Review: Extinction Of The Learned Response (Glitterbomb / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 7 – 25, 2019
Playwright: Emme Hoy
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Tel Benjamin, Sarah Meacham, Eddie Orton, Jennifer Rani
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Duncan and Marlow are running an unauthorised, and unethical, experiment. They have two mysterious subjects held captive in their laboratory, undergoing a gruelling training regime to appear more convincingly human. Rachel and Wells have problems mastering the most basic of social skills, and we are kept wondering about their natural form; they may look human, but the playwright Emme Hoy wants us to look deeper into who these people are inside, or if indeed, they are people at all. Essentially a work of science fiction, Extinction Of The Leaned Response does ultimately ask some worthwhile questions, but its intrigue is too mild, and its plot too hesitant, to be sufficiently provocative.

The show is moody, and adequately suspenseful, thanks in large measure to Ben Pierpoint’s genre specific sounds and Kelsey Lee’s adventurous lights. There is however a circumvention of the bizarre and absurd, in favour of naturalism, by director Carissa Licciardello, that seems a missed opportunity. An air of placidity provides sophistication to proceedings, but the story’s cruel circumstance calls for something more heightened that could make for a more satisfying theatricality.

Actors Sarah Meacham and Eddie Orton are fascinating as the test subjects, both effective in engaging our imagination. Undeterred by the abstruseness of their material, Meacham and Orton find ways to vitalise their parts, making Rachel and Wells memorable, and strangely charming. Tel Benjamin and Jennifer Rani play the dubious researchers, with excessive restraint perhaps, but are nevertheless entertaining performers with excellent conviction.

As humans, we are eternally enthralled by our own nature. Always seeking to define humanity, we constantly find new ways to understand ourselves, not only because of an indubitable narcissism, but also as a means to interact with the larger universe. When one wishes to make the world a better place, it is necessary to know deeply the self, before one should begin imposing on others. In their efforts to discover bigger truths however, the researchers in Extinction Of The Leaned Response commit transgressions that are horribly egregious. There can be no end to knowledge, but to recognise right from wrong, is a fundamental principle that must not be compromised.

www.dasglitterbomb.com | www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Blood On The Cat’s Neck (Montague Basement)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 22 – Jun 1, 2019
Playwright: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (translated by Denis Calandra)
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Alex Chalwell, Jack Crumlin, Jemwel Danao, Deng Deng, Laura Djanegara, Deborah Galanos, Alice Keohavong, Emma Kew, Brendan Miles, Annie Stafford
Images by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
Phoebe Zeitgeist is an alien. She arrives disguised as a human, infiltrating what we might consider normal life, and learns to assume our behaviour. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Blood On The Cat’s Neck from 1971 might also be seen as a work about artificial intelligence, with Phoebe Zeitgeist a kind of technology, a robot perhaps, who disrupts our existence, gradually forming sentience within our midst, and eventually able to outsmart us. There is undeniable anxiety in Blood On The Cat’s Neck, whether relating to a certain perilous quality of our social interactions, or that increasing unease about being overcome by technology.

The abstract nature of Fassbinder’s writing provides a basis on which director Saro Lusty-Cavallari builds an immersive experience for his rendition of Blood On The Cat’s Neck. In the decadent surrounds of a bordello themed bar, we find ten performers scattered, as we are, floating in space with no designated stage and few allocated seats to keep us anchored. Scenes unfold one at a time, and we trace the action, eavesdropping in plain sight as though we too are aliens, scrambling to make heads and tails out of information dispensed mid-conversation, with little context for convenient comprehension.

The 70-minute show does however bear a coherent structure; a beginning, a middle and an end for a familiar flow that offers a sense of security. Hints of drama throughout help to sustain our interest, but its middle section feels repetitive and long, and we find ourselves occasionally disengaging from the artists, perhaps choosing instead to observe the more general goings on. As Phoebe Zeitgeist examines one character after another, we are on the outside, secretly scrutinising fellow audience members, as though all are curious.

A strong cast is assembled for the piece, with each personality bearing a distinct individual essence that accrue an air of gravity, that gives fortification to the production’s experimental style. Sophie Pekbilimli’s lighting design is a highlight, sensual and stealthy, rendered with a light touch that demonstrates artistic confidence. Costumes by Grace Deacon are cleverly coordinated, to depict character types, and to deliver charming imagery. Lusty-Cavallari’s sounds keep us on the right track, so that our interpretations are kept within parameters, as is our visceral experience of his unique kinetic theatricality.

Phoebe Zeitgeist’s convincing otherness is derived from her fictitious-ness. Technology on the other hand, cannot be divorced from its creator; it and us are one. The post-human story contained in Blood On The Cat’s Neck is frightening, because we know the worst of ourselves, and it requires no great stretch of imagination to see it manifested in robots. If artificial intelligence does eventually overwhelm us, we will recognise ourselves in them, and perhaps come to an understanding that evolution will take us on its natural course, and move us beyond a biology that will conceivably turn defunct. Mainstream culture has little appreciation for notions of everlasting life, but maybe we will grow smarter, and develop a new consciousness where we can find heaven, even if it lives inside a machine.

www.montaguebasement.com

Review: Prima Facie (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 17 – Jun 22, 2019
Playwright: Suzie Miller
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Sheridan Harbridge
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Tessa is proud of her success as a criminal defence barrister, and when we first meet her in Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie, her faith in the legal system seems a matter of course, for a young woman going places in the field of law. When the tables turn however, and Tessa finds herself on the prosecution side as a victim of rape, she discovers severe fallibility in the way we serve justice, especially in cases of sexual assault. Miller’s breathtaking new work is full of passion, propelled by an urgent need to bring change to these deeply problematic processes, that are patently incapable of providing appropriate redress to plaintiffs who are almost exclusively women.

Miller is precise and thorough, in her careful storytelling. She engages our hearts and minds, for a stirring theatrical experience, perfectly suited to our current climate of #MeToo heightened social consciousness. Prima Facie makes its arguments convincingly, and crystal clear, and we leave sharing in the passionate intensity of its perspectives. Actor Sheridan Harbridge holds us captive for the entire 100 minutes, of her spellbinding one-woman show. It is an extraordinary achievement, with Harbridge able to convey authenticity at every stage, whilst keeping us zealously engaged with the issues being presented. She is entertaining, confident, and persuasive, fabulously well-rehearsed in what is clearly an immense challenge for any performer. Her memory seems a freak of nature, but it is her ability to make us care so deeply that is truly marvellous.

It is a meticulously rendered production, by director Lee Lewis who maintains a minimal surface, and then channels all her intelligence and energy into making every subliminal dimension of the show communicate with a tremendous power. Subtle design elements offer inconspicuous manipulations, to ensure that we respond appropriately with the play’s intentions. Renée Mulder’s set and costumes are chic and suitably severe. Trent Suidgeest’s unassuming lighting transformations help us perceive nuances in the text, and Paul Charlier’s music keeps our pulses fluctuating in accordance with the show’s varying emotional states.

Our democracy has failed women on many fronts. We operate within systems created by a powerful few, believing in the promises and lies that it dispenses. We follow its rules, thinking that all are being treated with justice and fairness; we behave ourselves and we work hard, indoctrinated into thinking that doing the right thing will always be rewarded. Tessa finds out the hard way, that without enough women at the top, those of us at the bottom will only ever be violated. It is hard to imagine a hierarchy that works for everyone. As long as there are powerful people, there will be those who are left powerless. Essentially, Prima Facie asks for the patriarchy to be smashed, but what its replacement looks like, is still as yet undecided.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Cyprus Avenue (Empress Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), May 15 – Jun 8, 2019
Playwright: David Ireland
Director: Anna Houston
Cast: Lloyd Allison-Young, Roy Barker, Branden Christine, Jude Gibson, Amanda McGregor
Images by Yure Covich

Theatre review
Even though Eric does not run around in a white conical hood, and he takes every opportunity to make grand declarations that he is not a racist, there is no question that our protagonist is the worst kind of bigot. David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue is a confronting, if slightly exploitative, play about a sad old man trapped in the traumatic days of The Troubles. Habitually putting everyone in identity categories, his hate for “the others” seems to know no bounds; even his five-week old granddaughter is not spared. Playwright Ireland makes a powerful statement about prejudice, with his flamboyantly brash approach offering a style of theatre that is full of dramatic tension, as well as ample opportunity for intellectual stimulation.

Direction by Anna Houston appropriately emphasises the quirky quality of Cyprus Avenue‘s comedy, bringing valuable balance to its otherwise brutal nature. Difficult concepts are left undiluted, so that the audience cannot help but examine its challenging provocations. Leading man Roy Barker embodies beautifully, contradictory dimensions of Eric. He is deplorable, but also charming; tender yet full of evil. Unfortunately, the actor’s constant stumbling over lines puts a damper on proceedings, with the disruptions of speech rhythms causing considerable distraction. Other cast members are much more polished with what they present, each remarkable in their respective roles, all of them compelling with what they bring to the stage.

There is profoundly objectionable behaviour in Cyprus Avenue that we must attempt to analyse. The show’s controversial situations make it an imperative that we find ways to process, not only the violence that happens in Eric’s fictitious world, but also the equally heinous hate crimes, of all descriptions, in real life. People will have justifications for every horror they commit, but as a society, we will always have to weigh up compassion and punishment, in our strategies for prevention. Eric has been driven mad by circumstance, and as a result, he perpetuates grievous harm, in a circle of violence that tempts us to keep shifting blame from one to another. There are no easy answers in Cyprus Avenue, perhaps no answers at all, but it allows us to see, in what feels to be a thoroughly honest way, how terrifying humans can be. What we do with that information thereafter, is anybody’s guess.

www.empresstheatre.com.au | www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: American Psycho (BB Arts & Two Doors Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 10 – Jun 9, 2019
Book: Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis)
Music & Lyrics: Duncan Sheik
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Blake Appelqvist, Erin Clare, Shannon Dooley, Ben Gerrard, Eric James Gravolin, Amy Hack, Loren Hunter, Julian Kuo, Kristina McNamara, Liam Nunan, Daniel Raso
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal 1991 novel American Psycho encapsulates a kind of sickness that had emerged from 1980’s capitalism. The story of exemplary yuppie Patrick Bateman was a wild indictment of Western culture at the time, one obsessed with prestige and facade, centred around the mythical Wall Street model of success. Evil personified, he served as an icon of all that had hitherto gone wrong, a monster materialising not from supernatural realms, but borne out of economic reality. The book’s detailed and extreme violence sparked great outrage, but the unassailable truths behind Ellis’ extravagant depictions, have made it a classic that remains pertinent three decades on.

Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa and Duncan Sheik’s musical version is understandably much more tame in comparison, but thanks to the extraordinary characters and narrative it inherits, the show is still able to captivate, even if Sheik’s original songs are at best mediocre. It must be noted however, that musical direction by Andrew Worboys succeeds masterfully, at elevating these show tunes, turning very average melodies and lyrics into genuinely exciting numbers. Visual design too, is remarkable. Isabel Hudson’s revolving stage and butchers-style strip curtains are high gloss and very sexy, and even though slightly noisy at times, their theatrical effect is truly marvellous. The stage management team, headed by Brooke Verburg must be congratulated for their super smooth execution of mind-boggling logistics, most obviously in terms of performers’ complicated entrances and exits, all flawlessly enacted to quite magical results. Choreographer Yvette Lee demonstrates exceptional attention to detail and a highly sophisticated style, that bring the stage to flamboyant life.

Director Alexander Berlage’s lighting design is suitably sleek, and highly evocative. Along with Mason Browne’s costumes, they establish an aesthetic that is as much about contemporary fashion as it is about the 80’s; alluring, colourful and ostentatious, and ambitious like Patrick. Berlage’s direction of the piece certainly corresponds with his protagonist’s love of the surface. First half is all frothy and camp, a queer interrogation into toxic and hyper masculinity, that sits well within the musical genre. American Psycho‘s notoriety means that we know the tale to be terrifyingly macabre, but the production’s obsession with portraying a vacuous culture, can feel more bubblegum than menacing, although at no point is it ever less than fabulously entertaining. Second half becomes much more satisfying, as things get sinister, as we approach the true horror of the story.

Performer Ben Gerrard may not be entirely convincing as the demonic American, but the intelligent commentary he infuses into every line and lyric, every glance and gesture, ensures a resonance that communicates on levels beyond the obvious. We are repulsed by Patrick, but Gerrard’s charm keeps us attentive. Without a moral to its story, American Psycho is only obscene, and our leading man’s admirable efforts at driving home the message, represents the show’s beacon of integrity. Memorable supporting players include Liam Nunan whose turn as Luis, the closet homosexual, proves to be as comical as it is heartbreaking. Loren Hunter has the unenviable task of playing Jean, the dowdy secretary who falls in love with Patrick, a difficult role that she, quite miraculously, makes believable and empathetic.

Patrick, at twenty-seven, is a big fan of Donald Trump. The role models we choose, are a direct reflection of our values. Unable to see past the superficial glamour of the rich and powerful, Patrick invests his entirety to the pursuit of money and status. Morality is irrelevant. Today, Trump is President. It would be erroneous to imagine that all 63 million who had voted for him are devoid of morality, but these numbers tell a symptom that we would be remiss to ignore. Over the course of time, virtues are constructed, and re-constructed. In 1991, American Psycho controversially appeared as a cautionary tale of sorts. In 2019, the yuppies are nowhere to be seen yet we only have to look in the mirror to wonder, if resistance against greed is always futile.

www.bbartsentertainment.com | www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Made To Measure (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), May 16 – Jun 1, 2019
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Tim Jones
Cast: Tracy Mann, Sam O’Sullivan, Megan Wilding
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Society’s hatred for fat bodies is placed under scrutiny, in Alana Valentine’s Made To Measure. Ashleigh, our protagonist, is preparing for her wedding, and the process of getting a gown made, is provoking tremendous anguish and frustration. Her dress designer Monica is nice enough, but it seems neither is able to talk about Ashleigh’s large figure, without turning it into a problem. We see an insidious prejudice in operation, a pervasive attitude of disrespect that constantly subjects fat people to criticism and chastisement. Not only does Monica struggle to avoid comments that make her client feel bad, Ashleigh herself often believes those degrading remarks to be true. Society is her worst enemy, but Ashleigh’s own opinions about her own body, are not much better.

The playwright’s elucidations are detailed and often very powerful. With an important agenda to push, Valentine’s play has a tendency to be didactic and slightly dry, but Made To Measure is ultimately highly effective, in pointing out the objectionable nature of our fatphobia, and may even succeed, over its ninety minutes, to change the way we think and act. The production is beautifully assembled, with Melanie Liertz’s set and Verity Hampson’s lights particularly delightful and well-considered. Director Tim Jones’ straightforward approach imbues the work with a sense of integrity, but a more imaginative use of space could provide an improved theatrical experience.

Leading lady Megan Wilding brings to the stage, an exceptional vulnerability that does at least as much as the writing, to help us understand the gravity of the issue at hand. Her depiction of pain is thoroughly convincing, with a potency that defies any audience member to regard the play with even a minutiae of scepticism. Also impressive is Tracy Mann, whose multi-faceted interpretation of Monica prevents the show from oversimplification. It is an authentic performance that encourages us to appreciate the story’s themes with complexity and humanity. Sam O’Sullivan plays a variety of roles with admirable gusto, able to represent both the best and worst of our community, with charm and humour.

It seems that very few of us in capitalist societies are able to be satisfied with our physical appearance. The free market takes aim at our self-esteem, relentless in its attempts to make us insatiable consumers, by ensuring that we feel eternally inadequate. The issue is not whether there is anything wrong with Ashleigh’s body. The problem is that we think we have a right to an opinion about it. We routinely remove bodily autonomy from fat people, always allowing that transgression to occur under the pretence of concern and compassion. When we know to bestow genuine kindness upon one another, differences between persons fade away. When there is no capacity for kindness, even the most perfect creature can be made a monster.

www.seymourcentre.com

Review: Folk (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 3 – Jun 1, 2019
Playwright: Tom Wells
Director: Terence O’Connell
Cast: Libby Asciak, Gerard Carroll, Genevieve Lemon
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Sister Winnie is planning a folk music night, and enlists Stephen and Kayleigh to help out. We see the nun orchestrating a connection, not only for the purposes of staging an event, but also for the two misfits to form a support network, with and without herself at its centre. Tom Wells’ Folk takes place in Yorkshire, more than ten thousand miles away from Sydney. It may seem that there is little that we have in common, and what should feel sentimental or moving, struggles to translate into much more than something quaint and quite foreign. Its themes are clearly universal, but its characters and language feel overly idiosyncratic, even distant at times.

Terence O’Connell’s direction does not help the work transcend our differences, and even though the viewing experience can often seem sedated, the charming cast is able to sustain our attention, particularly impressive during the play’s several musical numbers. As Winnie, Genevieve Lemon is appropriately kooky and spirited. Libby Asciak performs convincingly the part of teenager Kayleigh, with playful flourishes that reflect an irrepressible creative streak. The musical talents of Gerard Carroll are wonderfully showcased in the role of Stephen, as is his ability to portray an innocence rarely seen in the middle age man.

Winnie is not a preachy nun, but she embodies godliness in the way she conducts her relationships. Her ability to love is admirable, but it is also unremarkable. Without the usual piousness, her personality becomes one that we can readily identify with, and we recognise that love is not only sacred, it is easy. The effortlessness with which she takes care of people, and the significance she places on human connection, are only common sense from the audience’s vantage point, yet we understand that much of Winnie’s modus vivendi, are missing in our daily lives.

www.ensemble.com.au