Thursday, 29 September 2016

Deja Vu - Dance Review

What:  Deja Vu
Where:  The Meeting Room, Artshouse
When: 16 - 25 September
Devised and Performed by: Andi Snelling
Directed by: Danielle Cresp
Costume by: Victoria Haslam
Sound by: Caleb Garfinkel

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDI SNELLING

Deja Vu is the latest new work by creative team Andi Snelling and Danielle Cresp. Their first foray into collaboration was the hit show #DearDiary although this is their first non-text based production. Deja Vu is a natural progression for both these artists. Both Snelling and Cresp come from a dance background and Cresp has been teaching Snelling a form of physical theatre called Action Theatre. 

Action Theatre is a combination of mime and dance (which is clearly evident in the show) and was supposedly created by American performer Ruth Zaporah. It is one of those 'new' acting methods that Americans love to hybridize and then patent as some new approach to performance so they can take a place in history - and make money from unsuspecting performers. This probably sounds a bit cynical and I am sure the great mime artists and dancers of previous centuries are not turning in their graves whenever Zaporah claims invention. To get back on track, though, Cresp is an 'authorised' teacher of Action Theatre and Deja Vu embodies the practices and teachings of this method. 

Snelling is an amazing physical performer and her strength, flexibility, control and agility shine through in this performance. Unfortunately, it is not enough to hold the work together.

I worry about the current trend of people making shows based on some vague (and often quite small) idea and this is one of those shows. The idea came from a bike accident Snelling had and the sense of deja vu she purportedly had an hour earlier. This comes through in the opening sequence and whilst it was not anything I haven't seen before, Snelling's emergence on stage was well crafted with strong visual imagery and creative potential. This opening sequence was intriguing and even, dare I say, exciting?

Unfortunately this fell away all too quickly. Part of the problem is that there is no coherence to the piece, but more importantly the direction and sound design were appalling. After that initial sequence which held such promise, the rest of the performance was like attending an end of year dance school concert. Each piece of music was discreet with long pauses in between so that Snelling could reset and move into a new style and commentary. The breaks were overlong and every time they happened the audience was able to disconnect with the work. I actually began to wonder if I would know when the show was over the pauses was so long. Thank goodness they book ended the performance with a reprise of the opening sequence so it was obvious.

Add that to a lack of coherent journey and Deja Vu just became a time filler. In fact, about half way through this is what I started thinking. Most of this show felt as though it was created to get it up to the 45 minutes considered acceptable for a stand alone work.

There may be a case to be made that the work did not require a journey or narrative as such, but with so many gaps and so much of Snelling's time spent on stage just being her standing and looking at the audience or waiting for a sound cue it doesn't even meet the standards of being visceral or phenomenological, and it didn't have enough attitude to be Expressionist.

There were good moments and, in part, it was possible to see the influence of Forced Entertainment. In particular this was event in the chalkboard scene. At the end of this scene the final words left on the board were 'been seen'. I know that referred to the idea of deja vu, but for me it represented the whole show. I have seen all of it before elsewhere. Even the marionette scene - which was really very good - is something which has it's roots in #DearDiary.

Snelling is an amazing performer, and I have remarked on her skills before in the review I did of The Insomnia Project, but she needs to work with a collaborator of more depth and skill to get the most out of her talents and projects. Whilst I can't reccommend this show, I will say keep an eye out for Snelling because we will be seeing a lot more of her in the future.

2 Stars.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

She Dances - Circus Review

What: She Dances
Where: The Meatmarket - The Rabbit Hole
When: 15-18 September
Devised and Performed by: Dawn Pascoe

PHOTO COURTESY OF ENCORE PR

Melbourne is a city which absolutely thrives on circus arts. The home of companies such as Circus Oz and The Women's Circus just to name two of over 30 local troupes and the home of NICA, it takes a brave and accomplished artist to bring a new circus act to our audiences. Dawn Pascoe (Artistic Director of Perth company Natural Wings) is just such a soul and when I say she brings it, I mean she brings it!

Pascoe has brought her solo show She Dances to the Melbourne Fringe Festival this year. In the show she combines lyrical dance, clowning, diabolo, and aerial trapeze and the precision and mastery of all of those skills is evident in every moment she is on stage (or in the audience, as it turns out...). The extensions in her body lines demonstrate a rigorous classical dance training background, the muscle contours across her body show her strength, and the agility of her face is up with the best of Le Coq or Commedia artistes.

Circus artists have a tradition of avoiding narrative, but Pascoe faces it head on and perfectly matches the ideas in She Dances with her performance skills. There are a couple of different 'stories' on the internet about this show (it has been performed elsewhere) - one about a bridesmaid, another about finding your passion. You don't need to know any of them to enjoy the story. It is essentially the metaphor of the lifecycle of the butterfly. The feminist in me chose to interpret the piece as a release from the constraints of cultural expectations, but really any interpretation of metamorphosis will apply to this show.

We meet the clown first as Pascoe creeps onto the stage guiltily carrying a chocolate cake, looking suspiciously as though she has come home very, very late (or early) from a hard core night of partying. Her character is flawed and loveable, especially when she shares some cake in the audience. Pascoe journeys through a tale of tension between grace and imperfection, a struggle we can all relate to. 

Perhaps the weakest part of the show is the diabolo routine - not through any lack of skill, but it really is one of the least dazzling of the juggling apparatus so the energy of the show falls at this point. There was also a little too much exploration of the trapeze before she engaged with it for me. This is a staple technique for dancers with props but we are probably past the point in history when that exploration is exciting in itself. I kind of just wanted her to jump on and start doing stuff. 

When Pascoe did begin the trapeze work it was hilarious and challenging. I am by no means a circus aficionado, but she did some things I have never seen before and I love a show which gives me that.

She Dances is sweet, and fun with an important fable running through. The audience laughed - at times uproarously - and we were all spell bound by the beauty and fluidity of Pascoes shapes, lines, and grace. Fringe can be a hit and miss affair, but She Dances is definitely an experience which will make you smile.

4 Stars

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Edmund. The Beginning. - Theatre Review

What: Edmund. The Beginning
When: 10 – 22 November
Where: Arts House, Rehearsal Room
Written and Performed by: Brian Lipsom
Directed by: Peter Evans and Susie Dee
Costumes by: Brian Lipsom and Mel Page
Stage Management by: Hayley Fox



No-one can deny for a single moment that Brian Lipsom is not one of the most accomplished actors in Australia at the moment, and in his show Edmund. The Beginning we discover that he is a phenomenal wordsmith (or witsmith), with formidable performance making skills as well.  Edmund. The Beginning is being performed at Arts House in the Rehearsal Room.  Be warned, the show has a strict lockout. No latecomers!

Edmund. The Beginning is one of the densest works I have come across and yet it does not collapse under its own weight which is a phenomenal achievement.  This piece of theatre is not for the lay audient.  To have any means of entering it you really need to have a background in English literature and English theatre history. Without these, the layers and nuances and depths and complexities of Lipsom’s witticisms will be impenetrable. I feel I have a good foundation in these areas but I would not for a single moment assume I grasped anywhere near everything included and referenced.

In many ways, this is Lipsom’s intentions.  When Lipsom finally begins speaking (which is not the beginning of the performance and does not contain the beginnings of the witticisms which have already commenced through his costume and entrance and demeanour) we think he is himself, but it is revealed that he has taken on the persona of Daniel Brand.  Who Daniel Brand is, and how he fits into the construct of this work is revealed over time – yet never completely.

Brand/Lipsom talks about Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude the Obscure and in reference to the book, anoints himself ‘Daniel the Obscurer’.  He explains the pun on the word obscurer and its multiple levels of meaning and as the performance unfolds it becomes clear that Lipsom’s intention is to be clearly unclear for all definitions throughout.

It is also revealed (ambiguously) that the structure is essentially a great witticism as well.  Towards the end Lipsom talks about the show being an horary, but throughout – in his costume, in the episodes and how they are put together – he is evidently playing with the word orary (and possibly oratory). He also plays with the idea of the word mobile and oh so many others, it is hard to keep up.

The content of the work is superbly suited for Lipsom, with his classical English theatrical training shown at its best both in terms of content and also his personal performance strengths.  I love hearing classical English actors orate.  Nobody trains the actors voice the way the English do and it is always a pleasure to hear a master of his craft in this field perform.

Unfortunately, the utter anglo-centricity of Edmund. The Beginning is the very thing that makes it impenetrable and ultimately meaningless for me.  It has no meaning or context within Australian society today.

Woven into the threads of the work is Lipsom’s own story of being a young boy swept away by Pinter, and his removal to Australia later in life.  He draws linkages between Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund, Pinter’s son Daniel, and Sylvia Plath’s daughter Frieda (also an ex-pat now living in Australia) and himself. 

I didn’t understand the corollaries, nor the purpose for them.  If I had to guess I would say it is depression, or ‘gloom’ to which Lipsom refers at the end. Certainly I always find Thomas Hardy’s writing impenetrable because of its gloominess. Pinter became estranged from his son and Plath committed suicide so there is a definite linkage of gloom there.  Also, Plath’s legacy of confessional poetry influences the work heavily – another link.

My problem is it was just too hard.  I could congratulate myself and say I am better than everyone else because I ‘got’ much of it, but the truth is I don’t understand art that is not accessible or doesn’t appear to want to affect people.  I like the idea that this piece is for the highly skilled and specialised because sometimes we all need brain food, but I also need to be left questioning or examining something to really appreciate what I have seen.

Lipsom states in the work that in ‘his’ opinion art should be unexpected and inevitable.  For me the inevitability is missing – unless his whole point is that we all die... which is not unexpected.  I guess after sitting through it and working my brain at maximum, I just felt like I was left without anything in return.

Apart from very elaborate costuming and some somewhat ungainly props, Lipsom avoided technical theatrical elements. If it wasn’t for the costumery I would have called this Poor Theatre. The natural light entering the room (and a bit of overhead lighting as the sun went down) were all that was necessary, and his mobile phone created the sound source for playback moments (one of his non-verbal witticisms at work).

My favourite moment was when the sun was just dipping below the horizon and we sat in darkness and quiet in the room with Lipsom speaking in a gentle, hypnotic tone.  There was a grace and restfulness about this moment which was absolutely essential in the maelstrom of the detailed and complex performance.

Every actor in Melbourne should see Edmund. The Beginning and every English literature scholar as well.  It is a brilliant piece of theatre. I would not recommend it for the general public though. Not because they are too dumb to get it. More because it is a highly specialised piece and it could be detrimental to the lay person’s relationship with live theatre if they get lost right from the beginning (a very real possibility) – something none of us want to occur.


4 Stars

Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Insomnia Project - Theatre Review

What: The Insomnia Project
When: July 29 – August 9
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written, composed and directed by: Natasha Moszenin
Performed by: Anne Gasko, Jai Luke, Claire Nicholls, Fiona Scarlett, and Andi Snelling
Lighting by: Kate Kelly
Stage management by: Sarah Walker



Normally, whenever I see that a show has been written and directed by the same person I can’t help a little groan from escaping because in my experience it is almost impossible for a writer to step outside the work far enough to make the show a full experience for the audience.  The Insomnia Project, currently showing at La Mama Courthouse, is the exception the to rule.  Moszenin not only wrote and directed it, but she is also the composer and it is her understanding of musical composition which brings the sophistication and detail into her directing that is often lacking.

The Insomnia Project is a study of sleeplessness – the phenomenon, the experiences, the distress and frustration, and the treatments.  Anyone who has ever experienced insomnia will find themselves inside this difficult condition almost immediately.  The true genius of the show is its ability to viscerally replicate the sensations in the audience – which is also what makes the show something of a living nightmare and a belly laugh for those who have been there themselves.

Natasha is one of our most skilled and accomplished composers with an extraordinary amount of experience in theatrical arenas as well as scoring films and musical composition.  She is classically trained, but has a rich history in contemporary music and theatrical composition. 

The Insomnia Project loosely follows four people surviving an endless night of insomnia.  The funniest story line is played by Nicholls, who is spending the night at her parent’s house.  She can’t sleep, but also can’t do anything because everyone else in the house is asleep so she can’t make noise.

Snelling demonstrates an amazing understanding of her physical body in space as she replicates a zombie, and those scarey late night shadows, clinging to floors and walls in her torturous everlasting night. Scarlett has an amazing vocal texture, and her classically trained voice haunts the early hours of the morning with its hypnotic texture. 

The show is a series of songs, but I wouldn’t call it a musical.  It is more music theatre than musical theatre. 

Moszenin has a love of jazz, and that freestyle form litters the construction of the show in an intriguing and unpredictable manner.  Kelly manages to mimic this in her lighting design, teasing us with suggestions that things will happen but then revealing the truth cleverly.

The Insomnia Project is musically intriguing, and whilst the cast do suffer from some pitchiness which, I suspect, prevented Moszenin from giving the vocals the creativity that was possible, the big reveal of the night was Moszenin’s talent for directing. What she demonstrated was not just a flair for dramatic construction, but also an understanding of the body in the space, and sound in the space.

When you watch The Insomnia Project you are seeing a complete and unrelenting study which engages all of the senses.  It has humour, pathos, despair, and frustration – everything you want in a good night of theatre. 

Apart from engaging this range of emotions, Moszenin engages all of our senses.  To do this she uses light, movement, zones, music, sounds, text…probably the only sense not engages is smell.

On a more serious note, this show is not just a study for the sake of it.  There is commentary as the various characters search for escape. 

Some try alcohol, some try repetitive tasks, some try forcing themselves to sleep.  Eventually the topic of medically assisted sleep is touched on.

Moszenin goes through four popular products used to assist sleep including side effects and cautions.  Whilst this could get mired in tedium and repetition, Moszenin uses musical techniques of repetition, progression and call and response to lift it out of the banal and make the messages clear and also just a little bit of fun without being inappropriate or trivialising the issues.

The Insomnia Project is a truly unique work and one of the really outstanding shows this year.  Moszenin is a theatrical genius and I suspect we shall she her working on main stages in the very near future.


4.5 Stars

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Longevity - Theatre Review

What: Longevity
Where: The Owl and Cat Theatre
When: 30 August - 2 September
Written and Directed by: Thomas Ian Doyle
Performed by: Brayden Lewtas, Fiona Scarlett, and Bee Townsend

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OWL AND CAT THEATRE

Thomas Ian Doyle is not only the writer of the brand new play Longevity, but he is also the Artistic Director of the Owl and Cat Theatre. Some may assume this gives his work privileged access, but the continued quality and originality of Doyle's writing speaks for itself in taking pride of place in this venue which only produces world premiers. His new play, currently being performed, is another outstanding example of his ability to focus in on the integral interactions of human beings with a laser beam of honesty and curiousity, with lots of intriguing twists and turns.

I haven't seen a lot of Doyle's work, but what he has a reputation for taking risks, breaking moulds, and having the audience step out of the box. His 2014 show Plastic Tree was performed over 12 days, and last year the show Bordello was a masterful success, putting the audience in the role of voyeur as they journeyed around the venue at will, discovering the fraught world of love, sex, and commerce.

Longevity is surprisingly conventional in its structure and presentation, but it packs a wallop you won't see coming. It is, essentially, a play about love - chasing love, falling in love, and living in love. This may sound banal, but there is nothing banal in what Doyle has created. Three people tied up in tangles, all talking about being honest with each other, and none of them managing to do so.

The most insightful moment in the play is when Juliet (Scarlett) tells Jess (Lewtas) 'Love isn't a photo in your pocket'. What she is talking about is love being a changing, morphing experience. It can't be held in one place, or one shape, or one moment, that sexuality and relationships are fluid and morphous. If only she would listen to her own words...

The actors are wonderful, which is demonstrated by Doyle's sparse staging. There is no set and only minimal props. There are no chairs for them to sit on, or tables for them to place things on or lean against. It is just the actors standing with each other, reacting to each other, and telling this story about fascinating relationships. 

This leanness of direction is the perfect compliment to Doyle's leanness of writing. There is no excess fat in this script. It is fragmentary and yet full at the same time. The only bit of augmentation is an ongoing video tape of a foetus evolving from mitosis through the development of the head, the heart, and the limbs. This biological process mirrors the development of the relationships of the story and is a simple, yet most effective compliment to what is happening in the world on the stage.

Doyle is truly a masterful and inventive theatre maker who knows his craft and is developing a unique and impressive portfolio. Cancel everything you have on tonight and go and see Longevity before it closes.

4.5 Stars



Bordello - Theatre Review

What: Bordello
When: Oct 13 – 17
Where: The Owl and Cat Theatre
Created by: Gabrielle Savrone and Thomas Ian Doyle



Bordello is dark and dirty and sexy and funny.  This style of performance making is a new direction for Theatre owners Savronne and Doyle, and I have to say that it is a stunningly clever interpretation of the building and its possibilities.

The Owl and Cat is a repurposed shop front terrace style building, the kind found all over the older suburbs of Melbourne.  In its usual configuration the ground floor is the theatre and the bar, level two is the green room, dressing room and office, and to be honest, I didn’t even realise there was a third floor garret.

For the next few days, though, The Owl and Cat is a smoky bordello oozing sex and seething with intrigue, unrequited love, and sex triangles…or maybe they are sex hectagons? Played with a nuanced melodrama, and performed as structured improvisation over the course of an hour, the audience is permitted to roam at will around the venue to create their own experience of the story.

Unfortunately there is no program, so I can’t tell you who the actors are, but the characters they portray are clearly defined and progress through the evening with clearly defined objectives. The performances are not all at the same level, but this degree of unstructured performance would challenge even the best in the craft.

The energy of the show is driven by the three ‘working’ girls; Trisha, Frankie, and Cherry.  Trisha is a whirlwind of energy (and a swindler), Frankie is a tortured soul looking for love, and Cherry is very funny and witty but also very damaged and afraid of love. They are managed by the imperious madam Yvonne, who is in the middle of a divorce from David who has been seeing Frankie. Harry is madly in love with Cherry, and Matthew just wants his money’s worth.

This is not a ‘build your own adventure’ event.  It is more like ‘choose your own order of scenes’ experience.  You can wander anywhere, anytime across all three levels and see what is going on and watch the story unfold.  You can choose to follow a particular character, or (as I did) flit from room to room and scene to scene to construct a mosaic of images and extracts which form the full picture.  Either way, you will get the complete story. 

This is the genius of the construction of Bordello.  The actors are carefully clear in constantly telling us who they are talking about and who has just walked in the room which is important because they move and we move, so it is easy to get confused.

The temptation is to follow the action and the loudest voices but I found myself enjoying the moments when actors were alone.  The audience are handed masques to wear throughout the performance, and this is a parallel to the idea that we all wear masks in public. 

When the actors were alone though, I felt as though they were removing their masks and I could get a glimpse at the real depths of pain and despair and loss and confusion they were experiencing. This was a moment of intimacy between me and them which I would never be able to experience in a normal theatrical setting.

As I walked through the performance, I found myself imagining I was a camera and I was constructing my own movie from an existing set of elements: The divorce papers being signed; the illicit kiss between Trisha and Frankie; Matthew taking a shower (yes there is nudity); Harry nervously pacing as he prepares to propose…  The material is all there for the taking, all we have to do is gather it all in our own unique ways.

Savronne and Doyle have created an extremely clever and funny and sexy piece of immersive theatre which is incredibly well suited to this transitional season of hot weather and the old, worn ambience of the venue.  We sweat under the masks just as you would in a South American whore house.

One word of warning – wear safe, comfortable shoes.  There are three levels and it is all stairs. You will go up and down the staircases a number of times, so ditch the heels and go for trainers instead.  Also, if you have contact lenses wear them instead of your glasses because the masques can be tricky otherwise.

Bordello will be one of the most intriguing nights of theatre you experience this year with an innovation and energy that is unique and exciting. Hurry up and book though. It is only on until Saturday and the house is strictly limited to 20 people per show.


4 Stars

The Last Brunch - Theatre Review

What: The Last Brunch
Where: The Studio - Gasworks Arts Park
When: 31 August - 3 September
Written and Directed by: Ben Dowthwaite
Performed by: Mathew Arter, Elizabeth Brennan, Jay haggett, Aidan Niarros, Ben Paine, Patrick Shields, and Jeff Wortman.
Set by; Robert Nightingale
Costumes by: Caillan Souter

MATHEW ARTER, PARTICK SHIELDS, AIDON NIARROS

Stage 6 are a new Victorian theatre company established by Dowthwaite and Arter from a working relationship begun during their studies at Deakin University. The Last Brunch is their second venture, (following Deux Ex Machina which is being restage as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival this year), and continues Dowthwaite's curiosity about the mythos and ritual surrounding religion. The show is currently on at Gasworks in their Studio space.

Dowthwaite has directed this play as well has having written it. I usually rail at this combination because I feel playwrights have difficulty seeing their work with an outside eye. In this case, I think it is a really good idea. Dowthwaite does not have the craft of writing developed enough to be able to hand over his ideas to another person yet. 

The ideas in The Last Brunch are intriguing and strong, but it is the direction and collaboration with the actors which give the story it's life and nuance. There aren't really any rules on how many times 'The Chosen One' can be said before the audience are turned into homicidal maniacs, but if we consider our reactions nowadays to 'stop the boats' you may get a sense of where that line might be, and I think a world record is broken with the use of 'um' and 'er'...

The play deals with important concepts, questioning religion and cults. It asks whether there is a difference, if and why one might be better than the other, how seemingly normal people can become involved, and how contradictions between tenet and reality can be explained. There is much visual humour, with aesthetic nods to da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' as well as a not so subtle stabs at sects such as Scientology. Questions are asked about sanity, madness, gullibility, coercion and corruption: Heavy concepts, yet delivered (for the most part) in a lighthearted and funny evening of jabs, jibes, and jests.

The real heart of The Last Brunch lies in the wonderful ensemble work of the actors. Everyone holds their own in this group of seven, with each character (named after peripheral characters in the Christ story) well developed by the performers. This group of seven, in a smallish acting space, manage to achieve a synergy where every member of the troupe have created characters of great detail and individuality, and none of them drop out for even a single moment.

I am reluctant to pick anyone out because they are all so good but Haggett (Judas) is a craic from start to finish, Arter (Andrew) keeps the energy high and has comic timing to die for, and Brennan (Mary) is mesmerising. It is her amazing gift which allows the one truly horrific moment of story telling to blaze and makes what is generally a light hearted romp tear deep into the soul with a reality almost too painful to experience. This is also the moment Dowthwaite's directing shines as he takes this revelation as far as it can be sustained before it rips the show apart, then brings us all back to calmer waters. Who would have thought a Hamletesque ending would be considered calmer waters?

Niarros as doubting Thomas is beautifully crafted and Shields (James) is a star in the making. He needs to develop vocally, but here is an actor to watch as he develops his craft. Paine (Peter) does a fine job of  controlling the action. Wortman (Simon) probably had the hardest job of all and did a mighty job with a character who probably shouldn't even be in the play. There is little context, need, or script for this character and making him stand out visually as Souter has done just makes this so much more obvious. 

The Last Brunch is a fun night of theatre. It lacks the depth of writing to take it where it needs to go, but the actors are fun to watch and the directing is really strong.

3 Stars