Friday 31 January 2020

Homophonic! - Music Review

What: Homophonic!
When: 30 January - 1 February 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Directed by: Miranda Hill
Compositions by: Stephen de Filippo, Naima Fine Fine, Christina Green, Wally Gunn, Laura Kaminsky, Pauline Oliveros, Cole Porter, and Sean Shepherd
Texts by: Candy Royalle and Maria Zajkowski
Performed by: Spencer Chapman, Natasha Conrau, Laila Engle, Jenny George, Pheobe Green, Karen Heath, Robin Henry, Miranda Hill, Stephen Hodgson, Eleanor Jackson, Zachary Johnston, Lachlan McDonald, Katherine Norman, Ben Opie, Robin Parkin, Katherine Philp, Dan Richardson, Alex Ritter, Thea Rossen, and Leonie Thomson
Lighting by: Joy Lee
Sound by: Alice Bennett and Joy Lee
Stage managed by: Alice Bennett
Laila Engle and Katherine Philp
On a hot summer night in Melbourne one of the best things you can do is head down to the air conditioned La Mama Courthouse and experience the amazing music which comprises Homophonic! 2020. A fun and fiesty collection of original music performed by some of Melbourne's best musicians and The Consort of Melbourne, Homophonic! will take you to places you never even knew you wanted to go.

The term classical music is a tricky one because it can connote music from the Classical Period which makes us think of old and outdated styles and impulses. The term is used in a much broader modality these days though, which is why it is still possible to play and compose classical music and yet still be completely modern and with the times.

In its broadest definition classical music refers to notation, orchestration, and instrumentation. Classical music uses formal music notation in the form of bars and staffs, etc. It is music which is very complex in regard to time signatures, multiple instrumentation, and movements. It is also music which is played with - but not always comprising completely of - ancient instruments such as violins, flutes, clarinets, drums, etc.

As well as celebrating LGBTQIA+ musical composition, performance, and history, Miranda Hill has curated a wonderful program of music which itself. Homophonic! allows the audience to join in this journey of beauty, discovery, and fun in a relaxed and joyous atmosphere.

As we entered the theatre, the afternoon was settling into the mellow lighting which is the start of dusk and the evening's program appropriately began with Kaminsky's 'Twilight Settings' and 'Evening Song'. The music includes the swelling of soprano vocals as the day dies but gives rise to new activity as the creatures of the night rouse and celebrate the rising of the moon.

Christina Green composed music to one of the late Candy Royalle's poems which now appear in the posthumously published book of her work, A Trillion Tiny Awakenings. Royalle regularly accompanied her work to music and Green's homage to accompany the poem
'Edge Sky Itself' is a beautiful and moving work.

Recognising the history of the land on which the performance is taking place, Homophonic! includes a beautiful duet for cello and base clarinet composed by local composer Naima Fine Fine. 'Stonemaker' is a beautiful, meditative work and 6 lucky audience members are invited to stage to rest their heads between the instruments and experience a sound bath. Sound is vibrations in space and I can only imagine how glorious it must feel to have those lovely long low end sound waves massage the ears and the brain in that way! And who knew a base clarinet could mimic the sounds of a digeridoo??!

Hill is aware of the importance of creating community through inclusion and participation, and she invites everybody who wants to, to come on stage and participate in Oliveros' 'Tuning Meditation'. Don't be afraid. It is not about singing. It is about listening to each other and to the self. Closing your eyes and following your body's vocal instincts is amazingly refreshing. Do give it a try.

Act 2 is a marvelous journey into the comic. Stephen de Filippo's 'Star Picc' is the best scifi flick you will never see! Travel on a journey through an amplified piccolo, a base drum, and range of the craziest sound FX with Laila Engle. I loved it and couldn't stop laughing as well as being overawed by the craft in composition and performance. Homophonic! is touring all 5 state Pride festivals this year, and although the rest of the program is different, 'Star Picc' will feature in all of them. Why wouldn't you?

The program moves into the more traditional arena again before ending with some classic Cole Porter in a hilarious arrangement which includes the entire ensemble. As brilliant as the entire thing is, the show is stolen in one single line by Eleanor Jackson. It brought the house down!

Tonight's show is sold out but there are still a few tickets left for the two shows on Saturday. And remember, the matinee is a relaxed performance so everyone can enjoy the magic of Homophonic!

5 Stars

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show - Theatre Review

What: Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show
When: 27 January - 8 February 2020
Where: Downstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Kieran Carroll
Performed by: Caroline Ferguson
Design by: Tracy Hogan
Caroline Ferguson
Long before Lady Gaga shot to fashion fame with the help of her Haus of Gaga, Australia had Jeanne Little doing it all on her own, and long before Gaga wore the meat dress, Little was wearing the Toast Dress and showing off her Bangers and Mash millinery. The true monarch of cut-price couture and the high queen of outrageous fashion, the life and times of this all Australian icon has been brought to the stage at The Butterfly Club by writer Kieran Carroll and actor Caroline Ferguson in Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show.

Jeanne Little is the kind of celebrity once encountered is never to be forgotten. There are a lot of try hards, but what made Little so amazing is she was the real deal. If you ever heard her talk you could never forget her voice - with those overly elongated sounds and that deep strine and, of course, her catchphrase "Ooh Aah, dahling!" Unlike many wannabes though, this was just Little speaking the way she always spoke.

And then there was her amazing fashion. Again, this was real. She was a designer and seamstress and made all those incredible outfits she is so famous for herself. Between the clothes and the voice Little packed an entertainment punch. As the London Evening News wrote after her appearance on Parkinson, 'What a woman! With her in the house you wouldn't want a TV.'

Little's rise to fame was accidental. She was running a boutique and had made her own maternity clothes. A guest pulled out of The Mike Walsh show with no notice and after a quick bit of research by the producers, Little was called in on the spot. She was so amazing they gave her a permanent segment and thus the fairytale begins.

Little took to TV like a duck to water, but the show had little to no budget for this segment so Little became a genius at creating haute couture items out of everyday materials. She is known for her amazing gowns made out of rubbish bags and other plastics and her edible hat range for example.

She was deeply connected to the Sydney gay scene through her husband Barry, and I am sure her popularity there was also to do with her amazing drag queen style. Who says women can't be drag queens?!

One of the nice touches in this show is the presence of a lovingly made replica of an iconic orange plastic gown (pictured above) created by Hogan. I wasn't as convinced by the rest of the costumes but did give a little cheer and nudge to my plus one when the Sydney Opera House collar came out. Who can forget her amazing collars? I also spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the feather arm bands and wondering if I could make something like that for myself...

Ferguson is very credible as Little. I think there were some nerves in this performance and my one piece of advice is to go hard. You cannot overplay Jeanne Little, you can only underplay her and this did happen a bit in the show. Carroll (writer/director) needs to give Ferguson permission to laugh harder, elongate every second vowel and just have fun. This was the magic of Jeanne Little. Every moment of her public existence was a celebration of the energy of life. This show needs to embrace that energy just as Little did.

The script is fun, and captures all of the key moments we remember of Little's life. Her highs and some of her lows. As much fun as Little had, there were and are also some challenges. The hardest hit of all is the Alzheimer's she developed in 2009.

Her daughter Katie has written a book - memoir - about her mother's life. Catch A Falling Star is mentioned in the show and in one of the many touching moments Ferguson tells us about Little's relationship with her daughter and her husband. It is worth noting Little is still alive, but for her daughter there are two women - the Jeanne Little we all remember who is gone, and the woman who is here now but doesn't remember anything.

In the script Carroll uses the onset of Alzheimer's as the frame for the show, and it is there right from the very start. I think this is a bit of a mistake because I don't know how many people are actually aware of this condition. I know I just assumed she had died.

The way it is currently handled it comes across more as though Ferguson can't remember her lines - at least until we are able to work out it is a dramatic device being used. I think the show would be stronger if the conditioned developed as the show goes on rather than bringing it in right from the start. I think it would be more impactful and heartrending for us to experience it the way the family had to.

Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show covers all the big moments and reminds us she was a star in her own right once her performing wheels got going. Not only being a TV personality in The Mike Walsh Show and Beauties and The Beast, Little toured one woman stage shows for more than a decade and in this show we get to imagine how amazing she would have been.

Dahlin'! It's The Jeanne Little Show has some of the same problems as Carroll's other show touring this year, Newk! It hits all the Australian iconic catch phrases and moment of glory, but still lacks a depth of insight into herself, her thinking, her emotional dynamic. It tells the story of Jeanne Little, but doesn't quite tell her story about herself and, perhaps because I am a woman, I kind of wanted some of that insight.

Having said that, this is a show which is going to go off like a bomb in RSL's and town halls around the country I reckon. There are a couple of songs, a privacy screen I was plotting to take home with me, and a creditable array of wigs and frou frou to laugh at and admire. Check out the show and have one more laugh with the incredible Jeanne Little.

3 Stars

Tuesday 28 January 2020

The Boy I Paid For - Theatre Review

What: The Boy I Paid For
When: 20 - 31 January 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Wayne Stellini
Performed by: Johnny Kinnear and Jake Matricardi
Johnny Kinnear and Jake Matricardi
Midsumma Festival is the home of loud and proud queer theatre and this is why we love it so much. Amidst the celebrations and glamour, though, occassionally a quiet little number will pop it's head up over the crowd and beguile us with it's vulnerability and understatement. This is the magic created in The Boy I Paid For which is playing at The Butterfly Club until the end of January.

Wayne Stellini is a writer/director who already has a string of these lovely, intimate relationships dramas and the confidence with which he has written The Boy I Paid For is testament to that. The premise is simple. Keith (Matricardi) has broken up with his boyfriend and doesn't want to spend Christmas Eve alone and he is definitely not the partying kind.

Preferring to stay at home and watch Carols By Candlelight he takes advantage of our capitalist opportunities and pays for some companionship in the guise of Beau (Kinnear). At $350 per hour this is an expensive choice, but perhaps a better one for both of them given their alternatives.

We don't know this at the start of the play and, to be honest, I wish Stellini held the reveal of the commercial transaction just a little longer so that we could believe in the emotional dream Keith is trying to spin for himself. It would take us deeper into the emotional free fall Keith undertakes throughout this gorgeous little tale.

A psychologist once told me that regardless of our personal circumstances or situations, we all build stories for ourselves which enable us to believe whatever it is we are doing makes sense and seems right and reasonable. That must explain Donald Trump... ;)

The Boy I Paid For explores this concept at the most intimate of levels. Keith believes he deserves to be treated badly by his boyfriends because he is ugly. Beau believes his economic and social value lies in his beauty.

What makes The Boy I Paid For one of the more excellent nights of theatre is many fold. Firstly there is the raw honesty and authenticity of Stellini's writing. Stellini has chosen to truly trust in the magnetism of real moments delivered naturalistically. Any other style choice would have broken the finely woven strands of this delicate portrait of two men trying to get through a life which is troubling and confusing and complicated by the briefest of moments of joy - as are we all.

Whilst Stellini is not the most creative director in the Melbourne, he is smart enough to not let his staging get in the way of the actors and the story. Far too few directors are that clever unfortunately.

The actors are the other great strength of this work. I have seen Matricardi perform before (Twelfth Night) and he brings the same sweet vulnerability to this role as he did as Antonio. I was worried at first because at the start Keith comes across as a gay INCEL but Stellini is quick to reveal his vulnerabilities so I moved on from that concern after a few moments. Keith's journey is fraught and travels the gamut of highs and lows and Matricardi is more than up to the portrayal, never over-stepping the line out of naturalism and into presentation.

Kinnear is not quite as adept with his performance skills and yet I feel casting him as Beau was a masterstroke of genius by Stellini. Not because of his beautiful body (which sends everyone in the audience home with sweet fantasies to carry them off to sleep), but more because Kinnear has this aura of gentleness which belies those rock hard triceps, biceps, quadriceps, abdominals, glutes... you get the picture!

Beau is all business. A consumate professional. Beau is also a nice, kind, considerate, and caring person. He is aware of his power and status in this duet but he does not abuse it. Ironically he is forced to show Keith just where the power lies so that Keith stops believing a beautiful body means a beautiful life.

The lesson is a frightening one for Keith and my second suggestion would be for Kinnear to overcome his nature and be colder and harsher when dealing out the lesson. This is a really hard thing to do, particularly in the raw and intimate way Stellini has written it, but the ripples it would ignite would be awe inspiring. The scope is in the writing. All it needs is the extreme bravery shown throughout the rest of the show for that one brief moment.

The Boy I Paid For is an intensely brave show because of it's unwavering honesty, intimacy, and realness. It is there in the writing, it is there in the directing, and it is there in the acting. You need to be there too.

3.5 Stars

Saturday 25 January 2020

.Church - Cabaret Review

What: .Church
When: 24 - 27 January 2020
Where: The Toff In Town
Created and performed by: Adam, Archie Arsenic, Bettie Bombshell, Charlotte, Jill Crisp, Cassie Daly, Matt Hirst, Lola La Roux & Her Dolls, Alex Morris, Kellyn Patterson, Shamita, Ruby Slippers, Karen Taranto, and Six Inches Uncut
Musical direction by: Alex Morris
Stage Management by: Moose and Onyx
"Queerly beloved, we are gathered here today...", these are the words uttered by the high priestess of the evening, Six Inches Uncut, as she begins the religious ceremony worshipping imperfection and love in .Church. Melbourne's best of the best burlesque, boylesque, and queer performers are gathering across four nights at The Toff In Town to raise a new religion of hope and joy and love. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

.Church is the sane person's alternative to Hillsong and our gold spangled pastor leads us in a prayer of love and tolerance and encourages us all to confess our most embarrassing sins so they we may receive acceptance and love at the alter of the stage. Communion is the road to freedom as the Heavenly Gogo Dancers pour champagne down our throat and offer crackers to keep us worshipping that little bit longer. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

As with all religious services, every ceremony has readings from different members of the congregation. On the night I went Bettie Bombshell gave the first blessing decked out in a devilish red fishtail dress. A stunning vision of wicked sophistication she schooled us all in the worship of our bodies with her red hot, world class burlesque. Singing along with the hit song 'Shackles', Six Inches Uncut and the ever essential choir (Morris, Daly, Crisp, Taranto, Patterson, and Hirst) raise the roof as spirits lift in holy worship of the body as human. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

Ruby Slippers gives us the next reading with her music box doll figure being forced to turn with every command by Bonnie Tyler. Eventually she breaks free and strips down to reveal a flirty and fleshy cowgirl anybody would want to ride. Good burlesque always has a hook and in the second part of the service Slippers gives one of the cleverest acts I have seen in a long time as her banana beach babe dances to an epic "nah nah" musical medley. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

.Church is a smorgasbord of opportunities to worship at the feet of love and desire and Lola La Roux & Her Dolls take it that little bit further with a step aerobics routine which turns into an orgiastic feast of hilarious proportions. Archie Asenic then came out with a traditional lyrical ballet dance which left nothing to the imagination but certainly got hearts pumping and dreams flowing as his body moved, and writhed and contorted to the music. Every muscle in his body sung as did our desire! This is definitely a .Church for everyone. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

For those who like a bit of intellect with their devotions, Charlotte blessed us with her spoken word poem 'Brave'. In this sermon she talks about the courage of living in the every day, not in the extraordinary. The courage of buying a pot plant and hoping it won't die. The courage in telling your partner you watched an episode on Netflix without them. The courage of being, of living, of getting up and out every day. Now that is brave. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

Adam and Shamita both led us in prayer. Adam led us first in a meditative, Asian inspired boylesque devotional with seriously sexy intent. His eyes pierced into our souls as our worshipful gaze raked down his corseted flesh as the Komono slowly opened. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

Shamita took a more western approach. A novitiate in a chapel of candles and cloisters, she struggles with the confines of habits. As she loosens the robes and allows her body to breath in a hilarious strip tease, freedom comes to her in a glory of bared flesh and dripping candle wax. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

All of this indulgence in the transcendental euphoria of freedom and love is carefully guided by our glorious chaplain, Six Inches Uncut. To end, we all rise and pay homage through the prophetic lyrics of that great goddess of freedom, Madonna. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

Across the course of this evangelical visitation, .Church, other acolytes of this enlightened cult will provide offerings and testimony. Disciples including Becky Lou, Raven, Dazza & Keif, Alex De Porteous, Miss Jane Doe, and Anna Lumb. They are all gathering to worship with us and for us. Don't miss your chance to worship at the alter of love and acceptance at .Church. Hell-ja-ja-loolah!

5 Stars!

Friday 24 January 2020

Eyes Wide Woke - Theatre Review

What: Eyes Wide Woke
When: 21 January - 1 February 2020
Where: The Court House Hotel
Written by: Katherine Chloe Atkins
Directed by: Kashmir Sinnamon
Performed by: Ashleigh Clarke, Emma Drysdale, Luke Jacka, Ashley Tardy, and Joshua White
Stage managed by: Mazz Ryan
Noah Jacka, Joshua White, Ashley Tardy and Ashleigh Clarke
It has been a bit of a slow start this year, in terms of high quality theatre so it is with a huge sigh of relief I get to tell you about Eyes Wide Woke which is playing at the Court House Hotel in North Melbourne. Part of the Midsumma Festival, Eyes Wide Woke investigates what it is to be an "inner city, woke" Australian - the good and the bad.

Being woke is the new derogatory word (taking the place of 'politically correct') being bandied about by the LNP so that they can self-justify socially discriminating and economically devastating policies and pat themselves on the back for being the sensible quiet Australians. Just like it's predecessor, the word woke can be a term which means something important and positive, but according to Atkins (playwright) it can also be a facade used to disempower and disenfranchise. All of these possibilities are explored in Eyes Wide Woke.

Atkin's ideas tread into dangerous territory, but flirting with potentially unpopular ideas is what makes this play so intriguing, and those blurry lines are handled well by Sinnamon (director). They hover in the air for us to poke and prod at with our minds for a moment before moving on to the next idea. He allows them to titillate but not corner the audience into a defensive position.

The story begins in the apartment of engaged couple Valorie (Clarke) and Sara (Tardy). Sara is preparing the house for a dinner party and the conversation about 'wokeness' begins before even a word is uttered - what music is appropriate? Which magazine should be on top of the pile?

Valorie comes home from work and we start to go deeper into the conversation. If you thought Sara was woke, wait until you meet Valorie. Valorie scoffs at Sara transferring a lovingly cooked meal into take away containers and an Uber Eats bag so that they look like they are time poor, but then panics about giving their guest Jasmin (Drysdale) - who is a sex worker - the one mismatched wine glass in case she takes it to mean she is an outsider.

The guests arrive in spurts. Angelo (White) is the outrageously extroverted gay friend and arriving at the same time as Jasmine is Noah (Jacka), who is the ex 'we're still friends' boyfriend of Valorie. In a superbly crafted Friends style satire, an evening of cameraderie, intimacy, and expose takes place over a very deliciously smelling pasta meal.

I usually don't like realism in theatre very much but the way Sinnamon has staged this play made me very happy indeed. Sinnamon has literally inserted the audience into the apartment so that we feel we are in the room and at the dinner party with the actors. Or perhaps it is more true to say we are cameras filming these events from a range of different angles? I definitely feel Atkin's background in screen writing comes through in the number of locations there are and the structure of the scenes.

Perhaps my one comment would be I think the toilet (yes, there is a toilet in this show which is used to great effect), and the balcony should be switched around. The toilet scenes are about privacy and secrecy in a very open plan environment but it kind of sits in the lounge room at the moment, whereas the balcony is at the end of a corridor. Something to think about in the next staging of this fabulous play.

And there will be a next staging. Eyes Wide Woke is a great play with the potential to expand into a more significant work with main stage potential I think. Of course, this only works if the ensemble are up to the challenge and they really are. Tardy could, perhaps, exhibit a greater level of anxiety but that is being rather picky.

There were only two moments which didn't work for me. The first was Sara finding Valorie's cigarettes. It was too easy and too quick to really ring true. The same could be said for the final moments. The transition to raw pain and loss was too quick. This is probably a directorial problem to solve. The audience needs to have a moment to process what has happened before the devastation is allowed to settle.

The journeys each of the character's take are surprising and the shocks just keep coming from start to finish. Questions are asked and lines are crossed and nobody gets to keep the social facade they have chosen except Jasmine who is the one authentic person in the room. The hilarity rises along with the tensions and along the way Atkins also raises the binary sexuality question to a whole other level I had not considered before.

Everything in Eyes Wide Woke is slick and purposefull and excellently executed. The script is clever, the direction is insightful, and the acting is superb. I really look forward to seeing this play grow.

4.5 Stars

Thursday 23 January 2020

The Circle - Theatre Review

What: The Circle
When: 21 - 26 January 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Jack O'Brien
Performed by: Bridget Charis, Stephanie Kelly, Jack O'Brien, and Luke Peverelle
Set by: Isabella Hunt
Lighting by: Marty Shlansky
Sound by: Ben Roy Keene
Stage managed by: Teri Steer
Stephanie Kelly, Jack O'Brien, and Luke Peverell
Melbourne loves a good stage horror, as evidenced in 2018's Night Terrrors and last year's The Yellow Wallpaper. 2020 brings us a new adventure into darkness and fear with The Circle, playing at La Mama Theatre this week as part of Midsumma.

O'Brien's tale of Eldritch horror and the rise of the arcane evil of Shaguaraka promised much, and I can attest that the opening moments of this play deliver with powerful promise and punch! Two young men feel the world needs a reboot and in a show which resembles something a demon who swallowed Charmed and The Rocky Horror Show then vomited all over the courthouse floor, they explore the last hour before the rise of the demon they have summoned within the magical circle.

Complete with possessions, incantations, zombies, police, gunshots and a satisfying amount of blood, Lance (Peverelle) and Cummings (O'Brien) set the wheels in motion for an apocalypse nobody will be able to control. Such potential, such promise, and the best opening I think I have ever seen on stage...

Sadly, as The Circle progresses, the story becomes silly and unfocussed and nothing in the writing or the production elements helps it get back on track. Perhaps the biggest problems lie with O'Brien's inexperience across the board.

As a writer he should have got on board with a dramaturg. I really wanted a scary horror (as promised in the publicity). The script, however, gets lost and winds its way between horror, parody, romance and farce. It is really hard for stage horror to not fall into parody and I do understand that difficulty. I also think romance can sit within the horror genre.

Less forgivable is the difts into farce and base humour. How do you maintain dramatic tension in a horror when the zombie is telling you to give the other guy a quick blow job?

In the program O'Brien talks about how The Circle was born of his love of building worlds in role playing games so I admit to being surprised he couldn't concoct a world with more drama and action. These characters just spend the whole time (an hour in the show, 50 minutes in real time) basically filling in time.

I am always nervous when I hear a show is written, directed, and acted by the same person and The Circle justified my concerns. O'Brien also needed to hand over the show to an outside director. The set (Hunt) is very simple with a green LED circle, an outer chalk circle and a jukebox (which indicates they are in a diner for some reason...). This set up doesn't leave a lot of props for actors to use to engage with and create shape so you really need to have good stage craft to use this well.

Sadly Peverelle and O'Brien are not yet at the level where they can work these problems out themselves. They spend most of the time sitting on the floor talking. The only other interesting thing are the two dead bodies (Kelly and Charis) who lie downstage. I found myself looking at the blood and a very annoying clock more often than I watched the living bodies in the space.

An outside eye director would have helped them used the space and their bodies in a more interesting manner. They could also have helped set the rules about the circles. Whilst there was a rule about not stepping outside the outer circle, I would have liked some sense of sacredness and intention for stepping into the inner circle to support the inferred importance which came with the glowing light.

Speaking of lights, it is evident that Shlansky (lighting) needs to do more research into horror. For most of the show, the lights were as bright as day. Yes, there was green mixed in with the open white (prosaic but it made sense), but it is night time...and what is the point of a glowing green circle if it is washed out by the stage lighting?

Ironically, I usually rail against the use of stage smoke but I would have forgiven it here and perhaps I am even asking for it! Actually, what I really wanted to see was the creeping menace of dry ice but nobody uses that anymore, sadly.

Keene's sound design was contextual although it could have been less diagetic and a little more terrifying. My biggest issue was the dynamics were missing so some really powerful moments - such as the tender dance which is interrupted by gunshots - lost their power because the music didn't swell to embue emotion which was to be so abruptly torn asunder...a moment lost on all levels.

On a bright note, Kelly was magnificent as the not yet dead victim who tries to escape, and Charis made a fantastic zombie. I can't blame them for the oddness of the show itself and the things they were asked to do. I can't talk about the sock puppets. I am trying to erase them from my mind forever!

I don't think the horror genre is beyond O'Brien as a writer, but he needs to learn discipline and curtail his self-indulgence. Both men have promise as actors but need to work with a director to develop their skills and get the detail and intention of the characters to emerge.

PRO TIP: Never put a clock on stage which is following real time because that is all the audience will be watching - especially if what you are doing is not the most interesting and engrossing thing to ever appear on stage.

1 Star

Wednesday 22 January 2020

The Top Secret Violin Case - Theatre Review

What: The Top Secret Violin Case
When: 21 - 26 January 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Sofia Chapman
Performed by: Kirri Buchler, Sofia Chapman, Sasha Cuha, ad Alana Hunt
Musical direction/projections/sound design by: Sofia Chapman
Set and props by: Alana Hunt and Sofia Chapman
Sasha Cuha
Sofia Chapman brings her wonderfully off beat story telling back to the stage with The Top Secret Violin Case at La Mama Courthouse. It is only on for a few days (until the 26th) so it is going to be one of those shows which, if you blink, you'll miss it.

Chapman has form with the truly funny The Seat of Narcissa and The Top Secret Violin Case has a similar sense of energy and hilarity, although it probably doesn't quite sustain itself as well as the earlier show. They are calling it absurdist (in the tradition of Romanian Eugene Ionesco) but it isn't really. It is more a kind of Surreal Vaudeville. It doesn't quite have the cyclical hopelessness needed for Absurdist theatre.

In keeping with the theatrical style and also the show's place in Midsumma Festival, the Vardos trio (Chapman, Hunt, and Buchler) dress in male drag and focus this expose of communist Romania around the story of Ion Stoican (Hunt). Stoican was a violinist whose ambition probably exceeded his talent, but who was absolutely determined to get permission to record an album.

Romania, through the 60's to the 80's was under the control of Nicolae Ceaususca. A signatory of the Warsaw Pact, and thus a member of the USSR, Romania was essentially a dictatorship through rigged elections. Following the trend of the rest of the Soviet Union Romania fell under the hammer of Socialist Realism which disenfranchised any artists who did not create works which supported the regime. Thus, to record an album required the permission of the state which Stoican achieved by being a 'spycatcher'.

Vardos are a musical trio which engages in high energy music that causes your feet to tap, your hands to clap and your body to start dancing. The Top Secret Violin Case includes a number of examples which liven things up enormously.

It is music which led Chapman to this story. She and Hunt went to Romania to learn how to play  Manele (a combination of Balkan and Romani music - also called Folclor Suburban) and they came out with a story which starts at the astounding People's Palace and winds it's way through poverty, starvation, oppression, censorship, and ferrets.

It is a serious topic - much like last year's Anna - but Chapman is choosing to follow the precepts of the music and tell a tale of sadness and rebellion with energy and an invitation to action. The Top Secret Violin Case is funny for the most part, but this only emphasises the horror living in those regimes must have been.

I feel as though The Top Secret Violin Case should have been more satisfying than it was. The dramaturgy is excellent, all of the production elements are superb, and the idea was strong. Perhaps it tried to do too much? Definitely one of the big problems is the Vardos women are not actors and haven't developed vocal projection techniques. Thus, I missed a lot of the early dialogue as my ears attuned and the song vocals where a bit overwhelmed by the instruments. (Not the last song though, which was the true climax of the evening).

In the end I suspect it really was covering too much territory. I didn't understand the white suit reference, or if the ferrets were some big analogy or just a joke. Cuha's storyline about learning the violin was never really consolidated well... Perhaps the problem is none of the characters were establish strongly enough? The focus of the play is on the politics and, to a certain extent, even the music takes a back seat which is a problem because that is the ensemble's strength.

Regardless, The Top Secret Violin Case is a fun frolic with moments of pure comedic genius. I also enjoyed how it made me intrigued to find out more about that period of Romania's history. The music is excellent as well!

3 Stars

Saturday 11 January 2020

Party Snake - Theatre Review

What: Party Snake
When: 8 - 12 January 2020
Where: The Burrow
Written and directed by: Kotryna Gesait
Performed by: Lachlan Martin
Party Snake is a monologue for a drag performer written by Kotryna Gesait who, in 2018, brought us This-That. Party Snake is enjoying it's 4th season, having done the fringe festival circuit (to rave reviews), and is now playing at The Burrow.

In this, it's premier set of runs, the character - no name is provided in the show or the program - is played by Martin. A drag queen transitions from her night persona to his day persona as a primary school teacher. Martin transposes himself from electrifying to vulnerable with mastery and authenticity. As a cis-woman I have never really thought about this, but when he says in his male persona he is the most vulnerable it really made me stop and think hard about what drag can mean in modern times.

In fact, it is this quality of forcing me to think which is what I like about Gesait's writing in general. In this monologue she references classical cultural references including Steinbeck's East of Eden, the Biblical fall of man, the Stonewall riots, and O'Brien's article on The Psychology of Drag.

Unfortunately I end up disagreeing with Gesait's analogies and allegories because, despite the cleverness and complexity of the connections, I don't feel she goes deep enough in her dramaturgy to really understand the links she is using and how they undermine the statements she is trying to make in her writing. Add to that the issue of a cis-woman trying to writing the story of a drag queen - a situation she can have no authentic experience of - and we end up with a play which is confused and full of over-confident pop psychology (and just a little over the line of insensitive at times).

The stroke of genius in Party Snake is making the central character a primary school drama teacher. This is not only historically homagic but also incredibly apt given Australia's current situation with new religious discrimination laws. Gesait asks the question whether a person's personal life does/should impact their professional life. Interestingly for me, I would suggest that the issue of the character being a drag queen at night has no impact on the teaching at all.

On the other hand, what could be a powerful statement is undermined by the fact that this particular drag queen is literally 'off her tits' on alcohol and drugs after a fun night out, and having returned home at 5:30 in the morning she needs to do a few lines of cocaine in order to face his day job, teaching primary school kids about theatre. (It is also possibly becasuse her attitude that teachers - all teachers  are failures at what they really want to do - is incredibly offensive and is another good reason why he should not be teaching anyone!)

It is the drugs and alcohol which make it inappropriate for this person to be a teacher, not the drag or homosexuality as is his inclination. I am aware that drugs and alcohol are a big problem in the LGBTQIA+ community and there is a wonderful and internationally popular Melbourne podcast called Love And Luck which speaks to this problem and sets out to create a community free of these demons.

There are two big themes running through most of Party Snake - that of choice and the other is of freedom. Looking something like the love child of Conchita Wurst and Rhonda Burchmore, Martin in drag demonstrates a confidence and brashness which (as mentioned earlier), he does not feel when interacting as a man. He talks about creating the drag persona as being an act of freedom and speaks of a time when he berates his mother for living a life of lies which - it is inferred - is because she does not recognise her gender fluidity.

This is where this review will get very controversial, but sometimes things need to be said. One of the false premises which seems often to underscore the LGBTQIA+ rhetoric is this idea that we are all somewhere on a spectrum but most of us are in denial. On the one hand, I see the point and a binary male/female viewpoint is unworkable and not evidenced in human society - ever! On the other hand, a significant portion of the population are on the very far edges of that spectrum, one side or the other.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I am a cis-woman and I have never had even the slightest wish to be a man - trans or drag - and despite questions from people around me, I feel most definitely straight although I do believe who someone sleeps with is nobodies business. Thus, for me, I have no confusion and feel as free as a woman in our society is able to feel. Creating a male persona may open doors for me, but what do I do after I go through them because I certainly don't want to be wearing that skin for any length of time! Of course, woman have always had it a bit easier because wearing pants - a historically male signifier - is more socially acceptable. That is what drag is - using exaggerated opposite gender signifiers for a purpose.

This leads me to another set of fallacies in Gesait's script. She talks about safe spaces and how drag queens have never had a safe space. This comes in reference to The Psychology of Drag article where O'Brien posits 'these behaviors typically occur in “protected social worlds” as a way to gain status within that world.' I don't believe Gesait has read the article deeply enough for meaning or done enough research into the history of drag.

Gesait infers drag has always been a queer phenomenon and only goes back to the 50's and 60's when it was part of an underground culture which suffered great social stigma and rejection and involved many beatings and deaths by mainstream society. Gesait seems to have overlooked the word 'protected', and therefore has missed the point that the social world evolutionary psychologists are talking about is the drag community in this instance.

She also misses the history of drag which goes back deep into the recesses of time. It is a word synonymous with female impersonator and is actually a theatrical term. Shakespeare did it, Kabuki did it, and many other cultures engaged in dressing male actors as women. This leads me to another point the LGBTQIA+ culture often miss. Whilst wearing drag may be a modern symbol of freedom for them, it is an ancient symbol of female oppression for cis-women and it came about because women were not allowed to be stage actors - amongst so many other things! If you are a drag queen getting a negative reaction from a cis-woman you might want to think about that for a moment before ripping her to shreds.

The word drag entered the lexicon in the late 1800's with the rise of pantomime, and then came to the USA through vaudeville, and it was actually the province of straight men. It was the Prohibition Era in the USA which apparently melded drag (which came from female costumes dragging on the ground) with an underground culture and the queer community because speakeasies were a place for people to be free from laws and society and structure. The end of the Prohibition Era saw the end of the safe underground spaces and that is the era Gesait is referencing. That black hole between Prohibition and the emergence of Gay Pride in 1970.

The other big contradiction in Party Snake comes right at the end. There is an underlying tone and theme of loneliness which encompasses Martin's character, which culminates in him listening to Elvis Presley's 'Are You Lonesome Tonight' as the dawn comes. Straight afterwards, however, he goes on to say he has a partner, Adam, who loves him. He spends a moment talking about how tender and real that relationship is before the show closes. So was everything before a lie? Why was he out partying like it was the end of the world if this is true? I feel like this has been tacked on to avoid the tragic and doomed drag queen cliche, but it is moments like these which really make it obvious Gesait is not writing what she knows.

Party Snake is a story I want to hear and Martin performs it wonderfully and with authenticity. I just want to hear it from someone with lived experience. I am tired of the white privilege history of telling other people's stories. It made sense in the past when minorities where disenfranchised and needed others to tell their stories. Now, though, space is being made for those people to speak to us directly and that space does not need to be filled by advocates.

2.5 Stars

Saturday 4 January 2020

She's Layered - Cabaret Review

What: She's Layered
When: 3 - 4 January 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created and performed by: Mia Romero
Mia Romero
Melbourne is hot and smokey all over, but The Butterfly Club is even hotter and smokier this weekend. Mia Romero heats up these summer nights with her one woman Vaudeville show, She's Layered.

I suspect Romero is what they call a triple threat. She can most certainly act, and hella yeah she can sing! It looks like she can dance too, with excellent extension and poise although it is hard to tell on the tiny Butterfly Club stage.

Romero gives us a gift to kick of the new year with a show which celebrates what it is to be a woman. This is not a ball busting feminist show (although her kitten heel stilettos do hover very close to the crotch...). It is also not a vampish submission to the patriarchy (although, if it feels good, do it!). Instead, She's Layered is the perfect theatrical representation of what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.

We are funny, we are sexy, we are horny, we are scared, we are beautiful and yet we are never really enough - oh yes, and we are always the ones saying "sorry". At one point Romero issues us a challenge, and I now issue it to you. Go for one with without ever thinking 'the woman is to blame'. Can you do it? It'll be tough, but perhaps it really is time to man up...

I am calling this She's Layered Vaudeville rather than cabaret because it is something of a hybrid. Yes there is song and a lot of dance - perhaps too much dance in a venue which cannot let the art form shine - but there is mime, working with mannequins (dolls), sketch comedy, and script work. The show ranges from authenticity through to parody and like a song cycle, the thing which connects them all is a celebration of womanhood, rather than a dramatic narrative.

What is impressive is Romero does all the acts herself and yet you do feel like there is a curtain between them, and a bevy of talent with different skills coming out each time. In fact, She's Layered has something of an old world feel with the gentleness of old school sitting easily side by side with racy numbers from Rihanna and Britney Spears (do not be afraid of this - it is done with heart and sympathy and with an edge of 'who is the arbiter of pretty'? going on).

In between the sexy cobra dance, the joyous wedding ballet, and the showgirl flounces Romero's point is if it feels good do it, and if it doesn't feel good, don't do it. Oh, and by the way, men can take some responsibility for birth control too in case you weren't aware...

In Romero's world a woman can have it all - within the boundaries constructed by the patriarchy. Are you really a nag if you are married? Are you a skank if you are single? Are you a bitch if you are female? You can be, or you can not be. Ignore the labels and just do you. Use your "evagination" and see where that leads rather than listening to how others think you should see yourself and your life.

For me, the highlight of She's Layered was Romero singing 'Diamonds In The Sky'. I was expecting typical musical theatre vocals but I was swept away by the magic of Romeros voice. I was literally transported out of The Butterfly Club and into the stratosphere which is where only the rare brilliant singers can take you. More singing and less dancing would have really made my night.

I found myself (and the row of women behind me) laughing all the way through but I admit the rest of the audience seemed dead. They were mostly men, though, and perhaps still suffering from a post New Year hangover.

Maybe She's Layered is one for the girls on the way out to a clubbing good time in the city tonight? If the guys don't get it though, it is their loss.

3.5 Stars

#SWIFTOK - Cabaret Review

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