Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Two On The Night Train - Theatre Review

What: Two On The Night Train
When: 13 - 22 June 2019
Where: Gasworks Theatre
Written and directed by: Martin Quinn
Performed by: Frazer Lee and Katherine Pearson
Set by: Alaina Bodley
Costumes by: Constance Lewis
Lighting by: Adelaide Harney
Sound by: Edwin Cheah
Stage management by: Stephanie Ghajar
Katherine Pearson
Midwinter tends to bring out melancholy meditation in people and Two On The Night Train, playing at Gasworks, fits the season perfectly. Lost on a train bound for nowhere, two confused souls struggle to remember who they are, where they are, and where they are going.

Two On The Night Train has been written and directed by Quinn and in the program notes he credits Beckett as his muse and predecessor.  I disagree. To me this play feels much more beholden to Satre and his seminal work No Exit. Whilst I can acknowledge traces of Vladimir and Estragon I think the despair and horror of being endlessly trapped is much closer to a Satre lineage - although perhaps the sentiment is oppositional. Satre believed we can act without reference to our past whereas Quinn seems to be saying memory is vital to the act of moving forward.

It is not true to say the characters (Lee and Pearson) do not have names - it is just that they can't remember them. They also can't remember where the train is going, where it came from or why they are there. The only thing they know is they are there (although they do have a tendency to forget about the other one until they run into each other) and there seems to be nobody else on the train. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

As you have probably caught on by now, Two On The Night Train is not a comic romp. Instead it is a philosophical metaphore addressing the 'question of being' for this current generation. As interesting as this sounds - particularly if juxtaposed by such existential searching of artists of previous generations, this play searches, but gives the audience very little to relate to or contextualise with which makes it rather unsatisfying. "Does anyone know where the train is going?"

The text is repetitive and circular and Bodley (set) and Harney (lights) have  created a striking set which traps the characters in an endless row of train carriages (well over 600 at one point - although the facts were disputed), all looking and feeling the same. Plastic nib walls with puckers become shattered glass or cobwebs depending on the lighting. Existential closeness becomes philosophical distance. The coldness only relieved by the presence of two human bodies. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

Because the text and the blocking is so repetive Harney and Cheah (sound) take on the burden of keeping the play moving forward with an ominous sound scape and constantly shifting lights - which is fortunate because whilst Quinn indulges in philosophical discussion he fails, for the most part, to include any dramatic action. In the end nothing really happens, there is no change. This is probably his meta-statement about the millennial conundrum but as a piece of theatre I did stop caring about either the idea or the characters. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

In this empty space of not knowing, the only thing the characters have to hold onto is each other but they spend little time looking at each other (partly the fault of the set and partly direction) and although they reach a peak of frustration I feel with more humanity and panic Two On The Night Train could reach the heights of real horror. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

It may be if Quinn gave this to another director, they could find this humanity. I feel Quinn is caught up too much in the intellectuals of his story to open it up to the rest of us more fully. This also comes across in the stiltedness of the dialogue. Pearson manages to break the character down to a creature of emotion but Lee never really manages to get past the diction and therefore is left portraying something closer to an automaton than a human being in existential crisis. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

In the end, the answer to this question is no. Nobody, inside or outside the train, knows where this play is going. People say life is about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps this is true but it implies things will happen on the journey to make it worthwhile. With no memory and no sense of forward (except to try and find the driver) Two On The Night Train never really goes anywhere despite traveling endlessing along train tracks.  "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

The ideas behind Two On A Night Train, according to the program notes, are strong and intriguing but Quinn needs to reveal more about humans rather than ideas for it to be a really successful stage play. Something has to happen.

Two On The Night Train is visually quite stunning though, and Cheah's sound track evokes strong emotions. It is also nice to see a playwright adding a philosophical edge to his work. We don't do that enough these days I think. It is rather nice to have the audience be considered as thinking beings rather than cattle who just want a good laugh.

2.5 Stars

Saturday, 15 June 2019

When The Light Leaves - Theatre Review

What: When The Light Leaves
When: 12 - 23 June 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Rory Godbold
Directed by: Jayde Kirchert
Performed by: Tomas Parrish, Michelle Robertson, Leigh Scully, and Veronica Thomas
Set by: Stu Brown
Costumes by: Aislinn Naughton
Lighting by: Gina Gascoigne
Sound by: Imogen Cygler
Stage Management by: Teri Steer
Leigh Scully and Tomas Parrish
 As of Wednesday next week Victoria's new voluntary assisted dying laws will come into force, hopefully changing the face of respectful end of life decision making in this state forever. If you need reminding why this is a good thing, or have not yet been fully convinced in the first place, make your way down to La Mama Courthouse to see When The Light Leaves. It will all become perfectly clear.

The topic of euthanasia has been in hot discussion in the Australian landscape for decades. In 1995 the Northern Territory briefly had laws allowing it and Dr Phillip Nitschke was the first medical professional in the world to administer a lethal injection in this situation. He managed to help four people pass away with dignity and respect before the federal government closed the loophole which allowed the Northern Territory to go rogue.

Since then there has been much debate across Australia and the world about whether people have the right to choose how to die, and whether they can be assisted once they have made the decision. In Melbourne there have been several plays on the issue (The Window Outside, The Magnolia Tree) and on SBS you can watch the American TV series Mary Kills People which deals with this question too.  It is kind of unbelievable to think it has taken this long for any state in Australia to try again. How many people have suffered needlessly in that time?

In 2017 Godbold wrote a story called I Give You My Life which was inspired by his father's horrific attempt to put himself out of the misery of an agonising death from esophageal cancer using nembutal. Sadly he was too far gone to swallow it all and the damage it caused only added to the pain and trauma of the situation for himself and those around him. Kirchert saw Godbold's work at La Mama Explorations and has given Godbold the opportunity to develop the play into what is now presented as When The Light Leaves.

When The Light Leaves is the story of Dan (Parrish) who is suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he only has 6 months to a year to live. As he wastes away we see how his lover Liam (Scully) and his sister Kate (Thomas) deal with the situation. It is especially complicated because their mother has dementia so both siblings are trying to maneuver within that landscape as well. Robertson plays the home-visit nurse who tries to help Dan manage his pain throughout his decline.

The play begins with Dan giving a nightmarish monologue about the physical decline of the body (or the skeleton as he calls it) during the final stages of cancer. He talks about the skin spiltting as it is stretched across bones and other very visceral effects. This show is not for the squeamish! A simple abstracted stage created by Brown, with perfectly complementary and striking lighting from Gascoigne add to the maelstrom of darkness and despair.

In fact, one of the brilliant features of this show is Kirchert has managed to engage all of the elements of performance making - script/acting/lights/sound/set/costume - and have them work synchronously together to tell this story with massive impact. I know this should be a given but it happens far to rarely in my experience. There are not a lot of directors out there who actually envisage their productions in such entirety and you can really see the difference when they do.

I love that the team has gone minimalist and so abstracted because the work is full of incredibly emotional content and to push the realism would turn it schmaltzy. The choices in this production allows the ugliness and pain to stand starkly in the space with nowhere to hide. Some essential(?) props do hang from the ceiling and when they are used they swing like a pendulum, signalling the clock ticking away on Dan's life as he becomes more and more frail and destroyed by his disease. Cygler's crackling soundscape - mirroring the electrical seizures in Dan's brain - is a powerful choice too!

I do think, perhaps, those swinging props are over used. It is a fine line between using a prop like that to it's fullest and using it too much. Liam's tantrum scene crosses that line in my opinion, and also the use of it in telephone conversations drove me crazy. However I loved the overall idea and aesthetic and what it did to the dynamics of the space.

Scully and Parrish are mind blowingly good as a couple trying to negotiate a lifetime of loving through a tiny keyhole of a horrible lingering death. I also enjoyed Thomas's overly distraught portrayal of the sister. It reminded me that there is always one person in every family who makes everything about them.

For me, Robertson was a bit too aloof. I feel the writing indicates the nurse is much more sympathetic and tortured about what it happening and what she is allowed (and not allowed) to do about it than Robertson shows us. And she is way to attached too that tea cup!

I am just being picky now. The reality is When The Light Leaves is a powerful and timely story and I thank Godbold for having the courage to write it and Kirchert for bringing it to us in such a powerful way. It's raging empathy will leave you breathless.

4 Stars

Friday, 14 June 2019

Beachside Stories - Theatre Review

What: Beachside Stories
When: 13 - 22 June 2019
Where: Studio Theatre, Gasworks
Written by: Brooke Fairley, Alison Knight, Clare Mendes, Bruce Shearer, and Adele Shelley
Directed by: Elizabeth Walley
Performed by: Tony Adams, Melisand Box, Emma Cox, Alec Gilbert, Dick Gross, Sarah Hamilton, Coralie Ling, Peter Logan, Tony Manago, Giovanni Piccolo, and Karissa Taylor
Giovanni Piccolo and Peter Logan - photo by John A Edwards
Melbourne Writers' Theatre are presenting their newest season of local short plays, Beachside Stories, at Gasworks until June 22. This season has a fun new twist with the company having been invited to interview local residents of note and create performance pas de deux to show off the rich and extraordinary living history in the Port Phillip community.

For this adventure, the writers interview a range of local people - mostly via email - and through a process of exchanges and editing a snapshot of their works and achievements within communities was created. What makes Beachside Stories truly powerful is the person whose life's work is being examined (and honored) is right there, up on stage performing their truth alongside the theatre makers involved in creating this living gallery. Walley (director) has also cleverly chosen to reuse the oversize picture frame set piece from their 2018 season Stark. Dark. Albert Park.

Not every story hits the same high notes, but every story is unique and most are worth telling. Perhaps the only odd one out is the story of Melisand Box. She seems to be a wonderful young woman but she has not lived her life yet and has no story to be told. As such her vignette - with a wonderful Anne Hathaway impression by Taylor - is fun and fanciful but really doesn't seem to fit into the program which is about real people engaged in truth-telling.

The program begins with the story of the many failures of Gross who has received Queens honors for service to the environment and local government. As Gross interrogates Gilbert about his life the list of things he didn't quite get through council and the list of changes he hasn't yet been able to make, the depth of humanity and character of the man fighting those fights for us all shines through.

Perhaps my personal favourite was the second story about Reverend Ling and written by Mendes. Ling was the first ordained female in Australia and has never relented in her ecofeminist ministry. Cox stands beside the now quite elderly Ling, showing us the feisty young woman who received a special shawl on ordination in the Northern Territory, made for her by the local first nations people with embroidered images from their dreaming. Things have not been easy - in fact they have been very lonely if you read between the lines - but Ling still has every ounce of that fighting spirit and is still an activist (currently for refugees) in her retirement.

Logan's story is a feisty one. He has spent a lot of his life in active protest to save Albert Park from the Grand Prix. He is also a marathon runner and this has enabled him (and his wife) to outrun the police on many occasions whilst trespassing to hand out protest literature. Knight has created an interview style text, much like a TV documentary, with a lot of memories to laugh at and a fun twist at the end.

As much fun - and as surprising - as the stories have been so far, the program ends on a high note (literally). I am sure we have all heard of the singing butcher of South Melbourne Markets. If you haven't, this is your chance to not only find out more about him, but to also hear his glorious voice resonate across the studio. Manago was discovered in his little butchers shop serenading the customers at 38 years of age. He has completed 8 master classes in Rome and Italy, and performed regularly with Melbourne City Opera. Adams and Hamilton play out Manago's story, but the final bravo is left for the man himself.

More and more as time goes by and I see programs such as Beachside Stories I start to realise this is perhaps what theatre is about more so than those box office megapods dominating our industry. Is this what our first people are trying to tell us - that story telling build communities when it comes from people and is for people, and that we corrupt it and ourselves when it lacks truth and relevance?

In fact, the one thing I did feel was missing from the program was the story of an Aboriginal community member. So then, is the absence of this story actually a part of the story of the community of Port Phillip? Now that is something to think about too amongst this colourful and richly woven tapestry of life!

4 Stars

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Travesties - Theatre Review

What: Travesties
When: 12 - 23 June 2019
Where: fortyfive downstairs
Written by: Tom Stoppard
Directed by: Jennifer Sarah Dean
Performed by: Syd Brisbane, Milijana Cancar, Matthew Connell, Tref Gare, Joanna Halliday, Dion Mills, Johnathan Peck, and Gabrielle Sing
Set by: Jordan Stack
Costumes by: Rhiannon Irving
Lighting by: Alex Blackwell
Sound by: Alex Toland
Stage Managed by: Kyra von Stiegler
Dion Mills, Johnathan Peck, and Joanna Halliday - photo by Christa Hill
Do you want to see a good old English romp but are sick to death of Shakespeare? If so head on down to fortyfive downstairs and get an evening full of Stoppard wit with Bloomsday's production of Travesties.

Travesties is being directed by Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Jennifer Sarah Dean and much of the style and aesthetic of those productions (including cast and the work of costumiere Irving) are a part of this show, so even if you still love Shakespeare and go to the gardens every year you will get a kick out of this. On the other hand, Stoppard is a wordsmith too and not limited by the artistic and social reductions of Elizabethan England - and he does not have the benefit of having been performed so often the work is seared into our brains like branding on cattle - so you will have to challenge yourself to keep up and will probably even have to stay awake!

Stoppard (who you may know from works such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and After Magritte) is a British satirist who likes to take the artistic forms of other artists and craft them into conversations about social and philosophical ideas in the worlds of his plays. Shakespeare, Beckett, Magritte, etc - are all grist for his mill. In Travesties Stoppard probably hits the overload button though, drawing on Dadaism, Socialism, Wilde, Gilbert and Sullivan and, of course Joyce (thus the interest of Bloomsday).

This play references just about every artistic movement at the start of the 20th Century. Yes, it is too much and barely holds together with many theatrical flaws, but it is impossible to deny the mightiness of the ambition and the skill which is so evident. Unfortunately this is a play which requires the same ambition in staging and this production of Travesties lacks a vision to match Stoppard's. Dean's Travesties is pacy, smart, and well presented and performed but the ho hum factor merely highlights the difficulties in the work rather than celebrating them and opening the art to it's fullest glory.

Travesties is framed by Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but it is really a dream play which lies deep within the realm of dadaism/surrealism. It is further projected forward by Joyce's unique writing experiment which became Ulysses. 

Ulysses is often talked about as a stream of consciousness work. It is that and so much more. Every chapter is written in a different style and Stoppard has told us Travesties was written with the idea of each scene being a different style. One of the great problems with theatre makers today is a lack of understanding of the range of theatrical styles and in this production whilst the actors work with this idea to some degree, the overall arch of the play does not shift and turn wildly as the construct demands and which also references the anti-art aspect of the Tristan Tzara (Connell) character. This includes all elements - lighting, sound, costume, set... I think this play is just to big for almost everyone involved.

Travesties centres around the historical truth that all the male characters were in Zurich during World War I and riffs on the conceit that they all somehow were involved with each other and become linked by a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and the newly constructed Zurich Central Library. The play is a whirlwind of ideas just as the city was a whirlwind of modern thinkers in a whirlwind of war. As the story unfolds ideas about what is war, what is art, and what is history clash, crash, and burn only to rise up from the embers again and again and again.

Although Dean has created an English drawing room farce rather than the biting satirical maelstrom Stoppard has written there are great performances and moments of glory. Connell demonstrates wonderful comic skills as Tzara and Halliday positively sparkles her way across the evening as a lively Gwendolen. Brisbane and Cancar are fantastic actors but this production (and perhaps Stoppard's writing) gives them little to do or be or say to move the story in any direction. To be honest I don't even know why Stoppard included Lenin's wife at all...

Manservant Bennett suffers from the same poor character development although Gare himself manages to steal many moments with clownish hilarity. Sing did a wonderful Wildean Cecily but I am not entirely sure she was playing Stoppard's Cecily... Having said that, her costume was probably the one most closely referencing the artistic aspects of the work. The character of Carr is a marathon and the sad truth is it is just too big for Mills.

The set (Stack) and lights (Blackwell) have hints of the exagerration needed for this play but something has gone terribly wrong with the sound design (Toland). There was something very soft coming out of the speakers (apart from the gramophone music which is fine), but it was so soft it was almost impossible to hear and what I did hear didn't seem to make sense in this world either?

As you can tell by now, I am a bit frustrated and confused about this production of Travesties. The theatre maker in me is frustrated by the possibilities in the work and confused by some of the artistic decisions which have been made. On the other had, Stoppard's work is witty and full of quotable quotes such as "causality is no longer fashionable owing to the war", "we're here because we're here", "the further left you go politically the more bourgeois they like their art", and "without art man was a coffee-mill: but with art, man - is a coffee-mill!"

If you love wordplay and strong ideas Travesties is an exciting night of theatre the likes of which we don't often get to see staged and it is worth going just to see a playwright allowed to go wild with his ideas (even if it is another Englishman - and I won't even touch gender politics...). An added bonus is you will get to see great actors do good jobs with intensely challenging material. There are a lot - and I mean a lot - of laughs to be had so don't be shy about it.

3 Stars

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Rudy & Cuthbert - Theatre Review

What: Rudy & Cuthbert
When: 12 - 22 June 2019
Where: The Lawler Studio, Southbank Theatre
Created and performed by: Toby Blome and Zelman Cressey-Gladwin
Zelman Cressey-Gladwin and Toby Blome
Get ready for an hour of fun filled master clowning with Rudy & Cuthbert. Beckettian absurdism meets modern theatre making in this high clowning romp across the Lawler Studio stage this week before the pair head back to Sydney to tell part II of this sweet and hilarious tale.

Rudy & Cuthbert are the creation of NIDA graduates Cressey-Gladwin and Blome. A comedy pair to rival our greatest clowns, the pair have come to the stage to produce the classic stage play 12 Angry Men. Their management skills are nowhere near as good as their comedy skills though so things do not happen in the right order and, as Murphy always told us, what can go wrong does go wrong. The question is can their friendship survive their incompetence?

The show begins straight out of the Beckett playbook. In a kind of Godot/Act Without Words hybrid they enter the stage and seem very surprised to see us. Much of the show is clever and well executed mime and, to be honest, when there was text I almost felt irritated - like it was a cheat. It is well used though and all adds to the hilarity and surprise of the event.

Thinking today was supposed to be bump in, not performance, the pair handle the situation well and in the interests of efficiency decide to speed up casting by auditioning the audience. Don't be afraid - this is not scary audience interaction stuff! It is more a case of these two have never even heard of the theatrical 4th wall.

Rudy & Cuthbert is an hour of solving theatre making problems the most ineffective way possible. Complete with a Rocky Balboa tech rehearsal dance break and an 80's wind machine power ballad Rudy and Cuthbert struggle to make it to opening night and stay close. As funny as this is, all of us who have ever tried to make indie theatre know every moment of pain and despair which sits below this comedic farce.

What sets Rudy & Cuthbert a step above a lot of other shows of this nature is their absolute understanding, and technical mastery of, the tradition of clowning. This show honours all of the great traditions whilst the pair bring a fresh and modern take. I kept thinking of strong clowning pairs such as The Umbilical Brothers although the material and style are very different.

My one criticism is they perhaps should let the show end at it's naturally resting place rather than push that last extra step. Having said that, it ends as it starts - breaking audience expectation - and that is an important part of the aesthetic and intention of the show. It brings a lot of laughs so hey, do what you want guys because you do it so damn well!

Highly infused with the hilarity of big top circus clowning, but with the delicacy and nuance of an absurdist theatrical aesthetic, Rudy & Cuthbert is a super fun night of theatre. I can't wait to see the next episode when it comes to Melbourne!

4.5 stars

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Ghosted - Theatre Review

What: Ghosted
When: 30 May - 1 June 2019
Where: The Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Michael Thebridge
Directed by:Gabrielle Reiher
Performed by: Holly Chadwick, Lucinda Cowden, Ian Hart, Max Meaden, Kostas Moutsoulas, and Jayden Popik
Props by: Gabrielle Reiher and Isobel Summers
Costumes by: Chris Snow
Sound by: Matt Brown
Animation by: Bel Giles
Stage Managed by: Brendan Coppa
Kostas Moutsoulas, Brendan Coppa, and Holly Chadwick
It is cold this winter and what better way to warm up than a good belly laugh in a warm theatre with friendly bar staff? This is what you get when you drop into Chapel Off Chapel this weekend to see Thebridge's expanded stage play Ghosted.

Ghosted is a fun rom-com which began it's life as a 20 minute episode of The Owl and Cat team's Box Set 2018 at Club Voltaire. Whilst this production does not appear to be flying under the banner of The Owl and Cat it is basically the same creative ensemble who are taking the leap to a bigger stage and story - quite successfully I might add. I also believe it is in production for TV...!

Ghosted is the story of Oliver (Moutsoulas) and Kyle (Popik). Oliver is a lonely sommelier who spends his time with best friend Jordan (Chadwick). Jordan gets sick of his moping around and convinces him to get active on Grindr. The dating world is tough and as Oliver finds out, the experiences you have can haunt you forever if you let them!

Oliver finds Kyle on the dating app. Kyle was on his way to meet a friend at a club but decided to pop in for a booty call and thus we have that age old problem with these dating apps - who is looking for love and who is just looking for sex? Kyle definitely just wants to get jiggy with it and then go on with his evening, but Oliver is more of the slow hand type and wants to share wine and conversation. Star-crossed lovers indeed!

After Oliver struggles with the situation (and Kyle's pants) for a half hour or so, Kyle takes the opportunity to run off and 'ghost' Oliver. Fate intervenes however and Kyle is run over by his escape vehicle and ends up not being able to leave the apartment at all because he is now dead. After trying to ghost Oliver, Kyle is left in limbo forever destined to haunt him instead. Thus begins a fun and funny 2 hours of mischief and mayhem for them all.

Thebridge has done a good job of expanding this story to something so substantial and whilst I would have liked him to explore some more layers to give the work some complexity, most of the characters are well drawn and the actors have generally been able to find their archetypes with conviction. Cowden is the stand out as the medium Pauline who tries to evict the ghost through a seance and in the second act in particular, Popik really dives deep into the trickster archetype bringing a lot of laughs and and a great physical performance.

Chadwick has great physicality too, but she frowns way to much to really be able to sink her teeth - and the audience - into her ray of sunshine archetype. Koutsoulas is a good actor but his skills are more film oriented so we lose his nebbish in a sea of realism which is a shame given he is the central character.

Reiher (director) has gone with a very strong 50's graphic novel aesthetic for the show and where it has been applied it works extremely well. Her film skills allow her to work with projection with a high degree of sophistication and Giles' animations bring a lot of laughs. Those, linked with Brown's wonderfully funny sound design choices, create a great architecture to frame and compliment the play, moving the show forward and keeping the tone upbeat and humorous.

I really wanted more animation - especially in the second act- and perhaps it could have been used as set fill given Reiher's choice to go minimalist with the props (there is no actual set). Reiher ran the intimate performance space The Owl and Cat for several years and she is still slowly developing the skill to work in larger spaces. There are still a lot of anachronisms present in her staging which need to be addressed. In particular, there is a tendency in the staging to reduce the stage space which is at odds with the scale of the projections. The movement of the couch on and off stage (far too many times for my liking) show a lack of finesse with zoning and a dangerous affection for symmetry.

The big gulf for Reiher is the need to start collaborating with designers - especially lighting designers. So much manual handling could be reduced, and a much stronger sense of atmosphere can be created if she could find someone who understands the art of lighting - especially now that she has the opportunity to work in venues with resources and space. The sophistication of Reiher's ideas deserve that level of attention now.

Despite these areas of development not quite in realisation Ghosted is good, clean (and a little bit naughty) fun. The play moves at a great pace, is really well performed and brings lots of smiles and laughs. Thebridge brings a lot of puns to the script and the story really does keep us guessing about the outcome right to the end.

3 Stars

Friday, 24 May 2019

Garden Dance - Dance Review

What: Garden Dance
When: 24 - 26 May 2019
Where: Oak Garden, Royal Botanic Garden
Choreographed by: Jo Lloyd
Composed by: Duane Morrison
Performed by: Deanne Butterworth, Sheridan Gerrard, Hillary Goldsmith, Rebecca Jensen, Shian Law, Claire Leske, Jo Lloyd, Nasim Patel, Emma Riches, Rachael Wisby, and Tom Woodman
Designed by: Andrew Treloar

Garden Dance has been specifically created for the Royal Botanic Gardens by one of our master choreographers, Jo Lloyd. The picture above was taken in the hall of the National Herbarium because the show opened on a rain day, but the final two performances will hopefully (weather permitting) take place out on the Oak Lawn (near gate F) which is where it will reach it's intended heights and impact. Having said that, the opening performance was still incredible powerful and enhanced my awareness of the gardens in generals as I meandered through them afterwards.

The objective of Garden Dance is to explore how 'grid systems are used to tame cities and behaviour in public places' according to the publicity blurb. To do this, Lloyd has gone back to nature to investigate the natural chaos and synchronicities which exist.

It is no coincidence the performance has been located in the Oak Garden and it is no coincidence the performance is taking place at this time of year. Lloyd is using the anatomy of deciduous trees (in this case oaks) and the dancers explore the natural dance of the rainbow coloured leaves as they fall and swirl in the air and on the ground in autumn. The dancers play in the leaves and kick them up from their repose of decay at the same time as being those very leaves in motion.

Treloar has created vibrant and clever costumes which will ping as much as they blend in to their intended environment. Bodysuits colour blocked in the rainbow hues of autumn leaves and the blues and greys of Melbourne skies are counterpointed with the hard, geometric lines of man made spaces. In what is perhaps a triumph of architecture it is interesting to look at the city scape and realise many of these colours do actually form the facade of our massive edifices.

The underlaying of stretch fabric and malleable unitards have outer layers of fashion clothing made of stiff plastics in blue and grey inferring our raincoats and fashion wear. The dancers begin with both layers, walking around the space in a randomly gridded construct but as the dance continues the layers slowly get stripped away one dancer at a time as they transform into the chaotic energy of nature.

Garden Dance is beyond energetic and Lloyd pushes her ensemble to physical extremes. We all know how athletic dancers are so to see them sweat and puff like this is to say this dance is really hard work. I am in two minds about how I feel about that because I am old school enough to have been trained to believe the magic for the audience is in not seeing how hard the work really is. That is more likely more of a flaw in my training rather than a problem with this dance. Nobody complains when footy players sweat and pant!

Rather than having music and sound booming across the gardens the audience are given headphones through which is piped the sound scape for the dance. What is intriguing is this means the dancers do not hear what we are hearing and are thus working to their own intentions and rhythms. Morrison's composition compliments the ideas of the work well, breaking down musical rhythm and jumping moments in connections with the dancers as they try to keep in step with each other and adjust their course, tempo, and lead foot to create unison - creating odd moments of randomness instead...

I tend to think Australian choreographers are world leaders in innovative dance and a lot of creative energy is spent investigating the body and breaking away from classical music led dance forms such as ballet, jazz, etc. Lloyd is probably going further than I have seen in a while and as you watch Garden Dance you may think anyone could do this. On one level you would be right. The moves are very much within (for the most part) the scope of normal human movement. Of course, in Garden Dance they are executed with the power and extension only professionally trained dancers could bring!

It also seems as if Lloyd's process in this dance is one of improvisation and game play. Across the course of the event (and eerily in time with the shifts in composition) Lloyd (and occassionally Jensen) call out instructions which act as prompts for the ensemble. Some such include "search" and "check point" amongst many others. I suspect out in the garden we would not be as aware of this. It is just an interesting process detail this rain day event gave me insight into.

Luckily the weather is beautiful today so whoever goes today will get the complete package, and with luck the weather will hold out for tomorrow although the dance is incredibly enjoyable in the hall as well - and perhaps a bit warmer... Not only does Garden Dance get us thinking about city versus nature (which is always an interesting binary at the Royal Botanic Gardens), but it also creates an exciting new context with which to view the gardens after the show. I recommend making a whole afternoon experience led by this event.

3 Stars

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Believers Are But Brothers - Theatre Review

What: The Believers Are But Brothers
When: 22 - 25 May 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Written by: Javaad Alipoor
Directed by: Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley
Performed by: Javaad Alipoor and Luke Emery
Set and lighting by: Ben Pacey
Video by: Jack Offord
Sound by: Simon McCorry
Javaad Alipoor and Luke Emery
We don't get a lot of home grown modern multimedia theatre in Australia so we need organisations such as Arts House to import it sometimes and show us what is possible. One such example is The Believers Are But Brothers which forms part of the Melbourne Knowledge Week program.

The question of how terrorist group ISIS was able to radicalize the male population of so many Western nations has perplexed us for a decade and Alipoor, as a British Muslim youth himself, decided to try and delve into the on-line world of post-truth reality to help us understand what has been going on better. Originally his idea was to understand what was going on with the ISIS brides phenomenon but as a male he found no entree into that space so, as he admits at the start of the show, this show is a space for men and this story is about men. As a woman I was excited and intrigued to look closely at a space I am not allowed to be in...

One of the greatest tools used by ISIS for recruitment was social media and Alipoor takes us into a world of messaging apps, online chat rooms, gaming, and political campaigns. He makes no judgement on the use of these tools but in the end I think the strongest inference becomes anything is possible and truth is malleable so the experience of being online will be anything you choose to be a part of. It will be light and fluffy and fun if that is what you want, but be careful who you let into your friendship groups because anyone can be anything and the tone and direction can change in a heartbeat.

As an enlightened theatre maker of the 21st century Alipoor not only lets us keep our phones on, but he also requests we keep our ring tones on. The show uses What's App to interact with willing members of the audience and the cacophony of messages is meant to be a part of the soundscape of escalation layering over McCorry's urgent and dangerous compositions. It was interesting and frustrating to see Melbourne audiences have been so cowed and beaten by the traditionalist presenters most could not bring themselves to obey these requests or some significant others - particularly at the end - which are so vital to the composition of the entire production.

The What's App interaction was quite intrusive, even to avid users but this was one of the points of The Believers Are But Brothers. The incessant interruption of conversation, links, and commentary add to a sense of discomfort and disgruntlement which can easily be displaced and transferred depending on what messages you are constantly receiving and what doors are being opened for you.

In a non-linear approach and something resembling a lecture Alipoor shifts from a history of internet memes, the Trump election campaign and it's international resonance (Clive Palmer was not alone in wanting to 'Make The World Great' again), Gamer Gate, and the stories of three young men who were recruited to militancy. What did they have in common? In the end it seemed to be a sense of disempowerment, a non-belonging, a sense of persecution from within their social environment, and perhaps the need to disappear down a rabbit hole to find their mojo, their purpose, their community?

The Believers Are But Brothers is a painful show, a relentless show, and an exhausting show. It does have brief moments of humour but in the end it answers no questions just as it tells no lies. This is reality. Hyper-reality.

Designed by Pacey, the stage is set up with two men (Alipoor and Emery) with complex tech gaming set ups with multiple screens facing each other and playing 'Call Of Duty'. Between them is a large screen separating them theoretically in time and space. On a more meta level this screen also resembled the board for the game Battleship and war rooms and surveillance control stations, etc. We don't engage with Emery at all, and he doesn't engage with us - kind of. I suspect he was the one in control of the messages which at times arrive at a breakneck pace then suddenly silence to extended lulls before starting up again.

Alipoor, on the other hand, switches between speaking to us directly and intimately to proclaiming over a microphone and then turning his attention back to the computers and speaking to us through the large screen. All of this reinforces the multimedia barrage of messaging coming at youth and the impossibility for our minds and senses to find time to ponder and analyse and apply critical thought and reason to the ideas.

In many respects the information was too fast and furious to follow any one thread in the story too closely, but if you think this is what you are meant to be doing you are missing the point. You CAN'T do it. All you can do is sort through the bits that you can grab and piece a picture together that matches your understanding of the world and gives you a sense of meaning and control.

I suspect The Believers Are But Brothers is going to be a real challenge for audience members who do not engage with social media. It may come across as a meaningless barrage of everything they hate and don't understand. Perhaps this is an important point too?

For the majority I really suggest you download What's App for the show (it's free) and engage. You can always uninstall it after the show as I have.I also highly recommend following the instructions because if you don't, nobody in the room gets the experience the theatre making team have set out to create.

On the other hand, perhaps not complying is a statement in itself...? This very line of questioning is all part of the quandary Alipoor is commenting on and questioning and this is what makes the show so good - and so frustrating!

4.5 Stars

Return To Escape From Woomera - Live Art Review

What: Return To Escape From Woomera
When: 21 - 25 May 2019
Where: The Stables, Meat Market
Created and presented by: Appelspiel
Set and Lighting by: Emma Lockhart-Wilson
Simon Vaughan and Nathan Harrison
It is Melbourne Knowledge Week all over town this week and, as usual, Arts House are bringing two fascinating, challenging, and conversation challenging events which push the boundaries of what is art and why we make it. The first of these events, Return To Escape From Woomera, opened last night in The Stables as the Meat Market.

Return To Escape From Woomera was commissioned and presented by Performance Space last year in Sydney. The creative team behind it, Applespiel, created this event as a step along the way towards a project with much greater scope - an idea which combines esports with a stadium experience. As the team were working through ideas it was Jeff Khan who suggested they look back at what activist gaming has been created in the past and this led them to Escape From Woomera. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

Escape From Woomera was a video game prototype developed with an arts grant from the Australia Council and was created by a group of 15 game designers and programmers in 2003 as a response to mandatory detention of refugees, the Tampa affair, and the ongoing human rights abuses. It is sadly incredibly appropriate to bring out the game again now with our Sovereign Borders policy and the even worse conditions we inflict on already traumatised refugees (at least 97% of which have been proven to be legitimate asylum seekers!).

At the time, the game prototype caused quite a controversy with the 1st person player engaging in a series of quests to lead to his escape from the Woomera detention centre.  Escape From Woomera is a point and click game built on the GoldSrc engine and is from the era where conversations appeared as text at the bottom of the screen.

Instead of having lives or energy, the character's life is displayed in a hope meter. Once you (Mustafa) run out of hope the game ends and you have to start again. All of the details in the game were meticulously researched and are as authentic as possible whilst also creating an intriguing gaming experience (for it's time). This is a single player game although there are a plethora of non-player characters to be interacted with.

In Return To Escape From Woomera up to 6 lucky people have the opportunity to play the game live with the audience watching the game play and with a panel of experts discussing issues surrounding the game and refugeeism at the same time. Before each new player begins Roberts tells us some history and facts about the funding controversy surrounding the game and Australian refugee policies over time. This is followed by some questions to and from the audience. When each player finishes their turn they are interviewed about their gaming experience from the players perspective and how much awareness of the political content were they affected by or engaged in. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

At the same time as the game is being played Vaughan and Harrison lead a discussion with two guests which may vary every night. On opening night one of the guests was Katherine Neil who initiated the original 2003 project, and the other was a refugee and advocate, Norman. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

For the first part of the night I found myself more intrigued by the game - both the play, but also Neil's stories about the surrounding controversies such as Phillip Ruddock's condemnation of funding for this kind of project and also - less well-known - the secrecy with which the gamers had to work. All of them published under pseudonyms because it was a breach of their work contracts to be engaged in this kind of project. Neil also talked about how nascent the idea of games as political tools was back then although it is becoming more common now. As Neil says, they were before their time. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

Once I understood how the game worked I became far more interested in the conversation Norman was engaging us in. As I said, the game measures character 'life' on a hope meter and Norman kept talking about how important hope is and how strenuously our detention centres work to take it away. I interrogated him further on his understanding of the word hope and it seems all he was talking about was giving people a reason to believe tomorrow is worth sticking around for - some good food, shelter, a kind word... What makes your tomorrow worth being here for? "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

The show blurb talks about the myth of Australia as 'the lucky country' but it is worth remembering white Australia was a penal colony long before it became a tourist attraction. It does not surprise me we do prisons well - it is in the very fabric of our DNA as a nation to lock people up and treat them cruelly. We are just getting better and better at it. First it was the POMEs, then it was our First Peoples, then it was the World War II immigrants, now it is the refugees. This is what we do and we do it so well some other countries are taking notes and emulating our horrid customs. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

One of the questions put to us last night was whether it is worth staging events such as Return To Escape From Woomera. I say yes. Even though not a peep was heard about our refugee national shame during the election campaign we have to keep the conversation going because once we stop questioning there stops being any reason for the Government to adhere to human values. Once the voices stop we lose our humanity. "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

Many ideas and thoughts are covered across the evening of Return To Escape From Woomera and this will be influenced by the panelists. The one thing which can be guaranteed though is incredibly stimulating ideas and a lot of sticky questions to ask of ourselves and each other. Oh, and the gamers all seemed to have a good time! "Playful is not trivial, and so we play."

3.5 Stars

Monday, 20 May 2019

It's Not Me, It's Definitely You: Songs of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen - Cabaret Review

What: It's Not Me, It's Definitely You: Songs of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen
When: 20 - 25 May 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Performed by: Lisa Woodbrook and Josh (piano)
Lisa Woodbrook and Josh

Lisa Woodbrook is probably a name and a face you have heard before as the Channel 10 'Eye In The Sky' traffic reporter but her real skill is as a performer. With an impressive voice and more stage presence than anyone has the right to possess, Woodbrook is indulging us this week with her 2018 show It's Not Me, It's Definitely You: Songs of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen at The Butterfly Club.

When she is not being a TV presenter, Woodbrook is gigging around town with her own jazz trio. Knowing this, it is no surprise she is attracted to the music of these two great English vocalists. Luckily for us, Woodbrook has the voice to match her ambitions and is accompanied superbly by Josh on the piano.

Pairing Allen and Winehouse is kind of obvious. Although Allen is more ska and Winehouse is more Jazz, there are similarities in sound and lyrics which Woodbrook demonstrates as she takes us through her dating traumas. Yes, the topic is a little banal but Woodbrook has a lively face and a hilarious insight to her behaviours which lifts the show above the ordinary.

This show is not just Woodbrook standing and singing great songs well. Woodbrook is energetic and animated and, as good as the singing is (and it is very, very good), I started to eagerly await the in-between commentary more than the music because she is just so funny and not afraid to hit below the belt.

This is of course aided by the clever lyrics of Allen, with the classic 'Not Fair' amongst others. Woodbrook covers a lot of the hits such as 'Smile' and 'Fuck You' and one of the great moments for me was being reintroduced to the clever and on point lyrics of Lily Allen. I had honestly forgotten how sharp and smart her songs were (are).

And yes, we all know how amazing Amy Winehouse was and Woodbrook treats us to great songs including 'Back To Black' and 'You Know I'm No Good'. I admit to being relieved she didn't sing 'Rehab'. It has been so overdone and would have ruined the intriguing freshness Woodbrook was bringing.

There is really nothing to fault about this show. Woodbrook keeps it stripped back and lean, focussing us on her personality and the songs which, when you are that talented is a safe bet indeed.

Oh alright, I did have one little bug bare. I do wish Woodbrook had polished her boots. There. I said it.  I also kind of felt myself wishing the venue was a more traditional table set up because there is something about this show which really yearns for the casual elegance and sexiness of round tables and a bar to go with the red velvet curtains and the red hot singer. Maybe next time...

Do you just want a lazy hour of sexy songs and fun to wind down from work or wind up to a big night of partying? I'ts Not Me, It's Definitely You: The Songs of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen will get you there. (And I highly recommend this week's cocktail 'Trio of Sips').

4 Stars

Six Moments In Kingston - Public Art Review

What: Six Moments In Kingston
When: 18 - 26 May 2019
Where: Kingston Town Hall
Created by: Tal Fitzpatrick, Kingston Koorie Mob, Laresa Kosloff, Shane McGrath, Spiros Panigirakis, and Steven Rhall
Performed by: Filipino Community Choir, Shane McGrath, Steven Rhall, et al.
Filipino Community Choir
Every suburb in every city across the world is a secret little hotbed of history and fascinating stories and Six Moments in Kingston is a sneak peak of just what kind of exciting and surprisingly important historical moments have taken place in Kingston. Purporting to cover a period from 1976 - 1981 this bus tour and public art event covers a period much greater than that with roots all the way back to WWI at least, and with strong links into what the future could hold.

Curated by David Cross and Cameron Bishop, Six Moments in Kingston includes a joyful, painful and mysterious collection of people and moments brought to life in a variety of mediums by local artists. There are videos, performance art, museum tours, and craftivism filling the supposedly 1 hour bus tour although my tour ended up being about 2 hours long. Maybe we were all just having way to much fun?

What I will say is an event like this is really as much or as little fun as you want it to be. Those who know me know I really like to get involved and respond to what is happening around me and I really think that is the only way to enjoy something of this sort. You also have the ability to sit back and wait to be 'entertained' in which case you may not have the best time of your life. Just like all of life, it is your choice. What you bring to it is what you will get out of it.

One of the resounding themes throughout the piece, perhaps surprisingly, is the role of protest and resistance and its effect on communities. This is the focus of Rhall's 4 installations across the event. Rhall has sought out significant moments of civil resistance such as a protest at the old Morris smokes factory and a tent protest outside city hall to illustrate how change is activated in community. In his piece protest he creates a performance installation which takes a historic worker's strike and subtly insinuates modern concerns such as racial and gender stereotyping to give it a contemporary edge.

The bus tour is narrated by Michael Caton who tells us stories as we come up to sites of significance in his wonderfully local vernacular. You do have to listen to what he is saying though or you will miss important information because none of the installations give context in and of themselves as some people discovered to their disappointment on the tour I was on.

Panigirakis invites us to consider bureaucracy as a form of art as he takes us to some heritage sites such as the Great Wall of Hillston. Along the way we are give copies of planning documents in his piece 'Figures, Notes and Amendments' which we can read through and ponder and chuckle at on the way to his family home.

We visit Moorabbin Oval where Phil Carman famously headbutted an umpire one fateful footy game day. Kosloff has created a wonderful video installation investigating that moment and I couldn't stop laughing as it brought to mind the Italian soccer team scandal a couple of World Cup's ago. With a slightly naughty edge it is also a heart warming homage to a game which means so much to so many Melbournians.

I was delighted to discover Melbourne has its own UFO sighting theory and I also got to indulge my inner Biggles nerd as we were told the tale of Fred Valentich and the day his plane went missing on the way to King Island. Did you know Moorabbin Airport is so big it is its own suburb? Did you know it is the 2nd busiest airport in Australia? I had no idea! And did you know Kingston is the home of the Australian National Aviation Museum?

The aviation museum is the only one in the world where you are allowed to sit in nearly every plane in the collection and they have all sorts! They have 1 of only 5 Beaufighters left in the world and they have a Victor lawn mower next to the plane which has a Victor engine. The mind boggles!

'Delta Sierra Juliet' tells us the story, and shows us the plane Fred Valentich flew on his fateful flight. We also hear some of the search investigation documents, statements and findings. This one is a conspiracy theorist's dream and on the bus some women started talking about UFO sightings over suburban schools!

The highlight for me was McGrath's performance march to the Parkdale childhood home of Rick Springfield. As we marched we sang along to 'Jessie's Girl' and as we came across a figure with a guitar rockin' out on the tale of a ute I begged him to let me have his babies. Some of us just never grow up...

There was so much else to enjoy on this tour including Fitzpatrick's entree into craftivism. I think though, in quieter moments on the bus, one of the things I enjoyed most was just seeing the suburban streets and contemplating how they are the same everywhere but how each one has it's own little stamp of unique identity - be it the garden, the fence, the cars, the curtains, the toys, etc. It also had me thinking how rare it is for us to take the time to just walk around our own suburbs and really look at the place and people we share our little piece of the world with.

Personally, I really enjoyed this insight into Kingston. I enjoyed it for the stories it told, but I also enjoyed it for the prompt it gave me to look more closely at the stories which surround me. I am also on the hunt for my very own local Rick Springfield now. And remember - 'Don't Talk To Strangers'. Just a warning though, this is not really an accessible event. If you can't walk without a mobility device you will struggle as there is a lot of getting on and off the bus and some walking and stairs.

3.5 Stars

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Pinocchio - Theatre Review

What: Pinocchio
When: 5 - 26 May 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Carlo Collodi
Directed by: Christian Bagin
Performed by: Jasper Foley
Design by: Eloise Kent
Masks by: Newmi Newman
Lighting by: Adelaide Harney
Sound by: Felix Watson
Jasper Foley
Pinocchio is a classic morality tale and fun adventure story written by Collodi in 1880 and it is one which has stood the test of time. Exciting imagination and bringing a whole new life to this favourite Rosa Campagnaro, Bagin, and Foley bring it back to life with an authentic, energetic and exciting remediation into the finest example of Commedia dell'Arte and it is at La Mama Courthouse this week.

Pinocchio is the story of a piece of wood originally intended to be a chair leg which, it is discovered, can speak. The lonely old wood carver, Geppetto, decides to carve him into a marionette and treats him like his son, including sending him off to school. Along the way Pinocchio gets distracted and goes on a whirlwind of adventures which lead to great misfortune brought about - just like the Greeks said - by his own flaws in character.

As he travels along and loses everything he learns to be kind and brave and eventually he is reunited with Geppetto and the Blue Fairy turns him into a real flesh and blood boy - a real son for the lonely old woodcarver. This story is so popular it has world wide translations and sales greater than all other non-religious texts!

The Make A Scene team have cleverly come up with the idea of pairing this funny, sad, scary and beautiful tale with the classic theatrical form Commedia dell'Art and have hit on perfection! Watching this production of Pinocchio it looks as if this is always how the story was meant to be told.

In many respects it should not be a surprise that this piece of classic Italian literature would meld so beautifully with Commedia - after all, they are cultural ancestors - but to see it before us is a marvel. What is also a marvel is the way the team have managed to make what could be dried up, outdated content and technique come across as so modern and fresh (and unutterably hilarious!).

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Circus is experiencing a renaissance and the clowning tradition is strong in our industry. What is Commedia but the highest form of clowning? Make A Scene have perfectly allocated the classic Commedia characters of Arlecchino, Pantalone, and Il Capitano (Pinocchio, Geppetto, and la Volpe) and there is even a cameo for an audience member to come on stage as Colombina (il Gatto).

There is lots of audience participation as sound effects and ad hoc characters (although Jiminy Cricket doesn't appear and, perhaps more surprisingly, really isn't missed in this production). At it's heart though, this production is a celebration of puppetry. The show links the technique of theatrical mask to the art of puppetry. Pinocchio takes us across the realms of mask, stringless marionettes, hand puppets, finger puppets, and shadow puppets (sans silhouette...).

The techniques slip seamlessly from one to the other within the confines of a puppet booth (a la the Puncinella tradition which became the Punch and Judy show) and out in the open stage and even, at times, into the audience. There are walls and they are constantly broken and I couldn't help wondering if this is what Brecht was exploring with his ideas on gestus and alienation...?

Bagin's direction is flawless but it would all come to nothing if Foley wasn't so incredible at what he is doing. His mask work and transitions are perfection and keep the story moving along at a good pace. Perhaps my one criticism is with a running time of 80 minutes it feels a little long for younger audiences and I did detect a bit of restlessness at around the hour mark although it quickly settled back down as Foley weaved his magic and kept us all laughing and oohing and aahing.

Kent's design is a wonder and the puppet booth is a gift which keeps on giving. It is like a Sarah Lee dessert with "layer upon layer" of secrets to be revealed. Newman's masks are also a wonder to behold. So evocative and detailed and embodying the Commedia traditions whilst also telling the story of Pinocchio.

Make A Scene have chosen to follow the story of this little wooden boy according to Collodi's original writings so it has some moments which are darker than a modern aesthetic generally allows. Some people will not like this at all, but I think when you present history you should present it faithfully so as brave as it is, I loved it. The world is not a Disney movie.

I really cannot speak too highly of this fantastic version of Pinocchio. If you don't see it you will miss one of the greatest things ever staged. It is a children's story but there is so much in it for adults! Oh, and it is bilingual but don't worry, you will be fine if you don't speak Italian and you may even come away knowing a word or two yourself.

5 Stars

Friday, 17 May 2019

Arete: Epsilon - Performance Review

What: Arete - Epsilon
When: 17 - 18 May 2019
Where: Cube 37
Playwrights: Matt Allen, Hayley Lawson-Smith, Lenora Locatelli, Harry Patermoster, Jonathan Simpson, Emma Sproule, Mitchell Sholer, Helmut von Push and Emma Workman
Directors: Lenora Locatelli, Gabrielle Rando, Naomi Woodward, Jonathan Simpson, Emma Sproule, Mitchell Sholer, Jet Thomas
Performers: Paul Barry, Anthony Bradshaw, Sophie Daddo-Langlois, The eMs, Max Gettler, Olivia Gyulavary, Annie Laurenson, Jane Leckie, Rosa Leonardi, Lenora Locatelli, Cadi MacInnes, Leikny Middleton, Josiah Moah, The Pythia, Gillian Scott, Jonathan Simpson, Mitchell Sholer, Fabrizio Spada, and Helmut von Push
Set design by: Sally Curry
Lighting by: Brad De La Rue
Stage managed by: Steven Goranitis
Olivia Gyulavary and Paul Barry
If you think theatre is an inner city indulgence you are wrong. It is the life blood of community and it is as vibrant - if not more so - the further you go from the centre point and is the life blood from which the inner city blockbusters draw their material and talent (unless you are in Australia in which case most of the material will be drawn from Europe or the USA - just sayin'...). One thriving urban outpost is Dionysus Theatre on the Peninsula who put on an annual short play festival called Arete, of which it's Epsilon season is taking place right now.

These short play festivals are hugely popular in Melbourne - mainly because few producers are prepared to invest significant resources into long form local play writing. The result is, of course, that Australian writers are becoming masters of the short quip and have few skills to develop works of social and historical impact and significance... I will get off my soapbox now.

On the positive side, these types of festivals are great for young performers and directors to dip their fingers in the water of their potential long term craft and thus we have Arete. Arete is a great initiative by Dionysus because their raison d'etre is supposed to be innovative performance but looking at their production history their only full productions are dusty old European 'classics' which do little to sustain our cultural health. (Major companies are you listening?)

Having had my little rant, I will say I really enjoyed the shape and format of Arete. It is not just the usual array of 10 - 20 minute plays cobbled together. Artistic Director Melanie Thomas has really thought about the audience experience and between the plays winds several small vignette pieces which, to be honest, are the best parts of the show. As well, she has created foyer exhibitions by local artists who are also working to this year's Arete theme: "Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind" - a quote from Marcel Proust.

Personally, I think this ideology is folderol. It is a very 20th century idea that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger but that century had to survive 2 world wars. I can forgive them for believing whatever they needed to believe to get through it. Unfortunately it has also become a free pass for painful and hurtful actions though so I would suggest in the 21st century we ought to be looking for a new standard. One where happiness is okay.

Speaking strongly to the old concepts of last century and the question of high art is the wonderful Helmut von Bush who weaves his stories and his teachings across the evening. From his work with Brecht to his break up with the Venga Boys, Bush montages images and ideas which defined the European aesthetic and psychology and in so doing smashes all of that rhetoric into dust clouds filling the air behind us. Haughty and hilarious, von Bush dares us to criticise what we see tonight as something less than art. I agree. Love it or hate it, rough or polished, what is presented is definitely art.

The true revelation and glory in Arete: Epsilon is the amazing Leikny Middleton who is the centre piece of Sproule's 'Growing Pain' collection of  vignettes across the program. Middleton is a young preteen and over the course of the evening we see her go from discovering the Where Did I Come From book, to learning the truth about Santa, and menstruating. Middleton is going to have a stellar career I suspect.

The most impactful play of the night for me was the first one, 'Happiness Is An Illusion' by Locatelli although I would have liked to see her hand the work to an experienced director. It has a lot of potential with an important story. A husband and wife together for decades. The wife realises she is unfulfilled and needs time out. The husband feels betrayed and resentful. "You chose this!" So much to be explored in this one small phrase...

'Second Chance' (Lawson-Smith) and 'Moving On' (Allen) are also intriguing scripts although the ideas need a bit more clarity, and 'Nothing Is Forever And Nothing Is Forever' (Workman) is stunningly directed. A big shout out to Laurenson who's depiction of Nan in 'Moving On' was full of depth and authenticity.

The skills and abilities of everyone were stretched in Arete, but I think young directors need mentorship on theatre craft. It is a bit rough for both the person and the audience to ask someone who knows nothing about the technical crafts of acting and staging to take on a leadership role. I don't think it helps anyone because bad habits can be formed and critical insight is unlikely to have been developed yet.

In a similar vein, some things should never be paid for to be seen and 'A Short Beautiful Moment: The Swan Story' (Sholer and Simpson) is one of those things. This piece of drivel is high school boy shenanigans and does not deserve time and resources - and a paying audience should not have to sit through such utter nonsense (it's not the good kind of nonsense...). Simpson does redeem himself at the end though with '"A Voice From The Past"; With Jeremy Hanson'.

Arete is a great version of the one act play festival and distinguishes itself with it's interconnections and holistic production. All of the scene transitions need to be sped up and choreographed more efficiently (the actors can help) and I did get tired of Curry's magnificent set piece being moved back and forth like a tennis ball. You know there are too many set changes when the audience have to sit through one for the curtain call as well!

Arete is a great local product and a part of the essential fabric of skill building and idea interrogation needed to create the great theatre of our future. I am really glad I got to see it and leave quite excited about a few of the participants.

2 Stars

Saturday, 11 May 2019

plenty serious TALK TALK - Physical Theatre Review

What: Plenty Serious TALK TALK
When: 9 - 11 May 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Created  and performed by: Vicki van Hout
Film performers: CloĆ© Fournier and Glen Thomas
Lighting by: Karen Norris
Sound by: Phil Downing
Vicki van Hout - photo by Bryony Jackson
Another great Yirramboi Festival event, van Hout's plenty serious TALK TALK is being presented at Arts House alongside Daddy. It is an incredibly clever pairing as both are dealing with the question of how a modern Aboriginal of mixed heritage combines their artistic training in Anglo style contemporary dance with the heritage elements of their indigenous ancestors.

Van Hout's conversation asks the huge questions of what is cultural appropriation, where is the line? Van Hout is a contemporary dancer trained in the Martha Graham traditions but, as she points out, Martha Graham is not her heritage so why is it okay if she uses it? On the other hand, why doesn't her Indigenous ancestry allow her to take historical moves and incorporate them into her artistry?

In this instance, van Hout is speaking to the hard line traditionalists - Mr Humble Pie as she refers to him. It is not an easy question or answer because it is always about doors being opened. Van Hout is an amazing dancer and as she demonstrates how beautifully she is able to marry both sides of her skills and traditions, it is also easy to see how people without the ancestry would see this and marvel and want to do it themselves.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Does it have a judgement value of this nature and if so how is it protected? Those questions are rhetorical. There is no easy answer and certainly not any someone of immigrant origin such as myself can address.

Now this all sounds like heavy serious stuff, but van Hout manages to make the entire 50 minutes a real hoot! She is as funny as she is serious and from the very first film clip where she is a TV presenter forced to do her own welcome to country. She moves into her live entrance combining stomping for country with lyrical dance, and traditional chanting with nonsense English which shows us she is pulling as many legs as strings of yarn off a conversational ball of wool,

Some transitions are less successful than others, more because they take a long time to reveal rather than that they are inherently flawed. The monologue about Miss Light Tan is one example, where she is basically quoting some sort of review which insists her work is inherently confusing because as a person of mixed ancestry she sits in a space of ambiguity - not unlike cronuts, cruffins, and umbrella ties...

Van Hout messes with us a little bit. Each of her sequences starts in different places - sometimes funny moving to serious and sometimes moving from serious to funny - and she never gives a hint until she makes the shift which keeps us in a delightfully awkward state of suspense and uncertainty.

The most powerful moment for me was the flashing hazard light and person being beaten in captivity which speaks so loudly to contemporary issues around Indigenous imprisonment, but which she then flips to represent her conflict with "TIs" regarding the use of Indigenous dance in her contemporary works. Eye opening in both levels indeed.

One of the great themes which keeps resonating is 'what is the cost'? Van Hout puts dance up for auction early on asking if could she sell a pas de bourre for a foot stomp or a jete for a dirt flick? She ends by asking how much she could get for her Indigeneity? After all, it apparently comes with a lot of 'free stuff'. There are some drawbacks she warns - such as a decreased life expectancy, etc.

Again, it all sounds so serious and it is but plenty serious TALK TALK is also a barrel of laughs. Van Hout takes the reverence out of ideas which should perhaps never be revered beyond question and conversation. Plenty serious TALK TALK was first performed last year at Riverside and I hope it is a show which gets remounted many times across the country.

4.5 Stars

Friday, 10 May 2019

Daddy - Physical Theatre Review

What: Daddy
When: 8 - 12 May 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Created and performed by: Joel Bray
Directed by: Stephen Nicolazzo
Composed by: Naretha Williams
Design by: James Lew
Lighting and AV by: Katie Sfetkidis
Joel Bray - photo by Bryony Jackson
Sadly the Yirramboi Festival is drawing to a close but there is still a chance to see great shows this weekend.  You may all remember my glowing review of Bray’s show Biladurang earlier this year. Well, he is back with a new show Daddy and this one packs a punch!

The themes of the two shows echo each other; disconnection from father, gay culture, pain, and colonisation. The difference is scope and scale. 

Biladurang rang with the intimacy of hotel rooms whereas Daddy echoes with the grandeur of the history of the world – black, white, and candy floss pink. Bray sugar-coats the pain of colonisation (literally with icing sugar) but as we, the audience, get to lick away the drug of fantasy sweetness we begin to expose the raw truth as Bray sees and feels it.

Daddy is visually stunning (not a suprise as it is directed by Nicolazzo and designed by Lew) and is excitingly dynamic. It begins with Bray posed on pink fairy floss cloud replicating that famous pose of the reaching hand painted by Michealangelo in Rome. 

Bray has the body of Michaelangelo's David too so he merges seamlessly into the renaissance art which he  writhes to replicate in a moving gallery of white, European, christian, canonical art brought down through the ages and dominating the Australian culture. He invites us to help him complete the mis-en-scenes as props and other characters populate the pictures and yes, we can take a photo if we want.

As Bray’s lithe body contorts a sexuality emerges and the subtle question is raised about the Church’s stance on homosexuality. As we partake of his body, licking away the sweet layers of sugar drug from his body the complexity of Bray’s narrative becomes clearer. 

Bray is a white Aboriginal and as he sits us down for a yarn he begins to lead us down the road of identity confusion and the cost. Bray’s confusion is incredibly multi-layered as it is for so many Indigenous Australians. He leans into stereotypes to show how true they are and yet how misleading and crippling they can be.

His whiteness of skin denies his family heritage, as do we when we demand he prove it (as has happened so many times in his life). The price we demand to acknowledge his Aboriginality is archaic cliches such as spear bearing, physical poses, etc - "the indigineous experience" as the Victorian Liberals called it in the last election. 

And yet as much as we demand his authenticity he has never been able/allowed to learn his native language which has been stolen along with generations of new borns. He makes the devastating point that the number of Indigenous children removed from their homes now s a staggering 80% higher than at the time of The Apology!

The generational sexual abuse within his family means he is disconnected from his father and will spend his whole life searching for it in his sexual relationships. It is not all doom and gloom as he takes us into the gay bars and teaches us some hot pick up dance moves.

Bray takes us on a journey from the Sistine Chapel to Chapel Street as he searches for the man he is supposed to be, the man he wants to be, and the man he needs to be – not just a puppet on colonial strings… He seeks answers on YouTube and investigates his art of dance to find a way to blend the two sides of his identity. 

He gets mad. Mad at himself and mad at us. He seeks solace in the crowd and scolds us within two heart beats. Bray cries out in pain and begs for understanding but we like our truths sugar coated and the whole thing ends with a big vanilla icecream sundae.

This season is sold out, so if you don’t have a ticket, you have missed. Hopefully this is show which will come back again and again though!

4.5 stars!