Friday, 15 November 2019

Exit Strategies - Theatre Review

What: Exit Strategies
When: 13 - 17 November 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Created by: Mish Grigor, Eugenia Lim, and Lara Thoms
Performed by: Mish Grigor
Lighting by: Katie Sfetkidis
Sound by: Nina Buchanan
Video by: Zoe Scoglio
Dramaturgy by: Anne Thompson
Mish Gregor - photo by Bryony Jackson
The world is on fire, Brexit is happening - or trying to happen - and a colonised world is trying to run away from the mess which has been made. All of these tragedies can be boiled down to the fault of one person in one single moment in time. If only Mish Grigor could work out how to leave the room! Exit Strategies, on this weekend at Arts House, is her attempt to solve the world's problems by just figuring out the best way to get out and then relying on chaos theory to do the rest.

Exit Strategies is an absurdist dirge to the human wish to always move on. Lim's clever linkage between exit signs which show the way out and chromakey green which allows unwanted things to disappear (with a slight nod to airport runways) is an outstanding corollary to Grigor's oratory on how difficult the act of leaving can be - kind of like the situation the UK find itself in now.

Exit Strategies is structured like shattered glass, the cracks of indecision being pressured by the growing need to get out and finally exploding into a fragmented picture of Grigor's life juxtaposed on a world population trapped by the tyranny of progress drowning in the refuse of the mistakes of the past.

I kept finding myself remembering the sensational Aphids and Malthouse co-production A Singular Phenomenon as I watched this show (Thoms' influence perhaps?), and also felt a touch of Grigor's previous work with POST (Oedipus Schmoedipus). The irreverances, the puzzle pieces, the non-linear construction which surprises us at the end with a cohesive and impactful complet picture. This is how Exit Strategies works.

The prelude is the repetitive task of Grigor just trying to decide how to exit a room. Do you do it with a smile? With a nod? Slowly? In the dark? All of these (and more) are tried out to a quirky sound track (Buchanan) on repeat. It feels much like trying to play Donkey Kong without knowing any of the tricks.

Although we don't know it yet, this is where the analysis with world events begins. Who hasn't had a moment when they are convinced all politicians are monkeys? Perhaps if we though of them as video gamers playing a game they've never seen before we might have more tolerance...No, not a good analogy because they have seen it before - over and over again across time.

Grigor moves the conceit into farce as she explores leaving the room being chased by a bear, in a puff of smoke, whilst acting, etc. Slyly she then crosses into stories of her childhood.

This is where the conceit is tricky. I assume the corollary is that growing up is a form of leaving childhood but one of the problems with Exit Strategies is it swings wildly between explicit and implicit allegory.

I also found myself wondering if we really needed so much of Grigor in the conversation. Whilst the embarrassing teen stories worked well to highlight the range of reasons you might want to leave a situation, the older Grigor's messes caused me to lose empathy as she describes nights of careless drug use and poor decision making. I can intellectually draw the analogy about owning up to mistakes of the past and not willfully forgetting them, but this is a lot of post-show analysis doing the work linking it to the conversation about colonisation.

Having said that I did love the later markers which speak to admitting responsibility for an entire world which has been colonised and damaged by supernations including (but not limited to) the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the British, the Chinese, the French, and so on. It is also illuminating and a fresh perspective when Grigor speaks to the original convict settlers and the question of colonisation/decolonisation faced by their seventh generation heirs. Should we all just leave? What happens with the mess we leave behind if we do? What does staying look like?

Grigor goes from the old analogue act of cutting yourself out of photos and sticking them on post cards to green screening yourself into pictures of exotic places in the world like the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. It is kind of the more standard Photoshop technique but in a video component. Grigor interacts with herself on TV and then later on a full scrim (reminding me of Ros Warby's work in Monumental).

The scope of Grigor's work is huge, covering colonisation, exploration, climate change, Brexit, growing up, and just about every other meta act of leaving you can think of. It is performed in the huge space of the Main Hall at Arts House - including the old stage!

I think this vastness is a bit of a mistake too. The urge to leave is - at least - subliminally accompanied by a mounting sense of claustrophobia and perhaps panic and I think all of this would work better in a more intimate setting. A setting where Grigor can't leave either the room or her proximity to the audience - which would also mean we can't leave our proximity to her and her dangerous questions and ideas. It is difficult to relate to leaving being hard when the conversation can be left just by putting the span of the hall and stage between us.

 I love the ideas and, for the most part, the Vorticist construction of Exit Strategies. It was shorter than the advertised time (only 60 minutes) and having read some other reviews I suspect there has been some dramaturgical change since preview. Whatever has been done is good I think, as the work seems to have more direction, focus and power than previously described.

Exit Strategies is a good idea which can only get stronger through future iterations. In particular perhaps the climate change conversation can become more dominate given our current crises, which would justify the use of the smoke machine. Just saying.

What makes Exit Strategies so good is the ideas involved and the questions raised. All of these are made so much more accessible through Grigor's sense of fun and play. It also gives a really poignant debate about why we should stay and what we can do if we make that decision. After the show you are also given some writings by Jane Howard and Erica McCalman on the ideas raised by the show which are intriguing and insightful.

3.5 Stars

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Audition - Theatre Review

What: The Audition
When: 13 - 24 November 2019
Written by: Patricia Cornelius, Sahra Davoudi, Tes Lyssiotis, Wahibe Moussa, Milad Norouzi, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas
Directed by: Irine Vela
Performed by: Sahra Davoudi, Vahideh Eisaei, Milad Norouzi, Peter Paltos, and Mary Sitarenos
Design by: Adrienne Chisholm
Lighting by: Gina Gascoigne
Dramaturgy by: Maryanne Lynch
Stage managed by: Genevieve Cizevskis
Peter Paltos and Sahra Davoudi - photo by Darren Gill
The Audition is a new production by Outer Urban Projects and is currently playing at La Mama Courthouse. The generative impetus is to correlate the uncertain life of the actor to the uncertain life of the refugee. Whilst I am not sure it achieves it goals, it has evolved into a powerful portrait of the refugee experience, pulling at the heartstrings and demonstrating the pain of the negligent cruelty of our Australia refugee processes.

Outer Urban Projects is a company which takes the voices of disaffected communities in the northern suburbs of Melbourne and finds innovative performance modes in which to amplify them into the general community. In many ways The Audition is, perhaps, the exception to the rule in that Vela (director) has chosen to use the short play format, so popular in Melbourne currently, to tell a sequence of unrelated and yet inherently related stories to highlight the uncertainty and impermanence and randomness of our refugee processes.

The Audition brings together the old Melbourne Workers Theatre team of Vella, Tsiolkas (writer - 'Ava and Vida'), Cornelius (writer - 'The Doll'), and Reeves (writer - 'You Made Us A Promise What You Told Us Today Would Be True') along with emerging artists to tell this tale of displacement and disempowerment. What makes this show different from other versions of this type of theatre is Vela has interwoven the stories so that they blend and merge, giving a strong sense of commonality and the idea - almost cubist in nature - of how this disenfranchisement and punishment for the mere act of wanting life is happening in so many iterations in so many places at the same time and across time.

The reason I say at the start the show does not reach it's goals is because I don't think the plight of the actor as a cogent analogy has really been explored. Instead, most of the scenes which address auditions focus on discrimination which is absolutely true and legitimate but speaks more the conversation about community integration rather than a parallel of otherness across two disparate communities. A painful truth, but not quite as advertised. It may perhaps be because the connection is tenuous at best and therefore better left behind as a seedling of possibility which was never able to thrive.

One of the things I really adore about The Audition is how Vella has chosen to use the qanun (played by Eisaei) as the primary musical accompaniment. It is not only beautiful but is a stunning meta-narrative about the richness and complexity of the Persian culture played on the backdrop of the impressively invoked vast red/brown earth of the Australian landscape created by Chisholm (designer). In fact, that other parallel of sparse, dry lands is also commented on in this aesthetic and provides a powerful backdrop for 'Woomera' (written by Lyssiotis).

Again, working on multiple levels is Cornelius' piece which shows the plight of an auditioning actor (Sitarenos) who is evidently of non-English ethnicity when trying to audition for a lead role in an the iconic Australian play Summer Of The Seventeeth Doll. Originally the concept was for the actor to be auditioning for Pearl which would have spoken strongly to the ideas in other pieces questioning whether there is a 'right' way to be, or do, or act in order to be given a place - either in the play or in the Australian community. Somewhere along the lines the idea changed though, and now the actor is auditioning for the lead role of Olive which narrows the narrative to only one of discrimination and removes some of the nuances of the original concept of both the monologue and The Audition I think.

What this does do, however, is embed the link between this monologue and Tsiolkas' scene. In 'Ava and Vida' the discrimination is spoken of more directly and includes a narrative about how young Australia is and how we don't understand the complexities and nuances of deep, deep history or the refugee experience. The great irony of this discrimination really comes to the foreground in Moussa's 'I Can Be Her' as Davoudi tries to audition for the the role of Hecuba in a production of Trojan Women.

Again, I don't know if this is entirely true as most of the Australian population is immigrant in nature and come from peoples which go back deep in time. What is different though is ours is a broken history and we are people who have been willing (and in some cases unwilling) to break our ties and begin a new iteration of life and culture. It is this iteration which embodies the newness and it is this which creates the tensions with refugees from the Persian Gulf (which is the focus of the refugee stories in this work).

Ironically it is this very newness which ought to make us more understanding and more welcoming. Instead we huddle closer so that nobody new can join the group and we inflict the worst pain available which is loss of identity and self through marginalisation and imprisonment. Please note, I am deliberately not speaking about our First Nations people because that is a whole different and much bigger conversation and outside the scope of The Audition.

I feel also that these three pieces miss an important point about acting though. It is redundant for an actor to say they 'know' the character when they don't know the production. Thus, the cry of 'I know who this is' is no justification for casting. I normally wouldn't comment on this except that it resonates so often across this show. A play is a motile creature in performance so you cannot 'know' a character before you know the vision for the production as a whole. You cannot make those judgements from the page alone. Having said that, my comments are not meant to detract from the truth of the unnecessary racial discrimination which has haunted our white, patriarchal stages for the entire life of this English colony.

There is so much to say about The Audition, but I will end by commenting on the lyrical beauty of Norouzi's 'Beautiful Jail' (written and performed by Norouzi). Rather than looking at the fences as happens in the earlier piece, 'Woomera', Norouzi focuses on the sky above. Looking up he sees light and space, hopes and dreams rather than his incarceration in the middle of nowhere. Gascoigne's gentle yet ingenious lighting comes to the fore as he wanders vast spaces in his mind, although only a few steps in his body.

Whilst The Audition is not entirely what I was expecting, it is a beautiful and painful piece of theatre trying to help us understand the plight of refugees generally, and their experiences in trying to become Australian. I was especially moved by Davoudi's comparison of death to losing her 'voice' should she have to return to her country in'Seven Days'. Women across the world can relate to this - even Australian women. Hear these stories and then think about what we have done, what we are doing, and what we can do better from tomorrow.

4 Stars

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

La Boheme - Opera Review

What: La Boheme
When: 12 - 21 November 2019
Where: Wesley Ann
Composed by: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Directed by: Kate Millett
Conducted by: Joseph Hie
Performed by: Andrew Alesi, Jordan Auld, Pam Christie, Belinda Dalton, Daniel Felton,Alicia Groves, Dominique Musico, James Sybren Penn, and Peter Tregear
James Sybren Penn, Belinda Dalton, Daniel Felton, Peter Tregear and Andrew Alesi
La Boheme is one of the favourite operas of the 20th century, filling opera houses across the last century and well into this one as well. BK Opera bring us the pub version this month at the Wesley Anne in Northcote and I have to say after seeing it this way I can't imagine ever wanting to see it in a proper opera house ever again. The local pub really is the natural home for this tale of bohemian camaraderie.

Puccini's La Boheme is based on a series of stories which became a novel and then later a play by Henry Murger - Scènes de la vie de bohème (also the inspiration for Rent). The original text is a series of stories which follow the escapades of a group of poverty stricken bohemians who called themselves 'the water drinkers' because they were too poor to afford wine.

Relating to these stories through his own life during his poverty stricken student days (the one herring between four moment in the opera came from his own life experience), Puccini took several characters from the book, and the structure of acts 1 and 4 from the play and filled in the rest. What he ended up with is a funny and feisty romp which ends in tragedy as the heroine dies a long, painful death through respiratory disease (as is the fate of so many women in opera tales).

Millett (director) has taken this story and really brings into focus the absurdity of the myth that poverty is the artist's muse by placing this group of ever optimistic friends in a local pub to drink and laugh and play and die amongst us ordinary folk. This is even more appropriate given that Puccini was just on the verge of entering his verisimo period and what BK Opera highlight in this production is that transitional edge from romanticism (the declamatory style and highly emotional singing) into realism (with the everyday dress and humble surrounds).

La Boheme relies on energy to work and Hie (conductor) keeps the singers rollicking along at an exciting pace which allows the comedy to really punch. I have to say that Christie's work on an old and battered baby grand piano is quite magnificent too, keeping pace with the performance yet bringing to life the famous beauty and nuance of Puccini's composition.

Watching this ensemble perform is like watching a high octane episode of Friends. Dalton (Mimi) is an entrancing soprano with an ability to act which many a fully trained actor would envy. Finally I saw a death scene which didn't make me cringe!

Auld (Musetta) is an incredibly powerful soprano and is such delightful comic relief in this production. With a stage full of tenors and baritones Auld could easily get lost, but there is no chance of that with her strong vocals and brilliantly outrageous costumes.

The real story of La Boheme is the camaraderie between the men and the family they create between themselves to get through their hard life of creativity, dilitance, and unrelenting poverty. With the previous BK Opera shows I have reviewed (A Night of Gluck Operas and Bluebeard's Castle) Penn has been conducting but for this season he steps onto the stage to sing Rudolfo.

Penn has an incredibly powerful voice definitely trained for the big opera houses and his acting, whilst lacking in realism, is bold and clear. I suspect he is not too accustomed to working in such intimate proximity with the audience. His singing is sublime though - especially his drunk singing - and I really wanted more typing (when have you ever heard anyone say that?) although he does need to learn which way the paper goes in...

It's a tough task, but his entourage (Alesi, Felton, and Tregear) keep up with him vocally and spiritedly. I admit the quintet at Cafe Momus was my favourite moment of the night although there are so many good times in this opera that was a hard choice to make. Even Musico, who had a non-speaking role as a waitress, was feisty and owned her moments on stage!

I was less convinced about the casting of Groves as the landlord and the old gentleman. There was no value to be had in shifting the gender and the roles are written for a bass. In fact it was confusing to have those characters as female and Groves struggled vocally. It didn't help that the surtitles weren't working well and it was hard to keep up with who she was playing.

What I am trying to say is this production of La Boheme is a blast. Grab a hot toddy, pull up a pew and have a rollicking good time at the Wesley Anne. The show is chock full of drinking songs and bonhomie despite the sad ending. In these times of high unemployment and unaffordable cost of living this 19th century tale is as true for millennial Australia as it was for Parisian beatniks of the past.

4 Stars

Saturday, 9 November 2019

SPIT - Circus Review

What: SPIT
When: 7 - 10 November 2019
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Angelique Ross
Angelique Ross - photo by Tony Caroll
This first week of the Circus Oz Sidesault festival has had a strong feminist edge and Angelique Ross' show SPIT fits nicely in the trio presented this week. Tonight is the last night for this first week of programs though, so get down there this evening if you want to get your feminist itch scratched with this degree of satisfaction.

SPIT kicks off the evening of fire and brimstone which includes Invisible Things and Never (ever in the history of calm down has anyone calmed down by being told to) Calm Down! Ross' energy and strength and sense of humour is the perfect start for this program of power.

Accompanied by femme power rock anthems Ross starts with that quintessentially women's work icon, the blender, which sounds impressively close to a chainsaw. A simple juggling routine with tomatoes follows which ends with them in the blender, mildly spitting their juice but no harm is done...yet!

Ross then pulls out the next standard piece of female accoutrement - the FMBs (Fuck Me Boots). I said in my review of Wunderage I had never seen stilletoes on a tight rope. Well, now I have so it is not surprising this second time around I wasn't quite as in awe. On the other hand, Ross is incredibly strong with core strength Xena would be proud of. In a way, this is why it was less impressive - because I had no doubt at all Ross could stay upright and do her tricks.

This is perhaps the great weakness of SPIT. Ross is a superb acrobat and her tight rope walking and trapeze work are fantastic. Traditionally, however, tight rope acts work because of the tension as to whether the walker will fall, mirroring the tension of the rope between it's 2 anchor points.

Ross has fed into this tradition but it is impossible to hide her strength and power and given this is part of the metaphor of the show I would rather she just celebrate her skills and abilities and own her magnificence. She also has one of the best levels of showmanship I have ever seen too, owning the work and her audience.

Whilst frailty, uncertainty, and error are an integral part of strength, in this intimate setting it pays to keep it real. Be strong and capable when you can and keep it authentic such as what happens in the juggling routines. The juggling is possibly Ross' weakest circus skill but that could be because the level of difficulty is up around 10 with juggling squishy tomatoes and trying to get them to fall into a blender to satisfy a craving just like the Solo Man of yore.

I found it hard to follow a narrative in SPIT but just enjoyed watching a great performer do her thing. There was one dance piece with an overdubbed narrative about hating suits which was probably the weakest part of the show. It was too long, too slow, and poorly contextualised but perhaps with a stronger narrative framework it might work better.

There is audience interaction and it is a whole lot of fun. It begins with one poor victim but by the end just about everyone can get in on the act with vigour. There are so many tomatoes!

SPIT is messy, spirited fun. It's on at 6:15 tonight so get down to the Spiegeltent and see all three fabulous shows in this first week Sidesault program.

3 Stars

Friday, 8 November 2019

Invisible Things - Circus Review

What: Invisible Things
When: 7 - 10 November 2019
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Alex Mizzen
Technical design by: Michael Maggs
Sound design by: Anna Whitaker
Alex Mizzen - photo by Krystal Beazley
Coming to Melbourne audiences after a 2018 season at The Powerhouse in Brisbane in 2018, the Sidesault experimental circus festival brings Invisible Things to The Melba Spiegeltent. A combination of circus, dance and performance art, Alex Mizzen takes us on a journey of investigation into her inner world and has us questioning our own 'Little Boxes' too.

Recovering from injury, Mizzen took a look at herself and her life through the writings in her journal. What she saw only she can know, but the investigations and discoveries and revelations she experiences in Invisible Things is something we can all understand - assuming you are willing to look at yourself rather than the rest of the world for a change...

Mizzen begins in a plastic wrapped cube. Dense smoke fills her space making her only visible when she is near the edges, but when she is seen Mizzen is wearing a long, formal gown and is tied up in the ends of aerial silks.

She moves around, finding her self confined by the box and the knots in the silks. Unwinding her way out of the ribbon is the first steps towards her journey of self-knowing.

Layers peel away as the smoke starts to clear. The dress gives way layer by layer, revealing more of Mizzen's body while lights in the space reveal more and more secrets held in this little room she finds herself in.

There are boxes within her big box and she opens them, finding tools to explore herself even further. They also allow her to hide away the items from the past which have kept her hidden and entangled.

Strength is found in the contortions of hand balancing. A skipping rope builds stamina and, when used as a whip, begins to show us the fragility of this cage/cube Mizzen finds herself confined in.

The whole journey escalates but does not stop with the exultation of fresh air. Once freed of her confines, the big surprise is what happens when faced with the choice to leave or return. At this point I will say Mizzen is an aerial artist, but I will leave you to discover how Mizzen explodes into her true universe.

Invisible Things is visually stunning and the lighting (Maggs) and sound (Whitaker) work powerfully to tell the story and expose Mizzen's journey - literally full of ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and troughs! The sound pulses and throbs and flows just as Mizzen dances, and undulates and explodes inside herself.

The lighting reveals invisible writings which could be a code, could be rambling, could be a breakdown of 'form' and 'order' - kind of like Sidesault perhaps... In fact Invisible Things may be the perfect allegory for the Sidesault festival!

Invisible Things is supposedly a promenade although in truth you don't need to move around because Mizzen performs in the round. The cube does break free of it's moorings, but the performance space is large and the audience tended to stay on the outer edges.

I did wonder if we were missing something by not getting up close and personal - something visceral perhaps? Oh, and Circus Oz is committed to accessibility so if you use a mobility device you can use it with complete freedom (I took my scooter in and it was fine).

Invisible Things is as much a work of art as it is a visceral and exciting performance. Join Mizzen on her journey and you may just discover an urge to take one of your own when you leave.

5 Stars

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Never (in the history of calm down has anyone calmed down by being told to) Calm Down! - Cabaret Review

What: Never (in the history of calm down has anyone calmed down by being told to) Calm Down!
When: 7 - 10 November 2019
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Rebecca Church, Maude Davey, and Anna Lumb

Circus Oz is presenting it's two week experimental circus festival, Sidesault, over the next fortnight and one of the powerhouse shows kicking off this first week is a show with the longest (but most brilliant) title which I - along with others - will shorten to Never...Calm Down! Experimental circus is a bit like live art - nobody really knows what it is. Yet that is what is so exciting about it and this show really does push the boundaries...or does it?

Never...Calm Down! is the brain child of three of Melbourne's cabaret doyenne's Lumb, Davey, and Church (who you may better recognise as burlesque artist Becky Lou). The reason I say this show is experimental circus is because the circus elements - aerial work, contortion, acrobatics - are so seemlessly woven into the narrative and shape of the show you could easily come away saying it isn't circus at all.  The reason I say it is not pushing boundaries is that these women have been pushing these boundaries throughout their entire artistic career.

Never...Calm Down! is a dreamscape. Or more accurately, it is a nightmare. It is the nightmare we women live our whole lives long. Beginning with a vignette which is something of the lovechild between Marilyn Monroe Hollywood glamour and the 'Beauty School Dropout' sequence from Grease you know instantly what this evening is going to be about.

Davey loves working with surrealism and with her and Lumb starting wearing lightshades over their heads, acting as living furniture to the lazily lounging Church, the hallmark beautiful irreverance which is about to ensue is hinted at before the show even begins. As predicted, Never...Calm Down! becomes a crying, shrieking, hilarious, and painful ode to the plight of the female psyche in the modern world.

This work was always going to be feminist in nature - this is what these women do. I think, though, the trauma of the actions of those St Kevin's College boys crystalised the nexus of the work and Never...Calm Down! riffs on that horrible song and why even the strongest women, at their core, are taught to feel like shit. Literally poo as Davey shows us in a hilariously painful manner.

Amongst the plethora of Monroe wigs and sequined gowns, mixed in with the contortion hoop and aerial pulley, is a fierce splattering of blood, guts and tears. Do you want to know how strong women are?

We are so strong we keep standing when the world tells us we will always be worth less then men - any man. We are so strong we keep walking even though blood pours out of our bodies every month (I have hit my 40th year of non-stop bleeding so think about that!). We are so strong we can hold each other up rather than drag each other down. We are so strong we can finally allow ourselves to cry and scream and laugh publicly and unashamedly about the situation we find ourselves in.

This is what Never...Calm Down! is about. It is about what a woman's life looks like when you stare at it in the face without the veneer of patriarchy trying to gloss it over and cover it up. It is the living nightmare men don't want to face. It is the hysterical woman who has something to complain about without the chemistry of valium to smooth it out.

Did you watch Q&A last week? The one with all the women? The episode has been pulled down from all platforms because women speaking the truth is one of the most dangerous things in the world.

This is the conversation Never...Calm Down! is engaging in. Do we have to have the civil war the suffragette's never got to finish before you will acknowledge women as equal? I hope not.

Don't worry though, Never...Calm Down! won't be pulled down like the TV show was, but it is a very short season so make sure you get down to the Melba Spiegeltent this weekend before it is gone.

4.5 Stars