Sunday 9 December 2018

Romeo & Juliet - Theatre Review

What: Romeo & Juliet
When: 6 - 16 December 2018
Where: The Rose Garden, St Kilda Botanical Gardens
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Jennifer Sarah Dean
Musical direction by: Ben Colley
Performed by: Lucy Best, Benjamin Colley, Matthew Connell, Anthony Craig, Lilliana Dalton, Carly Ellis, Tref Gare, Ayesha Gibson, Joanna Halliday, Emma Jevons, and Hunter Perske, John Reed, Karl Richmond, Paul Robertson, Andy Song, and Emily Thompson
Choreography by: John Reed
Set by: Karli-Rose Laredo
Costumes by: Rhiannon Irving
Karl Richmond, Carly Ellis, and Matthew Connell - photo by Burke Photography
It is summer in Melbourne and time for all our garden Shakespeare companies to draw theatre goers and families out into the waning evening sunlight for magical mystery tours of theatre from our Anglo-patri-colonial past. The first off the blocks this year is Melbourne Shakespeare Company with that romantic old favourite, Romeo & Juliet, which is being performed in the stunning rose garden at the St Kilda Botanical Gardens.

Melbourne Shakespeare Company pay great attention to making sure they are in beautiful surroundings and present beautiful work and Romeo & Juliet fits the brief well. Everything is immaculate from the stage, to the costumes, to the props and the cast are always extremely well rehearsed with great attention to character, physicality (physical comedy is one of the company's fortes) and this year especially, voice work.

Led by director Jennifer Sarah Dean, Melbourne Shakespeare always bring a delightfully old school English feel to their productions and this year she goes a step further, interpreting the story as pantomime complete with a cross dressing female character in the Nurse (Gare). Gare is from the UK as well so his perfect interpretation of this mechanism makes complete sense.

Unfortunately some of the problems with this Romeo & Juliet stem from this very place. Shakespeare is old and outdated (if you get past that patri-colonial anglo-centric myth his plays are timeless and universal) so directors and auteurs have free licence to do absolutely anything with his plays which is why so many companies put on his work rather than approaching modern plays which more accurately speak to our world and the people in it. Turning the romantic tragedy that is Romeo & Juliet into a pantomime is many steps too far though, and the whole conceit falls apart from the point of Mercutio's (Richmond) death.

Whilst the play is potentially a barrel of laughs at the start, the concept of comedy begins on the basic premise that it has a happy ending. We can say a lot about Romeo & Juliet, but that is not one of them. It is also questionable as to whether the time for men to dress as women to create clownish charicatures is well and truly over in the post-truth age.

Another confusing aspect is the costume designs. Irving has once again developed a playful and detailed palate, but the 1920's flapper era was disconnected from the friar cassocks and the nurse outfit. When the show first began I excitedly thought this was going to be a Bonnie & Clyde gangster interpretation. The pantomime thing shook me completely. This is why design and concept are so important and the choices of one can invalidate or cause cognitive dissonance with the other no matter how beautiful.

Regardless, the cast were all at the top of their game and gave a lively rendition. I especially loved the camaraderie of the Montague boys. Song (Balthasar) and Ellis (Benvolio) totally stole the show with their incredible acting, great physical humour, and beautiful and strong singing voices.

Connell (Romeo) and Halliday (Juliet) were a joyfully perfect pair and played a playful interpretation of young love. Unfortunately I wasn't able to see the death scene because of a really strange staging choice which I think Dean and Laredo should reconsider before the season continues much further. It is the climax of the whole play so losing it for most of the audience by this odd placement seems a waste of everyone's time.

The script has been severely dismembered to just the highlights in order to make the show one act and also to fit in the Melbourne Shakespeare Company's trademark song battles and random Luhrmannesque pop song interludes. For the most part the music works and Colley has chosen an intriguingly ecclectic and sometimes outrightly hilarious mix of music to punctuate moments. The greatest triumph of the night is the cast rendition of 'Hallelujah'.

Romeo & Juliet is a feast of beauty and fun. Technically it is a work of perfection. It is really just a string of contradicting artistic decisions which lets it down.

Take along a picnic dinner and remember to take lots of water to stay hydrated. Romeo & Juliet will win your hearts.

3.5 Stars

Thursday 6 December 2018

Alice's Theorem: A Conceptual Excretion of Thoughts - Comedy Review

What: Alice's Theorem - A Conceptual Excretion of Thoughts
When: 6 - 8 December 2018
Where: Downstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created and performed by: Alice Albon
Directed by: Fiona Scott-Norman
Alice Albon
It's the time of the year when all we want is a good drink and an even better laugh and you will be hard pressed to find any show on at the moment which will make you laugh as often or as hard as Alice's Theorem: A Conceptual Excretion of Thoughts. Sadly it is only on for a couple of days at The Butterfly Club so you have to hurry if you don't want to miss this collection of surprising, witty, and - at times - gross collection of mind droppings.

Alice's Theorem was first created in 2017 and performed in Ballarat (Albon is a Federation Uni graduate). Having sat through this ode to the acceptance of death cataloguing ways to enjoy your death experience I am not surprised to see it reprised and absolutely expect to see it reappear in the future.

Let me begin by saying Albon is the Ever Ready Battery Bunny on steroids. She does not stop moving for a single second and instead of each joke getting a drum kit boom tish, Albon gives a two step into a vogue pose. It is the kind of thing only a cute young woman with not so cute thoughts can get away with and it is pure magic. Some of it is nerves which need to settle down a bit, but as a comedy persona it is fun to watch and has a weird sort of mesmerising hypnosis.

Albon is here to give us a TED talk as the world's leading expert in her field - herself. In particular, Albon wants to talk to us about preparing for death. The way she looks at the world, everything we do is just filling in time until we die - "The one truly communal activity" - and she doesn't understand why people don't plan for it better.

Apart from lying under her death shroud for 20 minutes a day, Albon spends a lot of time thinking about how she wants to die. Her dream death is to be eaten by a shark after punching it in the face. Each to their own I guess...

Albon is tiny but she is no comedy lightweight. Beneath that cute smile and diminutive stature is a razor sharp feminist. She opened my eyes to a great truth when she explained the sexist nature of sharks and how they only ever seem to bite men...

Most of the show is a convoluted  5 step presentation on her theory on how life is analogous to excreting a turd. There are some fun quips and bad puns along the way to make sure we are still paying attention as well as essential life hacks and witty songs to punctuate the moments. Albon is a truly gifted singer and 'You Asked For It' is up there with the great comedy tunes of our time.

Alice's Theorem is a show full of audience engagement opportunities, all of them harmless fun. Have you ever seen an esophagus dance? You will if you come to this show (and so many more images which will be burned onto your retina forever - there are just some things you can't unsee).

I spent a lot of time in Alice's Theorem gasping at the audacity and then laughing my behind off. This show is wrong in so many ways which is what makes it so right and it has been perfectly crafted under the sure hands of cabaret veteran Fiona Scott-Norman.

4 Stars

Friday 30 November 2018

Ungraceful - Comedy Review

What: Ungraceful
When: 29 November - 8 December 2018
Where: The MC Showroom
Created and performed by: Julie-Anna Evans and Mason Gasowski
Mason Gasowski and Julie-Anna Evans
We don't see a lot of quality old-school sketch comedy on stage any more, even in the Comedy Festival. In Ungraceful Evans and Gasowski take us back to the days of Martin and Lewis, French and Saunders, and Abbott and Costello (without the pratfalls). This belly full of laughs is on at The MC Showroom and is a great way to get into the mood for the holiday season.

You know the work is going to be funny when the artists are brave enough to perform on a blank canvas. White on black leaves nothing unseen and Evans and Gasowski are up to the challenge.

For the most part Evans plays the straight man to Gasowski's clown. Gasowski has a body as fit and mobile as his facial features. He never stops moving and at times I found myself wondering how he ever found himself in that configuration. Evans is just as funny, but provides the strong wall for Gasowski to bounce off.

All of the skits are based on real things that have happened although the characters themselves are not real of course. Hilarious scenarios of mothers getting a bit too friendly with sons, New Age therapists being interviewed on TV, and the absurdities of seeking medical help in a country where you can't speak the language are all fair game for this comedy duo.

Creating a through line across the evening are wonderful vignettes of Kev and Dan who work at Classic Kitchens. On the showroom floor they share experiences with their girlfriends. Don't worry though. This is not your typical male, misogynist humour. Kev and Dan are a crack up because we get to see their foibles rather than them making fun of the women they are with.

All the material in Ungraceful is completely new so there are still a couple of small aspects which will tighten up over the season. The main issue is a couple of sketches don't end on the punch line so we don't always get the sharp boom-tish effect. As I say, though, I reckon this will be worked out by tonights show.

Ungraceful is really funny and The MC Showroom has set up the space as cabaret with a bar in the theatre itself so get on down, grab a drink and sit back and enjoy an hour of fun and laughter. The MC Showroom is in the heart of Prahran too so you can have dinner first and make a night of it because the show starts at 8pm.

4 Stars

Thursday 29 November 2018

The Melbourne Monologues: A Cabaret of Souls - Theatre Review

What: The Melbourne Monologues: A Cabaret of Souls
When: 27 November - 2 December 2018
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Christine Croyden, Brooke Fairley, Alison Knight, Neil McGovern, Martin Rice, and Bruce Shearer.
Directed by: Elizabeth Walley
Performed by: Joanna Davey, Alec Gilbert, Isabella Gilbert, Ruth Katerelos, Martin Rice, and Callum Straford
Ruth Katerelos, Alec Gilbert, and Martin Rice - Photo by Ian Thrussell
It has been a year since the last Melbourne Monologues (probably because it is an annual event...) and Melbourne Writers Theatre brings to the La Mama Courthouse stage another 6 original and intriguing monologues by local writers. Whilst there is no unifying theme and it is a blind selection process, director Walley has again brought a random collection together with a strong unifying concept  making this year's offering, A Cabaret of Souls, a evening of added depth and extra layers in exactly the way circus and cabarets do.

Alec Gilbert acts as the ringmaster for this motley collection of tired and jaded performers as he ushers us inside and dishevilled performers take their place around the stage. Rice is the strongman, Straford the clown, Katerelos the dancer, Isabella Gilbert the torch singer, and Davey takes on the persona of the burlesque artist. Their sad, tired eyes stare at us as Alec Gilbert launches into the first monologue of the evening, 'Angry Dancing' by Shearer.

This is a strong starter and Alec Gilbert performs it well, taking control of the audience from the very beginning, encouraging us to learn to dance out our anger as he, Gilkinson style, issues instructions. The cast get off their chairs and join the class. I loved this idea and I looked forward to an evening of integrating a chorus into each monologue which did happen although nothing to the degree of this first piece. My only disappointment was I felt Walley needed to have Alec Gilbert expand his audience to include the stage so that he could explore a level of interpersonal interactions which would give the monologue a more personal interpretation and allow the audience to be voyeurs as well as unwitting players in the scenario.

Knight's contribution, 'The Unspeakable Beauty of Falling' is a sad reminiscence bringing together childhood, death and terrorism. The tale is compelling but this work, performed by Katerelos, did start me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the short form monologue. I am coming to the idea that a short form monologue is more closely related to an impressionist painting than story telling and if you try to put too much into 10 minutes you risk taking away the space the audience have to delve into the ideas and emotions of the moments.

The big hit of the night for me was McGovern's 'Sometimes' - a beautifully written work around the simple question of what a mouth should be for. Walley's direction really strikes home as Straford comes forward, the sad clown of the ensemble. Straford mourns the lack of kisses in his life with pathos and humour, reveling in the intricacies of the thoughts, condemning the overpopulation of words which cross his lips and the dearth of tender skin. I couldn't help but blow him at kiss at the end to ease his sorrow.

Going from strength to strength, Davey takes over the stage as cat/woman in '3 Out Of 9'. No, not Catwoman, but a woman playing a cat. Fairley writes us a story about the struggle to keep joy and hope in our lives through the experiences of a she cat. Davey tells us of the rejection of her kits as they ween and leave the litter box. In a lively reminiscence she tells of the barbs on the penises of toms and what interspecies sex is like before admitting she only has 3 lives left, one of them lost because she threw herself into the mouth of a volcano. What do you do when you just keep coming back?

Isabella Gilbert takes over as the dance hall chanteuse in Croyden's 'The Diamond Bracelet'. A World War 2 tale, Isabella Gilbert tells us about her terrorist plot of rebellion for which she will be paid with a bracelet made from the souls of the dead. A beautiful tale, there is a little bit too much assumed knowledge in this monologue, and I think it is really a precursor to Croyden's full length play Underground which is being produced next year at Gasworks.

Isabella Gilbert finishes with a delightfully mournful version of 'Falling In Love Again' and a small dance routine. The song is perfect, but the dance takes it all a bit too far past the writing and sits uncomfortably. I don't think in 2018 in Australia we are close enough, temporally or geographically, to the subject to get the musical reference and the choreography does not showcase her talents well.

We finish the night back in Australia with a ten pound Pom in Martin Rice's 'The Charon'. Rice culminates all of the sad clowns in the show as his strong man persona shows his vulnerabilities in the face of his dad's end of life experiences. Exploring his own guilts, dreams, and journey in parallel with his dying father's, Rice finds a way to see the world through his father's eyes in the last moments. 'The Charon' is a bittersweet portrait of how the ferryman gets you to the other side.

A Cabaret Of Souls is exploring a new level of mature presentation for these annual Melbourne Monologue events and Walley has given us a key into what makes these diverse works part of a single family, whilst also celebrating the uniqueness of each delicate tale. What better analogy for such random talent than circus/cabaret?

3.5 Stars

Wednesday 28 November 2018

She Said, She Said - Theatre Review

What: She Said, She Said
When: 27 November - 1 December 2018
Where: The Stables, Meat Market
Written and directed by: Sarah Sabell
Performed by: Lee McClenaghan and Emma Jo Mckay
Emma Jo Mckay and Lee McClenaghan
She Said, She Said (a pun on the he said, she said riff) is a sad tale of a dying relationship told with great tenderness and even greater pain. In the shadow of the Mere Mortals series at Arts House which has been exploring the death and decay of the body, it is only fitting at the Meat Market we have a play about the death and decay of a relationship this week.

Written and performed in a hyper-naturalist tone, the accuity with which Sabell tells this story can only mean she has lived it in some part somewhere in her life. The deft delicacy with which Mckay (Sam) and McClenaghan (Rachel) play the roles embody their understanding that the thoughts and feelings and emotions being examined are too big to be 'acted' and can only be truly felt by the audience if there is enough room on stage for them.

She Said, She Said is a chicken and egg tale. Was it Rachel's alpha personality which drove Sam to spiral deeply into her addictions or was it Sam's addictions which drove Rachel to hide in her work? The play shows us it is both. Each character had chinks in their armor and the other had the exact wedge to split that person completely apart.

Perhaps this is what the phrase 'you complete me' really means. They fill a hole. All we look for is the hole to be filled and think we can relax. How many times does that gap filler turn out to be a toxic irritant destined to weaken us further rather than make us whole?

Sam is unemployed and takes on the house wife role, getting Rachel's kids off to school doing the house work and gardening. Well, she would if she could stop smoking, toking and drinking long enough to stay awake. Rachel works ridiculously long days only to come home to Sam crashed out on the couch and the laundry still in the machine.

The days go by, one by one, looking almost identical until Rachel's sorrow turns into anger. Meanwhile Sam teases her about dating a man, desperate to find a way to break down the growing distance between them. Something's got to give and when violence erupts we finally see the relationship bones laying bare, the carrions of guilt, blame and shame having already picked away at all the tender parts.

I truly loved watching this play. It's honesty is refreshing and whilst it is a same sex relationship, much of the scenario is gender blind. It perhaps favours Sam in the conversation, but there is enough material to hint at the kinds of pressures Rachel is under, particularly as the custodial parent of two children.

The only thing really missing was any sense of actual sexuality between the couple. There is certainly room in the script, but for some reason Sabell has not allowed any intimacy between Mckay and McClenaghan. I spent the first half hour trying to figure out if Sam was Rachel's partner or just a house mate.

I also am unclear about the final scenario in the play. Needless to say, this relationship breaks down but five years later Sam comes back into Rachel's life and I don't know why. The situation has changed dramatically for Rachel over the 5 years and she is no longer in control. We never find out much about Sam in that time but it appears she might have pulled her act together.

All I can think is Sam is back in her life to punish Rachel but these scenes don't end up going anywhere so it's anybody's guess what Sabell is trying tell us. What I can say is it is these scenes which convince me we are supposed to empathise with Sam rather than Rachel but I couldn't make myself do it. I find myself on team Rachel despite her mistakes.

This show is prop heaven for actors. Every detail of a home kitchen and activities is accounted for and there is plenty of time for the actors to do what they need to do. In fact every detail of the staging of this play is immaculate.

Mckay is frighteningly convincing as a substance abuser, even to spitting up into a wastebasket after a choof of the pipe. McClenaghan is a wonderfully uptight work addict although her outfits become a bit of a costume parade as day by day goes by. Sabell's direction has set up a pace similar to that of a metronome with the suspense building of Jaws. It is the clinically clean forensic approach which draws us in as each layer of love is stripped away, heartbeat by heartbeat.

She Said, She Said is a remarkable play and one which really speaks to a very common relationship dilemma in these days of high unemployment, lack of work/life boundaries and the acceptability of recreational drug use. It is really hard to see the lines in this modern world - either because we are too busy or too blurry - and our families are the ones who pay the price.

Get down to the Meat Market and see She Said, She Said. This is an example of some of the things theatre does best  - it is theatre done with honesty.

4 Stars.

Monday 26 November 2018

Gothic - Music Review

What: Gothic
When: 25 November 2018
Where: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Arrangements by: Andree Greenwell
Performed by: Andree Greenwell, Andrea Keeble, Kylie Morrigan, Jessica O'Donoghue, Joshua Stilwell, David Trumpmanis, and Noella Yan
Set and lighting by: Neil Simpson
Sound by: Andree Greenwell and David Trumpmanis
AV design by: Michaela French
Sydney Ensemble - photo by Matthew Duchesne
Gothic is a song cycle created and presented by the award winning composer Andree Greenwell and is a musical journey through Gothic literature and storytelling (although it is billed as a journey through Gothicism in music). First presented at The Seymour Centre in 2015, Greenwell brought it to Melbourne for a single performance this weekend. If you missed it don't worry, the cycle is available on CD and you can watch the Sydney production on YouTube.

For those of you who don't know what the difference between a collection of songs and a song cycle is, the difference is generally the presence of a theme or throughline. A collection of songs is not necessarily a song cycle, but a song cycle is collection of songs. Confused? Don't worry, it probably doesn't matter so much now that we buy our music song by song digitally, and most live music presentations do tend to revolve around some sort of ideological or instrumental or temporal theme anyway. For those of you old enough to understand these words with which I write - your CDs as a whole are a collection, the way you group or catalogue them would be a cycle... sort of.

Greenwell is a composer whose work has leant quite strongly towards the macabre and, by default, the Gothic subculture. In this context the term Gothic refers to literary work which emerged in Europe in the late 18th century. Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Mary Shelley are probably the most well-known forebears. Gothic fiction tended to lean into death and horror whilst writers such as Daphne du Maurier took the genre into the area of romance as well. In fact, Greenwell bookends this cycle (almost) with music she has composed to accompany Poe's writing, beginning with a hauntingly Celtic sounding 'Annabel Lee', and bringing the cycle towards its close with 'The Bells'.

For me, the three most exciting and intriguing songs were Greenwell compositions although the entire cycle includes an ecclectic collection ranging from opera to hymn to pop and beyond. 'Death at the Beach Motel', a song about the death of Brett Whitely, is intriguing and experimental with unexpected musical shifts and turns.

'Chosen', the song about the Fritzl family of Germany, was the chilling climax of this parabolic program. You remember the Fritzl story - the German woman who was locked in her father's basement for 19 years and had his children.. .Composed by Greenwell, with lyrics by Maryanne Lynch, 'Chosen' slips inside the mind of the oldest child in the moments before being found and climaxes with the bright sunlight searing her as the walls of her life long prison crumble before her eyes. This story has yet to be written, but the real life news gave us as much horror as any work of fiction ever could and this song brings it all back with an powerful image montage by French reminding us of the inauspicious house containing such pain and fear and torment.

Have I mention French's exquisite videography yet? Beginning in abstraction she brings us into real time gently, revealing substrata geology, grey clouds and diving birds and so on until we enter suburbia for 'Chosen'. Slowly, throughout the rest of the program she lets our minds take flight again as she reveals the divine. I probably shouldn't say this but for me French's work is what made the performance worth going to. As good as the music and musicians were, there was nothing performative about Greenwell's presentation. Everyone just sat or stood as required. The chamber quartet (Keeble, Morrigan, Stilwell, and Yan) seemed to get into the music but the singers and Trumpmanis were as stiff as mannequins.

Another wonderful success was the layering of sound effects over much of the music. 'The Birds' was a great triumph with an overlay of some of the movie soundtrack, a powerful score and impressively complementary lyrics by Hilary Bell. Greenwells cover of 'A Forest' was equally successful.

On a more negative note, 'Thriller' was a tragedy which should never be allowed to happen again. I cringed all the way through and I am pretty sure Michael Jackson did too. 'Wuthering Heights' was somewhat better. I didn't mind the arrangement generally but I did notice, in these two songs in particular, but the entire concert as well that Greenwell keeps a very stable (and to be honest a somewhat tedious) tempo throughout her arrangements. Thus, Bush's maelstrom became a light summer breeze. It had the unfortunate effect of taking all of the emotion out of the work and emotion is essential to the Gothic subculture. There is little that is haunting in rhythmically lapping waves.

Luckily a pacy and exciting 'Totentanz' lifted our energy to lead us into the final straight and it was a stroke of genius on Greenwell's part to finish with the musical number 'Falling' rather than another song. Angelo Badalamenti's theme brought us back into the present gently, keeping the ambience but quietly shaking our shoulders to wake us from this troubling dream we had been spellbound in.

Gothic is an intriguing collection of songs. It was marred a bit in this performance by a rock and roll mix rather than a classical mix. It only mattered because Greenwell is not the most perfect of vocalists and O'Donoghue seemed to be singing sharp throughout the performance. I think for the nature of the show I would have liked the instruments to sit more fully in the mix rather than being background so that they could play and intertwine with the voices. They could all haunt each other. There were rare moments of exciting congruency for example, when O'Donoghue and the violins met on a note.

Greenwell has created an an intriguing song cycle in Gothic and it is a great way for her to showcase and contextualise her compositions in the history of her art form. I wonder if there is any Australian Gothic fiction she could put her talents to work with? It would be nice to have some antipodean creations in this Euro-centric mix.

2 Stars

Sunday 25 November 2018

Pins And Needles - Theatre Review

What: Pins And Needles
When: 24 November - 15 December 2018
Where: Club Voltaire
Written and directed by: Thomas Ian Doyle
Performed by: Lucinda Cowden, Joanne Davis, Aston Elliot, and David Macrae
Sound by: Benjamin Brooker
Add caption
Pins And Needles is the newest work being performed by prolific one act play writer Thomas Ian Doyle. Formerly the Co-Artistic Director of The Owl and Cat, Doyle has established a relationship with Club Voltaire and appears to have settled in comfortably to this space and Pins And Needles is playing there until mid-December.

I have seen and reviewed a few plays written/and or directed by Doyle (Longevity, C'est La Vie, The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name, etc) so by now I am very familiar with his style and approach and in the past I have pretty much universally enjoyed his work. Unfortunately Pins And Needles does not live up to the rest of his catalogue.

The story centres around 2 50+ heterosexual couples and, coincidently, both wives have decided they are sexually attracted to women. Each woman convinces her husband to experiment with swinging and they meet up for a rendezvous which doesn't quite go to plan. In these uncertain beginnings lie the seeds of the breakdown of both relationships.

The problem with the play is one of authenticity and this doesn't surprise me because I can see no way a 20 something gay man can have any understanding of 50+ women in life long heterosexual relationships. As a results the characters are montages of cliches. They are two dimensional cartoons.

The men come across as hapless sheep who only exists as extensions of their wive's wills and the women are comic automatons who have no idea what they want and have reverted to juvenile nonsense to fill the confusion.  I suspect Doyle was aiming for humour but it misses the mark far more often than it hits the spot.

Based around ideas of sexual confusion, and with a bed making more trips on and off stage than the cast, it is incredible to realise the characters have not even the slightest shred of sexuality and they really do spend most of the time behaving as if they have never seen another human being naked. Trust me, in this day and age if you are 50+ you definitely know your way around other bodies. Women were let out of corsets a long time ago.

Unfortunately one of the problems with the Australian preponderance for one act plays is the audience never really get a chance to develop an in depth portrait of who characters are and why they do or say what they do, but even within that envelop the lack of information we have about the women in Pins And Needles is an abyss. Why have Fay (Davis) and Carolyn (Cowden) suddenly decided they are attracted to women? How did they discover this? What is their life like? Do the couples have children and how does/did this affect their realisations and subsequent actions and decisions?

The acting and direction doesn't really help a lot. I didn't get a sense the actors were actually listening to each other and saying their lines in response. There were too many misses of nuance and emphasis for this to be true. They all know their lines and where to stand, and what they are doing but I think the lack of character information in the script has left them floundering and because Doyle has directed the show as well as written it they probably haven't had enough directorial assistance to fill in the blanks.

There is also something weird about the last scene. It is the group sex bedroom scene. I don't understand why it is the last thing in the play. I can't even figure out where in the time line it is supposed to go. It is evidently not the night of the first meeting because Gregg's (Macrae) costume is different, but there is no indication the couples ever met again after the first dinner party. Very confusing indeed!

On the plus side, Doyle has created his trademark clever staging although I got tired of the bed going on and off stage. Either pare down how the bed is constructed or re-order the scenes so it isn't such a preponderance.

The real star of the evening is Brooker's sound design. It really is a work of art and perfectly sets tone, mood and location.

I think Pins And Needles can be described as a pleasant night out. It looks smooth and elegant, the performances are fine and the set up is cute but Doyle can do much better and does do much better when he writes what he knows.

2 Stars

Saturday 24 November 2018

The Director - Theatre Review

What: The Director
When: 21 November - 2 December 2018
Where: The Warehouse, Arts House
Created by: Lz Dunn, Aaron Orzech, Lara Thoms, and Scott Turnbull
Performed by: Lara Thoms and Scott Turnbull
Designed by: Katie Sfetkidis
Sound by: Kenneth Pennington
Lara Thoms and Scott Turnbull - photo by Bryony Jackson
The last step in my 'Mere Mortals' journey at Arts House is The Director. Taking us into the inner workings of the funeral industry, The Director takes over the The Warehouse for the next two weeks with laboratory cleanliness, the smell of burnt Weetbix, and a cacophany of schlock funeral music.

The Director is the outcome of an earlier creative development called Departures. The project arose out of Thoms need to make sense of the strange realities of the funeral industry after the death of both her parents (at different times).

Turnbull is an experienced 3rd generation funeral director. His family business was sold to 'the Coles of the funeral industry', Invocare, but he stayed on to manage it. One of the more interesting things we learn in The Director is most of the so-called family business are part of global conglomerates. They just keep the family names to give clients the sense they are dealing with a small, caring company rather than understanding it is all just about the required 15 - 20% profit margin.

The Director begins with the premise that Thoms in a apprentice funeral director and is learning the ropes from Turnbull. She dresses the corpse (a surprisngly awkward affair) and goes on to learn - with the audience tagging along - about how to cremate bodies, deal with the ashes, and the pricing structures.

In return Thoms gives Turnbull presentation tips on how to 'sell' the coffin selections and leads an interogative question and answer session digging deep into the commercial truths of the funeral industry. Whilst I liked the apprentice concept, in my view the turnabout aspect was ineffective and forced.

Sometimes I see things and wonder if they really are theatre or not and The Director is one of those shows for me. I cannot deny the performative elements such as a great sound design by Pennington and the presence of a lighting design, etc, but I wonder if Turnbull just giving a lecture wouldn't have been as effective. I get the impression The Director is really just what was salvageable from the original, more interesting idea in Departures.

I should preface any further comments with the admission that I was responsible for my father's funeral so I was aware of the exorbitant costs and ridiculous 'required' ceremony of the occasions. I guess I was lucky as well because I didn't have to see the body and I tend to dissociate from negative experiences so I wasn't interested in making the funeral anything supremely meaningful for anybody else.

Having said that, the bits of The Director I enjoyed most were stories of how much other people get involved including painting coffins, putting on light shows and other things. Everyone grieves in their own way and I guess the funeral sets the tone of each persons grieving process (not the value or depth of grief for each person I would like to add). There was a lot of humour in the anecdotes delivered with great attention to care and respect by Turnbull.

The most affective moment was Thoms slipping into reverie about what happened when she discovered her father dead in his bed. Rather than tell the tale she asks all those unaskable questions about the inhumanity of the body removal process and how you are supposed to clean up afterwards. If you have had to deal with a dead body you will know what she is talking about. If you haven't it is probably a really good idea to hear this stuff before you do. The biggest problem when these things happen is not having any idea of what to do or what happens next. Ignorance adds to the grief and trauma.

The banter between Thoms and Turnbull as they try to identify the type of person by the choice of funeral song is fun although it goes on a bit too long. Who do you think would have 'My Heart Will Go On' or 'My Way'? What would you choose for your loved ones? I'm thinking I would like 'Bring Me To Life'... ;)

Whilst The Director feels rather half-baked (pardon the pun) as a performance the information is invaluable and delivered respectfully with a sense of fun and inclusion. For instance the choice between cremation and burial for many people will quite possibly just end up being one of cost. Did you know a plot of land to be buried in is around $10,000 just by itself? On the other hand cremation only costs $950. Neither of these include any ceremonial elements or basic process costs such as coffins, flowers, celebrants, etc. I will mention the lesson about cremation goes into a lot of detail and is accompanied by smells and sounds which are unpleasantly evocative and I would not recommend young children attend this event.

2 stars

Friday 23 November 2018

Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! - Theatre Review

What: Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!
When: 20 - 25 November 2018
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Created and performed by: Jon Haynes and David Woods
Design by: Romanie Harper
Lighting by: Richard Varbre
Sound by: Marco Cher-Gibard
John Haynes and David Woods - photo by Bryony Jackson
In a world where dying is the great enemy to be fought to the death (pun intended), Ridiculusmus show us what it would/could be like to live to the ripe old age of 120 years old in their newest work Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! Playing at Arts House until Sunday, this show is a great wake up and reminder about what our aged population are experiencing and how time shifts for them - and there are heaps of bloody good laughs along the way although this show is not a comedy per se.

Labeling the show 'seriously funny' is one of the most accurate program descriptions I have read. The final installment in the Ridiculusmus mental health trio (The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland and Give Me Your Love being the first two), Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! is a humorous but sensitive portrayal of aging and the ongoing grief experience which comes with it. After all, if you are the one who lives the longest that means you have watched a lot of people die before you...

Ridiculusmus like to work in the realm of physical theatre and Die! Die! Die! is the work in the trio which sits most strongly in this realm being much less text based than the earlier two. Interestingly, looking at the slowness which comes with aging Woods and Haynes appear to have looked to the dramaturgies of Japan. The show looks to me as if it contains stylings based around the slowness and intricacy of Noh, the jo-ha-kyu structures of Kabuki, and the movement techniques of Suzuki. Even Harper's costume design for the female character speaks strongly to this influence - or at least how it is used...

The show begins with entrance of Norman (Woods) and his wife (Haynes) - we don't find out her name until the very end which has a whole range of feminist connotations (deliberate I suspect) but I won't spoil the surprise. They make their way to the solitary round table and two chairs on a round persian rug sitting prominently down stage centre. This journey across the stage makes up most of the jo portion of the performance and the excruciatingly slow shuffle of the two performers highlights Hayne's mastery of Suzuki.

I didn't time this of course but the sense of the achievement of them staying upright, walking with extremely awkward gaits and committing to the outcome of sitting at the table so very far away for them for such a very long time created an incredible tension and excitement in the audience on the night I attended. When the wife was finally seated it drew a huge round of congratulatory applause from the audience. We use the term durational performance a lot these days in other contexts, but there is nothing more durational than the effort made by these two characters to greet us into their home!

Yes, it turns out we are visitors who have come to view their spectacular building although we never do get through Norman's entire speech as he demonstrates a layer of forgetfulness and loss of focus at the slightest disruptions. Vabre's lighting is superb in this section as the age and timeless beauty of Arts House is juxtaposed against the age and decay of the humans inhabiting the space.

Woods' Norman is hilarious and it is this character which keeps the narrative moving forward. Whilst strongly leaning on Noh, his work is also the most accessible for an Australian audience. Haynes' work is technically superb but I think we hit a big cultural barrier when it comes to fully making meaning from what he is doing, especially in the kyu section of Die! Die! Die! Having said that, it is totally within the Kabuki tradition to include sections which showcase the talents of the actors regardless of those moments adding meaning to the show so my saying this is hardly a criticism.

There are so many hilarious moments such as Norman going to the toilet, the fast forward of bringing his wife tea, the managing pills commentary so prevalent in the acquisition of old age, and the dreaded need to deal with Centrelink! The pair also lean heavily of western clowning tropes although they are harder to read because the pace is so inverted. The door routine was another hilarious moment exactly because of this time inversion.

Cher-Gibard's cuckoo clock was also pure genius. We all know a ticking clock emphasises empty space and empty time and the knell of the cuckoo speaks on so many levels in this work too. In fact the sound design was perfection all the way through the show and the entire climax of the show builds through what is established at the very beginning in a suprising manner!

Whilst the first half of the show is hilarious, it is upon the death of the wife Die! Die! Die! begins to explore the grief commentary. Norman dissociates and his friend (?) Arthur (Haynes) can't stop crying - literally. Norman tells him to stop continually before attempting the traditional keaning technique.

Die! Die! Die! works by literally forcing us to slow down and experience the pace, discomforts, and significant realities of being aged. The premise begins with extreme old age but any of us with aging relatives will recognise all of the signs and symptoms and this is possibly the first time I really understood and processed what it must be like for those who outlive their friends and loved ones. Certainly I find myself thinking about how my mother is coping as she experiences her late 70s.

Ridiculusmus are often described as Dadaist which means their approach is (theoretically) anti-art and through a western cultural lens Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! fits that criteria because our emphasis on dramatic action is somewhat lacking or excruciatingly slowed down to what would normally be considered unperformable despite it's funniness.

Whilst the dramaturgies are complex and well layered, even feeling like I understood it I struggled with the show in the end. I can appreciate the eastern influences but they are not my culture and I am not experienced enough with their sensibilities to fully appreciate the nuances of the moments. It probably doesn't help that I didn't understand anything about the presence of the Arthur character despite the program telling me it is a love triangle. I suspect I will not cope well with the pace of aging.

3.5 stars

Saturday 17 November 2018

Rock Bang - Musical Theatre Review

What: Rock Bang
When: 15 - 25 November 2018
Where: Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse
Created by: Circus Oz and Die Roten Punkte
Performed by: Casey Bennetto, Shannon Bourne, Robbie Curtis, April Dawson, Dean Matters, Alyssa Moore, Tamara Murphy, Kyle Raftery, Astrid Rot, Otto Rot, and Rockie Stone
Musical direction by: Casey Bennetto
Set and props by: Michael Baxter
Costumes by: Laurel Frank
Puppetry by: Lynne Kent
Lighting by: Richard Vabre
Sound by: Jim Atkins
Stage Management by: Anna Pidgeon
Rockie Stone, Robbie Curtsi, Astrid Rot, Otto Rot, Kyle Raftery, Alyssa Moore, and April Dawson - photo by Mark Turner
Rock Bang is the mockumentary circus rock opera spawned from the minds of Circus Oz and Die Roten Punkte and playing for two weeks in the Merlyn Theatre. The show is destined to pare down to a touring version but before it leaves town Melbourne audiences are getting an amped up power show the likes of which will never bee seen on stage ever again!

We have all experienced, or heard tales about, the incredible musical mastery of the brother sister punk rock duo Astrid and Otto Rot (Die Roten Punkte). In Rock Bang we get the origins story and boy-oh-boy is it a cautionary tale for children!

The sudden death of Astrid and Otto's parents (by train or lion...they can't agree on the details) has left them orphaned young children. Alone in their house eating only twigs and the cat - er, no, not the cat, Otto! - an aunt and uncle come to look after them. Forced into a life of exhausting child labour Astrid (the older child) decides it is time for them to run away. They are better off fending for themselves. Thus begins a dystopian and surreal tale of life on the streets of Berlin.

Astrid's skills in the art of theft - er, no, very generous people and amazing coincidence, Otto! - are sufficient to keep them alive and keep Otto's innocence and sweetness intact. Astrid has already discovered a taste for debauchery and the 'lucky' discovery of a drum kit and electric guitar becomes their vehicle to stardom for better or worse. It is all fun and games in the punk rock era, but the train really goes off the track when they start exploring electro-punk!

Rock Bang is a beautiful parody of the rock opera genre. If you loved We Will Rock You you are going to adore Rock Bang. In some respects it may almost be too good to be parody!

Of course Astrid and Otto always have the right sound but Bennetto has filled out the back line with the perfect blend of fuzz, wah wah, and hum to start any bar fight. The lighting truss arching over the stage takes us right into the concert arena and Baxter has done just enough to replicate the 'wall of sound' phenomenon in the great era of rock'n'roll. Atkins' system design packs all the punch of the good old days of rock with enough ear splitting Db for anyone with concert deafness to still have a great time. Add Vabre's audience blinders and smoke smeared light beams spearing the stage and Rock Bang really is the best rocking great time you'll have in a theatre for a long time to come.

I said the parody is too good, but it is hilarious nonetheless. Playing not only on the rock, punk, and electro tropes, Rock Bang explores and pokes a whole lot of fun at the musical theatre structure. My favourite moment was Otto and Astrid arguing over whether they should have an interval even though they were only a half an hour into the show because they had just played the song with emotional climax.

The Circus Oz acrobats were amazing of course. Amidst all the noise and trauma of the Rot story, Moore's aerial routine as the moon on the night Otto and Astrid get lost in the woods was so intensely beautiful it seemed as if the audience didn't even want to breathe in case it broke the magical spell she was weaving. Raftery's unicycle work was wonderful as always and I saw him do something with it I haven't seen before which I always love!  Juggling is an eternally fraught art form, but I was lost in a spell of wonder at the skills and precision demonstrated by Curtis in the pizza shop.

Not everything was perfect. I am not convinced the shadow puppetry added to the experience very much. Having said that it was stunning work, especially in "The 4:15 To Spandau Will Not Run Today" and it did provide the key to understanding the surrealist nature of the journey we were embarking on with the performance.  I think my reservations come because of the smallness given the largeness of the show and I suspect this part of the show had to exist in touring scale rather than full concert scale. It could be integrated into more parts of the show though I feel.

I (and everyone I spoke with after the show) also have reservations about Astrid's rehab scene. Given the commitment Circus Oz has to diversity they might want to take a look at that scene and reconsider the representations being made there before Rock Bang goes on tour.

Now back to speaking about parts of the show which are too good , don't be surprised if the song "Rock Bang!" hits the ARIA charts. People all across Australia are going to be rock banging in the streets, the schools, and the malls across the country - and perhaps across the world!

A magical mix of bad 80's song lyrics, outdated fairy tales, valve amp sound, and boundless energy, Rock Bang will send everyone home with a smile on their lips, humming the "Rock Bang" chorus and rock banging with their fists until everyone is driven mad. Rock Bang is family friendly but perhaps just bring the older children and make sure they have adult supervision because there are some adult themes and an orgy... Rock bang!

4.5 Stars

Sunday 11 November 2018

Ophelia Thinks Harder - Theatre Review

What: Ophelia Thinks Harder
When: 9 - 24 November 2018
Where: Bluestone Church Arts Space
Written by: Jean Betts
Direction and sound by: Belinda Campbell
Performed by: Sam Anderson, Sarah Clarke, Lansy Feng, Ruby Lauret, Aimee Marich, Artemis Munoz, Jennifer Piper, Leigh Scully and Matt Tester
Set by: Sarah Clarke and Jennifer Piper
Costumes by: Georgina Hanley
Lighting by Jennifer Piper
Stage Managed by: Valerie Dragojevic

Jennifer Piper

As we start to question and dismantle the white patriarchal canon - particularly the assumption that Shakespeare is timeless and universal - Ophelia is getting a bit of a work out on modern stages. Earlier this year in the Melbourne Fringe Festival we saw Ophelia/Machine, earlier in the year La Mama had Enter Ophelia, and in 2011 Chamber Made Opera produced Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore just to name a few. The newest (and probably not the last) addition to this catalogue in Melbourne is the Wit Incorporated production of Ophelia Thinks Harder playing at the Bluestone Church Arts Space in Footscray.

Ophelia (from Shakespeare's Hamlet) has become something of an feminist icon. Why? On the surface she is possibly the least effective of the Bard's heroine's. She gets pushed around by her father and brother, spurned by her lover, goes mad and then kills herself. Not the best resume I have ever seen...

It is precisely these circumstances and her complete disempowerment in the Danish court which makes us take up arms on Ophelia's behalf. Her velvet bondage has become a metaphor for the cruelty, carelessness, and suppression which has been applied systemically to women for at least a millenium. We can't save ourselves but maybe we can save the Ophelias yet to be born.

In 1995 Betts took up the mantle and wrote Ophelia Thinks Harder. Using a two act structure, Betts rewrites Shakespeare's story (which, incidentally, he rewrote from an oft repeated ancient tale based on the idea as the hero as a fool although more directly linked to the play Ur-hamlet). Instead of the play focusing on Hamlet, Betts tells Ophelia's side of the story, gives Ophelia some of Hamlet's lines, and has created a comedy rather than a tragedy. I have to say I experienced a moment of incredible revelation hearing the 'to be, or not to be' speech come out of Ophelia's mouth!

I say Ophelia Thinks Harder is a comedy, but I also admit Wit Incorporated really set themselves a hard task with this play because it is not especially well written for this genre. Bett's has created a play which is full of historical patriarchal suppressions and outrageous feminist expositions which make it really hard to keep the work fast and funny which is what comedy needs to keep the audience laughing and on side.

Campbell is still an emerging director and it is unfortunately evident in Ophelia Thinks Harder she is not yet fully versed in the structures and requirements of comedy. The two characters who spend the most time on stage - Ophelia (Clarke) and the Maid (Lauret) - are mired in naturalism and drag the energy and pace down in all their scenes. It is not a question of acting ability because the few times they step outside their main personas they are lively and character is clear. It seems as though there is just an overall lack of awareness that all characters in comedy are archetypes and all acting is heightened.

Luckily most of the rest of the cast embrace this idea although some with more success than others. Anderson (Horatio) is really both the star of the show and the accidental hero, although Scully (Hamlet) meets him measure for measure in energy and commitment. His only real flaw is he forgets to go mad as he gets mad which means some of the more aggressive scenes become extremely uncomfortable due to their sense of sincerity - particularly the abuse scene before interval.

Feng (Guildenstern) and Marich (Rosencrantz) do a great job in all their characters and some of the biggest laughs of the night were when they exited as ghosts. Feng showed some beautiful comedy skills as the ghost of Ophelia's mother. Munoz (Player 4) was also a secret gem although she really had only the smallest of roles.

Piper (Queen) embraces her archetype with commitment and Hanley's costumes reach a pinnacle of perfection in decking out the queen. Piper's outrageous wig and rich red and gold ensemble take us out of the real and into a fantasy world of crazy. There is a strong reference to Alice in Wonderland in the design elements including a checkerboard traverse stage, but in this instance Ophelia is the red queen's pawn.

Betts' play is outrageous as I mentioned earlier. It swings wildly from Aristotle and Aquinos to the true meaning of virginity. It pitches Joan of Arc against Pope Joan. In a Yentl style move Betts makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern women masquerading as men. Mother Mary also gets a good going over with her purity of body and spirit too. Excerpts from Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet and a few other Shakespeare plays are quoted or referenced. There is so much going on it is hard to keep track but what I will say is most of the actors work hard to keep this wordy script crisp and clear.

This production of Ophelia Thinks Harder sits right on the precipice of being really good and just the slightest more commitment to high energy, fast pace, and embracing the comedy archetypes will turn it into a fun night of theatre with enough sharp pokes of the feminist sword to wound us all. Right now they are relying too heavily on the text for laughs and Betts' script is not up to the job alone. She needs the actors to push harder in the sections she dropped the comedy ball and this cast is up to the challenge so go for it and leave nothing in reserve!

2.5 Stars

Saturday 10 November 2018

While You Sleep - Music Review

What: While You Sleep
When: 7 - 18 November 2018
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Devised and AV by: Sal Cooper
Composed by: Kate Neal
Directed by: Daniel Schlusser
Performed by: Jacob Abela, Phoebe Green, Isabel Hede, Zachary Johnston, Katherine Philp
Isabel Hede, Zachary Johnston, and Katherine Philp - photo by Bryony Jackson
Kicking off the new contemporary art series at Arts House, 'Mere Mortals' is the musical performance While You Sleep. Created by long time creative duo Sal Cooper (video artist) and Kate Neale (composer), While You Sleep explores connections between the musical form of fugue and the psychological condition known as a 'fugue state'.

Perhaps not the first time these two etymological sisters have been conjoined in art, there is definitely a certain natural pairing. The root of the word fugue translates to 'to flee' or 'to chase'.

The musical form is a three structure composition. It begins with an exposition which states at least one musical subject, usually played out by a single instrument (in this piece it is a piano played by Abela), the melody is then repeated - or chased - by other instruments (the string quartet). The second section is called the development and in this section the instruments flee into episodes, returning to the subject but playing with form and tempo of the subject before heading off to other episodes. The third movement or coda can be a recapitulation which restates the original subject and in this case takes us on another development. Playing with our minds a little bit, Neal gives us a false recapitulation at the end of the development before giving us the real one.

The psychological state of fugue involves a dissociative episode in which a person may lose their sense of identity, memories of their lives, and they tend to run away or go on some sort of journey or trip. The fugue state is characterised as being short term - at most only lasting a few months - at which point memory returns and the person can return to their lives. The synergies with the musical form include the person living their life (the exposition), the loss of memory and excursion (the development), and the return to self (the recapitulation).

What makes While You Sleep exceptionally theatrical is the interlink with Cooper's video art articulation of the fugue form, and the release of the musicians from their music stands and each other through the development. The string quartet take off, careening around the stage on office chairs, creating shapes and patterns mirroring the work in the video art, combining, dispersing, and recombining in groupings of loss and recovering just as the music is also dispersing in episodes and recombining in restatements of the subject.

One of my favourite moments is when Abela, freed from the keyboard, looks up at a line drawing which has materialised on one of the three screens. The drawing is of Philp (the cellist). As the drawing was created the quartet had been revisiting the subject melody. Abela reaches up and starts pulling and the drawing starts unravelling. Simultaneously the quartet play the music backwards. It is a moment of incredible synergy with all that is happening in While You Sleep.

At a certain point Cooper shows us 'The Valley of Lost Things' as stop animation. The Valley of Lost Things is a place we are told about in the epic poem Orlando Furioso written by Ariosto in 1714. Frank L. Baum also leads his characters there in Merryland (a mythical land adjacent to Oz published in 1901). The Valley Of Lost Things is the place lost items live unless or until they are found.

Cooper references the Baum story throughout with the recurring image of the toy hurdy gurdy and the link to the psychological is Orlando's rediscovering his wits when he is on the moon. On a more personal note one of my favourites in Cooper's Valley is the hills hoist of lost socks...

You might be wondering at this point what any of this has to do with the 'Mere Mortals' theme of death? To make this connection (and Cooper makes it with the pick up truck also in her Valley of Lost Things) you need to read the New Yorker article 'When Things Go Missing' by Katherine Schultz. In this essay Schultz examines the use of the word loss in the context of her father's death. I will leave you to read that yourself and draw your conclusions.

In my opinion Cooper, Neal, and the director, Schlusser have done a magical job of drawing all of these conceptual strands together to create a wonderful performance. While You Sleep is engaging, beautiful and intriguing both sensorially and intellectually. They revel in the playground of Surrealism as the subjects arc in counterpoints.

The musicians are virtuosic in their playing. I was absolutely mind blown at how well they connected musically whilst being asked to motor around the space, work without their scores, and stay in tempo entering and retreating without 'skipping a beat'. They were brilliant. The lighting design is perfect as well, but it is not credited in the program so I can't tell you who did it unfortunately.

Cooper and Neal have been working on this idea for a long time now. Neal first presented at least the seeds of the music in the 2017 Sydney Symphony Orchestra presentation of The Valley Of Lost Things. The outcome, While You Sleep has been well worth the wait and its Surrealistic presentation is a perfect compliment to the ideas it, and the 'Mere Mortals' series, are exploring.

5 Stars

Friday 9 November 2018

Bushland - Live Art Review

What: Bushland
When: 1 - 2 December 2018
Where: Royal Botanic Gardens
Devised and written by: Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead
Performed by: Sarah Kants
Photo by Paul Blakemore
Arts House has teamed up with the Royal Botanic Gardens for the contemporary art series 'Mere Mortals' and one of the...juicy (?)... experiences on the menu is Bushland by French & Mottershead. Bushland only runs for two days so make sure you plan ahead so you don't miss it.

Bushland is billed as 'a love poem to the forest and the body'. Perhaps. It is definitely a microscopic meditation on the circle of life and how we fit in the natural order of the planet.

Bushland is adaptation of an earlier work created by this artistic duo in 2017. Woodland was the original piece and was featured in the Times Museum program in China. Woodland was about self and mortality in an woodland landscape. Bushland works off the same theme but places us in nature, in the middle of a grove of trees.

Quite unexpectedly, I found Bushland to be the perfect compliment to The Infirmary which I wrote about yesterday and I highly recommend engaging in both works. They syncopate with each other beautifully as, apart from the same theme of mortality, both allow you to engage privately with yourself. On the other hand they work in counter point as The Infirmary takes place in the artificial construct of a hospital whereas Bushland is placed in the midst of nature.

The Royal Botanic Gardens is a vast smorgasbord of sensory exploits and it is easy to get lost so there is a prearranged meeting point at the Visitor Centre entrance. As a group we then wandered down to Western Lawn where we were issued with mobile phones and headphones. After being issues with instructions on how to use the device and what the task of the event is the group began our trek following the map on the phone.

Yes, there is walking involved but if - like me - you are walking challenged the Gardens provide a buggy or you can use your own mobility device to get around on. As I am sure all of you know, the Royal Botanic Gardens have some of the best paths in Melbourne.

Once you arrive at the location (I won't spoil the surprise) you are invited to lay on a bed of fallen leaves at which point you don the headphones and press play. If your mobility restrictions mean you can't get off your device that is okay, you can still fully enjoy the experience -  just a little bit differently. Bushland is an intensely personal experience so everyone will have a unique encounter with themselves and the glorious English Oak trees anyway.  Like The Infirmary, in Bushland what you get out of the experience is what you bring to it.

The true adventure of Bushland is the one you have in your mind as you lie looking up at the sky piercing through breaks in the broad leafed branches. Sounding like a meditation guru, Kants' dulcet tones take us step by step through the process of decay. Part scientific, extraordinarily sensorial Kants defies our urge to panic as we contemplate the ravages of time if we never moved from the spot we are in.

Making the experience even more intense is the feel of the cold ground beneath our backs and legs. Contrarily, though, it is those very same sensations which keep us rooted in our living, breathing bodies. The sunlight and foliage filling our gaze as we look up at the sky keep our souls alive and joyous as we contemplate our place in the food chain.

I know it sounds rather gruesome but Bushland is very human, very natural, and at times somewhat amusing. You will learn about flies. A lot about flies! And then some more about flies... It was enough to make me google why flies are important and, rather unexpectedly, I find I like them a little bit more than I used to. Theoretically, at least.

For me Bushland created a conversation with myself about cremation versus burial. I have often felt strongly one way or the other at different points in my life but until experiencing this event I don't think I ever really had enough information to make a reasoned decision. We are possibly one of the first generations of humans who are so detached from death many of us have never even seen a dead body. It seems normal but in the face of human history it is anything but.

Beware. Bushland is confrontingly forthright and blunt about the decay process. It is not bleak though and, let's face it, if you've watched shows like Bones or Criminal Minds you will be totally fine. Re-entering your living reality is a very special moment in Bushland and you get the bonus of being able to spend time afterwards enjoying the rest of the Royal Botanic Gardens so the whole adventure is win/win!

4 Stars

Thursday 8 November 2018

The Infirmary - Live Art Review

What: The Infirmary
When: 7 - 18 November 2018
Where: Supper Room, Arts House
Created by: Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy
Performed by: Suzanne Kersten, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Clair Korobacz, Victoria Morgan, and Julian Rickert
Photo by Bryony Jackson
One of the unique and exciting things about what is produced at Arts House is it's themed cross-discipline mini-festivals. In the month of November they bring us 'Mere Mortals', a collection of works with explores, interrogates, and celebrates the question of our mortality. It sounds a bit gruesome and somewhat fitting for a month kicked off by Halloween but the 'Mere Mortals' program is an intriguing collection of inspirations although it may be hard to find anything more intensely personal for us, the audience, than The Infirmary.

The Infirmary is a hospital triage wing and ward where we, the patient, admit ourselves for diagnosis and treatment. It begins with a one on one interview where you are asked some personal questions - some trivial, some very important. Your 'total care attendant' will then take you down to the Intensive Care Unit.

My attendant (dressed very much like a doctor) was Rickert who has a long history of these kinds of live art event with onestepatatimelikethis, a company who specialise in these kinds of intensely personal and solitary experiences (Nowhere, Since I Suppose, et al). Kennedy collaborated closely with Clair Korobacz, also of onestepatatimelikethis to create The Infirmary so the intense intimacy with myself was not a shock for me although it may be for many of you.

The Supper Room has been set up surprisingly faithfully to replicate a hospital with individual curtained off treatment beds and an 8 bed hospital ward. If you have never been admitted to hospital The Infirmary is a great way to discover and understand the experience without all of the pain, trauma, or illness your first real visit might include. It is also a great way to empathise with the experience of people you may know who are in hospital or are likely to need to be in one at some time in the future.

If you have been in hospital yourself, I guess this is a trigger warning because you will probably remember parts of past experiences. Having said that, I also eagerly point out there are differences and the main one is the tenderness and genuine care and personal attention you get on this journey. Your total care attendant is there to guide, mentor, and look after you as your travel on this psychological journey into your own understanding of yourself as a person who will stop existing one day - your own personal Ferry Man. Oh, and there is a tea and bikky if you want one...

Dress in casual clothes because you will be asked to strip down to your underwear and don a hospital gown. Don't worry - you get total privacy for this. Once in bed your attendant returns to listen to your heartbeat. You then get to listen for yourself. I was quite impressed with my booming chamber of life giving blood muscle!

Your eyes are then bandaged and this is where the real fun begins. At this point you have to give over total trust just as you do in a hospital. You will be touched and moved around (they are real hospital beds). 

I have been in hospital several times in my life and I can tell you the experience is very authentic except I kept expecting a needle. This is the first time I have ever been to a hospital and never had one. It was nice because it reframed my memories. The care and attention I received from Rickert made me rethink what those oddly dissociative experiences were and will be in the future.

Headphones are placed on your head and as you go on a an incredibly disorienting ride in the bed you listen to a fascinating scape of hospital sounds and people talking about their death connections (family, friends, grandparents). If you are a fan of fun park rides like ghost trains you will really love this part of The Infirmary. It's way better than any ride you will find at Luna Park.

At the end of the ride you will be exposed to bright lights which you can only guess about as your eyes are still bandaged. A sheet is pulled over your head and you are left in darkness - a time to ponder, a time to meditate, a time to reconcile.

The program asks whether there is value in practicing for death. For me the answer is yes. Death is a subject with an inordinate degree of taboo in our society. It sometimes seems as if there is nothing we wouldn't do to live forever. Children are being saved earlier and earlier inside the womb. Our life spans are increasing all the time. For some people it is impossible to even have a civil conversation about ideas surrounding euthanasia, abortion, or suicide. 

The reality is death comes to all of us. The Infirmary is a beautiful and gentle place to come to an understanding of what it means for each of us as an individual.

It is not just a death experience though. Like certain religious figures, we are resurrected into the shared experience - the family - of the ward and caring attendants eager to help us find our way back into the workaday world. Yes, there is value in practicing for death but perhaps there is even more value in practicing for hospital. I have certainly found myself there are few more times than expected!

Nobody else will have the experience I had in The Infirmary and I cannot ever have the experience anyone else will have because what we bring to the event is all that secret personal stuff you only ever share with yourself. And don't worry, you will never have to share any of that stuff with anyone else either unless you want to talk about it later with your partner or loved ones. There is no post-operative interview. You leave with the well wishes of your attendant and all they will ask is 'are you okay?' It is kind of nice to be given the space to have this conversation with yourself.

5 Stars

Friday 2 November 2018

The Rug - Opera Review

What: The Rug
When: 31 October - 11 November 2018
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and performed by: Ben Grant
Designed by: Herbz
Lighting by: Paul Lim
Stage Management by: Jess Keepance
Ben Grant
The Rug is 'an electropera for one pale male' and is playing at La Mama Courthouse from Halloween to Remembrance Day. How appropriate. In a two week period where Melbourne is consumed by European traditions Ben Grant takes the time as a sad, lonely 'pale male' voice to speak out in this country of great potential - if unleashed...

We often speak about artists talking in their own voices and telling their own stories. In a rare yet mighty occassion in The Rug this is exactly what Grant is doing. He is a white man speaking to white men and telling them their story. The rest of us can listen in and vicariously enjoy the conversation but this is a place for the pale male to congregate and speak up.

The show begins with an eerie video homage to the coming of Autumn and sets the tone for a classic Halloween horror story. Grant doesn't disappoint but what happens through out the evening is a series of the incredibly unexpected. Riffing off the Celtic traditions of Samhain Grant indulges in the Halloween idea. Just as I found myself getting frustrated (as I always do) about how irrelevant it is as our seasons are so completely reversed, Grant makes the same commentary himself.

Emerging on stage dressed in white - the epitomy of the ethereal ghost - he then moves into a operatic dirge of epic proportions. His faulty baritone droning throughout the evening speak to privilege and resistance to change regardless of whether it is good or bad. Nothing makes the point more cleverly than his form and structure, however.

Playing with ideas of privilege as reductive as bicycles not being allowed to use roads because it makes it harder for drivers, to the terrible sense of right the pale male colonisers had in claiming terra nullius, his unstable yet confident singing speaks louder than any of the text itself. Who else but a pale male in Australia would dare to create a 45 minute show in the form of an extended baroque da capo aria without actually having an operatic background? I don't mean he can't sing. I just mean he is not an opera singer. The point is pushed home with a little contemporary dance section in the second movement. He is definitely not a dancer either, and yet we will pay to see this...

Don't get me wrong. The Rug is fantastic theatre. Grant uses these themes and techniques to push home the idea that holding on to privilege can be as stale and potentially awful as change is scary. Grant takes us down memory lane to the days of milk bars with lolly counters, grieving the loss of such innocent times just as he grieves the loss of his hairline, hiding it with toupees (rugs).

I need to step back for a moment and explain the da capo aria. A hit in the Baroque period, arias were written in three movements. Interestingly, I mentioned da capo arias in my Gluck review yesterday (Gluck hated them). A da capo aria has three sections. One is melodic, the second varies in tempo and mood. The third is not composed as such. The composer just issues the instruction 'da capo' which means repeat the first section but singers are allowed to improvise and embellish and at it's height the music and story tended to become almost unintelligable.

Grant is saying what we have brought with us made sense where it came from. In coming to Australia everything changed. Now, it is corrupted and unrecognisable and basically not fit for service. White male privilege is not an asset here and we destroy ourselves and everyone around us if we don't let it go.

The Rug goes from being a dirge mourning the loss of the old days and the old ways, walking the red carpet but descending into...(hell?) to a polemic about the atrocities the pale male has enacted in his bid to overcome and overlord. The carpet runs out and ahead is a black abyss.

In the third movement Grant moves into a rock opera (electropera). Ascending a scaffolding tower to rant and scream his anger and frustration at what his people (the pale male) have done and continue to do. His face is covered in pale powder, a white magistrate's wig donned on his crown, his conscious struggling under the weight of the wigs, the bondage of white history.

The Rug is a man talking to men but I would be surprised if the other pale males hear the call. Regardless, it is reassuring to see that some men of that ilk do see the code and not just the game. Does it make things better? No. Can it make things better? Slowly but surely, yes. And it is kind of nice to see a pale male tell their story rather than everyone else's for a change.

3.5 Stars

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

WHAT: The Long Game WHEN: 28 - 13 July 2024 WHERE: TW Explosives Factory WRITTEN BY: Sally Faraday DIRECTED BY: Krystalla Pearce SET BY: Dav...