Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Philtrum - Theatre Review

What: Philtrum
When: 13 - 29 July 2018
Where: The Portable
Written by: Anthea Greco
Directed by: Peter Blackburn
Performed by: James Cerche, Emma Choy, Louis Corbett, Stephen Francis, Anthea Greco, Faran Martin, Jessica Martin, Tasha Sanders, and Annie Stanford
Designed by: James Lew
Lighting by: Lachlan McLean
Sound by: Justin Gardam
Stage Managed by: Mark Salvestro

Faran Martin and Emma Choy
Philtrum is an exciting new Australian play being presented by North of Eight at The Portable in Brunswick. Whilst celebrating family, playwright Anthea Greco has created a chilling portrait which shows us how badly we hurt the ones we say we love the most.

Philtrum is the story of an average Australian family - well, maybe not average. Whilst it starts off feeling a lot like the movie The Castle, with a boisterous family enjoying a bouncy, shouty dinner time with the TV blaring, we find out they are actually in Toorak, not Sunshine. It is a shame because I think the Toorak issue is central to the idea of facades and I am most disappointed with Lew for not getting this even close to right.

But I have jumped the gun. The word philtrum means that little valley which joins the middle of the nose to the upper lip and gives our mouths the cupid's bow. Whilst it is just a vestigial depression for humans, folklore tells us it is where angels touch us when we are born to remind us to keep the secrets of universe from the ears of mankind.

Every family has secrets, and this family has really big ones. For all their garrulousness and chatter, it becomes clear that everybody is holding something back. This is highlighted by Laura (Sanders) who is autistic and says and does everything in the moment she is thinking or feeling it.

The family are all grown up but the locals have gathered to send Laura out for Halloween. She eagerly awaits the arrival of her costume, but it is the prodigal daughter Cathy (Jessica Martin) who turns up instead with her new boyfriend Rob (Cerche). Everyone has a different response to her arrival and when the other daughter Nikki (Faran Martin) leaves in frustration the gates of hell open to reveal the secrets the angels (or in this case Bill (Francis)) have insisted be kept.

Greco has written an amazing play so far although I would say it is not finished. Her understanding of family nuance, keeping secrets, and the games relatives play is detailed and undoubtedly comes from living a two family childhood. She also has a degree in psychological science which probably helps a lot too. The play is effectively two acts, and I admit I was also quite surprised at the authenticity with which she presents the legal process in the second act.

Director Peter Blackburn has done an excellent job of respecting Greco's writing whilst also helping problem solve some of the more obvious elements missing from the script, or distracting us from them at least.  Don't get me wrong. The script is brilliant, but it needs another act. We don't need to know the ending but we do need to know more about the characters and where they sit in the story.

Things which I would love to see expanded include the relationship between Cathy and Bill, what happened to Rob, and I worry about the tokenism of Laura. If Greco takes the time to ween out these aspects Philtrum is a play which would be perfect for the main stage theatres of Australia and has the potential to become part of our canon.

The acting is great. The ensemble all hail from Howard Fine and therefore there is an evident cohesion of process and style which, for this play, works nicely. Jessica Martin is a powerhouse actor whose energy radiates every moment she is on stage and Francis is brilliant as the real ocker pseudo-politician. Faran Martin and Standford have a delicacy of character development which act as beautiful foils to the more dominant actors.

I strongly recommend going to see Philtrum. You will leave you demanding Greco take this play and expand it so we can find out more about this sad, scary, but oh, so recognisable family. Talk about the ultimate teaser!

3.5 stars

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Empty Bodies - Circus Review

What: Empty Bodies
When: 6 - 14 July, 2018
Where: National Circus Centre
Created by: Zebastian Hunter and Stephen Sewell
Composed by: Ian Moorhead
Choreography by: Meaghan Wegg
Design by: Stephanie Howe


  Empty Bodies is a reboot of a National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) production created in 2016 for their second year ensemble. NICA has remounted the show with a smaller cast of graduates for this year's Provocare Festival in Prahran.

Empty bodies is a circus event conceived by Zebastian Hunter and Stephen Sewell and is described as a circus-drama fusion. It draws on the choreographic talents of Meaghan Wegg to pull it all together, and a powerful composition by Ian Moorhead to provide the ambience.

I recently visited Norway and had the opportunity to wander through The Vigeland Park which was created by Gustav Vigeland across the span of World War II and was completed in 1949. If Empty Bodies is not at least partially referencing his work I will eat my hat - if I had a hat that is...

The Fountain at the Park is ringed by 20 tree groups and beneath the crown of each of the trees is the eternal life cycle of man from cradle to grave, and this is exactly the story of Empty Bodies. Beginning with a couple who decide to have children, we watch the family travel through life. We see the child learn and grow in a beautiful hand balancing routine, we watch it develop into adulthood with a straps routine and one of the few hula hoop routines I have ever truly enjoyed.

One of my favourite moments is the wedding scene. It is a clown act of the absolute finest caliber in the world. There are some gender fluid references throughout the show but most of them seem to be purely nominal. In this clown act however, the issue is handled with cleverness, maturity, hilarity and it is down right erotic too! Ironically, although the original show was created in 2016, this particular act brings the marriage referendum of 2017 back into sharp focus with a wonderful nose tilt.

The show is not just about the child though. We watch as the father is tempted by another and the mother loses herself in a beautiful aerial routine. She later dies, but we see the nascent life forming in the world surrounding her funeral, showing us the circle of life repeating itself just as it does in the fountain.

The chair balancing act at the centre of the show mirrors The Monolith at the centre of The Vigeland Park too. Carved in granite rock, Stephanie Howe's silver chairs echo the massive sculpture, and the bodies of performers are layered into the layers of chairs as if piled up like Vigeland's imaginings. You could also suggest a reference to Dante's Inferno, but I think Vigeland is definitely the true progenitor. Beyond that, the set and costumes didn't really thrill me.

Unfortunately I have been unable to find a cast list anywhere on line and there was no program produced so I can only talk in fleeting terms about the performances. The cast was much smaller than the cast of the original production in 2016 and this time they were graduates rather than current students.

On the plus side, their skills and professionalism were manifest and it was wonderful to see this crop of young circus artists who definitely have the talent and commitment to go on to be prominent circus performers of the future. On the negative side, the show felt like it could be renamed Empty Stages because a show created for 28 performers has a lot of gaps when performed by only 8 or 9.

I am not fully convinced this circus-drama fusion worked and I think it is actually the circus element (and the audience) which lost out. There is a lot of debate about the use of narrative in circus. Usually I am on the side of it and I cite Cirque Elioze (Cirkopolis) and Circus Oz (But Wait There's More...) as companies who do it well.

In Empty Bodies, though, I think less would have been more in the creation of the work. For me, like with cabaret, the audience response is a key element and there just didn't seem to be any way to let the audience into the show. Circus is a revolving door of amazing tricks and athleticism and is built upon the idea that each trick gets harder and more daring as the audience respond with delight and awe.

Moorhead's dense and sombre sound track gave no permission to be happy and delighted as his droning, pounding rhythms shook through the space. Whilst the soundtrack was a true work of art, it erred on the side of fourth wall drama where the audience is a voyeur, not an activated and essential part of the event.

This leaves the tricks stranded in space and time because whilst Wegg's choreography moves the performers forward (you can definitely see the influence of her time with Cirque Eloize), each trick itself is a timeless classic and there is little logic for the circus artist to move on to a higher value proposition without the gasps and applause. It also means they have no information about the audience and it shows. It always shows.

The text - snippets of internal monologues narrating thoughts about life - were rather irrelevant in my opinion and only really served as a means to bring dynamics to the aural architecture. I admit they may have been more intriguing with a larger cast, but for the most part they came across as banal.

There were some signs of Sewell's wry perspective at the start when he talks about people having children because they are in love, drunk, or stupid. It re-emerges at the end when he speaks about wanting to be remembered for being ordinary. Overall, however, the rest is just existential angst sound bites which we have heard a trillion times before with more impact.

Empty Bodies is a good night of theatre with a certain level of commentary on recycling and the fluidity of the human experience, but in the end it left me feeling empty and mourning the lack of ability to share with the performers. I think circus-drama hybrids can work, but it is really important to respect the heritage of both forms. It is also important to remember the audience.

2.5 Stars

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Reuben Kaye - Cabaret Review

What: Reuben Kaye
When: 7 - 15 July 2018
Where: The loft, Chapel off Chapel
Created and performed by: Reuben Kaye

Reuben Kaye
Reuben Kaye has come back to Melbourne for the Provocare Festival in Prahran and seeing his show at Chapel off Chapel is to experience a beaming light of wonder and genius wrapped up in sequins and rhinestones. Kaye is here to entertain and just like his historical namesake, Danny Kaye, he will leave you in awe and stitches of hilarity, albeit with a very 21st century point of view.

To watch Kaye do cabaret is to watch a true master of the craft although you may be so swept up with the pace, humour and depth ('is that how you pronounce it?') which will beguile you beyond belief in the actual moment you may not realise everything you were given until later. Insisting on being the 'placenta of attention', Kaye plays with the audience in an experience not unlike a bondage session and, yes, he is the whip.

A Balwyn boy, Kaye tells the perhaps typical school boy tragedy of growing up gay but nobody celebrates those experiences in quite the way Kaye does.  His erotic tale of locker room romance makes 50 Shades of Grey pale into insignificance - or would if there was anything significant about that book (or movie) in the first place...

Kaye's schtick is not a smarmy, low brow, gender fluid, cliche. Not in any respect. Covering literature (the Bronte sisters), fine arts (Caravaggio, Bernini), opera and ballet, Kaye stamps his mark as a complex and not to be ignored cultured artist. His brow can be as high or low as anyone's and he moves it every which way but loose.

Whilst touching on the music of Celine Dion, Kate Bush, and others, he points out that it's not plagiarism - it is parody, parody is satire, satire is art, art is subjective so you can't judge! Whilst he mocks however, you can see that Kaye is trained, talented and has honed his skills beyond any level of criticism as well as having razor sharp insight and creating a work which is infinitely layered - which he will explain endlessly as the performance progresses.

Kaye lives in the 21st century and is not a creature of the past, so whilst he embodies the true art of cabaret with socio-political layers underlying the hilarity and indulgence, he also understands the world we are living in now. Kaye invites you to take as many photos as you like and share them on social media because that is how the world works today, not last century. Beware the use of flash though, as Jo unfortunately found out at the top of the show on the night I went.

There is no fourth wall for Kaye. Comparing the Loft to a coffin with exit signs, he seeks to share every inch of his very special crypt with as many of the audience as he can touch (literally) and bring the black tomb to life with a party bigger than any room can handle and we are right there with him every step of the way.

Remember to take your drinks in with you and prepare for the midwinter blues to turn mardis gras as you are swept away with one of the best shows you will see this year. Provocare Festival always brings the best to Melbourne and Kaye is everything cabaret has ever promised it could be.

5 Stars