Sunday 28 May 2023

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DINOSAURS: Theatre Review

WHAT: The World According To Dinosaurs
WHEN: 24 May - 4 June 2023
WHERE: La Mama Courthouse
WRITTEN BY: Belle Hansen and Amelia Newman
DIRECTED BY: Cassandra Gray
COMPOSITION & SOUND DESIGN BY: Jack Burmeister
DESIGN BY: Casey Harper-Wood
PERFORMED BY: Michael Cooper, Matilda Gibbs, Belle Hansen, Chris Patrick Hansen, Anna Louey, Amelia Newman, Izzy Patane, and Emily Pearson
LIGHTING BY: Theo Viney
STAGE MANAGED BY: Brigette Jennings

Amelia Newman and Belle Hansen - Photo by Darren Gill

The World According To Dinosaurs, now playing at La Mama Courthouse, is a full energy, singing, dancing, WTF dystopian brain explosion brought to us by Frenzy Theatre Co. Likening the extinction of dinosaurs to the extinction of humanity - and perhaps the planet - this coffee swilling, puppet wielding company take us far back in time, to the deepest depths of the ocean, and into a murky (perhaps not so far off) future and all in the space of 65 minutes.

Frenzy are the same company which brought us the amazing MOTHERLOD_^E earlier this year, and The World According To Dinosaurs brings us all of those wonderful elements including excellent production values and high energy, focussed performances. Unfortunately, it also brings a few of those dramaturgical flaws.

Belle Hansen and Amelia Newman (writers) play a barrista and shop assistant. Hansen is a super skilled and business-oriented worker whilst Newman is a flighty gen whateverweareupto who is obsessed with dinosaurs and extinction events and is totally up front about the fact she is crap at her job and has absolutely no interest in doing it. Casey Harper-Wood (designer) has created a magnificent set and perfect costumes, all of which look tour efficient but also with immaculate attention to detail and purpose. 

The show opens with the throbbing of a deep, disturbing tone which we later find out (as part of Newman's prattle) is the sound simulating the noises assumed to be made by the Tyrannosaurus Rex. This haunting throb emerges across the course of the show clicking down like a clock, warning an audience who will not heed that danger is close at hand. At this point I want to say that Jack Burmeister's sound design is absolutely brilliant and keeps the show moving and all the threads woven together in clever ways.

As the lights come up, we see Hansen and Newman serving a slew of customers (the ensemble) as Newman tells us everything she knows about dinosaurs. Small fact-check here. Birds are not descendants of dinosaurs, they actually are dinosaurs. It doesn't matter though; we get the point. Dinosaurs were colourful and the T-Rex had short hands to counterbalance its weight. So far so good. 

Apart from the intentional performative dissonance of discussing a historical extinction event whilst serving endless coffees to a faux woke crowd in disposable coffee cups, there is a sly reference to Hegel's definition of a dialectic inserted neatly into a play using overtly dialectic techniques to make its point. I love the intention of this work, but in attempting to be dialectic I think it falls into a bit of a mish mash of ideas and I don't know how strong some of them are. 

At one point it even uses the trite and overused talk show parody only this time I couldn't even work out what was being parodied and there was a whole lot of stuff about the colour blue which passed completely over my head. There are random Brechtian song and dance interludes which again, just didn't point strongly enough to any particular idea and some of these references are too old for the context of the work... Too far back for the age of what I assume is its audience - for example the singing trio. I was also completely bamboozled by the connection with the creatures of the deep until the very end, but I will talk about that later.

So let's talk about the T-Rex in the room. Who is the audience? I am going to suggest the script is written for teens, reflecting the ennui and sense of helplessness experienced by the current gen whateverweareupto. On the other hand, I couldn't help thinking the direction is targeting primary school children as evidenced by the dance breaks and the puppetry and some of the costuming. Cassandra Gray (director) has directed a brilliant show but appears to have directed it for the wrong age group. This opinion is supported by the fact that this play is apparently on the VCE play list.

Back to the creatures of the deep. In the middle of the play Newman tells us about how quickly bodies are recycled into food by creatures which live in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean. To me this didn't seem to relate to the overall conceit of the play so far. At the end it comes back and forms part of a comfort story she tells herself about how it will be okay if we kill ourselves and the planet because these creatures who don't need sunlight might thrive. There is a flaw in this because if we kill our sunlight, I have to assume that H2O will also be affected but I should probably leave that conversation up to scientists.

More concerning is that The World According To Dinosaurs leaves us in a place of hopelessness and helplessness. This might be an accurate representation of the youth psyche but what is the point of a play which does not provide at least some hope that change is possible? Scientists have declared that we are past the point of no climate impact, but there is still time to mitigate its extent. If you are going to write a play like The World According To Dinosaurs then why would you not make it a call to action? If we are that close to extinction, why would you end the conversation with 'there is nothing that can be done'?

The World According To Dinosaurs is a play with a lot of potential and is definitely a tale which needs telling. Frenzy Theatre need to pay much more attention to their dramaturgy though and be really clear about what they want this play to be about and to achieve. Plato would be proud of how hard spectacle works to make this play a success, but when even the spectacle is confused, it just highlights the flaws.

I do want to say the performances and production elements of The World According To Dinosaurs are impressive, with few flaws to be found. You perhaps should see this show for that reason alone. This is how you do the mechanics of theatre. If the team would just ally themselves with an experienced dramaturg, they could blow the theatre world away with what they could achieve.

3 Stars

Friday 26 May 2023

WORSTWARD HO - Theatre Review

WHAT: Worstward Ho
WHEN: 24 May - 3 June 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Samuel Beckett
DIRECTED BY: Richard Murphet
PERFORMED BY: Roberet Meldrum

Rob Meldrum - photo by Chelsea Neate

Worst. Better. Not worst. Say better. Done better. Not worst. Say done better. Say on. Better on. Done better on. Nohow. Somehow. On. Done on. Worstward Ho done on. Theatre Works Explosives Factory. Go now. Go in. Go how. Nohow. Somehow. Go on.

The last text ever written by renowned playwright and novellist Samuel Beckett was the novella Worstward Ho. Under the auspices of the Victorian Theatre Company, Melbourne theatre legends, director Richard Murphet and actor Robert Meldrum have come together to turn this unique piece of writing to the stage as performance.

Samuel Beckett's writings are notorious for their dystopian outlook, lingual density, and philosophical interogation. He is considered a surrealist writer and has written some of the most seminal theatre pieces in history including Endgame, Waiting For Godot, Quad, and the recent MTC event, Happy Days.

Worstward Ho is not a play, it is prose. Some even call it poetry (in that modernist style which includes the concept of prose poetry). Given our contemporary love of spoken word it seems a natural fit to perform this text live, particularly when placed in the incredibly capable hands of a master such as Meldrum. The size of the task to make sensical this dense and yet linguistically sparse piece of writing cannot be overstated, and in the hands of lesser mortals all hope for the audience hearing and engaging with each nuance would be lost.

The writing itself is a man pondering existence, and his existence, as the light(s) dim and he stands before a void. Language has become as minimal and repetitive as his presence in the world. As he tells us over and over again, there is only on and sometimes up. Even back is gone as lights dim. They dim up and they dim gone, but you will notice as the text continues, they are never bright. The images are never clear.

I have read commentators claiming this text is a religious creation story, and also a parody of the novel Westward Ho. I hesitate over both of these ideas. The more credible idea is it is autobiographical, and also that is is a parody of/conversation with the three famous 'directional' plays of the Jacobean period - Westward Ho, Eastward Ho, and Northward Ho. Perhaps, it is not parody so much as completion of the compass.

The terms 'Westward Ho' and 'Eastward Ho' where the cries of the water taxis on the river Thames in the late 1500's as the city of London expanded and ideas of egalitarianism and capitalism exploded. The three plays, coming out of the Theatre Wars known as the Poetomachia, each took a point of the compass to show their social and philosophical standpoint. Westward Ho looked west and towards an expanding future. Eastward Ho was a reaction by other playwrights and looked back East and to older ways and perhaps scorning their new Scottish King. Northward Ho was a reaction again by the original playwrights and spiralled around the excesses of a modern London, an expanding metropolis going nowhere. Worstward Ho, perhaps, takes these wars to their final conclusion - the final direction of life, and the smallness and darkness of it and us all in the end.

As well, the three plays (especially Northward Ho), as they were each created, saw the dramatic reduction of theatregrams along the way - dramatic norms which drew from Commedia dell'Arte and which were basic building blocks for performance in their day. This may be referenced in Beckett's diminishment of standard language structure to it's most essential items. I also think the repetition follows some of the lingual patterns of Westward Ho and Northward Ho, as well as being a reaction against the more flowery language of Elizabethan English writing. As well, the reference to three lights can also be read in this context. His epideictic structure supports these ideas as well.

As much as I enjoyed the idea of Worstward Ho as performance, in some ways I was disappointed in the direction. I found the playing space to be far too big. Too much space. Too much theatre. Too much acting. At one point I felt I was watching a Shakespearean monologue, not a Beckett. there was nowhere near enough clenching.

Beckett's writing is alway claustrophobic and Worstward Ho is the culmination of that in both style and concept. In such a large playing space you need the lighting to close it in, but the lanterns available (mainly large fresnels) just can't do that job - even with barn doors - especially in soft focus. I will say I did enjoy the silhouette work though. This production would have 'shone' - pun intended - in a tiny space and if it can't be done with staging, it would have been better at a venue like La Mama. It needs that kind of physical restriction.

Having said that I had the best experience as I love a good challenge, and it takes skill at the level of Murphett and Meldrum to release the Beckett humour that so many theatre makers try so hard to find. Yes, Worstward Ho is bleak, but in bleakness there is much wry humour and absurdity and, when done well, will bring us laughter and sense of community. In Worstward Ho the question is asked - do we go gently into that good night? Perhaps we do, sadly. Just ask anyone experiencing dementia. Alongside is the whispered question about humanity as a whole...

There is a great sense of relief and relaxation which comes from being in the presence of true masters of the theatre arts and that trust is earned in this production of Worstward Ho whatever hesitations I have uttered so far. This performance releases Beckett into our hearts and minds freely and wholly. Be warned though, Worstward Ho is not for the feint hearted. You will need to bring all of your concentration and all of your faith to peer into this dim world Beckett created. Here is a phenomenon you may never see again in your lifetime so cherish it.

3.5 Stars

Friday 19 May 2023

BEYOND THE BEEHIVE - AMY WINEHOUSE'S MUSICAL MASTERY: Music Review

WHAT: Beyond The Beehive - Amy Winehouse's Musical Mastery
WHEN: 18 - 21 May 2023
WHERE: The MC Showroom (Main Stage)
CREATED BY: Carol Whitfield
MUSICAL DIRECTION BY: Ryland Sack
PERFORMED BY: Christine Rathjens, Rachel Reyes, Ryland Sack, Lucy Varley, and Carol Whitfield

Ryland Sack, Carol Whitfield, Rachel Reyes, Christine Rathjens and Lucy Varley

Amy Winehouse is one of the infamous 27 Club - famous musicians who died at at the age of 27. In her short life though, she made a global impact as a singer/songwriter spanning genres and fusing past influences with current ones. In Beyond The Beehive - Amy Winehouse's Musical Mastery, now playing at The MC Showroom, Carol Whitfield takes us through Winehouse's greatest hits and, along the way, gives us a masterclass on the singer's influences and impact.

Starting from that timeless standard 'Rehab', Whitfield and her lively band cover all the key musical check marks which exemplify the range of Winehouse's works. This includes originals such as 'Stronger Than Me' through to covered masterpieces like 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow' and a whole slew of songs which fall somewhere along that spectrum. Across the course of the evening you can enjoy 'Valerie', 'Back To Black', and 'Love Is A Losing Game'

Along the way Whitfield doesn't focus a great deal on the biographical details of Winehouse's life - which is refreshing because that is what everyone else does. Instead she talks about the styles and masters which influenced the singer's development as a jazz and pop artist. Whitfield talks about how Winehouse pioneered a cross-form musical style which fused jazz, blues, pop, hip hop and just about everything in between. 

The thing I liked best about Beyond The Beehive is Whitfield didn't talk down to us as an audience. She was clearly knowledgable about (and perhaps a little bit in love with) Winehouse, and her intention is for us to see the artist as the musical genius she perhaps was, and not just the tragic pop icon which grabbed the headlines.

Whitfield is a masterful singer in her own right. She doesn't have those natural deep, smooth, resonant tones which mark Winehouse's amazing voice, but she is extremely talented and pitch perfect across the entire repertoire.Whitfield's talents are supported and enhanced by a band who are masters in their own right and have as much fun (in that jazz kind of way) with the material as Whitfield has in bringing us this music. 

The stories and music this wonderful ensemble bring us are funny as well as sad and remind us that there is a wealth of musical potential never realised due to Winehouse's early demise.  I did notice the avoidance of discussion of the lifestyle choices which led to the death of this young singer. On the other hand, I was impressed with Whitfield and her care in contextualising the content problems with the song 'Stronger Than Me'. Whitfield schools us all in how to deal with problematic material in a more sensitive age without cancelling it or the artist.

The nights are very cold now, and there is no better way to fight SAD than to head to The MC Showroom and get a bit of Winehouse into you to warm your hearts and bones. This is the third iteration of this cabaret, and it loses nothing in the passage of time. Beyond The Beehive is a wonderful start to a Melbourne winter cabaret season.

4 Stars

Wednesday 17 May 2023

MARIE ANTIONETTE: Theatre Review

WHAT: Marie Antionette
WHEN: 11 - 20 May, 2023
WHERE: The MUST Space
WRITTEN BY: David Adjmi
DIRECTED BY: Annabelle Wemyss
SET BY: Suba Selvarajan
COSTUMES BY: Marni McCubbin
PERFORMED BY: Felicity Barrow, Luca Edwards, Tash Frost, Yemaya Greenwood, Bella Kourdoulos, Marlley McNamara, Esther Penman, Elena Ruefenacht, and Lindy Zurbos, 
LIGHTING BY: Nicolani Susanto
SOUND BY: Roni Corby
STAGE MANAGED BY: Jay Seow

Felicity Barrow and Elena Ruefenacht - photo by Julia Kaddatz

If you like your theatre full of high wigs and great coats, Clayton is the place to go. MUST is presenting David Adjmi's Marie Antionette and the court of Louis XVI never looked so good.

The play Marie Antionette is a kind of snapshot precis of the life and experiences of Marie Antionette from a few years after the coronation of Louis XVI. It is important to note this play is fiction, so it is dangerous to take it too literally although it does hit most of the high points of the generally known bullet points surrounding the endless downward spiral of Marie Antionette's public image and, in the end, her life.

Marie Antionette was married to Louis at the age of 14. The marriage failed to be properly consummated for 8 years and, as is the fate of all women in the era of Christendom, her fate was to become the poster child for all of the ills and failures of the Crown. Rumours spread that she was barren (until she finally started bearing children), and then that she was promiscuous and/or homosexual. She was blamed for bankrupting the treasury, controlling her husband, and betraying France in favour of her native Austria. In truth there was never anything she could do that would have ever been able to overcome the Eve spin machine. 

Despite some factual errors (it is accepted that Louis did not have phimosis, he just didn't know how to 'do' sex, for example), Adjmi's play gets us through the main points of the story. He even manages to layer in some real nuance in his writing of the character. It is a shame neither Annabelle Wemyss (director), nor Felicity Barrow (Marie Antoinette) were able to find the depth and complexity available to them in the writing. 

Don't get me wrong. This production does an excellent job of playing the text of the play. On the other hand, the subtext has been completely overlooked which leaves this Antionette to be a frivolous little brat who is, in turns annoying, frustrating, and pathetic.I will say Barrow does hit amazing heights in the second act when she finally allows her character to grow up... a bit.

I say this because, right from the start Adjmi has Marie Antionette telling us she feels hemmed in. She talks about every wall being a mirror and tells us she is watched all the time. She is always dreaming of Austria - longing for home, friends and family. Adjmi is telling us she is already psychologically climbing the walls looking for a way out or a way to stay in - thus the outrageous indulgences.

There is so much opportunity across all of the text for that character to show us the dualism of the dilettante facade hiding the misery of a lonely trapped little girl lost in a world of indulgence and intrigue. I admit to never wanting to see that petulant pout which was permanently tattooed on Barrow's face ever again. I think Wemyss and Barrow have allowed themselves to indulge in the reputation of Marie Antionette rather than bothering to do enough dramaturgy to find out who she possibly might have been. No woman who lived the life Marie Antionette could possibly be that puerile.

This production of Marie Antionette has some really strong theatrical elements, though. It looks good and sounds great. Suba Selvarajan's set is imposing yet simple and Nicolani Susanto's lights do the job. Marni McCubbin's costumes steal the show, being severely deconstructed versions of Marie Antionette's chemise a la reine and the justeaucorps. Roni Corby's sound design is the real life and heart of the show though. The throbbing segues between the scenes kept the show moving ever forward towards it's ominous outcome whilst lifting the energy and denying any flagging of vitality between scenes.

The one great failure of production is the final moments in both acts. Those intense full stops written by Adjmi fall into an abyss in this production. Something big and different and marked needs to happen to distinguish these points from the all of the ones which come before so that the audience understand it is finished. It can be done with lighting or sound. Wemyss needs to harness the creative options at her finger tips much more strongly to craft the shape of those moments for the audience. This includes what the actor is doing.

Everyone who is not Marie Antionette in this show is a support player and they all generally do their job well. There is little room for full character development and they all establish themselves clearly from the moment they step on stage which is great. Yes, I looooove Sheep (Esther Penman). That is inevitable. 

On a personal note I am disappointed that with such amazing talent evident in cast members such as Tash Frost (Revolutionary) and Lindy Zurbos (multiple characters), it was a skinny girl who got the lead role. I mention this because Marie Antionette stacked on the weight after bearing children so this play would have been a great opportunity to break that leading lady stereotype. In a play which openly breaks down gender constructs it is a shame to see that other traditional tropes are still in play.

This review probably sounds grumpier than I mean it to. I did enjoy this production of Marie Antionette. It has so much going for it and the play moves quickly despite being 2 acts. It is just a bit held back by what I assume is the youth and inexperience of the lead creatives, which is entirely understandable but just a little bit frustrating. My inner feminist got a bit disappointed, but the outer theatre goer in me had a really great time.

3.5 stars

Saturday 13 May 2023

MEERTA - RISE UP! THE BALLAD OF JAMES ARDEN: Music Review

WHAT: Meerta - Rise Up! The Ballad of James Arden
WHEN: 11-12 May 2023
WHERE: Arts Centre Melbourne (ANZ Pavillion)
DIRECTED BY: Dave Arden
MUSICAL DIRECTION BY: Dave Arden and Daniel Jauregui
PERFORMED BY: Jake Amy, Dave Arden, Brad Brown, Chris Cameron, Deniece Hudson, Daniel Jauregui, Ann Metry, Monica MacDonald, Wayne Morgan, Jordan Murray, and students from VCA&MCM
ART & VIDEO BY: Dixon Patten

Lead Guitarists: Daniel Juaregui and Dave Arden

Yirramboi is a Melbourne festival which celebrates Indigenous art and artists. The word itself means tomorrow and the idea behind the festival is to highlight First Nation voices of resilience and evolution. The website speaks of cracking open "the heart of Melbourne, revealing the hum of country beneath." Listening to Meerta - Rise Up! The Ballad of James Arden, the driving bass drum of Chris Cameron and the words and tunes of master guitarist/songwriter Dave Arden raise that hum to a gentle roar as Arden tells the story of his family and, by default, an important history of Australia.

The biography of Arden is a greatest hits list including Koori Youth Band, Bart Willoughby, Black Arm Band and the inestimable late Uncle Archie Roach. The music of Uncle Archie Roach does feature across the program, but most of this beautiful journey is original music penned by Arden himself, telling his family's stories. Having said that, there is one song on the play list - 'So Young' - written by Arden, which is apparently the only song featured on an Archie Roach album not written by the great man himself.

Meerta moves across the evening telling the story of his family, but is also told with family including his neices Monica MacDonald and Deniece Hudson. He begins by introducing himself with the song 'Kokatha Guditjmara Clan'. 

Like so many Indigenous people he was raised by relatives because of Stolen Generations and the cyclical trauma of "children having children" to use his words. After introducing himself, he then sings a song for the young mother he still mourns - 'I See, I Hear'. The song is accompanied by projections and photos which bring his mum into the room with us. I have to say, Dixon Patten's art totally blew me away and brought incredible depth and breadth the story Arden was bringing us!

Later Arden tells about the beautiful love story between his aunty/mum Ann and uncle/dad Syd. The orchestral sound provided by the strings and horns of the VCA&MCM students adds a lyricism and poignancy to the endearing soft rock ballad 'Annie Louisa'. At this point the students leave, but the trumpeter stayed to play 'The Last Post' before Arden sang about our First Nation soldiers who fought and died at Gallipoli. 

It is here in the program Arden tells us about his brother who has passed. They had their challenges but love is love and family is family, and Arden sings his love and pain through the song 'I Was Always There'. He rounds out this introductory act with a song about the racism and bullying he experienced at school. 'Call It Out' is about not keeping silent. It is about not holding somebody else's shame as your own.

A few more songs of great social and personal importance continued to fill the program. At this point you are probably wondering who James Arden is? Dave Arden keeps us in suspense until the end of the show when he reveals James as his great grandfather. He was a strong, proud Gunditjmara man who, in 1916, was an activist leading a stand against the missions his people had been forced to live on. 'Meerta', which means rise up, is the ballad of James Arden.

Meerta - Rise Up! is a wonderful journey into the story of a man, a family, a people, and a country. Spanning orchestral soft rock, blues, country and folk, the music moves between narrative and concept. It is always powerful and draws the listener in to hear every word. As the Yirramboi website asks... "Will you hear it?".

4 Stars

Friday 12 May 2023

THE WRONG HORSE: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Wrong Horse
WHEN: 10 - 14 May 2023
WHERE: The MC Showroom (Main Stage)
WRITTEN BY: Marty MonStar
DIRECTED BY: Marion Arditti
DESIGNED BY: Sylvia Shao
PERFORMED BY: Brigitte Jarvis, Darren Mort, Graham Murray, Dom Phelan, and Ian Rooney

Dom Phelan, Brigitte Jarvis and Graham Murray - photo supplied

Delightful. This is not the coolest word in the dictionary, but it is the best word to describe The Wrong Horse now playing at The MC Showroom in Prahran.

I hear a lot of men bemoaning not being allowed to tell other people's stories these days, and complaining that leaves them nothing to write about. Those men need to look at the work of writers such as Marty MonStar and Shane Grant. Writers such as these two are showing us how many 'mens' stories there are which haven't been told. Stories which show us all that secret men's business they keep hidden from the rest of us in order to appear tough and stong and leaders. We are finally getting to see real men in all their glory, with all their flaws, all their sensitivity, and all their absurdity.

The Wrong Horse is a story which celebrates the Australian bloke in all his iterations. There is Noddy (Darren Mort) the tough thug, Big Ears (Dom Phelan) the nervous no-hoper, and a plethora of smaller characters surrounding them. Set in Footscray and surrounds, these two blokes form an unlikely pair of small time crooks who knock about together outside of 'working' hours. 

On this very early Tuesday morning Big Ears wakes Noddy full of nervous energy and an inability to sleep. He convinces Noddy to go to the races at Werribee with him. When they get there a gnomelike stable hand (Ian Rooney) gives him a tip. Unfortunately, Noddy has a form of numeral dyslexia. Fortunately for Noddy he is an unnaturally lucky son of a gun. In act 2 we get to see Noddy and Big Ears plying their illegitimate trade. The question is, will their experiences at the race track be mirrored in their working life or are there darker days ahead for this very odd couple from Fitzroy?

The Wrong Horse is a wonderful Australian comedy with all the flavour of Vegemite at its core. We meet all the best old mates from days of yore (and Rooney plays a lot of them!).The cast are a great ensemble and the extreme character definition they have found evidently comes from a core of love for these men being remembered and portrayed. I doubt if we will be seeing them in our writing for much longer so shows like The Wrong Horse are an important part of our cultural lexicon to be cherished.

MonStar has crafted an elegant play and Marion Arditti's direction lifts it into the extraordinary. Supported by a clever and minimalist design by Sylvia Shao, the men move from a flat in Footscray to a cars interior and to the Werribee racetrack and so on. On paper I would perhaps have thought this was too filmic and difficult to realise on stage. Arditti and Shao have found the magic formula though and have created a dynamic staging which just keeps on surprising. 

In my review of The Critical Marriage I commented on how I loved the director's use of the audience. The Wrong Horse takes it a step further and brings the audience into the racetrack to cheer on the races. It is cleverly done and my one bit of advice would be to try and find a way to do this in act 2. Act 2 is, by the very nature of what is happening, less visually stimulating so if the team could find a way to put the audience in the back seat of the car, perhaps, we would once again find ourselves in the middle of the action which would reignite our adrenaline and lift us for that wonderful catharsis at the end.

The cast were all amazing in the way they physically and verbally inhabited their caricatures. Rooney was incredible as he demonstrated he was a master of a thousand accents and Brigitte Jarvis' portrayal of stable hand Mary was possibly the funniest single moment in theatre this century! 

I was also thoroughly entranced by Phelan's portrayal of Big Ears. He had it all. The nervous twitches. The uncontrollable restlessness. The deer in a head lamp eyes. Utterly endearing. Mort was great as Noddy too but I do think MonStar has weighed that character down with too much wordiness. Would this tough guy really use all those words to say what he says?

The Wrong Horse is better than a Kinder Surprise. It is funny, clever, and more Australian that a Four and Twenty pie at the footy. As ocker as Maurie Fields, The Wrong Horse will bring smiles of rememberance along with gales of laughter to your face.

4 Stars

Sunday 7 May 2023

THE CRITICAL MARRIAGE: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Critical Marriage
WHEN: 3 - 13 May 2023
WHERE: Gasworks (Studio Theatre)
WRITTEN BY: Mark Andrew
DIRECTED BY: Karyn Hodgkinson
DESIGNED BY: Karyn Hodgkinson and Barbara Yazbeck
PERFORMED BY: John Bolger, Ian Ferrington, Janet Watson Kruse, Eleanor MacIntyre, and Carrie Moczynski
LIGHTING BY: Natalya Shield
SOUND BY: Ethan Hunt
STAGE MANAGED BY: Barbara Yazbeck

Eleanor Macintyre - photo supplied

It is always intriguing when playwrights marry their stories to philosophical principals. In The Critical Marriage, presented by Melbourne Writers Theatre at Gasworks this week, playwright Mark Andrew does just that by juxtaposing a married for life couple of academics with philosophical mores around the divide between science and religion.

The Critical Marriage is a retrospective type of play, moving from the present where an older Imogen (Janet Watson Kruse) is dealing with the death of her soul mate Bernhard. The play shifts between different layers of the past and present as it examines motherly love, brotherly love, romantic love, and the love of God. The temporal structure is very similar to that of When The Rain Stops Falling and, just like Bovell's play, characters are depicted by younger and older actors. The Critical Marriage is, perhaps, a bit more successful at it's interweaving of temporal space but that may be because of the deft hand of the director (Karyn Hodgkinson). 

I particularly enjoyed how the characters would step out of the stage space to sit with the audience at various times, joining us in looking back at the events of the past and experience what that outside eye can reveal. This technique allows Imogen to view her love and her lover and investigate memory and truth in a parallel to younger Bernhard's (Ian Ferrington) lifelong obsession with Baudrillard and his ideas about simulcra. Whilst I wonder at how the denouement works because it implies Imogen has access to information hidden to her, it is a powerful device. It also could be a small script omission easily fixed.

This leads me to one of the most fun characters in the show, Mutti (Carrie Moczynski). Mutti is Bernhard's mother. She is aging and losing her faculties through dementia. She will outlive her son, however, and this might be the missing bit of information I just referred to. Perhaps in his absence a family secret has slipped to Imogen. Mutti is a fox obsessed, feisty senior with a slightly wicked sense of humour. Moczynski misses none of the nuance as she teases her son, testing older Bernhard's (John Bolger) patience. They share a secret just as he and Imogen share the secrect of his cancer.

The cast is a wonderful ensemble and the liveliness and hope of younger Imogen (Eleanor MacIntyre) is a delightful foil to the centred stillness of her older avatar. Younger Bernhard has a fervour and sensitivity which contrasts to older Bernhard's tired defeat. All of the questions and challenges of these relationships is gently located in an elegantly dated decor (Hodgkinson and Barbara Yazbeck) with gentle lighting (Natalya Shield) and sound (Ethan Hunt) to soothe these protagonists on their troubled journeys.

Amongst the relationships I do think some of the philosophy gets lost. In particular, I am not convinced the God versus science dualism is adequately debated. Perhaps it doesn't need to be as long as you, the audience are familiar enough with the concepts. Perhaps it is not as much of a debate as it infers it is. Most definitely in the outcomes Baudrillard seems to come out on top and the philosophy behind Anavastha is exemplified in the ending of the play despite Bernhard's rejection. 

There is reference to Pascal's Wager but there is little in the play to directly infer the practical enactment in Imogen's life - which would be the logical placement. Her entire life comes across as a deferment to Bernhard despite her saying they were intellectual sparring partners. I personally found the discussion around Pieter Bruegel The Elder's painting 'Babylon' to be unedifying.

The Critical Marriage is intriguing in its ideas and constructs although I did find myself wanting a deeper reason to tell this story in Australia right now layered into the writing and the direction. I personally think we are past the social point of intellectual curiosity for curiosity's sake. What I want is some hint of why I, in Australia in 2023, need to hear/see this undoubtedly beautiful tale set in a Berlin spanning the previous 50ish years. I am unsure why it should matter to me. Having said that, I have already clearly set my course along the Baudrillard route. Perhaps if I still felt a lack of clarity I would get more from the work.

It is sadly rare for work which challenges us in such an overt philosophical manner these days. For that reason alone I would recommend The Critical Marriage. As well, though, you will experience a beautifully produced and performed piece of theatre which will compliment deep glasses of shiraz and engaging post-show discussion. I also love this new Amethyst Award initiative by Melbourne Writers Theatre and look forward to the gems it unearths over the coming years.

3.5 Stars

Saturday 6 May 2023

FACING UP: Theatre Review

WHAT: Facing Up
WHEN: 3-13 May 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works 
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY: Lynden Nicholls
DESIGNED BY: Adam (Gus) Powers
PERFORMED BY: Trudy Fatnowna Edgeley, Zerene Jaadwa, and Andre Prenc

Zerene Jaadwa and Trudy Fatnowna Edgeley

Very occassionally a piece of theatre comes along which is greater than the sum of its parts and has a clarity of purpose and message brighter than the purest diamond. Facing Up, currently playing at Theatre Works, is a show of that calaber.

On the surface, Facing Up is a simple beast. Using the verbatim theatre technique, it simply follows the timeline of Australian Prime Minister-ship since Federation in 1901. From the first to the last each Prime Minister is given the chance to enunciate their Indigenous policy in their own words. Alongside, two First Nations women also speak in the words of their people to exhibit the practical experiences and outcomes for the people affected by those policies. Suffice to say it is not an honourable forward progress.

You might think it to be a tedious theatrical approach, sticking to a linear timeline, particularly as the endless stream of Prime Ministers rarely move from behind their podium to sit in the dirt (literally) with the people they are making decisions for. In this case, however, it is strangely compelling and whilst I didn't recognise the names of a lot of the early 20th century Prime Ministers, I kept hoping and praying the next one would do better, or perhaps the next one would do better, or perhaps the next one would do better... and so on. Rarely are we confronted with just how appalling our history in this matter actually is.

There are moments of hope, but they are rare and recent. I found myself wondering how we could go from Barton, our first Prime Minister, saying we will not pass laws for our Indigenous population, and in only a few short years to definitively work to curtail and confine those very people. 

I have been despairing over the past decade over the lack of moral and ethical integrity of our politicians. Facing Up showed me this is an endemic disease which has infected our politics since Federation and probably since forever in human history. The horror, though, is that what our history in this matter has done is created a modern slave caste even though everyone is loathe to taint themselves with the truth of that word.

Facing Up is not dire or depressing though - a result which comes from the happy accident of our current Prime Minister, Albanese. The spark of hope which comes with Whitlam and which is quickly extinguished by Prime Ministers which followed, ignites a small flame with Rudd, and begins to blaze with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is a fire that even Morrison was not able to extinguish despite his appalling cuts to programs and funding for communities across Australia.

Facing Up is a play in which the ending changes with each Prime Minister. It was first performed when Turnbull was Prime Minister and our First Nation people decided to step forward and ask the rest of Australia to engage in Makarata to build our nation together. We then got stuck in the Morrison years which had the show ending in discomfort and despair. 

Now, however, it is the time of the looming referendum and a chance for us all to face our history and do what needs to be done to heal and make Australia a place we can be proud of and love. This is a dream we have all aspired to but never achieved because we weren't hearing, seeing - we weren't listening, watching. It is hard to admit to shame, but it is impossible to move forward if you keep your skeletons in the closet - out of sight, out of mind.

I say there is power in seeing all the Prime Ministers but if this play continues to live as we evolve as a society there might need to be some editing. Whilst there is some interest is seeing every Prime Minister, they contribute nothing if they were only in office for 16 days or had no articulated policy in this matter. I suspect the play will be stronger if the 'no comment' Prime Ministers are omitted. They can be acknowledged in the program notes I feel. This would keep a sense of pace and a little bit of the unknown for the audience which will act to prevent redundancy and the loss of attention needed for the work.

The great power of Facing Up though, lies in the truth telling of Jaadwa and Edgeley. As a piece of verbatim theatre, the words they speak are not their own, but they are the words of a real person in a real place and time. The tears they cried when they spoke of The Intervention and their removal from the protection of the Anti-Discrimination laws became the tears I cried too. 

Can you even begin to imagine your government actively removing your right to be treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to all other people in this country? A petition presented to government is ignored because a politician decides you are too dumb to understand what you have written - because of your race!!!! What would you do? How would you feel? I am crawling out of my skin in outrage as I write this review.

Having said all this, Facing Up is not a negative play. On the contrary, it is all about learning from the past and finding a way forward. It is about finding ways to work together and restore dignity to a vital part of our community. Our First People. This is ultimately embodied in the song of togetherness which ends the show and in which we all get to join in.

Some pieces of theatre transcend entertainment. They are essentially important to the spiritual wellness of everybody and everything. Facing Up is that kind of show. It is simple, it is honest, and it is aspirational. It is a show all Australians should have the opportunity to see. Especially with the important decision we all have to make looming so large.

4 Stars

Friday 5 May 2023

BAYOU BART: Theatre Review

WHAT: Bayou Bart
WHEN: 3 - 13 May 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works
WRITTEN, DESIGNED & DIRECTED BY: Kalina Lauer
COMPOSITION BY: Tash Atkins & James Carolan
PERFORMED BY: Pippa Asome, Tash Atkins, Karin Chen, Bailey Griffiths, Daniel Hillman, Mikaela Innes, Lucy Knight, and Rowan O'Keeffe
LIGHTING BY: Vanessa Gregoriou

Pippa Asome and Tash Atkins

The spark of inspiration for artists can come from any direction, any moment, any thing the artist touches feels and sees. In the case of Kalina Lauer the inspiration for Bayou Bart - currently playing at Theatre Works - came from a costume she created for a different objective.

From the genesis of a gorgeous Bourbon inspired outfit, the idea of an alligator emerged. From the idea of an alligator, Lauer found her imagination flurrying around the wetlands of Louisiana. There may even be a hint of the picaresque adventures created by Mark Twain in this story.

Bayou Bart is the tale of two homeless children wandering around Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the world. Tristan (Rowan O'Keeffe) is world weary and cynical and just trying to sell some fish. Henri (Pippa Asome) follows him with devotion. Henri is looking for a home. They get separated in the fog. Henri follows a siren (Tash Atkins) and finds herself in a land where animals can talk. They have built their own little town of Cyprus to live in a style replicating human settlements.

The bayou is a magical, mystical place, evident from the first swirling, hypnotic lights (Vanessa Gregoriou) which draw us into a world of mist and mischief. It has a very Disney flavour in its conception and I found myself thinking about all the alligators and crocodiles which have populated swamps in the Disney-verse as we learnt the tale of the building of Cyprus. 

Just like all good children's stories though, amongst all the wonder of sentient talking alligators, rabbits, leopards and birds, evil lurks in the form of humanity. Downstream is where the danger stalks and with the eggs of a new generation about to hatch the dangers for the animals increases. Do they dare let this young human leave them, knowing what she does? If they do will Henri ever find Tristan? Will the animals manage to keep their sanctuary away from the destruction and devastation of the humans down river? Drawn by the lure of the siren, you will be on the edge of your seat as the drama unfolds.

Lauer has developed a beautiful and heart-rending story in Bayou Bart and this production, whilst created with limited resources, is as beautiful as the tale it tells. The costumes are elegant and well conceived and the masks are great. (The production uses masquerade for the magical characters). The composition (Atkins and James Caloran) is exquisite and the use of song through the show emphasizes the beauty and lyricism of the work.

The actors do a wonderful job in bringing the animals alive. In particular, Daniel Hillman and Lucy Knight are totally compelling as their psychopomps. Mikaela Innes is wonderful too but needs to slow down her speech. It is really important to articulate clearly when doing mask work. Bailey Griffiths is wonderfully menacing yet vulnerable as the boy who starts it all, but that character currently doesn't have a lot of stage time.

I do think the play itself needs work in the later part of the script. It feels a bit rushed in the climactic moments and perhaps lacks a clear catharsis. I mentioned earlier that there is a picaresque feel and I love the way down river never stops looming even as we walk out of the theatre. 

Bayou Bart still needs some more money for production (mainly to expand on the gorgeous costuming already so well developed), but it is an amazing show for kids and a magical one for adults too. 

Do I have some concerns? Perhaps. I think the cast is big and perhaps the story needs to expand a bit to justify it. I believe there is a lot of scope and, to be honest, in this case I would hate to see the cast reduce for operational pragmatism. I also wonder whether this tale wouldn't have more power and have a longer stage life if Lauer located it in Australia. I love that the costume inspired the work, but is the power of the story which has been found really in the wetlands of America, or is there impact, meaning, and myth to be found in the tropics or saltmarshes of Australia? It is hard to kill your darlings but Lauer might find a brilliance and impact closer to home building on what she has already created. 

I was completely hypnotised by Bayou Bart and you will be too when you go and see it. This is one for the whole family, not just the kids. You will be on the edge of your seat as the drama in the bayou unfolds and evil seeks to destroy a rare and fragile magic.

4 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...