Friday, 19 July 2019

Once Upon A Drag Storytime - Theatre Review

What: Once Upon A Drag Storytime
When: 13 July 2019
Where: Footscray Community Arts Centre Theatre
Created and performed by: Po Po Mo Co
The Blokes
Good friends of Hares and Hyenas book shop, Po Po Mo Co decided to create a show for children for this school holiday period and thus was born Once Upon A Drag Storytime, presented at FCAC. Featuring the reading of three current popular books for toddlers, this queer performance troupe brought queer storytelling to life on stage.

Po Po Mo Co is a short-hand version of post post modern company. If post-modernism is anything goes, then post post modernism is anything goes with a queer bent and a lot of fun for Po Po Mo Co who describe their style as neo-vaudevillian physical theatre.

One set of regular characters in this troupe are The Blokes. Gavin, Keith and Mark make regular appearances on the cabaret circuit. Decked out in lurid 80's male drag, this comedy trio have a ball and (surprisingly) have a good sense of rhythm which they always put on show. I always love their Fosse-esque routines which are full of (?) and blokey bravado.

In Once Upon A Drag Storytime The Blokes have decided to read their three favourite story books and beef them up with some song, dance, and puppetry. The books include Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz, Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love, King And King by Linda de Haan.

It is at this point we all can agree I was not the target audience for this show - by many decades in fact - but luckily for me the room was filled with little humans from ages 0 and up and I got to watch them laugh and squirm and dance along. They had a great time and The Blokes interacted well with them.

I am guessing if I were a kid I would say this show was 10 hundred out of 10. As an adult, however, I have my reservations. One of my biggest issues (and one which will be very controversial) is I didn't like the first two books.

I have had the opportunity to read many kids books in my life and I do not think Feminist Baby or Julian Is A Mermaid are very well written although I do like their ideas. I couldn't figure out what it was that made this baby a feminist (although I believe there is a range of Feminist Baby comics and books which probably exemplify feminism better) and Julian Is A Mermaid is all pictures and very little story. I really did enjoy King And King though.

After the first book Po Po Mo Co indulge is some black theatre puppetry and three puppet babies mime along to Joan Jett's Bad Reputation. This was my first moment of concern. I found myself wondering about the age appropriateness of the lyrics - and also I wondered about whether the pop references were too old for this audience.

A magical fish light puppet made it's way across stage during Julian and it livened up the room as pages lacking dialogue where flicked past. Obviously the books were too small to be seen by the entire audience, but the puppet walked past the young'uns on the cushions in front and got them excited and invited interaction which was great.

Kieth and Mark acted out King And King and even threw in a Dirty Dancing lift but again, I found myself wondering if that reference is just to old. This was one of the quietest moments for the kids in the audience and I suspect it is because they didn't really understand what was going on.

It was the end of Once Upon A Drag Storytime which really shocked me and had me questioning the age appropriateness of the show though. The show culminates with the appearance of burlesque star Rosy Cheeks. She sings an entire song but let me just point out her lips where not properly placed and I just don't know what this act was meant to be telling the children. It is one thing to familiarise them with queerness, it is a whole other thing to sexualise the proceedings.

Luckily the kids seemed to just recognise a bare bum and laughed. Most of the parents laughed along too - obviously it was a sympathetic audience - but one or two dads in particularl appeared to be struggling to find the funny side in the moment. Perhaps if it was a quicker appearance I would have laughed to but to be honest, it really did feel like the song lasted forever and those lips needed to be a little bit higher. This is all I have to say about that...

I love the ideas behind Once Upon A Drag Storytime, and queer books needs to be included in the general reading material of the entire population. I think on this occassion though, Po Po Mo Co should have tempered their adult aesthetics a bit and they probably need to update their cultural references for an audience this young.

2 Stars

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Bacchae (Parts 1 & 2) - Theatre Review

What: The Bacchae (Parts 1 & 2)
When: 10 - 21 July 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and directed by: Robert Reid
Musical direction by: Kelly Wilson
Performed by: Zainab Abdul, MelanieBeddie, Casey Bohan, Georgina Bright, Madeleine Brown, Peita Collard, Amanda Dhammanarachchi, Elena Fanaratis, Mia Fine, Jess Gonzalves, Ellen Grimshaw, Caitlin Harry, Jessica Hayden, Eleanor Howlett, Tijen Inmak, Sharon Kershaw, Baria Khan, Carissa Lee, Gillian Lee, Audrey Li, Gemma Livingstone, Tess Luminati, Ellen Ma, Celina Mack, Kerith Sefton, Manderson-Galvin, Bianca Montagner, Roxana Paun-Trifan, Freya Pragt, Yoni Prior, Chelsea Rabl, Xanthe Shamita Sivabaian, Felicity Steele, Alice Stewart, G Ulrich, and Kathryn Yates
Set by: Jason Lehane
Stage Managed by: Caitie Murphy
Chelsea Rabl and Chorus - photo by Aleks Corke
I knew I was in for a long haul when I decided to see both Parts 1 and 2 of The Bacchae at La Mama on the same day but to be honest, I was not expecting it to be the endurance test it was. Framed by the Euripides play of the the same name, Reid has interwoven 20th century American history through the loom built by the Ancient Greeks.

Billed as a "fierce retellling" of partriarchal story telling, around forty women were meant to take centre stage in a Schechnerian performance of reclamation. There is truly a stage full of women, but there is no reclamation in this particular set of performances. These women are merely playing men and telling the stories of men - from Aeschylus (Manderson-Galvin) and Pentheus (Howlett) to Charles Manson (Lee), the SLA and Schechner (Manderson-Galvin) himself.

In theory, and using the deconstructed theatre methods you will most likely associate with companies such as The Wooster Group (the heir to Schechner's The Performance Group), Reid has woven the characters and story lines of famous 20th century acts of revolt - most of which have been led by men but have dragged women (the bacchae to their Dionysus) to their doom. Given the venue - the Courthouse theatre - there was no ability to engage with Schechner's ideas on environmental theatre (which is basically an ethos which says put the audience inside the set), Reid has gone back a few steps and presents The Bacchae as Poor Theatre which the size of the cast probably demands.

One comment I will make is Poor Theatre strips away all of theatre's excesses but it does not mean throw away all sense of aesthetic and unfortunately The Bacchae does exactly that. Barely one synapse seems to have been expended on the concept that everything on stage is a sign or symbol and points to something.

There is blue canvas on the floor and I can only think it is so the Chorus stand out in their theatre school black outfits but I could find no further relevance. There is something to be said for the uniformity of the blacks but this is completely countermanded by the lack of consistency of style or the use (or lack there of) of makeup. I then find myself thinking why bother with the concept of house lights if the show is just a open white wash? I do admit, the boredom and disappointment of this was probably emphasised because I had to endure it over 4 hours (not including the long dinner break between Parts 1 & 2).

Before I go further I want to say I was very impressed with all of the performers. I can't possibly speak to everybody in this review but I can say Howlett was an incredibly strong and powerful Pentheus, Manderson-Galvin had the Schechner hand gestures down pat, Beddie was a fiery Fury, and Lee was an oddly intriguing Manson. All of the chorus - when they had individual lines and cameos - commanded their words and space, and there was almost no flagging of energy from the first moment of Part 1 at 5pm to the final moment of Part 2 close to 11pm regardless of the disparities in acting traning and experience.

As good as they were though, the faults in this work are myriad and fall to both the construction/dramaturgy and the direction. Deconstructed theatre is becoming a bit old hat now and even Schechner himself has said he could see a time when "performance is" will constrict back from the anything goes era he emerged into and helped define. I think we are there now.

Everything about this production seemed outdated to me. The place for Poor Theatre is questionable now with technologies and skills so available and low cost. The shock and awe of juxtaposing old stories with modern events has now been incorporated into modern writing and directing and has much more sophistication and affect than before. Collage is one of those techniques which evolved in the modernist era. It took Post Modernism to bring it to the stage but now we enter the Post Truth era and its time feels like it is done now.

Regardless of style I question why I should even care about the subjects presented in this play. From the Ancient Greeks to the 20th Century Americans - what does this have to do with me today in Australia? Reid's history of writings shows he does have a fascination with America but I really don't care. There is so much of the world and history to choose from - especially our own. Why do we need to rehash Manson and Patty Hearst and the anti-Vietnam protests in Ohio?

The fact that I am asking these questions is less a demonstration of my lack of awareness and more of an indication in the gaping hole in the dramaturgy of The Bacchae. I am a woman. I should care about this play, but I just don't.

Unfortunately Reid's direction doesn't save it either. The pace of the whole four hours plods along like an annoying metronome set to 4/4 time. The collage is stuck together with sticky tape but the ends don't meet and there are a lot of places where someone spilled water on the page and all of the words run into each other so that meaning is lost rather than heightened.

The text is entirely expository. You could be forgiven for thinking The Bacchae is a lecture rather than a play/performance. I have always been a fan of a bit of exposition, but I do like a bit of dramatic action in between. Can you believe I just said that???

Riffing off Schechner's Dionysis in 69, I guess I expected a lot from The Bacchae. It was probably never going to live up to my expectations. What I didn't expect was such a clear illustration of how theatre has moved on from these celebrated techniques of the 20th Century. Just as the source material is foreign and from the past, so are the performance tools used in this production.

2 Stars

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Work It: New Manifestos - Event Review

What: Work It - New Manifestos
When: 12 July 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Presented by: DJ Abyss, Fay Bendrups, Candy Bowers, Simona Castricum, Maude Davey, Emma Edwardes, Jamaica, Jess Knight, Lay the Mystic, Akec Makur Chuot, Alice Pung, and Sheree Stewart
Candy Bowers and DJ Abyss
One of the exciting new innovations Emily Sexton has brought with her brand of programming at Arts House is a public forum for community and artistic manifestos. The first iteration, First Dance, was presented as a low key affair as part of Dance Massive. The success of that event has led to the current presentation of Work It: New Manifestos which was curated and presented by one of our most powerful artists, Bowers.

The list of amazing femme artists and organisers which crossed our stage is an expanded program. What was 8 in the original was 12 in Work It. 12 strong and passionate femme perspectives took centre stage to tell the world what we want and how we are going to get it. What stood before us and spoke to us were voices of freedom and hope. With those voices came a vision and a plan - a plan which will work if only we would make the space for them to happen.

In a program switch which proved to be poignant and potent, the night began with Pilepileta (Stewart), a midwife and performer. Pilepileta had to speak first as she literally had to run to bring a new life into the world and she asked us to make a space for this returning spirit. Before she left she encourages us to engage in a loud and joyous chant of welcome for this newest member of our community.

Bowers then came on stage to welcome us into this space of truth telling. A nature goddess herself, Bowers had ensured the hall was filled with fragrant flowers and encouraged us to partake of their pleasing aroma across the evening - the lavender, the peonies, the silver princesses... Then she brought her power as her list of demands were laid down: 1. If you don't respect my existence, expect my resistance; 2. Women don't owe you shit; 3. Bite my thighs; and finally, 4. Decolonise and moisturise. She left us with the mantra for the evening - "Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

Pung, writer and lawyer, talked to us about how hurtful 15 year old girls can be. You know the ones - they are vegan and believe in climate change, but don't you dare have a mixed race relationship because that is fair game for teasing and harassment! When asked by a young girl when the racism would stop her reply was simple. It probably won't, but you will develop a resistance and you will eventually find your own tribe. "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

Castricum is a musician and architect. Castricum performed her pop dance piece Carry The Weight. Singing to a backing tape and playing the snare the auditorium filled with lyrics such as "Generations - they carry pain, Did you think they have no right to complain?' Li'l Mama (Edwardes), life coach, then powered on to the stage trying to soothe a baby to sleep before launching into an energetic (and almost physically impossible?) dance routine. The t-shirt over her leotards read 'Own Your Power' and own it she did as she did an amazing dance routine - a lot of it standing on her head! "Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

In a programming coup, Bowers invited Bedrups to speak to us about humanitarian initiatives and what hopes and plans she has for how Australia might cope with emergencies - basically by acting like a real community. Bedrups is with the SES and she spoke of her research into emergency control in Peru. The lesson she would like us to learn and process she would like us to adopt is a revolution where emergency management is taken back from the beaurocrats and put back in the hands of the community. Take lessons from initiatives such as Neighbourhood Watch. Have street parties and assign roles to everyone who lives there. Run your own local drills. Identify the people around you who might need a little extra help and work out who will take that on. Keep it fun, keep it light, keep it in the forefront of everyone's mind, keep it in the community. "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

Makur Chuot was one of our pioneer AFLW players and is now one of their Multicultural Development Officers. Makur Chuot spoke about the experience of spending the first 11 years of her life in a refugee camp and the despair and hopelessness which comes of that. She also speaks of her first experience of racism in Australia. It was the moment she first realised "my skin was going to be a problem." Crossing a road a man yelled out to her, "You black sluts...go back to where you came from." There was more but I can't bring myself to write it. I am too ashamed."Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

Jamaica, Sydney-based rapper, then bounded on to the stage and took us lyric by lyric through the meaning of their anthemic song but not before Bowers and DJ Abyss reinterpreted the misogynistic lyrics of a well known rapper, creating a more polite rendering of courtship. One of the points Jamaica was making though, was to find your tribe because when you have a group you are stronger. The song breaks down the daily struggles of being a queer person of colour and the sentiments reflect Bowers' manifesto - "The one's who don't respect you don't get respect back." "Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

Next on stage was Knight and her diminutive stature was no indication of the amount of insight and humour she would bring to us all. Knight talked about the repression of growing up Mormon. She regaled us with the doctrine of a woman's body being a gift to be unwrapped by her husband on the wedding night and how any exploration or enjoyment of before that moment was an untenable sin. As she discovered in her liberated 20s though, "Nobody fucks me like me!" Knight is now an apostate as she long ago came to the realisation that "Everything fun makes God sad." "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

DJ Abyss (3CR) took the opportunity to speak to us through her music selections with lyrics such as "You don't like pussy with power" before the stage was colonised by the powerful essence of Davey. Davey spoke to us as a middle-aged white women who is by default complicit in all the things that are killing our people, our society, and our world. "The world is dying - or is it just me?" Davey talks about her shame in what we have done and her dreams to catch up on all the things she has missed in the mists of colonial living. Things like learning an Aboriginal language for example. Aware of the smaller half of her life left to live and the time running out for catch ups she drives it home with a final "The world is dying - or is it just us?" "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

This evening of wanderers and warriors was brought to a close with Lay the Mystic. Lay brought their lyrical poetry and talked about all the shapes they carry inside their, how they are a hybrid set of stories. They talked abut how "My mothers all gifted me and my body" and asks us not to call them a woman because it mispronounces who they are. The point: "Nobody is ever experiencing one thing at a time." "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

Work It: New Manifestos was an intelligent and exciting night of femme perspective, femme hope, femme despair, and femme vision. Pain was spoken to - the pain of people, of communities, of old ideas. More importantly though, it was a hope for the future and a plan to go with that hope which was the overwhelming message. The other key point was it is time for us to clear the decks because as Pilepileta so poignantly brought into focus "You mob all make space because the next generation is comin'!"

4.5 Stars

Monday, 8 July 2019

I Hope It's Not Raining In London - Theatre Review

What: I Hope It's Not Raining In London
When: 8 - 13 July 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written by: Nicholas Thoroughgood
Directed by: Riley McLean
Performed by: Daniel Cottier, Cassie Hamilton, Nicholas Thoroughgood, and Zoe Walker
Cassie Hamilton and Nicholas Thoroughgood
It seems playwrights are getting all existential again a century after the first time around. In a world leaning more and more into proto-fascism it is not surprising, I suppose, that artists are once more questioning meaning and purpose in life. The latest - and very worthy - production to worship at the feet of Beckett is I Hope It's Not Raining In London playing at The Butterfly Club this week.

A rash of plays have come onto Melbourne stages over the last year or so which espouse a lineage to the Absurdists of the 20th Century - Q, Two Animals, and most recently Two On The Night Train for example. As the latest entry into this arena, I Hope It's Not Raining In London is one of the more successful attempts and is quite a thrilling hour of theatre.

Unsurprisingly, Thoroughgood found himself inspired by Waiting For Godot, and this play began as a 2-hander. All of the publicity talks about it in this manner - 2 characters, One and Other, who find themselves in a room. They have no memory but boxes keep appearing and they slowing piece together memory fragments as the play progresses. In this regard it is perhaps more of a reference to Act Without Words - except that it has words of course.

The four cast are meant to rotate through the two roles randomly across the season which is quite clever. On opening night in Melbourne Cottier was playing One and Thoroughgood was playing Other. I assume the play has evolved over the course of the tour though, because both Hamilton and Walker performed in cameos of mothers and girlfriend which makes the play more logical but takes it way off track as an absurdist work.

Having said that, in this configuration the casting is gender normative which settles the text and action too firmly in realism. In other rotations, and assuming the text (which has a male gender bias for One and Other and a female bias for the rest of the characters) doesn't change, the whole thing might unsettle into an intriguing world of discognition and curiosity which might be quite intriguing.

In the program notes Thoroughgood talks about his confusion with the existential aspect of Theatre of the Absurd and his confusion about Nihilism versus Existentialism. His intention was to explore both in I Hope It's Not Raining In London. He does, however, also speak of the realism and authenticity of the acting and this is where the style has gone wrong and why it comes across as a realist non-linear narration dressed in an existential overcoat.

An essential element of Theatre of the Absurd is to also question the existentiality of language. Thoroughgood has not played in this arena. He uses proper words, sentence structure and dramatic action and the two main characters find a trajectory rather than just being lost in a loop.

Do not take this detour as any kind of indication that I Hope It's Not Raining In London is not a great piece of theatre. The acting is wonderful overall and Thoroughgood is an incredibly dynamic actor. Between that and McLean's clever and, at times, shocking staging the show becomes confrontingly visceral. Trigger warning: This show contains graphic replications of self-harm! And blood. Lots and lots of (fake) blood.

I Hope It's Not Raining In London is a fascinating tale of two people (men?) who are trying to work out who they are, where they are, and why they are there. Their journeys are at different stages. One has been searching longer than Other, but does his experience help or hinder Other in his quest and does Other's arrival move One further along his path or drag him backwards? These are the questions which can only be answered if you enter the room with them at The Butterfly Club.

4 Stars

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest - Theatre Review

What: The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest
When: 3 - 7 July 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Matthew Crosby
Performed by: Matthew Crosby, Kathleen Doyle, Eidann Glover, Alana Hoggart, Lorna McLeod, and Rodrigo Calderon Tobar
Set by: Noriko Ikaga

Rodrigo Calderon Tobar and Kathleen Doyle - photo by Oscar Socias

In a situation where there is no false advertising at all, The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is, indeed, very intriguing. Playing at La Mama Courthouse for this week only, it is probably best described as an anime/noir fusion. There are only a few tickets left for the final performance though, so book now or miss out on one of the most...intriguing pieces of theatre produced recently.

The ensemble putting on this murder mystery evening call themselves The Thursday Group because they meet on Thursdays to engage with the practice of Suzuki Method of Actor Training. All of the performers in this group have an extensive background in Asian theatre forms generally, and Crosby and Doyle in particular have engaged with the home of this method, SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga). There is always a lot of interest and curiosity about the Suzuki method and you won't see a better example of how it translates into performance in Melbourne for a very long time I suspect.

I did train with this group for a short while a few years ago now. The Suzuki Method is tough, disciplined, and comes from a deep and strong methodology which literally emerges from your core and is solidly grounded in your feet. This is evidenced in the planar tableaux created throughout Silent Forest.

The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is a murder mystery which reveals domestic tragedy. A young girl, Mary (Hoggart), is found dead and Detective Rob (Crosby) is trying to find information about her older sister Josephine (Doyle). What emerges is a tale of sad and horrifying domestic child abuse.

As the play moves forward across around an hour and a half, what is perhaps the most intriguing aspects of this work is its focus on Josephine and the issue of secondary trauma. Most tales of this sort tend to be about the target, but the insight of Silent Forest will start many new conversations around this issue.

Crosby is a very lyrical writer and I think the text indicates he is a phenomenologist. I guess you could say The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is well and truly at home within the world of Expressionism - it is subjective, focuses on one main character, and is the world of nightmares and whispers and secrets. Why does Josephine go into the forest? And why is the forest so quiet? Every scene and every word, every description is designed to evoke a visceral response.

I said at the start this play is a kind of anime/noir.  By that I mean it encompasses all of the tropes of both. Noir films always have murder at their base, shadowy aesthetics and ethics, and tropes you can't help but trip over. Anime has cartoonish figures, world ending devastation, and random moments of unexpected humour sometimes with elements that have no apparent functional purpose. As an example of this I am talking about the comic penguin in Neon Genesis Evangelion perhaps. The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest has all of that and will leave you guessing what it is about and what has been going on until the very last moments.

Those who enjoy stylised theatrical techniques such as Commedia dell'Arte will get a real kick out of this show. At the core of Suzuki character creation process is identifying the characters walk and developing character and tableaux from a technique called statues. The Suzuki method is not as prescribed as Commedia - the characters are found through exploration - but the similarities are clear, with a strong emphasis on what Brecht called gestus.

Suzuki is a presentational style of performance and its clearly Asian aesthetic makes it strange to us, but not impenetrable. Even the lilt and rhythm of character's speech is developed from the core of the actor so that the very normal (and beautiful) words Crosby has written become strange and unsettling whilst also inviting us to lean and listen just that little bit harder.

The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is a powerful work created by true masters of their craft. Doyle is mindblowingly fantastic and terrifying and piteous as the lost little girl/monster and Detective Rob (Crosby) is funny yet sincere. He is the Everyman and together we try and work our way through the brambles and bushes of this hidden tale. As happens with all dark and shadowy glades, we do get lost but the rest of the ensemble are the lamps which light our way out of the darkness.

4 Stars