Review: Stalker The Musical (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Sep 19 – Oct 6, 2018
Music: Andy Peterson
Book and lyrics: Alex Giles, David Russell
Director: Kaleigh Wilkie-Smith
Cast: Melody Beck, Levi Burrows, Steph Edmonds, Luke Lamond, Michele Lansdown, Peter Meredith, Haji Myrteza, Harrison Riley, Emma Taviani
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
The story takes place in a town ruled by the heartbroken, where all physical contact is forbidden, but where its inhabitants are encouraged to police and lust after each other, using only their eyes and binoculars. In Stalker The Musical by Alex Giles, Andy Peterson and David Russell, a fantasy world is created out of dejection, with a great deal of palpable ambition, but neither its creativity nor its imagination prove convincing enough, to entice us into its outlandish manifestations. We observe it to be an oddity, a strange concoction of ideas, that struggles to find resonance on any level.

Every song sounds overly familiar, as though a paint-by-numbers take on the musical theatre genre, unoriginal and painfully predictable. Problems with sound engineering on opening night, certainly do not help with the experience.

The cast, although likeable and committed, struggle with the production’s attempts at comedy and drama, unable to make any meaningful or lasting impact with the material. There is an abundance of energy and conviction on stage, with Zoe Ioannou’s clever choreography bringing some visual coherence to the show, but the performers are consistently let down by the writing’s deficiencies.

Love is a bad word in Stalker, and those who have denounced romance, however momentary, will understand the necessity of being able to see one’s own existence as independent and sovereign, before the joys of life can be truly appreciated. Characters in the show may or may not find their romantic match, but more important is their capacity to love, whatever the objects of desire turn out to be.

Review: Mum, Me & The I.E.D. (Collaborations Theatre Group)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Aug 15 – Sep 1, 2018
Playwright: James Balian, Roger Vickery
Director: Kevin Jackson
Cast: Matilda Brodie, Martin Harper, Elaine Hudson, Philippe Klaus, Joshua Shediak
Images by James Balian

Theatre review
Mary Ellen has been an avowed pacifist since the Vietnam war, but still she was unable to prevent her son from aspiring to become a soldier. When we first meet them, Rob is undergoing treatment for PTSD, as part of the discharge process upon leaving Afghanistan. Mum, Me & The I.E.D. by James Balian and Roger Vickery, is an uncompromising look at the psychological damage inflicted on those we send away to war. The play’s anti-war sentiments are unambiguous and passionate, almost too blatant with their chastisements. Early scenes can feel repetitive, but its latter half turns dynamic, becoming more emotionally involving, as we tune in to Balian and Vickery’s reflections on casualties and their politics.

Director Kevin Jackson demonstrates creative use of space, in this story about intersecting dimensions. The protagonist’s mind is a convergence of confused realities, that Jackson’s staging renders coherent for our benefit. Lighting design by Martin Kinnane proves invaluable in conveying, with remarkable clarity, the many unusual spacial and temporal transformations required of the production.

Actor Philippe Klaus turns up the intensity for the show’s various points of heightened drama, but his performance of Rob’s trauma and suffering can seem slightly affected. His portrayal of a young man’s severe mental deterioration resulting from experiences in the battlefield, are full of conviction, but it is the authenticity in his depictions of family discord and the accompanying anguish, that we find convincing. Mary Ellen is played by Elaine Hudson who delivers a compelling and meaningful sense of depth to the character’s tribulations. Her work feels honest and accurately realistic, often with a surprising restraint that makes things even more believable.

The disadvantaged and the naive are perennially targeted for carrying out the devil’s work, and the world can be a shockingly dangerous place for those poised for independence. We want our young to understand that life is for taking chances, but we fear the irreversible consequences of their mistakes. Mary Ellen and her fierce conscientiousness were no match for the narrative of heroic patriotism that all nations rely on. The heartache that her family has to endure, is a phenomenon centuries old, that we seem determined to perpetuate.

5 Questions with Sinead Cristaudo and Rachel Tunaley

Sinead Cristaudo

Rachel Tunaley: What have you learnt about yourself since moving away from home to pursue a career in the performing arts?
Sinead Cristaudo: I learnt first and foremost that no one is going to believe in myself for me. I think having to adapt to being in completely foreign surroundings entirely alone forces you to sink or swim. At some point you have to choose whether or not to back yourself, and there is definitely a hardness in me that I would never have developed without moving away from my home.

What’s your favourite moment to perform in the show?
I love the entire prom sequence, Norma gets to do all of her meddling which is so much fun for me. I also love the opening of our show, the way our very clever director and choreographer has set “In” makes it really meaty and layered so there is plenty to play with each time we run it.

What made you want to audition for Carrie?
I have loved the Stephen King story in its film adaptations and was elated to hear Louis Ellis Productions was auditioning for the musical of which I had always been curious but had never seen. I spent an evening listening to the soundtrack with my housemate Kristy who is also in the cast and we both got decidedly hyped for the auditions. I had also had the pleasure of seeing our director’s previous work of Parade the Jason Robert Brown musical and was in awe of how he presented a show I completely adore. I simply had to audition!

If you could play any role in musical theatre of any age or gender, what would it be?
Without a doubt it would be Mama Rose in Gypsy. Rose is an incredibly complex and flawed character that’s story is told through what I believe to be the best book written for a musical, accompanied with brassy golden age style music. Rose and Gypsy are everything I love about musical theatre, storytelling in a timeless and idiomatic way.

List three women who have inspired you to pursue a career in performing.
Barbra Joan Streisand must be first here, she is the strong, consummate icon I adore. I would sing her arrangements in our tractor shed to my audience of cane for hours, trying to sound exactly like her. Then without a doubt my dance teacher Louise Buljubasich and her mother Carol who cultivated my love for being on a stage from when I was four, exposing me to the wonders of Fosse and time steps and caring for me endlessly while I practically lived out my teens in the studio.

Rachel Tunaley

Sinead Cristaudo: What do you love about playing Chris Hargensen?
Rachel Tunaley: I’ve always been intrigued by villainous characters in shows. There’s just something so fun about playing a character so different from yourself and getting to be super feisty. I admire the way Chris doesn’t let anyone else define her and makes her own rules throughout the show, even though her morale are rather compromised. I also get a killer song and get to belt like no tomorrow which is a win!

Has a mentor or teacher ever given you advice that has shaped the way you approach and view performing, if so what is it?
A teacher I had at NIDA would always get us to look at a text, whether it’s a scene or a song, and he would ask us “what is this?” I loved this approach because there was no falseness to it. It would force us to just look at the act for what it is; “a confession of love”, “a song of mourning”, “an apology”. Asking myself this when approaching a new text forced me to get out of my “artists” brain trying to find a deeper meaning and just accept the text for what it was.

What do you think people love about the story of Carrie that sees it remade in film and revamped in theatre?
Well if you found the movie(s) too scary, I think you’ll find the musical is a little easier to watch. It’s still bloody and there’s still a lot of dark elements but it’s just hard to be scary
while singing show tunes to be honest. The musical also re imagines the characters Stephen king has created and sheds a different light on them that audiences may not have seen before.

What is your favourite part of the rehearsal process? What has it been so far in Carrie?
Definitely getting to do the blocking of ‘The World According To Chris’. I get to have my Regina George Mean Girls moment standing at the point of a triangle with my posse behind me and I’ve just never felt more powerful in my entire life.

What performances or pieces of theatre have inspired you most?
Gosh that’s a hard question because most theatre excites me and inspires me to be a better performer and to want to create something great. The first time I saw Rent the musical really struck a chord with me though. I guess I was used to musicals being super camp and glitzy so when I first saw it I was completely blown away. It depicted a certain honesty and tragedy in such a beautiful way which I wasn’t used to in musicals, plus the music is so damn catchy.

Sinead Cristaudo and Rachel Tunaley can be seen in Carrie the musical.
Dates: 25 Jul – 4 Aug, 2018
Venue: The Depot Theatre

5 Questions with Alana Birtles and Alec Ebert

Alana Birtles

Alec Ebert: Describe Troilus And Cressida in a haiku.
Alana Birtles: Blood-stained earth in Troy / A massacre on both sides / Two lovers parted

Why is Shakespeare, and this play in particular still relevant to us today?
I believe Shakespeare is still relevant today because he deals with humanity and universal themes that we still easily relate to. This is evident in the numerous modern adaptations of Shakespeare today. Troilus And Cressida in particular deals with love and war and the question, ‘What is it that we are actually fighting for? Is all the bloodshed worth it?’ I believe this question still rings true today.

What character do you relate to the most from Troilus And Cressida and who is your secret crush out of all the characters?
I think I would say I relate to Ullyses as he seems to see the sense (or nonsense of war). My secret crush would be Hector I think, because he is such an infamous warrior. I also can’t help
thinking of Eric Bana’s ‘Hector’ because he was pretty fine!

What have you learnt most about yourself on this production, working with 18 other cast members?
I think working with such a big cast teaches you team work and helps you make fast friends. You really are part of an ensemble and it everyone plays their part in making the show great. I have
met some amazing people working on this production and I would love to work with each of them again. I also like to learn from watching other actors in rehearsals and on stage, and this cast has given me many talented people to look to.

If you could invent a superstition that, in 400 years would be religiously followed by actors, what would it be?
That you have to make an offering to the ‘theatre gods’ or playwright before opening night… a song and dance with the entire cast.

Alec Ebert

Alana Birtles: Hector! How do you see him and how do you connect with such an iconic and ancient hero/warrior?
I see Hector as a family man as well as a man of order and honour. I really think he sees war as a necessary evil, needing to be waged in order for life to continue. He doesn’t fight to be
the best warrior there ever was (though he is very good at it); he fights for his wife, his young son, his people and his family… having said all that, he is a proud man with a very healthy ego, so is prone to the fits that pride and ego bring out in even the best of us. I connected with Hector through reading mostly. The Iliad by Homer was my obvious source of most information – there’s some beautiful passages of Hector with his son, Scamandrius and his wife, Andromache. These family elements have helped me to understand Hector beyond an archetypal warrior-leader and is the secret to my forming a connection with him. In saying this, he is meant to be the only mortal warrior said to make Achilles himself afraid, so I needed to ground myself with some martial and physical work. I also took up sword fighting classes (shout out to Action Acting Academy – highly recommended) and an intense training programme to get pretty fit.

You have performed in numerous Shakespeare productions… what is it about Shakespeare that draws you in? Why does it need to be performed?
I asked you a pretty similar question! I think Shakespeare draws me in personally because I love the life in the characters, by which I mean their psychic complexity, mass of contradictions and bewildering actions! Also the stories rock – they are big but unmistakably real – themes of love, war, sex, passion, lust, race, racism, misogyny, pride, gender, revenge… the list goes on and on and on. These themes are current today, many are universal and a necessary condition for human beings and, while we might wish a lot of them weren’t, will be for a very long time to come. I think I’ve just answered why they need to be performed.

Who is your favourite Shakespeare character of all time that you would love to play and why?
I suspect in ten years’ time I’ll look back at this and have a different answer. It’s also grossly unfair: like asking me to pick my favourite puppy in a room full of puppies. I’m going to answer 3. Younger Alec loves Mercutio because he’s a force of nature, elemental and mercurial. Middle Alec loves Hamlet because, well, he is the ultimate human and I want to work with him before I’m too old. Finally old Alec loves Prospero, mostly because I love wizards, and when you combine Shakespeare’s words with a wizard, it’s like cheese goes with pizza. It’s amazing.

If you could play another character in Troilus and Cressida, who would it be and why?
I think Thersites. He’s probably the only honest character in the play and he’s a fascinating mix of narrator, comedian, cynic, wit and outsider that would be a blast to play. At least, Danen,
who plays him in this production, makes it look like a blast.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you during a show?
I was quite emotional in the last scene of a performance of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, and I was standing right in front of the audience and blew a huge snot out of my nose. It was just obscene.

Alana Birtles and Alec Ebert can be seen in Troilus And Cressida by William Shakespeare.
Dates: 9 – 19 May, 2018
Venue: The Depot Theatre

Review: Alison’s House (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Apr 4 – 21, 2018
Playwright: Susan Glaspell
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Matthew Bartlett, Veronica Clavijo, Penny Day, Dominique De Marco, Elliott Falzon, Nyssa Hamilton, David Jeffrey, Brendan Lorenzo, James Martin, Tasha O’Brien, Sarah Plummer
Images by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
Fewer than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime. Her body of work, comprising approximately 1,800 pieces, only saw the light of the day after her passing; she was female after all. In Susan Glaspell’s Alison’s House, Alison Stanhope is a surrogate for Dickinson, and we meet her family on the eve of the year 1900, 18 years after her death. The Stanhopes are moving house, but Alison’s presence is strong and a mystery around her posthumous success emerges. Although a Pulitzer Prize winner, the play feels every bit her 88 years of age. Central concerns about authorship and artistic legacy remain valid, but its dramatic structure is now gauche, with stodgy dialogue that many will find alienating.

Its first two acts are particularly inaccessible, and the cast’s divergent approaches make the show a difficult one to engage with. The third act however, is a fortunate change of pace, with the plot suddenly turning lively, when the crux of the matter is finally revealed and addressed. Actor Brendan Lorenzo is a delight in the role of Eben, with intense conviction and a buoyant energy that helps introduce a quotient of enthralment. The production is a faithful rendition of a dated script, with everything kept coloured inside the lines. It is an adventurous spirit that dares take on this forgotten play, but this execution of Alison’s House requires greater imagination to resurrect it from obscurity.

Our great writers write from personal perspectives, but what is put on paper may not always be intended for public consumption. Time however, has the capacity to change anything. What was once private, objectionable or simply unfinished, could transform, over the years, into something that serves a greater purpose. We must then consider what it is that we want to hold sacred, when tossing up between the private and the public, or the dead and the living. When ambiguities abound, coming to decisions is difficult, but it is the very quality of ambiguity that interrogates the deepest of our beliefs, and that shows us who we truly are.

5 Questions with Veronica Clavijo and James Martin

Veronica Clavijo

James Martin: How is your role in the play different from anything you have done before?
Veronica Clavijo: I must say it is definitely a first that I get the opportunity to play this type of character for a period piece. Louise is majorly concerned with the societal values of the time and her character seems to be a reflection of the society as a whole. She seems to be ‘the voice of reason’ in the show and shows the audience how radical and forward thinking some of the others are. In the last show I did, Fiddler On The Roof, I played Tzeitel, a woman who was rebelling against society. It has been interesting to get into the mind of someone from the other side of the spectrum. It has been interesting to understand Louise’s truth and what family, society and honour mean to her.

What about Louise do you as Veronica most relate to?
Louise is passionate and outspoken and is actually quite forward with the men around her. Although I can’t relate to her wanting to do everything possible to appease the town and the society I can relate to her passion. I can relate to the fact that she will not stop until she is heard and that she challenges the men in her life. She is not afraid to speak her mind, to correct them and to question them. She is a fighter!

If you were a poet, what would you write about?
I would write about happiness, love and the human condition! And maybe my love of Harry Potter.

Why is this story important to be told in the 21st century?
I believe it is important because it still harbours relevant issues. The idea of love, family, honour and responsibility the play touches on are all things an audience can relate to. Another thing is the question of who should have Alison’s poetry? And, did she indeed write it for women. If that is the case, shouldn’t it be the women in her family who decide what to do with them?

Is there another character in the play that you can relate to?
I can relate to the character of Eben empathetically. Eben is sad, bored and is unhappy with his job and his life. I mean, we have all been there before! He wants more, he is sensitive and he wants to feel more in his life. He searches for truth, love and happiness. He wants to mean more and for his life to mean more. I think these are basic human feelings that we can all relate to. I love that Susan Glaspell gave these qualities to a man. Eben is not unfeeling, or stern, or angry or written to be aggressive in a stereotypically masculine way. For this reason, I think a lot of audience members will relate to him.

James Martin

Veronica Clavijo: What was it about the play, Alison’s House that made you want to audition?
James Martin: Reading the script for the first time, I found it to be a moving story with 11 different quirky characters with their own story and journey, all coming together to remember Alison in their own way. When I realised that I couldn’t not audition.

You play a character who is seemingly disinterested in Alison’s poetry, life and the respect she garnered through her literature. Tell us what you have discovered about Ted and how he feels about his Aunt Alison.
Doing my work on Ted, I found him to be the outcast in his family. Not quite fitting in with his father or Eben or even Elsa. Which leads me to believe that he is a bit of a mummy’s boy. We also need to consider the Ted was 2 years old when Alison died. So really Ted see’s Alison as this goldmine that he can make some money from, or at least use to pass college. I mean he obviously cares about her and the rest of the family, but If I was related to someone as influential as Alison Stanhope, I’d probably be trying to make money off them as well. However what I admire about Ted is that he’s a hard worker! He is willing to put all this work into something if he knows it’s going to make him successful.

Why do you think the play is still relevant if not more today?
Every family is so different, especially in today’s world. There is no ‘social norm’ when it comes to family. Everyone does it different and I think that this play shows that. It has the ability to tell a story of a close family that has grown apart and is now coming back together, and I think there is something beautiful and timeless in that.

What has been your favourite part of the rehearsal process?
Just seeing how far and how big Ted can go. Trying to find the boundaries of Ted and his role in the family is so much fun and it’s a never ending Journey.

Finally, if Ted was put into a modern setting what type of millennial would he be?
Ted’s a big personality with a good mind for business. I think he would be some kind of social media influencer, like a YouTuber just doing dumb things on camera and entertaining millions.

Veronica Clavijo and James Martin are appearing in Alison’s House, by Susan Glaspell.
Dates: 4 – 21 April, 2018
Venue: The Depot Theatre

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.

5 Questions with Patrick Howard and Victoria Zerbst

Patrick Howard

Victoria Zerbst: Patrick, you have traversed many stages and productions in various wonderful roles, what has your theatre journey been like for the last few years and what brings you back musical theatre?
Patrick Howard: The past few post-drama-school years of working freelance in theatre have been really challenging and rewarding. I’ve found myself naked, covered in blood, crying on top of four tonnes of soil before quick-changing into a devil costume. I’ve found myself playing a weird detached version of myself, doing stand-up comedy about death. But mostly I’ve worked behind the scenes in production/stage management and as a director and sound designer. The last book musical I did was six years ago, discounting Marat/Sade a few years back, and it’s been wonderful and very different to be doing a musical again. As a musician (which I was before I was a thespian) and an actor, there’s something so incredible about reaching a place of heightened emotion as your character, where your only choice is to sing; words alone won’t cut it. Of course, Sondheim does this so well and seamlessly, it never jars at all. I missed that thrill, and I missed making music with a giant bunch of passionate actors, it’s so thrilling to be doing it again after all this time.

Frank would be such an interesting character to play! How do you develop a character who does such terrible things but remains likeable and charming throughout the show?
It’s a tricky one. I often find myself very frequently playing men that are quite performatively masculine, aggressive and do terrible things. I take a lot of perverse pleasure in this, being a bit of a bleeding-heart queer boy in real life – I feel like this gives me a unique take on what can be, at times, pretty architypical roles. The difference with Frank is that, as the central protagonist of the story, the audience needs to root for him even though he does some really awful things – he’s not a cut-and-dry bad guy. With any character, playing the truth of what’s in the text should do almost all of the work, you’ve got to trust the writer as god of the world you’re inhabiting, and in Merrily, Sondheim and Furth have cleverly arranged Frank’s story in reverse, with the audience watching him transform from a tragic, miserable wreck of a man into his former, youthful, optimistic self. Your empathy for Frank grows through this, you can see the mistakes he’s made, and more than if it were played chronologically, I think it makes you really consider what choices lead us to our various ends.

What has it been like working with Little Triangle and all the amazing members of the cast and crew?
A bloody dream. The team are so wonderful and it’s got to be the most professionally-run indie company I’ve ever worked for. Our producer, Rose, is so organised and her love of her work is so evident. Our director, Alex, is an absolute dreamboat, and is incredibly insightful and intelligent. Conrad, our MD, is a wizard and has to be one of the most optimistic and encouraging people I’ve ever met. Our répétiteurs Antonio and Alex are remarkable, and the rest of the cast… I mean you just have to come and see them. Each is more talented, generous, gorgeous, encouraging and intelligent than the last. There’s an incredible synergy in the room, and I’m not ashamed to say that after the first few rehearsals I’d walk the bus home with happy tears welling in my eyes, because they all brought so much joy into my little artfag heart. We sing a lot about being ‘Old Friends’ in the show for people who’ve only known each other for a few months, but it truly feels like we all go way back.

Do you reckon prospective audience members should listen to a few tunes before coming to the show? Which ones would you recommend?
Oooh, I suppose it depends if you’re someone who likes to know everything about what they’re about to see, or if you like to be completely surprised. Not many people know this show very well, it was famously a tremendous flop when it opened on Broadway in 1981, and despite being re-written a bunch and being a truly brilliant show, it doesn’t get seen often outside of, oddly, high school productions (as can be seen in the recent movie Lady Bird). But if you wanted a little taste of the show before going to see it, I’d recommend tapping your toes along to ‘Now You Know’, which is the absolute banger that closes Act 1, or the titular ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ which opens the show. For something with a little more heart, ‘Growing Up’, ‘Not A Day Goes By’, or ‘Good Thing Going’ are what you’re after.

Why do you think this musical is still important? What do you want the audience to get out of it?
I think often a lot of theatre tends to focus on romantic relationships as central to plot, and that’s particularly the case in most musical theatre. Merrily does have quite a bit of romantic drama in it, certainly, but this is one of only a few shows that really focuses in on a complex, messy, beautiful friendship, namely between Frank, Charley and Mary. These three are the best of friends there are (and ultimately, they aren’t, which is just so, so heartbreaking), and I think it’s wonderful to celebrate friendship and have it portrayed quite honestly on stage. Playing scenes where Frank and Charley, two married, heterosexual men, openly tell each other in quite emotional terms that they love each other, is such a special thing as well – for all their faults, the way they express their friendship is really beautiful. I think watching the story unfold backwards makes it important, too. It gives an audience the relief of guessing ‘what happens’ and lets them concentrate on what’s happening, with the dramatic irony of knowing what comes next. You can find little moments in the action to think, ‘See, here’s where it starts to go wrong. Why can’t you see it happening Frank?’ and maybe that gives you pause to think more carefully about the choices you’re making in your own life.

Victoria Zerbst

Patrick Howard: What about theatre in Sydney is exciting you most at the moment?
Victoria Zerbst: I’m so excited by theatre in Sydney at the moment and there are so so many shows on my to see list. I think that’s because a lot of shows coming up align heaps with my interests – sick female-centred stories, independent musicals, works by new and emerging Aussies writers and lots of theatre for young people.

How has your background in comedy helped you prepare the role of Mary Flynn?
I think coming from a comedy background has helped me find new and interesting ways to deliver lines and bring out humour in dialogue. Mary is already a very wry and hilarious character with sick one-liners so experimenting with timing and delivery of the lines has been such a blast.

But I also think writing and performing comedy for the past few years has really helped me find my voice as a performer. Writing my own stuff has been very empowering because I’ve learnt what makes me laugh, what makes me different as a performer, and how I can uniquely shape a role from my own point of view.

That has really helped me find an honest and real way for me to tell Mary’s story that comes from my blood. Hopefully this will connect with audiences and bring the character to life.

Mary is quite an intelligent, complex character, but spends years pining for Frank, even when there’s little-to-no chance of fulfilment. What is it like to play a role like that in 2018?
This is such a cool question and something I think about a lot! Mary is a smart, thoughtful character but one of her primary arcs in the show is her dealing with an unrequited romantic situation. She is often left disempowered by her relationship with Frank and I often wonder if it appears that she is primarily defined by this relationship.

But I really think there is a lot more to her thank that. I try to reframe her romantic pursuit of Frank from her own point of view – she’s a total dreamer, she’s endlessly hopeful and loyal and she really cares about the people in her life. I think this speaks to her complexity as a character and her intertwined strength and vulnerability.

Strong female characters don’t have to be flawless, completely empowered women. I think her enduring love for Frank is totally relatable and, while I often wish she would just snap out of it and see her own worth, I think this internal conflict is something with which a lot of people can relate.

What’s been most thrilling about the process so far, and what’s been most challenging?
Thrilling: Definitely running all the songs in rehearsals. I love the music so much and hearing them sung so well by this amazing cast I swear everyday I’m so moved and then I’m dancing and then I’m crying.

Challenging: Oh man some of Sondheim’s melodies!! So often I sit by the piano frozen by this man’s genius and then I curse his name for those subtle little changes in musical phrases that literally keep me up at night.

Sondheim is a god of 20th Century theatre, and his music and lyrics alone are reason enough for people to come and see the show. What are some other reasons to come, and what do you hope audiences take away?
The thing I love most about this musical is that is has such a big heart. It’s definitely one of those ‘makes you laugh, makes you cry’ shows. I think audiences will totally fall in love with these characters and feel for them on their journeys as the show takes them back through time.

Because the show spans so many years of these characters lives, there are so many amazing emotional arcs and moments of growth and change. I hope in watching this show audiences are moved to think about the choices we make in life, how we define success, how people change over time, how our dreams are found and forgotten, and about how friendships are made and lost over time. There are so many juicy moments in the show about friendship and forgiveness, love and connection and I think that will speak to everyone who comes and sees the show.

Patrick Howard and Victoria Zerbst are appearing in Merrily We Roll Along, by Stephen Sondheim.
Dates: 7 – 24 March, 2018
Venue: The Depot Theatre

Review: The Seagull (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Dec 6 – 16, 2017
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Anthony Skuse)
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Jane Angharad, Paul Armstrong, Matthew Bartlett, Charmaine Bingwa, Alan Faulkner, Deborah Galanos, Tony Goh, Leilani Loau, Abe Mitchell, James Smithers, Shan-Ree Tan
Image by Bob Seary

Theatre review
The characters in Chekhov’s The Seagull seem to become increasingly obscure as the years pass. Our hectic lives are now the antithesis of Konstantin’s circle. Where Chekhov had lamented the futility of Russian lives that sat around talking too much and not doing any work, we are today, a century later, in an age where being busy is glorified, and rarely does anyone take the time to congregate and shoot the breeze. That is not to say that the truths of The Seagull are no longer valid, only that their resonance has inevitably faded.

It is a relief then, that director Anthony Skuse places emphasis on the comedy of the piece. Like the Real Housewives and the Kardashian family of reality television, the high-intensity dramatics of the wealthy are certainly fodder for laughs. Our reality involves so much time worrying about making money, but all these people seem to do, is worry about having nothing to do with their undepletable resources. Chekhov’s love for the representation of angst is however, not trivialised in the production. There are innumerable scenes of depression and anxiety, sensitively formed, often robust in their manifestation.

Skuse’s dramedy is highly enjoyable, with scintillating dialogue and playful, vibrant characters. Konstantin is performed by James Smithers, a genuinely forlorn presence, who introduces a sense of gravity that prevents the show from ever turning frivolously farcical. Deborah Galanos is outstanding as his narcissistic mother Arkadina, flamboyant with exquisite timing and an admirable capacity for nuance. Her sex scene with Abe Mitchell’s Trigorin is the unequivocal highlight, palpably revealing in more ways than one. Mitchell is himself a captivating actor, passionate and convincing. Equally memorable is Charmaine Bingwa whose emotions are as dark as they are fiery, for a viscerally despondent Masha.

Music is cleverly incorporated into many scenes, with Matthew Bartlett’s considerable talents showcased over a variety of instruments. Also noteworthy is Kyle Jonsson’s marvellous set design, providing an unmistakable aura of luxury and crumbling decadence, ably supported by the delicate lighting design of Liam O’Keefe.

The production is a dynamic one, but for all that we are able to see portrayed in its impressive range of emotions, there is a conspicuous lack of poignancy in The Seagull. We find ourselves in a strange situation, engaged but unmoved. Its personalities prove to be fascinating, but we struggle to connect with them. From another time and place, their concerns are not readily identifiable, perhaps irrelevant to the people we have become. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable beauty in the classic, that on this occasion, is splendidly revived. Relics are so called, because they survive, even as their lustre wanes.

5 Questions with Tony Goh and Shan-Ree Tan

Tony Goh

Shan-Ree Tan: So who’s Tony Goh, and how’d he come to be in a theatre in Marrickville with the rest of us?
Tony Goh: Tony is an Australian born Chinese. I was born in Brisbane, grew up in Marrickville, got married, lived in the US for 13 years, started a family – I have two young boys 15 and 13. I have returned to Marrickville through an odd journey and co-incidences. I am currently studying acting and was interested in doing a stage play. Over the past two decades, I dabbled in TV, commercials, and film – including two in the US. So, I have constantly re-inserted acting into my life, perhaps because I am always interested in the lives of others, how others live.

You play a character who’s a big fan of theatre in this play. What’re you a big fan of in real life in that way?
Definitely a fan of movies, but then again who isn’t? I was bitten by the acting bug really young, at age 16, when I went heard they were auditioning for the role of an Asian shopkeeper in a very shortlived TV series called “Arcade” shot in Cremorne shopping arcade. I couldn’t really turn my back away after that even though I never got the part. I’m also a fan of cooking and staying in shape.

We’ve got a pretty diverse cast for a Chekhov, I reckon. Do you feel particularly as an Asian face you’ve got more to prove as an actor? Or does it not really worry you? It worries me…
If I were to enter the entertainment business today, I would feel more pressure to prove myself. Sure there’s still pressure, it comes with the territory. But back in my day…god I sound old, there were fewer parts for Asians, mostly stereotyped roles. I think the Australians are now accustomed to seeing Asians as being well, just Aussies, so there’s little in the way of having to conform to some image. We can just be actors/characters/people. However, I also think there are more roles for Asians nowadays which means there’s a lot more opportunity to showcase the available talent. I think the pressure to prove as an Asian actor could stem from the fact that Asian culture is one of conformity. Conformity and creativity are at odds. It is those Asians or any migrant culture who best absorbs the available culture that will be able to grow and develop as both actors and members of society. I think the issue is one of broader acceptance. We’re lucky in Australia in some respects because we tend to focus on producing drama, which opens the way for dramatic roles, character based. Whereas when I cast my eyes to Hollywood, there tend to be more stereotyped Asian roles. The US is getting better sure with shows like “Fresh Off the boat” but those are few and far between as you’d be hard-pressed to see many Asian actors playing characters as opposed to caricatures.

You’re always a terrifically jovial presence in rehearsal. What have you enjoyed the most about director Anthony Skuse’s process?
I have enjoyed Anthony’s insight, creativity, and patience. He is a great communicator, as a result, you have a clear picture of what is expected of you and what he wants from the scene, the emotion. One of the questions he’s asked us, certainly me, is who is my character, and what do the people around the character mean to my character. Those are questions to shape my own thoughts and bring my own interpretation of the character, yet remain truthful. It is amazing what that has accomplished and the clarity it brings to the preparation process. I also enjoy the cast. We’re a mixed bunch and get along well. We know we have a job to do and we’re not assholes going about it.

What kind of role/project would you want to tackle next, if you had to make a total change from this gig?
A tough question. I won’t go into the personal side of my life, but let’s just say the last four years of my life have been a wild ride, an adventure if you will. I feel I am still trying to find my way in life. I would very much love to pursue further acting endeavours, perhaps as a regular on TV drama series – the typical lawyer, doctor, cop thriller comes to mind. I have long since given up on the dream of making a living in acting, so whatever morsel comes my way I am deeply grateful for.

Shan-Ree Tan

Tony Goh: What are you enjoying about working in this play?
Shan-Ree Tan: Ah, everything. Even the challenges of rehearsing on a co-op schedule and all the technical
curveballs that come with any show. Working with Anthony has been brilliant – I’ve really gotten a lot out of his literate, rigorous approach to text and his direction, which is somehow both entirely intuitive yet absolutely precise, and demanding while also being really supportive – and he’s got a great sense of humour. Really enjoying soaking up the learning from our experienced and generous castmates and crew too: serious about the work without taking themselves seriously at all. Definitely feeling like I have to jog very very briskly to keep up, but same, I’m grateful for the chance I’ve got even to share a stage with these folks.

What do you see as the future of acting in a multi-cultural Australia?
Big question! I’m not equipped at all to make any informed predictions – but like you, I’d like to see the performing arts here get to a point similar to where the UK industry seems largely to have gotten to, where it’s largely unremarkable to see culturally diverse actors in almost any production. “Unremarkable” is probably the wrong word. What I mean is that I hope that we can work to make two things happen: one is that we get to an overall much, much better place with “any ethnicity” or colourblind casting where that’s appropriate, and the other is that the appetite for the kinds of Australian stories where an actor’s cultural or ethnic background is an active asset, and can be appropriately provocative, continues to increase. The challenges will be quite radically different for actors from different cultural backgrounds – Indigenous representation or Middle Eastern representation are good examples – so the solutions to perennial hurdles like stereotyping and tokenism will be different.

We’ve seen a quite a few trailblazing Asian arts and media personalities take stage here in recent years and it’s going to be really interesting to see that develop. I’m particularly interested in what’s going to happen in the conversation between media/arts representation reflective of folks like us who grew up in Sydney and are more Aussie than anything else – out in the Hills in my case and in Marrickville in yours – against the popular culture of the beachhead communities of the “new Asia” who are paying attention to a whole other vast entertainment industry. The cultural gulf there alone can be huge, I’m keen to see how it plays out. As far as our production goes: people may wonder why this particular diverse cast was chosen to portray a bunch of ostensible 19th century Russians, particularly with our wildly differing regionalisms, but I like that it adds a new musical range and quite a powerful meta element to it. The play is literally about trying to reinvent theatre in a social context, so I reckon it rewards the approach that Anthony’s taken.

What movie/theatre stars do you admire and why?
Too many, for too many different reasons. A few completely random names from things I’ve seen this year:
Blazey Best. Not reasonable for someone to be able to be that funny and musical while literally standing on her head in the Wharf Review this year. Rob Brydon/Steve Coogan/Michael Winterbottom, the collective team. The Trip was life-changing. Takeshi Kitano. Big fan of his consistent ability to find the darkest, driest laugh possible at everyone’s expense and that he keeps finding new ways to provoke. Kate Mulvany. That lady knows how to Shakespeare. Gary Oldman. He seems to know precisely where to set the dial for whatever movie he’s in. Taika Waititi. What a mad Kiwi wizard. Thanks to my girlfriend for forcing me to sit down to watch What We Do In The Shadows for the first time earlier this year. We’re also at a moment where creatives are using whatever recognition they have to take a stand and speak out on the critical social and political issues that are roiling us right now, even at massive professional and personal cost to themselves. That’s hugely admirable.

What do you think happened (to the characters) after this play?
Is it still possible to spoil the ending of a 120 year old classic? Chekhov’s got a very particular definition of “comedy” – things are just not going to work out well for most of them are they…? Your character, Shamraev, probably makes off all right – I like to think he basically gets left with the estate to do with as he likes. Your wife Polina might have convinced the good doctor Dorn to run off with her before then though. Masha: cirrhosis. Medvedenko: pneumonia, from all that walking through Russian snow.

What don’t your friends know about you, that only your closest, or longest time friends do?
All my vocal impressions of people are now actually just take offs of Rob Brydon doing far superior impressions of those people. To be fair, people work that out pretty fast.

Tony Goh and Shan-Ree Tan can be seen in The Seagull by Anton Chekhov.
Dates: 6 – 16 Dec, 2017
Venue: The Depot Theatre