Saturday, 21 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


Saturday, 14 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

Thursday, 12 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


Wednesday, 11 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

Thursday, 5 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 cult...er, 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