Saturday 18 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

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