Sunday 28 May 2017

Crush - Theatre Review

What: Crush
When: 22 May - 2 June 2017
Where: The Owl and Cat Theatre
Written by: Rob Young
Directed by: Isobel Sommers
Performed by: Mardi Edge, Seb Muirhead, and Fiona Scarlett
Sound by: MBRYO

Seb Muirhead and Mardi Edge
Crush is the last show in The Owl and Cat Theatre's 'Storm In Cup' season. A fast paced comic drama, the choice is strong after a season of serious dramas and traumatic topics which, whilst important conversations for us to have, has at times been gruelling emotionally.

As enjoyable as Crush is, it is a surprising inclusion to The Owl and Cat program given they pride themselves in only producing world premier plays. I say this because whilst it is true this script has been adapted for Melbourne (Young resides in the UK), the play originally debuted in 2011 in Finsborough. It will be interesting to see if this is a change of direction for The Owl and Cat or just an aberation in their usual programming paradigm.

It is a bit unfortunate for first time director Sommers that this show has been performed previously because it adds to the pressure of living up to whatever commentary came with the original production. In this case, reviews of the original production speak of a a fast paced comedy with a good dose of prop humour and physical hijinks.

Crush is a very wordy play and written in a narrative soliloquy style and because of the length of the monologues it really does beg for physical movement to bring out the comedy and dilute the cynicism. Sommers' Crush is very static, with the actors spending most of the first half of the play sitting behind desks typing away. It is a very filmic interpretation for a script which would lend itself to being a movie, but good film does not make good theatre.

The premise is a simple and effective one. An unsuccessful newspaper with a small staff creates a hothouse environment just ripe for a love triangle. Celia (Edge) is the editor who is having an affair with a character we never see but does have a presence on stage. Johnny (Muirhead) has an unrequited crush on her. Celia knows this and toys with him like a cat and a ball of string.

One day the receptionist disappears and a temp takes her place. Laura (Scarlett) is a stereotypical bombshell and Scarlett milks her entrance for all it's worth. As soon as she comes on stage she stamps the show with her presence just as Laura stamps the office - nobody will ever be the same again.

There is so much potential for off-script interactions and byplay - especially between the women - but the staging just doesn't give them a chance. The set is quite breathtaking as you enter the theatre, but the stage space is completely taken up by three desks and the cast struggle to come forward and truly connect with the audience because the desks form a barrier they just can't free themselves from.

It also made the playing space safe for the actors. The comfort of desks and modesty screens meant they are never at risk until the very end. Safety, comfort and relaxation really took the edge off Muirhead's performance although Edge and Scarlett stay fully invested.

Scarlett is breathtaking and consumate performer understanding how to use her body and her space to perfection where she can. Edge also maintains the tension and intention of her role throughout the whole performance.

The true genius of this production - and the element which keeps us connected to the comic elements - is the sound design by MBRYO. The comedy just leaps every time the sound is triggered and sets the mood perfectly. Yes, there is cliche, but comedy only works with cliche and that is the brilliance of the choices.

This production of Crush is slick and pacy and a great debut for Sommers as a director. Comedy is one of the most difficult forms though and there is still a lot she has yet to learn. This production is a really fantastic starting point even if it is not the laugh-a-minute it could be. Crush is a fun night out with an ending to rival The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense. No spoilers from me!

3 stars

Saturday 27 May 2017

Dialogue In The Dark - Event Review

What: Dialogue In The Dark
When: From 2 June 2017
Where: Harbour Town Shopping Plaza

Dialogue in the Dark
Dialogue In The Dark is a fabulous immersive experience which has been inspiring the world since 1998. Guide Dogs Australia has taken the initiative and has finally brought this 'edutainment' installation to Melbourne, making it's home Harbour Town.

Dialogue In The Dark is a permanent exhibition and I guarantee you will want to go again and again and bring all your friends and family too. Unlike such attractions as the Eureka Skydeck, Dialogue In The Dark is an immersive event which lasts approximately an hour and excites all your senses in a fun and thrilling adventure as you experience Melbourne as a blind person does.

Entering the exhibition your sense of vision is completely taken away from you. Prepare to give up any light emitting devices such as phones or glowing watches (lockers are provided), and if like me you wear glasses prepare to take them off as well. For those of us who wear glasses all the time this is probably the most disconcerting moment, but they really are totally useless in the space and there is something quite liberating about not having that pressure on the nose!

Being totally immersed in pure black out can be very confronting and if you are claustrophobic you just have to let your guide (a blind or low vision employee) know and there are many quick exits along the way. I admit to having mild claustrophobia, but it did not bother me beyond a certain cloying sensation and the guides keep the experience friendly, fun and interactive so your attention is constantly focussed on all the amazing sensations we don't usually pay attention to because we let our eyes do all the work.

The experience includes trips to major Melbourne landmarks including the Queen Victoria Market and a quick tram ride. The tram was probably the most challenging part for me. I seemed to have real trouble finding a seat - not an unusual experience even for sighted people!

Crossing roads and walking through parks, we eventually found our way home and sat down in the kitchen for a lovely chat. Yes, we are still completely blind at this point. It is amazing how well you listen when you can't see.

You are given a white cane at the start to help guide you through the space and there are hand rails along the way to help you navigate. I loved the market. It is amazing the array of things on offer although I did wonder how vendors would feel about me handling their food products with the vigour I displayed as I tried to figure out what I was holding.

I was in a small group of 4 people, but the groups before and after us were larger. I think I preferred the smaller group because even with 4 of us I kept accidently hitting ankles with my cane and touching the people around me rather unexpectedly. This could be a whole new level of fun if you go with friends or family!

On a more serious note, it was illuminating to experience the world without eyes and I learnt some great tips about how to help low vision people navigate the world. I also found myself thinking that silence is not golden in this situation because it is sound which orients - much like bats and their sonar capabilities. I was most comfortable when the people in the group spoke because then I could figure out where everyone was and where I was in reference to them.

I cannot express how illuminating and also how much fun Dialogue In The Dark is. There are currently 35 exhibitions of this sort around the world and it great to have it here now. Not to mention that through this innitiative 20 low vision people are currently employed and there is a plan to hire another 10 in the near future!

5 Stars

Friday 19 May 2017

Happy Days At War - Theatre Review

What: Happy Days At War
When: 18 - 21 May 2017
Where: Northcote Town Hall
Written by: Leah Milburn-Clark
Directed and Performed by: Leah Milburn-Clark and Jay Peardon
Choreographed by: Alexander Perrozzi
Designed by: Nicola Stratman

Leah Milburn-Clark
Germany under Hitler was a tough time for anyone not pure blood Aryan, but we usually tend to only connect the persecution to the Jewish community. The truth is that Hitler wanted to cleanse society of any 'other' and the disabled fell squarely into that categorgy for him. Happy Days At War, which is playing at Northcote Town Hall this week, explores how persecution looked from the perspective of a blind woman.

Staged with an exquisite attention to detail in all aspects, Happy Days At War is a joy to watch even as your soul shrinks in despair at how easy it is to be a good person and do evil. It is easy to think of Hitler as evil, but it is a lot harder to understand the whole German community doing evil. This play explores the creeping darkness as it engulfs even the happiest of people.

Singed in sepia tones, this new tale has a timelessness which looks backward even as it gazes straight at us asking the same questions - is different bad? why are we afraid of imperfection? how do we treat those around us who need our help? Do we understand everyone is actually the same - loving, laughing, happy, sad, screaming, and in pain?

In fact, the most powerful and poignant aspect of Happy Days At War is how crippled and broken the fully abled M has to become to function in the dictatorship he finds himself a part of. None of it is of his choosing but, as the saying goes, 'if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.' This hits home with the force of a sledge hammer as it seeps into the idyllic relationship of M and F. As M teaches F the colours of the rainbow the world around them gets darker and darker - so beautifully mirrored in the costuming.

Everyone on the creative team is WAAPA trained and the synergy of their creative paradigm shines through. Milburn-Clark protrays blindness with great understanding and attention to detail. She also carefully establishes the blindness within the misconceptions of the sighted before slowly and gracefully lapsing into a truer representation so that the audience find themselves understanding not the disability, but the level of ability which accompanies sensory disabilities. This only makes the circumstances she falls into even more horrific as we have stopped seeing F as blind, and only come to see the woman she is.

Peardon's portrayal of M is a masterpiece as well. In him we see that aspect of ourselves we like to shy away from. He must face the questions of life one by one without necessarily realising (or not wanting to acknowledge) the consequences that may occur. Is he in love? Will he get married? Does he need a job? What are his choices? Does he fit in? Can he offer protection? What will happen to him? How does he fix it?

We can't hate the man because we would do the same thing...we are doing the same things, making the same choices. The real question for us, the audience, is do we hate what he (they) did?  It is easy to say yes in the abstraction of time, especially if we tell ourselves those were different people and different times. What Happy Days At War forces us to confront is the sameness of them and then with us and now. Are we any different? No. We are all the same and we are all making the same choices and we will have the same outcomes if we don't pay attention, if we close our eyes.

In  the play F is blind, but perhaps she is the only one who is really seeing clearly. M is sighted. His blindness is an act of choice and therefore the consequences are his to own.

4 stars

Thursday 18 May 2017

Int. - Theatre Review

What: Int.
When: 15 - 19 May 2017
Where: The Owl and Cat Theatre
Devised by: Carolyn Dawes and Thomas Ian Doyle
Directed by: Toby Price
Performed by: Carolyn Dawes

Carolyn Dawes
Int. is the intriguing physical theatre piece which opened at The Owl and Cat Theatre in Richmond this week. It has a much shorter run than expected, having opened a week late, but it is one of the most artistically complete works presented there so far.

Using the symbology of the characters created over the career of movie icon Bette Davis, Dawes explores the mania and futility of trying to measure up to what society wants in a woman. Caught on a treadmill of makeup, clothes, and accessories which are meant to illuminate a woman, instead each layer hides the real person underneath until she is no longer visible even to herself.

There are references to many of Davis' movies, including the red dress which is iconic across her films - most particularly Jezebel. It is the movie All About Eve which holds it all together though.

In All About Eve Davis plays an aging actress who is befriended by a young starlet. In order to stay relevant Margo (Davis) plays roles far younger than her actual self until she finds herself overtaken by her protege, Eve (Anne Baxter). Eventually Margo gives in to the inevitable fading of her light and the movie ends with us watching the cycle begin again as another young starlet befriends Eve.

The real tragedy of this tale is not Margo's story at all. In fact, her graceful (?) defeat makes her ending a positive one. A defining speech in the movie is the one about what it takes to be a woman. "Sooner or later we've got to work it out...In the last analysis nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is." Yes, Margo is talking about a woman needing a man, but she is also talking about a clear eyed, unpretentious understanding of real life, real values, real contentment.

The real tragedy of All About Eve is Eve's story. She can be any women and she is every woman and she is the epitome of the treadmill we are all on. The film ends with Eve beginning the torment and takeover she enacted upon Margo to get where she is now. The circle of life has a whole new meaning.

Why am I going on about this? Because the journey Dawes takes us on mirrors the rise and fall of Margo Channing, albeit not in a literal sense.

Dawes is a woman caught on a treadmill of waking up and hearing self talk and society talk which influences how she presents herself to the world. Each morning is an agony of indecision and degradation which, with each iteration wears her down mentally and physically.

Int. is a physical theatre piece, but is of an intriguing style which is not dance nor mime, but rather an unspoken form of acting. The detail required to make this form work is phenomenal and Dawes is up to it - from the most minute pulse of the finger tip to the declining fervour of participation as each iteration proceeds. You literally see her soul being crushed as more and more layers go on.

Although this is physical theatre there is text, but it is mostly overdubbed self talk and abuse. It is a clever mash up of excerpts in Bette Davis' voice which guides Dawes through her tortuous journey to awakening. More subtle references to the continually recurring motif of red dresses in the star's filmography and the constant relationship with mirrors is genius.

The only problem I had with the show is that the idea is too small. It has evidently been padded in the second half and to be honest it feels like Dawes and everybody else in the room are just marking time to get us to the requisite 50 minute mark which makes it a full show.

There is a belief amongst the acting community that anything an actor does will be fascinating for an audience as long as it is done with commitment. This is just not true.

We watch Dawes pack up the room which has become strewn with clothing, bags, jewelry, shoes, etc and there is no question at all that every item Dawes touches she has evidently imbued with a memory or a connection but we the audience have no insight into what that is, so it is hard to care. I can't say I have ever wanted to sit back and watch someone tidy their room. This becomes even more tedious because a lot of the clothing isn't even used in the first half of the show so we have no connections to make so I just became more and more disconnected and, let's face it, bored.

I also wish Price had been brave enough to have Dawes playing the mirror to the audience. By angling her to the corner we were let off the hook as she processed the slow destruction of her identity under the weight of wigs and wishes.

Once you get through all this though, Int. has a delightful ending. Dawes finds herself again and settles in to an evening of hot tea and old movies, and the last moment allow us to enjoy Davis as her finest, allowing us to commune with memories as well as modernity. In the words of Davis "Slow curtain. The End."

The anti-climax of the show is perfection and the bravery of ending this way is to be lauded. I, myself, toyed with the question of the anti-climax as a theatrical device last year and was warned it wouldn't work. They were wrong. It is beautiful and uplifting when handled with grace and flair as has been done in Int.

3.5 Stars

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

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