Monday 30 November 2020

Swallow Walk - Live Art Review

What: Swallow Walk
When: 1 - 28 November 2020
Where: Edwards Lake, Reservoir
Created by: Sandra Fiona Long and Ria Soemardjo
Performed by: John Cheong-Holdaway, Christopher De Groot, Jeremy Dullard, Natalia Gould, Sandra Fiona Long, Ron Reeves,  and Ria Soemardjo
Ria Soemardjo, Sandra Fiona Long, et al

In the arts we often talk about wanting to affect all of the senses encompassed within the human body and in Swallow Walk Sandra Fiona Long and Ria Soemardjo have done exactly that. Swallow Walk is a meditative experience. It is a chance for you and your body to feel the world rather than think it, which is our normal state of being in urban life.

Long is a music and theatre artist who has lived near Edwards Lake for many years. She tries to walk around the lake every evening and in this troubling year of lockdowns she and her friend and collaborator, Soemardjo, have used the quiet and introspection of these months of isolation to create a way to share their personal experience of this beautiful lake with the rest of Melbourne. 

The challenges of how to share in a time of isolation has been the focus of Digital Fringe 2020. Swallow Walk, a Darebin FUSE project, is one of the few projects which has allowed us to have permission to be outside and engaging in a group art experience without putting anybody at risk. It exciting to realise Swallow Walk works under all restrictions regardless, though.

Down to the nitty gritty. What is Swallow Walk? Swallow Walk is a meditative soundtrack which takes you on a journey around Edwards Lake in Reservoir. Using ASMR (autonomic sensory meridian response) audio techniques, the percussive ring of Gamelan music, and stereo sound Long guides us along the paths of the lake whilst Soemardjo hums and croons in the background, much like the keening of the wind as it passes through the clouds of the gods.

This guided meditation is not just a set of directions though. Long and Soemardjo takes us on a sensory journey which delights the body and the soul. We are asked to pause along the way as Long talks about her connection to a big sheoak tree. She asks us to look at it closely, feel it, experience her memories of the lake, the birds, the tree. 

When the gong sounds we move on and as we move a chorus of voices play across our ears, listing all of the types of birds who migrate to and from Edwards Lake across the year, flitting in and out of prominence like swallows in flight. The next stop is another group of sheoaks and we are invited to stand inside the "nest", allowing the tall trunks to tower over us as our feet crunch the dried needle-like leaves which carpet the ground. We are wearing headphones but can still feel and hear the crunch as we step inside. As we look up to the branches and the sky we are told the story of a young chick learning to fly or die. 

Again we move on and Soemardjo's vocals take on a ticking sound like that of the insects as we get off the paved track and closer to the waters edge. We are invited to sit at a recess of rocks and watch the lake and the birds and the water overflow in the weir as Long gets philosophical. Speakly slowly, softly, close miked - every syllable elongated, every percussive consonant popped, every sibilant savoured - Long's voice creates frisson's of arousal, our spines tingling as we smell and taste the air of the lake. Our bodies are having a party while our minds have a rest.

Gamelan instruments join in the fun as we walk past the playground, their riotous but gentle sounds mirroring the laughter of family fun and children playing on the swings and in the sand pits. Being the first weeks out of lockdown people are making the most of their new found freedoms.

There are several more stops along the way and a variety of poetry and meditations, but perhaps my favourite was the last. At a wide open spot where the view is of the lake and the sky, Long and Soemardjo take us flying with the birds we are watching. As these beautiful creatures soar and swerve and dive and then do it all again the women sit us on their extended wings. Suddenly it is as if I am flying alongside, looking down at the lake, as free as the wind, as light as the air...

This is the experience of the standard event. With the easing of restrictions, this team were able to create some live performances to complement the tour on the last couple of days. 

For this, the sound track was split in two. At the end of the first part, two musicians sit facing each other in a little grove and play their Gamelan instruments in an improvised call and response. The beauty is they were responding to the sounds of nature as well as each other. For me there was a point of magic as a bird call became part of the percussive rhythm and blended with the resonances of the Bonang as if they too were a part of the Gamalan Ageng.

At the end of the walk Long, Soemardjo and the rest of the Gamalan Ageng sat together and played along with each other and the lake, those ancient Indonesian instruments resonating with their environment gently, with love, with care. It was not a concert. It was an amplification of nature. 

The beauty of Swallow Walk is many fold. It creates inner peace and reconnects us with our bodies as well as connecting us with the Lake - it's habitats and it's inhabitants. It is nature as beauty sitting enmeshed with beauty manmade resulting in beauty as experience. It is ephemeral and real at the same time.

My great hope for Swallow Walk is that it becomes a permanent community resource. The work is timeless and can become part of a permanent community experience. 

5 Stars

Friday 27 November 2020

My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me - Physical Theatre Review

What: My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me
When: 25 - 28 September, 2020
Where: Digital Fringe
Created and performed by: Sara Caputo
Composition by: Josh Mitchell

Sara Casus

There is something which can be achieved with Digital Fringe which is almost impossible in a standard theatre and this is something which - if you take the artist's suggestion - is perfectly exemplified in Sara Caputo's new solo piece, My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me. You can imagine what I am about to describe or you could just experience for yourself by registering for the show.

There you are, lazing indulgently in a warm bath, glass of wine in hand, the only light a candle or two flickering in the steam.. Bubbles are optional. On your laptop or tablet, skillfully balanced, you watch a woman almost asleep, naked in a steaming bath as well. You want your audience to empathise? You want them to get into the world of the character? It is impossible to create a stronger connection than something like this in my opinion.

A very soft soundtrack (Mitchell) creates a dreamy, surreal atmosphere. We supply the surround sound as our bath water swishes to her slow and lazy movements. She immerses her head dreamily then rushes to the surface gasping for air, a look of shock on her face. It is only a small disruption before she returns to the cosy, safe embrace of the water. It is enough, though, to tell us something isn't right.

In a sudden transition we find ourselves in a different bathroom. This one cold, stark, black and white, brick walls, concrete flaws, exposed cables. Suddenly things aren't cosy, things aren't safe. Caputo is still in the bath but that amniotic fluid is not longer there to protect her/us. There is no warm steam to open the lungs. The world is cold and harsh.

This woman is not alone, but there is no one except herself and reflections of herself projected onto the wall behind her in a 3 tier cascade. What ensues is a struggle to find herself. If she cannot look at herself, how can anyone see her?

Caputo has a strong background in physical theatre. In full disclosure I worked with her on a physical theatre piece back in Fringe 2012 called Self Contained Spaces. In that work I had her trapped in a light box, tied up with bungy chords, caught like an insect in a trap. Working with her, I discovered Caputo to be one of the bravest and most committed artists I have worked with. Risk is her alter ego and she was never reluctant to go to the dark places I sent her, working as hard on her own as she did in her time with me in rehearsal.

Caputo took a bit of a sabbatical over the last few years but has decided to come back to performance despite (or perhaps because of) the crazy 2020 we have all experienced. My Heart Is Aching is the perfect launch for her talents.

My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me is the story of a woman struggling to emerge from a self-made cocoon, an intriguing reference to Melbourne's emergence from lockdown perhaps? In the blurb Caputo refers to escaping addiction. I got the feeling the addiction sitting behind this piece was a man and it reminded me of Alyssa Trombino's monologue 'Love Or Euphoria' in Freshly Minted

Regardless, as Caputo writhes and struggles within the confines of her bath tub it is clear the struggle of withdrawal, the lure of relapse, and the pain of facing reality, facing herself are tearing her apart. Perhaps the bath is the only thing holding her together...

The physicality of the work is a very modern, non-literal approach. There is definitely a Butoh base and I also detected Laban in some of the etudes. 

My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me does have text, but it is sparse. It is emotional, and expressive, and explosive. Occasionally the words are lost through the movements and/or the natural reverberation of the space but I am not sure it all needs to be heard. It needs to be felt and to be understood but that does not always involve hearing each syllable of speech. Listen closely to the closing refrain though. You will also hear nuggets of insight throughout such as "No lies left to tell now that your gone", "Everyone around me gone", and the all important "I don't want to change!"

Mitchell's soundtrack isn't across the whole work, but travels the emotional journey perfectly. My one complaint is that the first piece of music is too soft. Many of us in the chat room thought the sound was missing until someone suggested we turn our sound up to full. Even then it was only a whisper. It is fine once the show moves into the white room though.

A solo work, Caputo does not move/dance alone. The three iterations of herself in the bath dance a wracking pas de trois and I can't express how impressive the choreography and execution are for her to have danced all three parts in such perfect timing. At one point there are even 5 of her intertwined as 2 shadows cleverly integrate into the ensemble. It is this which really sets My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me above more standard fare.

Caputo has chosen to film the show for Digital Fringe to avoid technology problems (smart woman), but My Heart Is Aching can/will translate beautifully into a live show if she wants to travel down that path. Sadly, the audiences probably won't be able to bring their own baths...

4 Stars

Tuesday 24 November 2020

#txtshow (on the internet) - Live Art Review

 What: #txtshow (On The Internet)
When: 24 - 29 November 2020
Where: Digital Fringe
Created by: Brian Feldman
Performed by: Brian Feldman and Morgan Johnson

#txtshow (on the internet)

COVID 19 has kicked the live performance world in the guts, it's true. But what has emerged is an exciting army of artists who have not let themselves be cowered into hiding. Some have tried to tame the beast which is internet performance, some have tried to play with the beast, and then there are artists like Brian Feldman. A devotee of meaningful coincidence (or synchronicity) in his art, Feldman allows the audience to play with each other through Zoom.

From what I can make out, #txtshow (on the internet) is doing the fringe festival circuit across the world - something which has become so very much easier and accessible to artists and audiences alike in this lockdown era. The event has arrived in Melbourne. I suspect the outcomes will have a very unique flavour with this city having just emerged from 6 months of hard lockdowns (give or take a few weeks in the middle).

#txtshow is something of a 'write your own adventure' exercise. Everyone turns up to a Zoom meeting. Feldman walks in with nary a word and then he starts reciting whatever people type into chat. He doesn't just speak it though. He acts it out, trying his hardest to incorporate meaning and intention into what is, effectively, a garble of ideas and outlooks. 

I suspect our isolation brains are going to come up with some rather curious existential thinking after having been confined in body and spirit for so long. I know my writings were very Beckettian indeed.

Before going further I need to explain Feldman's artistry because on the surface it could be mocked as random. Actually, it is random, but that is the intention.

Carl Jung first coined the phrase synchronicity and defined it as two or more events, seemingly unrelated, occurring at the same time and thus creating a relationship. One of the most prominent proponents of meaningful coincidence (synchronicity) was John Cage. He loved it when unexpected sounds such as rain, or trains, or coughing, or bells, or sirens happened at the time of his performances. 

This was the genius of his famous 4'33" - a composition of complete silence. It wasn't about the silence. It was about whatever sound happened in these moments of not playing instruments.

This is the aesthetic Feldman plays with in his art. He sets up a conceit and then lets whatever happens happen. This is the magic of #txtshow (on the internet). Feldman has created a space and an idea and it is up to us to play with the toy he has given us. We find our own way to fun and inspiration.

There are some soft rules to make sure we feel a sense of community. The screen manager (Morgan Johnson) greets us all, explains what is going to happen, and asks us to turn on our cameras and microphones so that we can see and hear each other. Feldman walks into a stark white room with only a table, chair, and his mobile phone. Anything which appears in chat he will recite. Those are the only words we will hear him speak, and the only actions he will make. He is our puppet.

The performance I attended only had a few people so more of my text was performed then may be the case in a larger crowd. It had the weird effect of getting me ridiculously immersed in my own existential drama and I found myself resenting the intrusions of the other writers at first. For the most part I was able to follow their lead but there is a weird lag and the story moves on to something else before you have a chance to hit send. These interruptions, these meaningful coincidences, are analogous to life though. I know I am always getting interrupted on my life path and sometimes there is no going back to that distant yellow brick road.

I found this hilarious and I discovered a rhythm, keeping lines short (almost like a poem) and trying to keep them provocative rather than closed. Our story ended up being something about a cat named Ginger who had entered our Irish white cell several years after going on safari with our pleasant blueberry landlord... The only thing I can add is there was whisky involved.

A word of warning - the camera is on. You can choose to ignore that request, but where's the fun in that? Having been in isolation since forever, completely alone, my brain did not register this until I saw myself and realised I wasn't wearing a bra and my hair was a little bit too messed up to be called fashionable. For everyone who was in the Zoom room with me - I am sorry! I was too busy laughing and typing to do anything about it though.

Apart from the story, however, another strange thing happened. I started to get up close and personal with my inner conspirator. I found myself wondering if everything txt (Feldman) was saying was written in chat or if he was introducing his own stuff. I will never know and it doesn't matter. I don't think that is true because it doesn't match with his artistry but, dammit, the idea still lingers refusing to be swept into the rubbish bin where it belongs.

Another thing I realise as I write this review is the microphones were on. We all could have spoken during the event but we didn't. Talk about an opportunity missed! We are all too Zoom whipped I guess. I will never know if txt would have moved if I gave a verbal instruction. I could have collaborated with my fellow writers about the story being told. I could have sung to a captive audience! 

#txtshow is whatever you want to make it. I suggest going with friends. You will know how they write and think and you may discover artistic synergies which have been lying under the surface just waiting for a meaningful coincidence to emerge. Another word of caution: txt says everything you type including typos. That has it's own irruption of reality fun and games layered in. 

In #txtshow (on the internet) Feldman teaches us to have fun with a technology those of us in Melbourne have been slave to for most of 2020. I wish Digital Fringe had happened at the start and not the end. Lockdown would have been much more fun now that I am discovering all these great games and ideas. Of course, it is meaningful coincidence that this is happening now and not then. Enjoy your own personal synchronicity!

4 Stars

Sunday 22 November 2020

Freshly Minted - Theatre Review

What: Freshly Minted
When: 22 November, 2020
Where: La Mama Online
Written by: Fergus Black, Brigid Charis, William Foley, Georgi McLaren, Erin Miller, David Rorkell, and Alyssa Trombino, 
Performed by: La Trobe University students and alumni

The Bugs

La Mama is famed for providing presentation partnerships with the universities across Melbourne and the most recent collaboration is this year's digital festival, La Mama North Fringe, which is a presentation of works by La Trobe students and alumni. COVID 19 meant the annual La Trobe Moat Festival couldn't happen and La Mama North has the potential to become a regular part of the annual programming for both entities.

La Mama North consisted of 2 Zoom performances, an audio drama, and Freshly Minted. Freshly Minted is a collection of 20 minute Zoom performances written and performed by current students and alumni and it is a fascinating collection indeed! Between 12pm and 4:30pm a collection of 7 short plays and monologues were performed with breaks in between.

What impressed me most about Freshly Minted was the incredible variety of styles and techniques used across the program. It is true that most of the pieces were reacting to the pandemic in some form or another, but the variety of responses was intriguing and exciting.

The program began with Erin Miller's 'The Bugs' - a tense little thriller about infection, isolation, and desperation. 4 people have been sedated, kidnapped, and locked into hermetically sealed isolation chambers. Why? Who did it? What is going on? Will they make it out alive? 'The Bugs' is an intriguing new take on Satre's No Exit. I would love to see this expanded into a film.

Georgi McLaren explored the processes of grief and loss and the difficulties of maintaining relationships for a society in isolation in her play 'The Cat'. A cat is run over by a car and taken to the vet. A young woman is looking for her only friend in a world which has been difficult beyond belief. Two young lovers find communication difficult in a world where connection only occurs through Zoom and texts. In the middle stands a caring vet. Friendship, love and compassion are explored with insight in this tight little drama.

The other play in the Freshly Minted program was Fergus Black's film noir story 'All Hail The Lizardman!'. Whilst the title may put you off and the play is definitely unfinished, the confidence and competence of the film noir style is excellently executed. Characters have names like Credence, Bucky, and Jack and the Narrator does most of the story telling with the characters just saying their lines at the appropriate moments. The writing style is chock full of metaphor and simile, the lighting was shadowy and there were even the iconic louvres in place. I can tell you the plot revolved around a mayoral election and a suspicious video which turns up at the offices of The Daily Witness. What will the newspaper do with it? We never really find out but this could be a really fun and meaty story if it is ever developed.

The other 4 items in the program were monologues. William Foley presented a wonderfully lyrical piece about finding one's way through a disfunctional family to life as a gay man. Foley's writing is lyrical and evocative, if a little narratively disconnected. There is an element of stream of consciousness here. To be honest I found myself wishing he had committed to the idea of an extended poem. I hope this is the direction he takes it in the future. Having said that, the framing of his Zoom window with a real gumtree was stunning and at one point he dances along with the tree in the wind. It was magical.

There was one piece I hated - sadly it was the last one in the program which left me disappointed. David Rorkell's 'The Covid Cave: An Experimental Musical' was appalling and insulting. It is a shame because he worked with some extraordinary puppets but there was no real intent to produce something for an audience. You can call me old fashioned, but to me a musical has to have songs and perhaps some dance. Dressed in a friars hessian garb, surrounded by great puppets and a glowing orb, Rorkell proceeded to fill his time with what could easily be mistaken for a marijuana induced improvised stream of consciousness going nowhere. Every short play festival seems to have one of these things and it is almost always young white males who think they have a right to do this. They don't.

But I have to finish with what were, for me, the two great triumphs of Freshly Minted. Both Brigid Charis and Alyssa Trombino wrote and performed monologues which were truly great in both content, and performance. Charis talked about growing up mixed race in Australia and Trombino dealt with the issue of domestic violence. 

Charis is of Samoan heritage and talks about how her parents encouraged her to learn tennis as a child to help fit in. All Charis wanted was to fit in but all people could see was her non-anglosaxon skin tones. She jokes about it but eventually the rage erupts. At some point she goes to spend time on her mother's native island, Savai'i. She learns the stories and the traditions and they giver her a nickname which is the title of this piece- 'Palagi'. She feels special and included for possibly the first time in her life. And then she asks what palagi means... As well as an amazing story, Charis also demonstrated wonderful theatre craft and was the first person to perform physically, created relationships throughout the piece between herself and the Zoom frame, and thus between herself and the audience. Just because you are performing on Zoom doesn't mean you disappear into a static human bust. Charis showed us how it's done.

Trombino showed us even greater skills as she  took a long hard look at life as a woman in an abusive relationship in 'Love Or Euphoria'. Trombino careened around her house just like her character is careening around her relationship. Trombino has spent a lot of time making sure she had all of her frames worked out and although the performance was one uninterrupted stream, it was like watching those really cool ads where images slide into other images. Trombino's character takes us back and forth across time as she tries to explain her relationship with Luke. She explores young love and the traces and hints of control and abuse which start early but aren't seen until much later. I was particularly shaken by the observation, "Every bruise resulted in a gift. The bigger the bruise, the bigger the gift. My friends were so jealous." Trombino's character get's out after a near death experience. A lot of people aren't that lucky.

Freshly Minted was surprisingly refreshing and interesting. It is true that La Trobe Creative Arts students generally don't have the acting skills of the big universities, but their ideas for stories and story telling ideas are up there with the best for the most part. They have braved the digital environment with competence and I like this format too. My one suggestion would be to have a bell or something 2 minutes before each piece so that the audience have time to get back to the computer if they have used the break to do something.

I really like Freshly Minted - especially for audiences. It is much more likely I would watch something like this again on Zoom then that I would go to a live venue to see a program of this nature. On the other hand it is also a great way to test out ideas and see which ones can go further, and is a great place play with style.

4 Stars

Saturday 21 November 2020

A Red Square - Live Art Review

What: A Red Square
When: 14 - 29 November 2020
Where: Delivered to you
Created by: Pony Cam

The first thing I need to say is do not be fooled by this image! A Red Square is definitely Adults Only. Believe the content warnings when they say it contains "Violence, Self Harm or Suicide, Sexual References, Death, Murder".

The second thing I need to say is that A Red Square is truly post-dramatic in that late 1970's, stream of consciousness kind of way so whatever I say it is about will be meaningless. Perfectly post-dramatic in the academic sense, A Red Square is a seeming jumble of ideas and found objects and trains of thought which are brought together in a completely unique (and probably incomprehensible) combination of signs and symbols which some will revere and others will shy away from in horror and despair. This is trademark Pony Cam.

So what is A Red Square? To begin with, this event is a PowerPoint presentation. Upon registration, a USB memory stick will be delivered to your door. It will include instructions and 3 Powerpoint files - Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. The presentation works in a similar fashion to those flip through animation books and how seemless your animation looks will depend on how fast you click through the slides. Some you can pass by quickly, some you will need to linger on, and you may find yourself having to go backwards every so often thinking you missed something connecting the dots. (You probably didn't because a lot of dots aren't connected...).

WARNING: Each file contains around 1500 slides so you may want to switch between using your mouse and the arrow keys on your keyboard to prevent RSI! Also, it took me quite a bit longer than the suggested 50 minutes to get through all three acts...maybe I was thinking about it too much?

Act 1 lures us into what looks like a sweet and lovely animation. Two red squares meet, date, and marry. They then decide to adopt a little red square from the local orphanage. Little red square comes home but has some very odd nightmares and this is when Pony Cam start to hint that this story is not going to go where you think it will. The journey to follow is more shocking and graphic than I ever thought geometric shapes in Office Suite could ever take us. This is where the trigger warnings kick in and I cannot stress enough to please, please, please take them seriously! On a weirder note, some viewers may even end up giving themselves a 'happy ending' long before the show is even over ;)

Acts 2 and 3 hit post-dramatics hard and fast. Without giving away too much, one of the parent squares go in search of their missing little square and does a deep dive into Google. On the way they discover Liam Neeson and his movie Taken and a new obsession is born. 

Perhaps the one over-riding theme I can find - assuming there is one - is the act of searching. The red square searches for love, for family, for information, for praise, for revenge, for accomplishment, for peace...

I can't really speak in too much detail because I don't know how individual each USB version of A Red Square is. What I do know is that Pony Cam made me a part of their art (this is the "non-consensual:" aspect of the show) along with Liam Neesom, but I have read another review which suggests that reviewer was placed in the art instead. I don't know if everyone who receives A Red Square gets themselves in the work or if there are specific versions.

I was fascinated with my version though, because it established a dance between me and them which began with their Butterfly Club show Chook. I was invited to come and review, which I did. In my version of A Red Square my review featured prominently, especially a quote  "What I would like to see is a greater commitment to dramaturgy". It comes up time and again as the red square goes to drama school and culminates with a theatre full of Samsara's applauding their work. This dance ends, I presume, with this review as the coda.

Pony Cam is a company which is diving head long into post-dramatic theatre. It has been a while since companies have engaged so vigourously. You might recall the works of The Wooster Group, Goat Island and, more recently, Forced Entertainment perhaps. 

I feel as though the world has moved on a bit from this kind of stream of consciousness work for the main part. Especially when it lacks the protest passions of a social movement such as feminism, racism, classism, etc. Raw intellect in theatre can end up being theatre for theatre people and then the semiotics become meaningless - even when they are assumptively meaningless to begin with.

On the other hand, as we saw with all the crises at the start of the last century, confusing and difficult times give rise to confusing and difficult art. It is no surpise that the COVID 19 pandemic of 2020 is attracting artists to create work which as much of a whirlwind as our understanding of the world and our lives is right now.

One of the things I encouraged in the Chook review was for Pony Cam to not be afraid to go wherever their dark and crazed minds take them and they have definitely done this with A Red Square. If you take the risk and explore this work, you will be affected, you will be confronted, you will be challenged. You will feel, you will think, you will wonder. You will experience A Red Square in a way which is deep and rare. You may possibly even get a duet with the company while you watch...?

And now I take a bow because my dance has finished and yours is yet to begin.

3.5 Stars

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Songs Unsung - Music Review

What: Songs Unsung
When: 18 April 2020
Where: YouTube
Performed by: Daniel Assetta and Nicholas Griffin
Lighting by: Peter Rubie
Daniel Assetta
The internet is full of people finding ways to express their work in a live format whilst keeping themselves and the rest of the community safe. Sole Sessions has found a way to allow performers who have lost their gigs a chance to perform and earn at least a bit of money to help them get by.

Daniel Assetta leads the charge with his half hour homage to musical theatre in Songs Unsung. The show took place live on the 18th April, but with the magic of YouTube you can listen to Assetta's magical voice (and Nicholas Griffin's excellent keyboard skills) as often as you like. It's better than radio because you don't have annoying announcers or ads or competitions!

Assetta is a musical theatre star in the making and whilst I can't comment on his dancing, I can tell you his voice is one of those magical tenors which give you goosebumps in the higher notes. You don't have to believe me. Check it out for yourself.

I do think he was a bit nervous at the start which had his vocal chords a bit tight, but as he settled in the true beauty he has been gifted with was able to be set free. Assetta is still young and with a voice this good now, I can't wait to hear how his voice develops over the next few years.

Part of the nerves comes from the fact this is new format for him. He has always been surrounded by all the people, rigmarole, and narrative which comes with a musical theatre production. In Songs Unsung Assetta strips all of that away and it is just him, a pianist, and a microphone.

Assetta has chosen some of his favourite songs including my favourite, 'Somewhere'. The songs include 'Don't Rain On My Parade', and 'Losing My Mind' amongst others. Assetta also apparently has an unhealthy love of Disney. I forgive this though, because his Disney medley was so incredibly well constructed and sung so gloriously.

Assetta tells us a bit about himself and his connection to these songs, but he keeps it short and very authentic which helps really show up the live aspect of the show. My only complaint is I would have liked him to look to the audience (camera) sometimes to keep us connected.

There are critics who might say you don't get the atmosphere of live performance in this format but the live chat really makes the audience feel connected to each other and the performer. No, it's not the same, but it is pretty damn good!

Sole Sessions are ticketed events, but each performer also has a tipping mechanism (Assetta's is PayPal) and the details are available as captions on the screen as well as a link being in the description. You can pay whatever you can or whatever you think his work is worth. In this case you are probably going to want to pay a decent tip I reckon.

The Sole Sessions format, which is the brainchild of Amylia Harris, Leila Enright and Jeremy Willmott, is a very clever idea and a great addition to the online live offerings available at the moment. This live performance online outreach trend is exciting and this team is doing it extremely well. Productions values (image, sound, and lighting (Rubie)) are excellent. Keep an eye out for the next one!

4.5 Stars

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Cooped Up Cabaret - Cabaret Review

What: Cooped Up Cabaret
When: 4 April, 2020
Where: Zoom
Created and presented by: Sophie deLightful and Timothy Christopher Ryan
Performed by: Avril Angel, The Mighty Ceasar, Celestial Circus, Evelyn Coulson, The Old Married Couple, Sophie deLightful, Monty Montgomery, Kitty Obsidian, Timothy Christopher Ryan, and Kindled Spirits
The Mighty Ceasar
So you think live performance is on sabattical because of physical distancing? Not on your life. Artists are racking their brains and working around the clock finding ways to not only bring performance to the audience, but more specifically to bring live performance into your home. Two of the trail blazers in this arena are Sophie deLightful and Timothy Christopher Ryan with their fortnightly Zoom offering, Cooped Up Cabaret.

Yes, it's not the same as being squashed into a dark black hole with a bunch of stangers and forced to be silent for an hour or more, but that is it's strength. And no, it is not reality TV... or perhaps it is more true to say it is real reality TV rather than that highly produced and manipulative thing we have on our televisions using that name. In fact, I am so inspired by the Zoom platform I have my very own variety offering heading your way soon!

Artists have always taken technology out of it's natural habitat and employed it creatively to bring truth and beauty into the world and Zoom is just the latest in that honored tradition. Zoom is a flexible meeting platform and really does lend itself to cabaret style shenanigans.

Zoom is a live platform. The difference between what we might usually define as live theatre is that the performance comes to the audience rather than the other way around. It also means the frame is changed. Now live performance has to consider the camera view much like film, but it is still has that immediacy and potential risk of all live performance. It also has the added benefit that not all performers need to be in the same city... or even country!

Whilst I don't know if this new development will survive in its current form past the end of isolation, I can state with absolute certainty, the aesthetic and language will become a regular feature of traditional live performance. Let's face it, this concept of things happening in boxes has always been a feature of the stage...

I will be honest. This first iteration of Cooped Up Cabaret had technical problems,he biggest of which was Eurovision clogging the internet. The team were not deterred however, and though the show started late, it was glorious and brave.

The line up was as diverse and exceptional as any normal cabaret. The show had a bit of everything: Performance poetry, cheeky burlesque, fire and light manipulations, dance, the lollipop pole, aerial acrobatics, mime. What more could you ask for?

There were some technical issues including switching problems, lighting problems, and camera lag, but for a first go this was pretty good. What it didn't lack was talent, artistry, and professionalism. It was great to see how everyone had really considered the camera point of view, although I think some artists might need to consider using external cameras because built in computer cameras just aren't designed to cope with complex images. Having said that, in some acts such as the light manipulation by Kindled Spirits the lag actually enhanced the performance because it caused a strobing effect!

Perhaps my favourite act of the night was the dance routine by The Mighty Ceasar. Here is a performer who really understands his art form and the camera lense. Creative concept and so well constructed! This dance (along with deLightful's full bodied rendition of 'Let It Go'), reminded me of what true cabaret is about. In essence it takes the ugly and makes it beautiful, and takes the beautiful and makes it ugly all in the same breath. It shows both sides of the coin. Life doesn't always come up heads.

I also loved The Old Married Couple's songs about isolation, Kindled Spirits' light manipulation, and the amazing acrobatic lollipop pole routine by Celestial Circus. My award for best costuming goes to Kitty Obsidian, and cutest joke goes to Timothy Christopher Ryan's new kink.

Cooped Up Cabaret is a ticketed event which will take place fortnightly, with the next performance scheduled for this Saturday evening. As well as buying your ticket you will be encouraged to tip your favourite performers or the whole cast via PayPal. I think for the near future tipping art you like is how performers are going to survive across all art forms. Think of it like crowd funding or dropping money into a busker's hat. Also, the performers may change with each performance as is the tradition in the world of burlesque/cabaret.

I am very much looking forward to Cooped Up Cabaret becoming a regular feature and it makes a perfect in house date night. The first show was a little long but the hosts will stream line the process as they become more familiar with the technology. They even have a built in intermission so you can go and grab your second bottle of wine.

2.5 Stars

Friday 3 April 2020

The Glam Gizmo - Podcast Review

What: The Glam Gizmo
Launch Date: 28 March, 2020
Written and produced by: Tom Denham
Featuring: Clint Facey and AJ Winters

The Glam Gizmo is the newest podcast out of the SYN stable and it takes off like a rocket. Created by writer and engineer Denham, The Glam Gizmo is sci-fi comedy horror filled with all the best Scooby Doo style plot points and effects needed to keep us guessing and keep us laughing at the same time.

Full of a certain macabre humour, the best thing about The Glam Gizmo is the characters. Whilst the two leads, Max (Facey) and Lucy (Winters) are Everyman characters, the supporting characters are a total hoot. They are ghoulish and gruesome in a hilariously loveable way.

The set up is fairly straight forward. Oliver Keppel (Stefan Bradley) has created a device which rips holes between different dimensions and strange phenomena are crossing over into our world. In this first episode it is the snakeman Boltizor (Anthony Bradshaw) who is into puppet taxidermy and is stealing people's skin and covering them in felt.

The puppets Bumble and his friends are a hoot and the character Soup Of The Day (Michael Langan) could be straight out of Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy! Denham even makes a cameo appearance in this first episode as Dr Paradox. He saves the day but then leaves the rest of the work up to his new unwitting recruits, Max and Lucy.

The sound design is pacy and creative and I really enjoy how Denham keeps us shifting from scenario to scenario with no warning. It keeps us wondering what is going to happen with only the odd moments of feeling a bit lost.

Denham is an engineer not afraid of processing and he has a lot of fun with characters although I do find myself wondering how he is going to keep up the originality with this pace of story. That will be part of the fun and magic to be explored along with the story as I keep listening.

I do have a few little niggles. I think there is a bit of overprocessing at times - such as the introduction - when it is hard to understand what is being said. Denham needs to remember audiences are hearing these words for the first time and they pass by quickly. It is an issue if what is being said has important plot information.

I also found Facey to be a quite dull and lifeless Max. He lacks urgency and energy and, at times, steps out of his character reality to telegraph the joke. For example, when he is told he might be evicted he sounds disinterested rather than stressed, and when Max tells Lucy he didn't know she had a bike Facey sounds like he is delivering a punch line. It is funny, but not for Max. If other cast were doing this it would work, but all of the other actors are playing the truth in their world so Facey needs to do that as well.

This is not a big hurdle though, because there is so much going on and the story has been set up so every episode (dropping on Saturdays) has guest artists who will help this hapless duo seek out the Keppel Machine and repair the rift between dimensions, restoring order to the world.

The show is around 30 minutes which is a good length. You get a nice chunk of story which doesn't put a dent in your day. And you get a whole lot of laughs with sci fi and crypotological jokes.and just enough blood and guts to keep the cynical amused!

4.5 Stars

Sunday 22 March 2020

True Story - Book Review

What: True Story
Publication date:  4 August 2020
Written by: Kate Reed Petty
Published by: Quercus
True Story, by Kate Reed Petty, is the first book I have read from start to finish without getting sidetracked by other books in a very long time. It is also the first book, I think, I have ever read which made me want to start again straight away.

True story is unique in its construction although it has a very clear provenance from James Joyce's Ulysses.This horror/crime novel is written as a collection of literary styles, all of them swirling in a Vorticist style, to bring us a sense of truth in a world built on stories.

Petty's writing always has a sense of being a third party, almost witnessing, account. It is something about the short sentences and the dearth of metaphors and similes which give it a dispassionate, straight to the point kind of feel. Add to that her penchant for using alternate text forms to tell the story, and you have the feeling that you are putting together the story or 'case' just as if you are a detective.

It is also what makes elements of this tale so visceral and terrifying. There is something about 'witnessing' horrifyingly inevitable events dispassionately which really gets the heart thumping in frustrated terror. I found myself wanting to scream at the pages to tell the characters not to do what they are about to do, just like I do when watching horror movies... It's like watching a landslide and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop the rocks from falling.

I say there is an ancestral link to Ulysses because, just like Joyce, Reed writes every part of the story in a different format and/or a different point of view. There is standard prose in a mix of first, second, and third person syntax. There is film script. There is transcript.

What adds edge and confusion and what keeps the reader on the back foot is that within all of these styles, Reed also breaks the formatting rules. Italics instead of quotation marks, left justified dialogue in screenplays, paragraphs headers as chapter titles, there are no page numbers - only locations and the numerical sequence is linear by not consecutive. And there is font carnage!

Everything about True Story is designed to keep us asking questions and the answers are never where we expect them to be and are not what we are led to believe. This novel really does keep throwing up surprises from start to finish. In fact, the first 2 chapters had me completely baffled (don't worry, they are short), and I wondered if there was a problem with the galley I was reading.

The book is not perfect, but it is certainly one of the most entertaining I have read in a long time. The second 'chapter' doesn't quite do what I think it intends and the last chapter doesn't work for me at all.  There is still essential information in it but it feels apologetic to some degree in a way I don't think the rest of the novel reflects. I also sometimes struggled to now if I was in Alice's story or Haley's.

Nick is an incredibly well drawn character - the best in the book - and I admit I find myself impresses which just how insightful Reed is about men and male behaviour. Whilst True Story is a mystery/thriller (despite the horrible cover art), it is really a seminal text on toxic masculinity and how it propogates in our world and changes our world. It begs the question 'are the true monsters the perpetrators of abuse or are they the people who create a world view which normalises, pardons, and then dismisses it?'

Men should read this book. Fathers should read this book and then give it to their sons to read. This is information the world needs and this is a mirror men need to find and fix the root causes of why and how women are so very disadvantaged and oppressed in modern society.  Yes, it is a feminist text, but it is not a book for feminists.

4 Stars

Sunday 15 March 2020

Running With Emus - Theatre Review

What: Running With Emus
When: 11 - 22 March 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Merrilee Moss
Directed by: Kim Durban
Performed by: Sam Baxter, Kevin Dee, Gregory J Fryer, Julie Nihill, and Elizabeth Sly
Design and stage management by: Adam (Gus) Powers
Lighting by: Jacob Shears
Julie Nihill and Elizabeth Sky - photo by Darren Gill
I don't mind a bit of Australiana on stage these days. I have decided to get over my cultural cringe and am an avid champion of Australian plays and am always excited to see presenters and producers taking them on and presenting them to audiences. The latest to hit the Melbourne stages is Running With Emus which is on the VCE curriculum and is being presented at La Mama Courthouse this week.

Running With Emus is written by Moss, who has strong track record as an Australian playwright, and is directed by Durban who has a strong track record as a director. Add to that the talents and prowess of Nihill (Patricia) and Fryer (Pie) and I expected to be in for a real treat.

Running With Emus as a story about an old woman who is trying to live out the last of her life in seclusion with her best mate - her house. Her granddaughter, Krystal (Sly), drops in unexpectedly and the woman is forced to feel connection again.

No. Wait. The story is about a young woman, Krystal, who has had a bad breakup and runs to the less than comforting arms of her grandmother to recover and possibly mend some burnt bridges in the family.

Noooooo... Running With Emus is about a small town with a racism problem. A young woke activist blows into town and decides to tell them how they should run their community.

No, that's not right either. Running With Emus is the story of a young woman returning to her ancestral home, reconnecting with her family, the land, and maybe falling a little bit in love with the local school principal (Baxter) as she bumbles her way into country life.

Nope. Let me see. This play is about... Do you see my problem?

Running With Emus feels like several different plays crammed into 1. Or perhaps it is more correct to say it is a 5 act play squeezed into 1 act. There are great ideas here, and intriguing characters and several good story lines but they are all competing for time and space on stage. Moss either needs to embrace a longer format for this idea to truly work, or create a triptych of one act plays to make these ideas and characters really sing the way I think she wants them to.

On the surface, and according to the publicity, Running With Emus is about Krystal coming into a quiet country town and helping them move towards becoming a 'Refugee Friendly Zone'. Along the way she starts a fight, makes some friends, and forces her grummy to understand the truth about herself and her family history. Whilst probably on the right side of politics, I have to say I felt everything about Krystal personified exactly what country people hate about woke city folk with few redeeming qualities except a willingness to try and get involved.

Ignoring the problems with the script though, I also found myself disappointed with the staging. I thought in the hands of someone as skilled and experienced as Durban, the flaws would be minimised and the magic revealed. I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

Running With Emus is described as a non-naturalistic play in all of the publicity and I can't help thinking Durban and Powers (designer) took this as some sort of dare and tried to make this production as naturalistic as they possibly could. The stage is full of real domestic detritus and kitsch, and the acting is realism 101 with performance techniques from the early 20th century.

Part of the fault is the design. The stage is literally cut in half by the verandah - which is really a loungeroom? - and so there is no depth for the actors to perform in. Thus everyone comes on stage, form a line, open out and speak directly to the audience rather than each other, and then go off stage. It is one thing for a director to not get in the way of the play, but I do expect the team to be encouraged to be creative and support the work, not bury it in a mire of visual tedium! The exception is the lighting (Shears) which does as much as it can to bring texture and allegory to this world Moss has written.

Fryer and Dee (Sparrow/Jim) are excellent and my only sorrow is how under-utilised Fryer is, with the smallest role. This is one of the things which helps drag this play into a story which belongs in last century, not this one - the subtext hurts. The two new kids on the block, Sly and Baxter (Raffaele/Goose) have great energy but need to develop subtlety and nuance in their craft to create a real connection with the audience.

Running With Emus is a great centrepiece role for Nihill. Patricia's journey is complex and is really the only fully realised character in the play. Nihill is a wonderful curmudgeon but I think she and Durban failed to explore deep enough to find what small things would give Patricia pleasure. There are a few little moments in the script which could open these doors for the audience so that we care a whole lot more about what happens at the end, but at the moment the role is played in a single palette which makes all of the moments blurr.

Running With Emus is actually a great script for the VCE curriculum because it literally covers every single thing ever said about the inclusion of refugees and a whole lot more besides. In the classroom it would be a cornucopia of things to explore surrounding patriotism, colonisation, immigration, ancestry, refugeeism, regionalism vs urbanism, political activism, the dreaming, and the milking behaviour of cows.

On stage this production is a play which is trying to do much and direction which is trying to do too little. I do find myself wondering if the staging is like it is because of an intention to tour. I don't find that much of an excuse though.

The comedy has to force it's way through to us but it is there. Moss has given us some classic one-liners, such as Patricia talking about another character and saying "No one will die wondering what she thinks!" The three old guys (Pie, Sparrow, and Goose) are also funny and would be a much stronger tool if only they weren't shoved into a corner.

As I said earlier, I really wanted to like this show. I think the script for Running With Emus carries a lot of good material and with some intensive dramaturgical work could be a magical concoction. This production is more dated than spiced ham though. My biggest regret is that this is a school show and I want young people to be enthused and excited about theatre. This production is just going to make them look to other outlets for entertainment I am afraid.

2.5 Stars

Friday 13 March 2020

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities - Circus Review

What: Kurios - Cabinet of Curiosities
When: 12 March - 10 May 2020
Where: Flemington Racecourse
Written and directed by: Michel Laprise
Composition by: Bob & Bill, and Raphael Beau
Set and props design by: Stephane Roy
Costumes by: Philippe Guillotel
Lighting by: Martin Labrecque
Makeup by: Eleni Uranis
Chih-Min Tuan - Photo: D-CORD <Keiju Takenaka> Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2018 Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil are back in town at probably the most important time ever. If there was ever a time people needed some cheering up and a nudge to their own imagination, it would be now. Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is all about celebrating our own imagination and how to make magic happen in our own lives.

I will begin with the story, although I do use that term loosely. The press kit is full of backstory and metaphors which I don't think realise on stage but hey, this is circus. It doesn't need a strong narrative. It needs a strong imagination and a truckload of talent and ability. Kurios has all of that in spades.

Having said that, I will speak about the show's meta-arc. There is a mad scientist character called The Seeker (Anton Valen) who is engaging in experiments to try and release an invisible world of impossible things. He is aided by the two assistants he created, Kurios Winch and Kurios Plunger.

The Seeker's world is Steampunk delight thanks to the glorious talents of Roy (set and props designer) and the clever creations by costume designer Guillotel. Cirque du Soleil shows are always visually stunning and Kurios is a benchmark example of their production perfection.

The point at which you know the narrative is unimportant is when Microcosmos (Karl L'Ecuyer) arrives with his friends Klara (Ekaterina Pirogovskaya) and Nico (Nico Baixas). I think maybe an experiment goes wrong, and then a train arrives, and then a whole bunch of people emerge on stage to enact 'Chaos Syncro 1900'. It really was quite chaotic and unfortunately it didn't wow me.

I was sitting in front of one of the judges for Dancing With The Stars (Craig Revel Horwood) and I imagined him saying to the dancers that their set up was too long and he wanted to see more dance. This is how I felt. Give me less story and more stun.

This lull was blown away by amazement and visceral fear when two porcelain dolls came to life to perform 'Russian Cradle Doll'. It literally took my breath away as this huge man (Roman Tereshchenko) tossed the diminutive Olena Tereshchenko) tumbling into the sky at full thrust and then catching her only to toss her back up. Now this is what you come to the circus to see!

Professor Calamitous in Jimmy Neutron defined Steampunk as "...colonizing the past so we can dream the future." This is what Kurios is all about - pulling items out of the curio cabinet and imagining a world of possibilities for them to play in.

Around 60% of the performers - according to the press kit - have performed in other Cirque shows and now these acts have been collected into a memorandum of future possibility - their very own curio cabinet. For example the glorious siamese twins aerial straps act (Marat Dashempilov and Vitali Tomanov) which I remember from Varekai. Perhaps this is one of Cirque du Soleil's sustainability initiative to avert the climate crisis...?

There is so much top quality and sensational circus in Kurios. I personally loved the 'Acro Net' performance. I really wished I had a backyard trampoline that big when I was a kid! I thought the costumes were flying fish because there were fishermen everywhere but apparently they were Martians...? Regardless they jumped so high my heart was in my mouth every time, and Guiseppe's (Stephane Bouglione) final high dive and bounce routine nearly gave me several heart attacks!

The show publicity talks a lot about bringing the human forward in the performance and so they have done away with most stage mechanics - ensuring that all props and set items are independent units. Ironically I think that has done the opposite. For example in 'The Invisible Circus' it is the personless puppetry which takes all the limelight, and in the 'Theatre of Hands' it is the camera work which becomes the star.

Puppetry of all types, and mime, are the centrepiece of Kurios. This is such a perfect show for kids because a lot of what they do on stage can be taken home and played at home. All it takes is imagination...

Sadly we didn't get the contortion act last night and it did throw the balance of Act 1 and Act 2 out a little bit. Partly because Act 1 lost a bit of wow power, but also because the giant mechanical hand didn't make an appearance until 'Theatre of Hands' and because of that it really overpowered that act.

Having said that, the mechanicals all had life and agency in the show just as much as the humans did. For example a yappy little gramophone had a stand up stoush with the big dog in the yard (Facundo Gimenez). There is something for cat lovers too when later, Gimenez turns into a very accurate cat during the Cirque's usual tedious, exploitative, annoying, and traditional audience participation moment with a pretty young woman from the audience. A laser will point at her breasts in case you didn't know they were there. It is a sour moment in a very excellent show.

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is a wonderful blend of origins (the 'Invisible Circus' reminded me of old flea circuses) with modern day whiz bang glamarama! I reckon the lighting designer (Labrecque) must have been like a kid in a candy shop exploring how light works in this circus world of wonder.

Oh, and did I mention the band? A live band playing a kind of swing/techno scat arrangement across the evening kept me bopping in my seat - to the annoyance of those around me I am sure...

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is a lot of fun and perfectly crafted (of course). The performers are the best in the world and the tricks have been rehearsed to perfection with a reliability most circus performers would envy. Parents should take their kids. The family will come away with a whole lot of new fun and games to explore in their own homes of imagination.

4 Stars

Thursday 12 March 2020

Bitch, Antigone - Comedy Review

What: Bitch, Antigone
When: 9 - 21 March 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Steven Dawson
Performed by: Angus Brown, Steven Dawson, and Scott Middleton
Scott Middle, Angus Brown, and Steven Dawson
For those of you who feel lost and bereft in the large abyss of emptiness left by the end of Carry On and Monty Python you have a reprieve! If Michael Palin and Kenneth Williams had a love child, it would look an awful lot like Bitch, Antigone which is playing at The Butterfly Club at the moment.

The brainchild of Dawson, who is is also the brains behind Outcast Theatre (the longest established LGBTQIA+ theatre company in Australia), the show Bitch, Antigone is a a cross between Noises Off and a pantomime, with an unhealthy splash of Shakespearean language - well, nothing is perfect after all... The story follows a troupe of actors in ancient Greece as they prepare to perform the Sophocles play Antigone at the Dionysia Festival.

Dawson plays a aging actor who specialises in playing female actors, Mynniscus. Imagine a Joan Crawford temperament with the body and pomp of Robert Morley and you are on the right track. Mynniscus has spent his career playing female leads. He is tired, bored, sad, and lonely and he has had enough. Antigone be damned!

Enter Brown (Theodore/Creon) as the stalwart 'The show must go on!' character and Middleton (Callipedes/Ismene) who is eager to take on any and every role and who believes improvisation is the answer to everything. The first moments of the play are the best and I found myself in gales of laughter at all of the self-deprecating in-jokes about actors and literature. It really is very, very clever.

As the actual performance of Antigone begins, the conceit holds with fun irruptions of reality where the actors struggle over names (suddenly ancient Greece is full of people named polyester, menopause, and antihistamine...) and 3 actors are fighting for the limelight with little respect for the actual story. This is one of the clever layers Dawson has built into the melodrama. The Sophocles play Antigone is a play which questions the rule of order over chaos. Bitch, Antigone is all about chaos reigning supreme over order. This show has all of the things you might expect in a lampoon of this play including the ducks machine.

Although it sets out to be a fun lark, the show Bitch, Antigone has a lot of elements to make it high art. It is a shame it doesn't quite meet it's potential.

While the laughs do keep coming, they peter out in intensity mainly because the jokes repeat and there is little which comes later in the show which is a fresh idea. I also think there is too much Antigone and not enough meta frame content. Let's face it - Antigone is not a funny story even if you turn Ismene into Paris Hilton.

Some of the humour is lost because of a last minute injury to a cast member. Brown literally took on the role of Creon 2 days ago and is still on script - although the progress he has made in 2 days is phenomenal and there are a lot of actors out there who could take a lesson from him! Whilst his performance is right on point in style and energy I suspect some of the physical clowning around the idea of up-staging is lost at the moment which is a shame and might be part of why the second half peters out a bit.

This could also be the direction though. One of the things I noticed is that there is not a lot of attention paid to physical shapes on stage. The costumes are divine (I want one of those dresses/togas), and the props are good. It is the bodies which lack creativity. This may be where the production pays too much homage to it's film ancestors.

There is a white (ish) sheet across the back of the stage to allow entrances, exits, and off stage comedy. I think Dawson has missed the opportunity to play with this as a photo studio back drop. If you have a Paris Hilton character why not play with the idea of selfies and paparazzi?

Bitch, Antigone is not a show which has reached its potential, but it will bring a lot of laughs to people who really miss that older English style of comedy. It is also an unintended metaphor to what Anglo-centric history looks like to anyone not born into that tradition. Oh, and the lip sync stuff doesn't work and probably can't be saved. Just get rid of it!

2 Stars

Friday 6 March 2020

Going Down: How To Stay On Top When You're Getting Sucked Below - Comedy Review

What: Going Down - How To Stay on Top When You're Getting Sucked Below
When: 2 - 7 March 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created by: Trudi Ranik
Performed by: Vivian Nguyen and Trudi Ranik
Trudi Ranik and Vivian Nguyen
We hear a lot about fake news these days, but apart from religious leaders and politicians, the biggest producers of codswallop are the people who populate the wellness industry. The most recent entry into this market is The Truru (Ranik) who is at The Butterfly Club this week to promote her new book, Going Down: How To Stay On Top When You're Getting Sucked Below.

I have to say that is one hell of a title and it really needs one hell of a show to support it. Whilst The Truru has a body of work behind her, I would suggest that at the moment the show does not earn its title - or perhaps it is truer to say it only earns it some of the time.

The Truru has been through a hard struggle, going into a very dark place after having made a name for herself as a wellness guru. Along the way to fame she has alienated all of her staff and there are a hoard of angry bloggers calling her out and saying she is full of shit.

Reaching the depths of despair and self-doubt The Truru realises her mistake has been her hubris and pulls herself out of the doldrums with her newest set of affirmations and leaning on her totem animal - the pigeon. It was through the incredible homing powers of the pigeon the truruth was revealed and The Crystal Method was born.

The Truru is determined to spread the joy and release of her newfound understanding and is using her D-MOC (Digital System Of Connection - also known as Instagram...) to spread the news about her SOT (System Of Thought). Along the way she has found love with a rock star who just happens to be releasing his own book at the same time... and together they are doing the talk show circuit. If only he would stop touching her!

Half way through the show The Truru is visited by her ex-personal assistant, Susan (Nguyen) and this is where the show really picks up and gets good. The Truru must use her newfound pigeon power to release the anger and tension Susan is exuding, and also stop her from creating a competing, I mean, system of wellness.

The arrival of Nguyen is a power punch of energy and a breath of fresh air the show really needs. Whilst the concept of Going Down is good, Ranik is just too real and believable. Comedy is about archetypes and exaggeration. There is no place for naturalism on a comedy stage and Ranik just doesn't quite understand this yet. She needs to release the clown!

The writing itself is funny and there is good interaction with video image. Unfortunately the sound on the video exerpts is bad. The levels are all over the place and there is an awful lot of digital distortion. The material itself is good and considering the AV is so integral to the show I would have expected more care to be taken on that score.

Going Down: How To Stay On Top When You're Getting Sucked Below is a really good start but Ranik needs to work with more experienced theatre makers to make it zing. Also, the show isn't about sex so maybe change the title...?

2.5 Stars

Saturday 29 February 2020

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep - Theatre Review

What: Dragon Ladies Don't Weep
When: 28 February 2020
Where: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Directed by: Tamara Saulwick
Composed by: Erik Griswold
Performed by: Margaret Leng Tan
Videography by: Nick Roux
Costumes by: Yuan Zhiying
Lighting by: Andy Lim
Margaret Leng Tan - photo by Pia Johnson

Asia TOPA has created a glorious week for me and it was topped of with the amazing Margaret Leng Tan performing her story at the Playhouse in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep. Partnering with Chambermade, Tan and her long time music collaborator, Erik Griswold, took us through a personal journey of music, mental health, and magic.

A significant proportion of the show was dedicated to Tan's relationship with John Cage and his compositions but make no mistake, Tan is significant in her own right both in the incredible artistry of her performance skills but also for such notable ground breaking moments as being the first woman to ever receive a doctorate from the internationally famous Julliard School. As significant as Cage was in Tan's musical development and explorations, she was also one of the artists who helped him to continue to compose and innovate past his ability to play and is now considered one of the foremost authorities on Cage in performance.

The story of Dragon Ladies Don't Weep begins when Tan is just a little girl with a counting problem. Discovering that music and counting are natural partners was a catalytic moment for Tan. Lucky for her, she made this discovery in a time when minimalist music was crescendoing in popular culture (think Nyman, Glass, etc) and so her version of OCD really did find a home which would be advantageous rather than self sabotaging.

For those who don't know, Minimalism in music is about using only the smalles number of phrases or notes and using them in a repetitive pattern, usually with slowly ascending chords. Minimalist music points to itself rather than Romanticism - which I have been talking about a lot lately - which tells a story. There is more to it than that, but I am not here to give a music lesson (and am not qualified to do so). It is the love of Minimalism music which is one of the threads which binds Leng's musical connection composer Erik Griswold.

What does Minimalism have to do with Cage I hear you ask? Nothing. But this is another point of synergy between Tan and Griswold. Cage is known for being the originator of making non traditional instruments worthy of the great concert halls of the world. Cage invented the prepared piano (the act of placing objects in a piano to change the sound/tuning of the strings). He wrote Suite For Toy Piano which was a seminal work which helped define the rest of Tan's musical life. He played the piano like a percussion instrument and allowed musicians to explore it in ways nobody ever had before. You haven't seen anything until you see Tan bow the strings like dental floss!

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep is not so much Tan's chronological life journey. It is more an ode to her development as an artist and the man who helped her find freedom to explore the things which excite her. Tan refers to herself as a "child of cage" and she can be seen playing just about anything and turning that sound into great art. In the show a toddler's toy phone sits beside her mobile phone and her toy piano and somehow Griswold has composed a funny and exhillerating concerto which is played with glorious artistry by a musician who is still well inside her prime despite being what we euphemistically call  a senior citizen.

The idea of a prepared piano is to make the instrument sound like a full orchestra and with some brilliant composition, playing, and four ordinary bolts Griswold and Tan manage to make her grand piano develop a beautiful Chinese flavour which is enchanting in the piece 'Dragon Lady Calling' and creates a sonic gestalt throughout the entire show.

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep is not a recital though, and what brings it into theatrical performance is Tan's wit and honesty as she tells us stories of success, but also failure. She quotes Beckett early on  with "Fail again. Fail better." and talks about her lack of awareness, and how accidents are as much a part of the fabric of her life as is intention. This itself mirrors Cage's interest in chance-control in music.

The visual interpretation of Tan's world is realised by some exquisite video imagery by Nick Roux. Refusing to take a literal approach, he too follows the precepts of minimalism to augment Tan's memory and thought processes with geometry and slow motion and careful architectural texturing. I get goose pimples when all the artists on a team are working in the same mode and this is exactly what is happening in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep, including gentle and restrained lighting (Lim) and masterfully non-intrusive direction (Saulwick).

Sadly, Dragon Ladies Don't Weep was only on in Melbourne for one night so if you weren't there yesterday you have missed it. The good news is there are 3 performances coming up at the Opera House so you can head up to Sydney in March to see it before it heads to Singapore.

5 Stars

Friday 28 February 2020

Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) - Theatre Review

What: Hades Fading (Hades Memudar)
When: 27 February - 1 March 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Sandra Fiona Long
Music direction by: Ria Soemardjo
Performed by: Rinrin Candraresmi, Sisca Guzheng Harp, Heliana Sinaga, Ria Soemadjo, Wawan Sofwan, Dasep Sumardjani, and Godi Suwarna,
Set by: Emily Barrie and Deden Jalaludin Bulqini
Costumes by: Emily Barrie
Lighting by: Aji Sangiaji
Stage Management by: Dasep Sumardjani
Heliana Sinaga and Rinrin Candraresmi - photo by Muhammad Sa'iquddin
We often talk about theatre as being a beautiful art form and in Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) we get to see this truth at the pinnacle of possibilities. They say that beauty is only skin deep, and if you want to know if someone is truly beautiful you must look into their soul and judge their deeds. Hades Fading is the Platonic exemplar of beauty and is showing for the briefest of moments at La Mama Courthouse as part of AsiaTOPA.

An Australian/Indonesian co-production, Long (writer/director) has collaborated with Mainteater in Bandung to explore the ancient Greek realm of Hades through the story of Eurydice (Sinaga). Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus (Sofwan). She died on her wedding day and her husband - a musician of supernatural sweetness with the talent to be able to persuade anyone with his music - descends into the Underworld to try and get her back.

Hades (Suwarna), brother to Zeus and ruler of the Underworld, was not an evil god. He was, however focused on maintaining balance in the world with a heartless lack of discrimination. Nobody was allowed to leave Hades and return to live above because the world would become overcrowded. An interesting conversation to have in light of our efforts to live longer and the growing world population, perhaps? But I digress...

Orpheus decides to try and get Eurydice back regardless and charms Hades wife, Persephone (Candraresmi), who then persuades her husband to let Eurydice go. There was only one condition - Orpheus was not allowed to look back until they were both safe above ground. Typically, he could not trust his wife to arrive, he looked back and she was lost to the living forevermore.

In Long's version of the tale we hear the tale from Eurydice's perspective and I was quite intrigued by her musings as the couple start to ascend. It made me think about how many young brides rush into marriage - in this case enchanted by glorious song and music - and are left to ponder how much they don't know after the vows have been said.

On this point Barrie's costume designs are brilliant. Eurydice is dressed in an ornately laced wedding dress of pure white. In Western culture it is the sign of purity and marriage, in Indonesia it is the colour of mourning. All the characters wear white in this dreadful, dark Underworld.

The true messages underlying Hades Fading are much deeper though. Eurydice finds herself slipping in and out of forgetfulness. She is mired in the shredded remnants of a library and is frantically riffling through old books trying to remember who she is.

For Eurydice the books are how we remember and in a world of commentary about fake news she brings us starkly to the realisation that all of history is fake news. As she researches, this young bride discovers the texts are contradictory. Was her mother a water nymph, a wood nymph, a flower nymph, etc? None of the texts agree and her confusion is overwhelming.

Persephone joins her and tells her about the state of the world above. The seas are bubbling cauldrons of plastic, mountains of concrete, and the humans are no more. Eurydice realises her symptoms are a part of the disappearance of gods because there is nobody left to believe in them - an old tale but Hades Fading takes an interesting turn as we then slip into the story of Orpheus.

As ephemeral and delicate and earnest as Sinaga is, Sofwan is powerful and hilarious as the self-annointed rock star.  Sofwan is as seductive in his humuor as Orpheus was reputed to be through his music.

One of the impressive things about Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) is Long's ability to manage the pace and modality of the performance, and the structure has a definite symphonic arrangement. This is not surprising because all of Long's work is intrinsically meshed between text, sound and music. Pair her up with the incredible Soemardjo and what has resulted is a sonic piece of theatre filled with sounds, music, and rhythms which transcend the show into an aesthete's dream. All of the instrumentation is Asian and, in fact, the show begins with Harp luring us in like the Pied Piper and the children of Hamelin (or Orpheus and his young lovers as tales would have it...) with a gourd flute.

The show is bilingual and I mean this in a really composite context. Yes, the spoken language of the show is a constant shift between Bahasa and English - sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. The world of Hades is a maze of scrims (it has been ages since I have seen scrim used!) and the surtitles are projected through those layers, pushing back through time just as the story does.

Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) is breathtakingly  beautiful and incredibly haunting as it speaks to forgetting the past and losing the lessons of old, inevitably heading to a future without human life. The cast constantly find themselves asking what language they are using, caught in a maelstrom of spoken word, music, and visual messaging. It makes me think of all the possibilities and information available in a globalised world which we are ignoring. Indirectly it also made me think of our recent bushfires and the offers of our Aboriginal peoples to teach us how to care for and manage this land and our reluctance to hear them.

Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) is a dream. It is a beautiful dream. It is a nightmare. It is funny, it is hope, it is despair, it is a warning. It is art.

5 Stars

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