is certainly the sweetest remedy for some very trying times.

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. |

Review: Merrily We Roll Along (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 7 – 24, 2018
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Embla Bishop, Phoebe Clark, Blake Condon, Tiegan Denina, Caitlin Rose Harris, Patrick Howard, Tayla Jarrett, Katelin Koprivec, Jesse Layt, Victoria Luxton, Michael McPhee, Matilda Moran, Shannen Sarstedt, Zach Selmes, Richard Woodhouse, Victoria Zerbst
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the most straightforward rags to riches story, told backwards. Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along commences at the point where its protagonist has attained considerable professional success, but whose personal relationships are all falling apart. Observing the story unfold in reverse order, we discover little that is surprising, although Sondheim’s songs remain characteristically enchanting. The musical was first presented on Broadway in 1981, lasting only 16 performances, after 52 previews.

Director Alexander Andrews introduces an appropriate pizzazz to the production, working with a very exuberant cast for a standard of singing befitting the often tricky compositions. Leading man Patrick Howard gives his character Frank a strong presence, and a commanding voice, but lackadaisical costume design diminishes the personality transformations that the actor tries to portray. His besties are played by Zach Selmes and Victoria Zerbst, both accomplished and persuasive with what they wish to achieve. Shannen Sarstedt leaves a strong impression as first wife Beth, able to convey depths of emotion as well as unexpected dimension, for one of Merrily‘s many cardboard characters.

The two musicians, Conrad Hamill and Antonio Fernandez prove themselves reliably versatile and efficient in providing accompaniment for the entire duration, but the very small band can sometimes deliver underwhelming results. Similarly, visual design in terms of sets and costumes, are insufficiently ambitious, and the staging struggles to live up to Sondheim and George Furth’s quite grand piece of writing. Nothing however, can take away from the sheer delight of the master’s songs, all of which are sung with gusto and precision, and this for his legions of fans, is plenty.

Review: The Shifting Heart (White Box Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Mar 8 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Richard Beynon
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Laurence Coy, Lucas Linehan, Dina Panozzo, Tony Poli, Di Smith, David Soncin, Ariadne Sgouros
Image by Danielle Lyonne

Theatre review
It is Christmas time 1956, and the Bianchi home in Melbourne is bustling with activity. The family is getting excited about the festivities ahead, occupying themselves with the frenzied yet mundane business of the Australian summer. We soon discover, however, that beneath the Bianchis’ attempts to go about their normal lives, they have to contend with the social stigma of being recent immigrants to a land where strange and cruel attitudes prevail, about which people are deserving, and not deserving, of being here.

Richard Benyon’s 61 year-old play The Shifting Heart is concerned with a peculiar brand of racism that we undertake, whereby earlier immigrants persecute later immigrants, whilst Indigenous peoples are routinely neglected. The Bianchis discover that although legally permitted to settle here, many do not extend them a welcome. Benyon portrays the family trying to get on with life the best they can, amidst the unjust obstacles heaved at them every day.

It is a sensitive piece of writing, offering insights that remain pertinent; a valuable study of how racial prejudice operates in societies like ours, with an ever evolving racial composition. As a work of drama though, scenes of emotional vigour seem to occur few and far between, and its manufacture of tension tends to be overly understated.

Directed by Kim Hardwick, the production is a persuasive one. We may not be heavily invested in its personalities, but their stories are certainly believable. Isabel Hudson’s set and costumes, along with Martin Kinnane’s lights, are beautifully evocative, affecting our imagination with flair and efficiency.

Dina Panozzo and Tony Poli, as Momma and Poppa Bianchi, bring chemistry and warmth to the stage, both effective in transporting us to another time of our shameful history. David Soncin leaves a strong impression as Gino Bianchi, the gregarious and passionate young Italian-Australian determined to live unhampered by prejudice. Their neighbour Leila Pratt is played by the very likeable Di Smith, relied upon to deliver much needed humour, and effervescence, in this weighty observation of Australian life.

There is no denying that humans everywhere cannot help but create difference, seemingly for the purpose of baseless discrimination. Bigotry is not natural to our children but somehow, a need to hate is developed as we mature, and whether it pertains to race or to other arbitrary features, we learn to feel good about ourselves by exerting power over others. This is ubiquitous, but we must never think it irreversible.

Review: The Book Of Mormon (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), from Feb 27, 2018
Book, Music & Lyrics: Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, Matt Stone
Directors: Casey Nicholaw, Trey Parker
Cast: Ryan Bondy, Andrew Broadbent, A.J. Holmes, Bert LaBonté, Zahra Newman, Augustin Aziz Tchantcho, Rowan Witt
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
The best musical of all time, can only ever be a determination based on subjective assessment, but The Book Of Mormon is very possibly the funniest and cleverest, most unique iteration of a show in the Broadway musical genre, to have graced the stage. Two young men are dispatched from America to Uganda, to spread the word of their Mormon church. It is a simple story, but the layers of meaning that it explores are manifold and deeply trenchant.

From issues regarding religion’s inescapably oppressive nature, to the severe problem of poverty in developing nations, The Book Of Mormon is relentlessly, if subliminally, disturbing. It delivers big laughs at every turn, through an absurd sense of outrageous humour (the kind that is nothing less than exquisite, if shared by the right audience), but it is the savage evaluation of our humanity, and its pointed castigation demanding we do better, that provides impetus for its narrative drive.

The jokes are marvellously extreme, its songs are irresistibly charming and delightful, and everything is put together with extraordinary daring and finesse. There are elements that will likely offend sensibilities of those targeted by the pricey entrance fee, but the show is careful to couple soft with hard, tender with caustic, to make its lessons digestible. It ultimately retreats deftly into kumbaya territory, able to appease audiences of all persuasions.

Performed by a terrifically exuberant cast (and a fabulous orchestra headed by musical director David Young), this Sydney production is everything one could wish for, in a night of sensational, intelligent and thrillingly bawdy entertainment. The ensemble is given ample opportunity to showcase their talents, and they all rise to the occasion, as a group and as individuals, to present a work impressive with both its precision and nuance.

Ryan Bondy as Elder Price is suitably dazzling, all sharp moves and sonorous tenor, bringing youthful idealism to glorious life. Elder Cunningham is played by A.J. Holmes who charms the pants off of everyone, with splendid timing and inexhaustible zeal. The eminently memorable Zahra Newman gives us a Nabulungi so full of spirit, and so perfectly sung, that she shifts focus away from the Mormon boys to a greater story of international economic injustice.

No work of art can solve world hunger, but in The Book Of Mormon‘s tale of the haves and the have-nots, our culpability is clear. The West has always looked abroad for resources to pilfer, but we do little to mend the devastation that is inevitably left behind. Missionaries from our churches go with the best of intentions, trying to do what they can to bring relief to those who suffer, imposing belief systems on foreign lands that have thus far proven only to be inadequate. Thoughts and prayers can do wonders, but the miracles we wish to see the most, require real sacrifice.

Review: Antony And Cleopatra (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 3 – Apr 7, 2018
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Johnny Carr, Ray Chong Nee, Joseph Del Re, Lucy Goleby, Catherine McClements, Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo, Gareth Reeves, Steve Rodgers, Jo Turner, Janine Watson
Image by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
In Shakespeare’s version of the historical drama, we see Antony of Rome trying to sort out the world’s problems, while his lover Cleopatra of Egypt attends to matters of the heart. A story of two of the world’s legendary leaders is twisted askew in Antony And Cleopatra, and we observe how much the idea of a female ruler was disturbing to the English mind. Under Shakespeare’s depiction, the woman’s decisions are made around the feelings she carries for her beau, but the man is allowed to get on with business as usual, burdened by much more than a love affair.

The production is beautifully presented. Anna Cordingley’s simple solution for set design conveys stately glamour with little fuss or ostentation, and her costumes achieve a remarkable level of sophistication, crucial in making the royal characters convincing. Lights by Benjamin Cisterne are similarly attractive, especially impressive when displaying bold choices, although many instances of unintended glare from a reflective backdrop, are more than a little distracting. Director Peter Evans does well in manufacturing a visually captivating piece of theatre; his work with abstract physical movement is particularly effective, but the classic tragedy struggles to find any genuine sense of poignancy on this stage.

Cleopatra is played by Catherine McClements, who brings good humour to the piece, cleverly subverting much of Shakespeare’s inanely “feminised” dialogue. The actor is a powerful presence, and we submit to her queenly preeminence with little effort. Johnny Carr is an intense Antony, charming in his conviction, but a strange interpretation of the role’s final moments, sets the scene for an anticlimactic conclusion to the play. An absence of chemistry between the two leads, further diminishes the potential for greater piquancy in this ancient romance. Moments of drama can however, be found in scenes that feature supporting actor Lucy Goleby, who introduces both vigour and nuance to her depictions, of Pompey and Scarrus, adding excitement and significant tension to the show. Also memorable is the luminescent Zindzi Okenyo, sensuous and strong as Egypt’s maid of honour Charmian.

The women are languid in Antony And Cleopatra. Seductive and emotional, and despite visible attempts to elevate status and meanings around them, Cleopatra’s romantic fixation keeps the story firmly in a sphere of gender inequality. We wish for relationships to help us be better people, who will do better things, but what we see happen between these protagonists is quite the opposite. Love is a destructive and retrogressive force, causing people to lose their minds and weaken their fortitude. Just four years before the play’s first staging, Elizabeth I of England ended her reign, remaining to her last breath, The Virgin Queen, if not for anything true about what men can do to a woman, then certainly for what men can write about women.