Sunday 26 February 2023

MY FATHER'S STORY: Theatre Review

 What: My Father's Story
When: 25 February 2023
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Marty Monstar
Performed by: Ian Rooney
Lighting and Sound by: Giovanna Yate Gonzales
Ian Rooney - photo by Marty Monstar

A large portion of the current population in Australia now fall into the category of senior citizens. What this means is we are in danger of losing a lot of our witnessed history and stories. There are many initiatives taking place to try and capture those stories and one such project has been started by Ballarat writer Marty Monstar. Who better for him to begin this journey with than his very own father? My Father's Story, which played for one performance only at La Mama Courthouse is exactly what it says on the label, his father's story as told to him by his father, Neville.

The format is clean and simple which is important as the intention is to take the show on a regional tour. Performed by Ian Rooney, we find Neville asleep on his armchair with a David Attenborough documentary playing on the TV. Neville wakes up, acknowledges the audience and starts telling us his story. He begins with his childhood, and we listen as he grows up, leaves school, gets his first job, and starts his first business. We travel through his successes and failures, loves and losses, and witness his love and devotion to his wife. 

I read a review of a previous event from Monstar which described his style as Australian colloquial and I would concur. It is kind of sweet to travel through the conversational vernacular of that white Australian patois where men were mates or codgers, and people sat on their verandas sharing a yarn in the cooling evening over a six pack of whichever brew is your choice. 

Tales of workplace pranks and lover's nick names are made even more beautiful by a gentle and authentic performance by Rooney. Rooney has an air about him which is remarkably similar to Jim Broadbent. With similar piercing blue eyes, ready smile and affable demeanour Rooney makes us want to draw nearer and listen to the tales he wants to tell. My one criticism is that authenticity needs to give space to theatricality. Whilst the real Neville may speak in a wandering manner the audience still needs to be able to make sense of what is being said so every story can't continually taper off into meditation.

This comment leads me to Monstar as writer/director. Firstly, the above comment is also a directorial and writing concern. Theatre needs pace and variety. Rooney is representing Neville. He is not Neville. If Monstar wants us to meet Neville, then it might be better to film Neville telling his stories. If he wants the audience to hear and understand the life and times of his father, then he needs to employ stricter dramaturgy and theatre making skills.  

What My Father's Story needs is pace, variety, and dramatic action. In particular, whilst the stories are fun and a beautiful trip down memory lane, they are very descriptive. We really need to be let into why that memory is meaningful - either for Neville or for ourselves. Too often context or intent is missing which I suspect is causing Rooney some difficulty with remembering where his is in the script and definitely makes it harder for the audience to be enriched.

This sounds a bit harsh, and I want to emphasize the beauty and poignancy which is inherent in My Father's Story in both the content and performance. I also need to encourage Monstar to really focus on his dramaturgy or get someone to provide an outside eye to bounce off, particularly as he is planning a series of these types of performances (which I am really keen to encourage).

2.5 Stars

Wednesday 15 February 2023

SONGS OF THE FLESH: Theatre Review

What: Songs of the Flesh
When: 14 - 18 February
Where: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
Written by: Chris Beckey
Directed by: Stephen Mitchell Wright
Performed by: Josh Blake and Scott Middleton
Lighting by: Sidney Younger
Costumes by: Kristine Von Hilderbrant

Scott Middleton and Josh Blake - Photo by Tom Noble

Every so often a show comes along, and you know from the very first moment that it was created by people who know nothing other than originality backed by a ridiculous understanding of storytelling. Songs of the Flesh, currently running at the Explosives Factory as part of Midsumma, is one of those shows.

Songs of the Flesh has been twice written by Chris Beckey and is an ode to love, a plea to humanity, and a dirge to innocence. This tragic tale takes us from bucolic wonder into a steamy urban world of lust and - eventually - love. We all know that love is hard, and for some demographics the community makes it outrageously more difficult and painful. Does love die? I don't think so. Innocence does though. Perhaps an alternative title for this show is The Death of Innocence.

I say this show has been twice written because Beckey first wrote and performed it in around 2000. Inspired by Kate Bush's song 'The Song of Solomon', Beckey tried to convey their experiences through the reworking of the biblical text known as 'Song of Songs' (also known as Songs of Solomon). 

It is no surprise that Beckey found themself so intrigued by this text. It is a curious creature to sit within the Old Testament. It is an erotic poem of unknown provenance and churches across time have struggled to find a way to legitimize it within the biblical cannon, creating the most hilarious analogies of the man in the poem being god and the women being his flock but anyone with any text analysis skill will read it and call bullshit. This conflict between religion and text makes the Song perfect for investigation by the Queer community.

Moving forward to more recent times, Beckey revisited and rewrote the play. Now here comes the stroke of pure genius. Stephen Mitchell Wright (Director) reads both scripts and asks the question what happens if they are both performed simultaneously. The answer is pure magic.

Creating a kind of science fiction/parallel universe aesthetic Josh Blake (Boy from the Plains) and Scott Middleton (Boy from the Forest) tell their story together. Naturally there are sections of identical text - especially at the start, so they begin together, each performing a show which is the same but different. The effect of this is to create a universality of experience which makes the joy sweeter, and the pain deeper. When the texts diverge repetitions occur but at different times which gives a sense of the same  experiences across all time.

Songs of the Flesh is physical theatre, and very excellently choreographed and directed. Both actors dance and move and wrestle across the playing space, each movement reminding us that this story is about the flesh and its wants and needs which juxtapose against the higher ideals of literature and language. All of their 3-dimensional liveness sits before looming 2-dimensional projections telling us we are moving through the chapters of this tale of woe just as we would read through chapters of the Song. (I really love the graphics although no AV designer is credited). These juxtapositions are mirrored in the sod surrounding the foot lights and the huge, looming double bed colonising centre stage. There is a ladder. I don't want to talk about the ladder. Ladder be gone! You offend mine eyes!

Sidney Younger's lighting design is fabulous too which is a real skill because the Explosives Factory is one of those venues with limited technical resources. Whilst I can see there are possibilities for more nuance, he capably moves us from intimate to anonymous, to night clubs, to danger and dark, to soft and simple. This is no easy task in a staging which is wide and white and dominated by projections. I also want to give a shout out to Peta Coy (Stage Manager) who operates all of the technology with precision and seamless integration.

Songs of the Flesh does its job perfectly and magically because as I sat watching it, all I came away with is the question 'why can't we all just let people be who they feel they want/need to be?' In the program notes Beckey talks about how weird it is that religion, which is supposed to be all about love, can hold such hate (Leviticus is the example cited in the show). I say if you look around, all of history's greatest atrocities have been committed in the name of religion in one form or another. The one great truth is religion is all about creating an 'other' and woe betide anyone who falls into that category for whatever made up reason is concocted. I would also say stay away from the Old Testament. That shit is made to mess up heads for sure!

Songs of the Flesh is a refreshing piece of theatre in its creativity. I would suggest it is a fraction too long but the only remedy would be a script edit. Everything about staging and timing seems perfect to me in its current form. 

You only have a few more performances to catch so please do try and get to see it. It is a beautiful and tragic tale of the highest order and told by masters of their craft. 

4.5 Stars

Saturday 11 February 2023

BURGERZ: Theatre Review

What: Burgerz
When: 8 - 18 February 2023
Where: Theatre Works
Written by: Travis Alabanza
Directed by: Kitan Petkovski
Composition by: Rachel Lewindon
Lighting by: Katie Sfetkidis
Performed by: Kikki Temple

Kikki Temple - photo by Daniel Rabin

Trigger warning: I will be writing this review, for the most part, from a theatre making perspective. As such, because of the sensitivity of the content, some of you may find this review to not be a safe place. That is not my intention, but I am aware that reviews can be taken/read out of context so before you read on, please consider this.

Midsumma is in full swing and our theatres are filled with stories which chronicle the challenges, loves, celebrations and abuses of the LGBTQIA+ community. This week at Theatre Works we are honoured to be presented with an Australian/Aotearoan adaptation of the internationally acclaimed UK hit show Burgerz, written by Travis Alabanza. In 2016 Alabanza had a burger thrown at them in public and nobody appeared to blink an eye. In Burgerz, the character tries to process the incident and their anger, fear, hate, pain, and sorrow by deconstructing the process of making a burger with the help of the audience.

There is a lot going on in Burgerz. It travels from the inciting incident to the present, to reminiscence, to gender identity, second and third wave feminism, ancestry, gender violence, and just about everywhere in between. When Alabanza talks about the show they refer to it as being a cooking show and "sometimes a bit messy". It is very messy emotionally and this means it has to be clean and tight in performance or rather than a burger you are in danger of getting a slow-cooked pot of scrambled eggs. Kitan Petkovski's (director) version is in a lot of danger of becoming those eggs.

This production is slow and meandering. It rarely reaches the heights of anxiety it needs to energise the conceit. This is not an acting problem. Kikki Temple is emotionally labile, but the transitions are gentle segues which are a bit like watching a kettle boil. Temple does get us to the right emotional pitch but by the time the water is boiling the scene is over. As such we lose the fractured/damaged psyche of the character. The character is making the burger to find a way back to a sense of having some control in their life but Temple is always in control from start to finish so it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance between the text and the performance. If Temple would sharpen the transitions and manage the audience interaction more skilfully you could cut a good 20 minutes off the running time and have a powerful, ripsnorter of a show here.

Luckily Katie Sfetkidis gets it. Her lighting design is clean and snappy. For the most part it was her work which allowed me to understand and follow what was going on. (Way too much smoke/fog, but y'all have probably worked out my position on the use of smoke/fog in performance by now).

To be honest I didn't find Rachel Lewindon's composition much help. It was slow and haunting which made no sense to me given this incident was in the chaos of a big city and it is a show dealing with anxiety and trauma. Having said that, there is a point in the show when Temple cocoons into their Maori heritage and then we reach the glorious intersection of intention, performance, and production.

Again, Alabanza clearly markets his show as a cooking show. What does any of it have to do with a car? Yet centre stage, large as life, is a four-door hatch. You might think there are a lot of things you can do with a fully functional car evidently packed for camping on a stage as large as the one at Theatreworks. The reality is that it is just a big, fancy, tote. Apart from the most amazing start to any show you will ever see anywhere, it has little to no relationship to the dramaturgy of Burgerz. (Yes, yes, life is a journey and all that, but that's a very thin straw for something so dominating in the space). I wish the design (Bethany J Fellows) spoke more closely to the work and the character rather than so strongly to Temple themselves. It would have been less distracting and confusing. 

It takes a very long time, but eventually a kitchen is wheeled out. By then though, the show has lost all its opportunity to create Alabanza's 'mess' before Temple starts to clean it up and sort things out.

I have to spend a moment talking about the script though too. I don't know why, and this only reveals itself at the end of the work, but for some reason Burgerz seems to feed into the Eve blame game. Whilst I usually try not to give away endings, here is a precis of the framework as I understood it. A (cis) man throws the burger. The character catches the eye of a (cis) man and a (cis) woman. Both observers walk away without interceding. At the end of the play a (cis) woman is drawn on stage and is instructed to read a long vow pledging to do better and be an ally, etc, etc. 

My point is this (and feeds into the whole second wave/third wave feminism conundrum), a man committed the act of violence and both a man and woman witnessed and walked away. Why is it women who are made to face the music, admit culpability, and pay penance? Why are we not confronting the men? Why are they not being held accountable? Why is it not a man taking this vow? Eve was the first, but we have been paying for everybody's sins ever since. It is worth remembering that we know what it is like to have food, abuse and fists thrown at us too. We are not the problem although I concede we are prone to becoming part of it as the anecdote about the woman on the train tells us. It is true to say, however, that you will never solve a problem by cutting off the leaves. You have to get to the root.

Burgerz is a great play with important messages and stories, and this is a sleek production. It just needs to be tighter, sharper - and messier and more fractured - to seep into our skins and make the message something we can't turn away from. The show has to throw the burger back at us, not stroke us like a kitten.

2.5 Stars

Monday 6 February 2023

TROPHY BOYS: Theatre Review

 What: Trophy Boys
When: 2 - 12 February 2023
Where: Fortyfivedownstairs
Written by: Emmanuelle Mattana
Directed by: Marni Mount
Designed by: Ben Andrews
Performed by: Emmanuelle Mattana, Leigh Lule, Gaby Seow, and Fran Sweeney-Nash
Stage Managed by: Oliver Ross


Fran Sweeney-Nash, Gaby Seow, Emmanuelle Mattana, and Leigh Lule - photo by Ben Andrews

Wow. Mind Blown! Can't speak!... But this is a review so I must try and string a few words together for this most amazing, hilarious, powerful, painful, and revelationary show. It has to be Best in Fest for sure!

Trophy Boys is an original play written by Emmanuelle Mattana (who also plays Owen). Presented by The Maybe Pile and doing a return season at Fortyfivedownstairs as part of this year's Midsumma Festival, Trophy Boys is a black comedy performed in drag. It addresses the problems Melbourne (and probably the rest of the world) is dealing with regarding private school boys and their understanding of how to treat females. Will any of us ever forget that 'I wish that all the ladies...' song chanted on a bus by the St Kevins boys? Should we forget?

Scott (Gaby Seow), Jared (Leigh Lule), David (Fran Sweeney-Nash), and Owen form the championship debating team at St Imperium private boy's school. They are in year 12 and have reached the championship round of the 2023 debating finals with the pressure of their entire futures resting on a win. They bound into the Debating Prep Room to prepare for the final debate. When they walk in they are full of energy and confidence. The final debate is against their sister school and they are going to crush it! They turn the whiteboard around to reveal the debate topic - feminism has failed women. They must argue the affirmative... Silence...

What ensues is a maelstrom of hilarity and perspicacity as the boys loudly espouse how strong an ally they are to feminism whilst also struggling with how to argue the affirmative without looking like mysoginistic shits. David is in an even more difficult position because his girlfriend is on the opposing team. He spends a lot of time telling us how much he loves women. 

The real thinker in the team, Owen, draws on his bucket loads of knowledge about feminist philososphy to try and find a position to found an argument on. He talks us through first and second wave feminism and David raises the argument that feminism hurts men, thus hurting women. Every argument raised is drawn down into a circular argument which fails the logic test. Watching these mental gymnastics is almost as funny as watching them act out their sex fantasies when they are supposed to be silently brain storming. (According to the BBC men think about sex around 19 times a day lol).

All of this is happening under the watchful eyes of the women on the photo wall. Women such as Mother Teresa, Julia Gillard, Jacinda Adern, Margaret Thatcher, Penny Wong, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Mulala Yousafzai, etc. This wall is design (Ben Andrews) genius and so powerful in its silence and watchfullness. 

The show is done in traverse which is also clever because it really gives the performers the opportunity to demonstrate the high energy and momentum so instrinsic to teen boys and so much a part of why things can go so wrong for them. Marni Mount (director) has the incredible skill to manage this staging choice and bring the cast to the energy levels required, but then reining it in to build tension. Mount has turned Trophy Boys into a pressure cooker. She occassionally lets a little steam out only to shut it down and build the pressure even higher again and again and again. For most of the play this pressure brings gales of laughter, but by the end I admit I was crying (whilst also trying to clap and cheer as loud as I could).

Why was I crying? Because Trophy Boys is full of truths. Truth about teenage boys. Truth about feminism. Truth about academic pressures. Truth about private schools. Truth about patriarchy. Truth about privilege. Truth about the systemic silencing of women. As the saying goes - truth hurts.

As I said at the start - Best in Fest! This show needs to go everywhere and be seen by everyone. It should be on curriculums and in every library in the world. And you HAVE to see it. This is what theatre is about. Oh, and you will laugh harder than you ever have ;)

5 Stars

Sunday 5 February 2023

HOUSE OF THE HEART: Cabaret Review

What: House of the Heart
When: 5-12 February 2023
Where: Museum of Chinese Australian History
Created by: Moira Finucane & Jackie Smith
Performed by: Paul Fabian Cordeiro, Shirley Cattunar, Zitao Deng, Moira Finucane, Dave Johnston, Sophie Koh, Rachel Lewindon, Lois Olney, Raksha Parsnani, and Xiao Xiao

Lois Olney

It has been just over a year since Victoria's strict pandemic lockdown and work from edicts ceased. Yes, we are moving on, and yes, society's rhythms are returning - slightly retuned but beginning to play at something approaching vivace if not the preceding prestissimo. In the midst of our fermata, however, we had the opportunity and the will to take a look around us and consider what is important to us. Locked in the little cells of our domeciles we also took stock of what is house and what is home. Finucane & Smith have taken this intensely intimate introspection we all faced and created a cabaret study called House of the Heart. Intriguingly, and importantly given the state of the world right now and our internal political struggles, they are performing it at the Museum of Chinese Australian History.

Finucane & Smith have a long and (in)glorious history exploring China, performing in and with the Chinese, and working with Chinese diaspora artists. It is exciting to hear Moira Finucane speak to this history in the preamble as she introduces us to the famous dragons watching over us in the Dragon Gallery and as we look to the luck the Year of the Rabbit foretells.

House of the Heart has a tempo which is a bit different to what you may have come to expect from Finucane & Smith. It is a gathering of people, a gathering of stories, a gathering of intimacy, sharing, and love. In keeping with the theme of the venue, there is a Chinese conceit to the evening, but what brings it all together and completes the circle is the Indigenous presence. On the night I was there it was Lois Olney (with guitar virtuoso Dave Johnston) singing blues classics by the great Nina Simone as well as sorrowful but loving tunes about her family and a lullaby in native language.

House of the Heart invites artists who have come to this country to tell their story however they best express themselves. There is often debate around Australia as home to immigrants. House of the Heart does not try to take a stance. The show is just about looking at the ways and whys of how the Chinese diaspora find themselves living on these shores and some of the experiences they have had. At the same time, we are asked to look inside our own houses and think about what make the heart of our homes. 

Sophie Koh begins the singing and, as the evening progresses, she introduces us to the first Chinese pop song sung in English. She is accompanied by the softly incandescent Xiao Xiao on cello and Zitao Deng on backing vocals. 

Mesmerised by Xiao Xiao's first unique composition, Finucane reveals the swift tattooed on Xiao Xiao's arm. The swift is a fitting theme for the evening and Finucane explains just how far a swift can (and does fly). In it's lifetime a swift can fly up to 2 million kilometres - enough to fly to the moon and back and more than enough to fly to Australia. In a rare, but on brand, moment Finucane lets us in to see the true heights of her acting talents and writing brilliance in a little piece called 'The Swift'. Some people do not belong in our heart and in our home.

Paul Cordeiro tells us - first through voice and later through dance - of his family's migration story and the strength and wonder of his older brother, before Zi Tao sings his first self-composed song. Belonging in Australia is a complicated state of being. Hearing Zi Tao's painful cry 'Taipei is not my home' over and over, resonating between the walls, the floors, the audience, and the dragons, is one of the most powerful moments of the evening.

There is deep sadness in House of the Heart, but there is also great freedom and love and hope which is embodied in Raksha Parsnani's explosive belly dance. The intimacy of the space ensures we all feel enveloped in a warm dragon hug and ensures our sense of communal sharing and caring. 

Towards the end of the show we are asked to share what is in the heart of our own homes. My list began with the soft belly fur of my kitten, and my friend has dragons and orange light in the heart of her home. What is in the heart of yours? Come to the Museum of Chinese Australian History this week and share. After all, isn't this what community is all about?

4 Stars.

Thursday 2 February 2023

A YEAR OF DATING: Theatre Review

 What: A Year of Dating
When: 3 - 11 February 2023
Where: The MC Showroom (Mainstage)
Written by: Lucy Holz
Directed by: Lyall Brooks
Sound Design & Composition by: Tom Backhaus
Lighting & AV Design by: Gabriel Bethune
Performed by: Emma Jevons and Seon Williams

Emma Jevons and Seon Williams - photo supplied

I am not going to lie. Every year there is a new show (several new shows) about dating across the stages/festivals of the world. You can get jaded by it or you can accept that as a species, every year there are around 5 years worth of youths looking to find love/partnerships/hookups - and that doesn't include the mature, post-divorce crowd! Dating is a part of the human experience so it can be intriguing to see how it shifts and moves as the years roll by. A Year of Dating, written by Lucy Holz, is the current instalment and is being presented at The MC Showroom as part of the Midsumma Festival.

Hannah (Emma Jevons) and Holly (Seon Williams) are housemates. Holly has decided to dedicate the upcoming year to dating in the hope of finding love or at least learning how to avoid catastrophe. Hannah is a 20 year old virgin who appears to be trapped in perpetual celibacy as they wait for true love to come to them. In picaresque style the pair travel across the calendar as Holly recounts horror stories, comedic farces, hopeless despairs, and surreal absurdities - the experiences we all sum up in the simple word 'dating'.

I have seen both of these performers before and they are some of the best acting talent in Melbourne. In fact, Jevons impressed me mightily with their physical comedy and impersonation skills completely in the style of Mad As Hell hilarity. Jevons not only plays Hannah. They also a selection of dating partners Holly interacts with across the twelve months. It was no surprise at all that Williams was able to carry the dramatic and comedic load of a character such as Holly.

Holz's play has been written in the Festival Fifty Format which, in this case, works well. The difficulty with an overt conceit like a calendar year is the audience know what is coming and how it is going to arrive. We know it will start in January and end in December and that is kind of what we want in any show with a title beginning A Year of... 

The theatrical challenges in this circumstance is play structure and direction. Holz's play deals well with the question of structure. The architecture is established (the housemates), and the stories vary in length, energy, and Holz plays with digital devices to break the potential staging monotony and performance rhythms. It is effective and whilst I had a couple of moments of loss of attention, these structural shifts brought me back into the story at crucial points.

Lyall Brooks has directed Jevons and Williams to create a fast and furious comedic assault. Comedy needs pace and the use of stage and bodies is truly excellent. Unfortunately in all of that energy flying around he has forgotten to give the audience a moment to breath. If this was stand up comedy my statement would be absurd. A Year Of Dating is theatre though, and we need to care about the characters. I am not sure we are given the chance which leaves us a bit unaffected at the end.

At this point I need to declare I am familiar with Holz's writing. I was the dramaturg on her pre-pandemic Melbourne Fringe Festival show Our Father. I know her writing and whilst A Year Of Dating is a completely different genre I can tell you her writing gives lots of clues and space to explore deeper aspects of her characters. Sadly, Brooks has missed this and presented Hannah and Holly as quite 2 dimensional. 

It begins with the character of Hannah. As mentioned earlier, Jevons plays many characters and makes them explode with glorious physical sketch comedy technique. I feel Hannah, on the other hand, should have been real rather than a Gwendolen Fairfax cut out. This would have allowed real connection and humanity with Holly and also would have provided a window of opportunity to speak to the A's in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. People forget about the A's. Maybe Holz wasn't thinking this when writing the character but the script certainly doesn't preclude it being suggested in performance. 

This simple shift would have allowed Holly to have a real connection and we could have believed in her chance for real love. The power of this connection within the context of the script would have been almost Hannah Gadsby level powerful. Remember, sometimes great comedy needs some deep despair to really allow the audience to fly to the moon.

Having said this A Year of Dating is an hour of hilarity and perhaps a bit TMI about sex and the dating scene. There is young love, first love, self love, all of it across spectrums you may not even realise exist! A Year of Dating is the perfect festival show and it is sleek and sexy with a great sound (Tom Backhaus) and lighting (Gabriel Bethune) design. The Comedy Festival is coming soon so if we are lucky it will get a second season. Just in case it doesn't though, you should pop down to Prahran and see it now!.

3.5 Stars

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

WHAT: The Long Game WHEN: 28 - 13 July 2024 WHERE: TW Explosives Factory WRITTEN BY: Sally Faraday DIRECTED BY: Krystalla Pearce SET BY: Dav...