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