Thursday 29 June 2023

DISNEY ON ICE - 100 YEARS OF WONDER: Theatre Review

WHAT: Disney On Ice - 100 Years of Wonder
WHEN: 28 June - 2 July 2023
WHERE: Rod Laver Arena
FEATURING: Marina Bolam, Sarah Dalton, Rachael Dobson, Leo Leilling, Kirstie Nelson, Isabella Newhuis, Adriene Ott, Will Ott, Ryan Santee, Benjamin Toedte, and Matthew Young

Sarah Dalton - photo supplied

Aaah, Disney. Disney is the TV and film diet we of the Western World grew up on for most of the 20th Century and continues through to today. Disney on Ice hit the world by storm when Feld Entertainment launched it in 1981 and it is a pleasant surprise to see the concept continuing, particularly in the 100th anniversary year for The Walt Disney Company. This 100 year retrospective hit Melbourne first in the Myer Christmas window displays in 2022 and the festival continues with Disney On Ice - 100 Years of Wonder at the Rod Laver Arena this year.

100 Years of Wonder is a medley of great moments from classic Disney movies. It would be easy to mourn the absence of your favourite movie. The catalogue is so big it would be impossible to fit everything into a tight, yet spectacular, 2 hour show suitable for children on a week night. What I really loved about the selections for this show is they hit some real high notes with Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, and The Little Mermaid, but if you look closely you can see the program has been selected to represent a more modern and diverse cultural preference from shows such as Moana and Coco. I heard people in the audience say they hadn't seen Coco. I suspect it will hit the much played list on the Disney streaming service over the next month or so.

Whilst 100 Years of Wonder is primarily an ice dancing show, sticking with its roots and mindful that this show is a retrospective. what they have cleverly done, however, is incorporate a range of circus elements, in particular many of the aerial disciplines. Riffing of the synergies with, and success of, Cirque du Soleil this show uses vertical space in very powerful ways. This has the benefit of bringing the audience in the higher auditorium seats into the production as it looks like the characters are flying, swinging, swaying right in front of our eyes!

100 Years of Wonder is truly spectacular. The costumes are amazing, and as you would expect, all of the technical elements are out of this world - bright, colourful, constantly dynamic. It is true that the content is all for children but even the adults can't help but go wow at the lighting and costumes. It is also quite magical to watch all the illuminated merchandise waving through the auditorium (the performance is in thrust configuration so we all see each other). We all know merchandising is where the big bucks lie, but I was impressed to see how all those coloured, throbbing lights added to the magic created in the auditorium rather than being a distraction.

My favourite moments:

  • The magic chandelier from Beauty and The Beast
  • The toy soldiers from Toy Story
  • 'You're Welcome' from Moana
  • The sway poles and giant puppetry in 'Un Poco Loco' from Coco
  • The ice dancing in 'A Whole New World' from Aladdin
  • The ice harvesters from Frozen
The things that didn't work for me were the treasure hunt for magic to free Tinkerbell. I didn't understand why the show was being MC'd by 50's style teenyboppers. The legacy characters (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy) are already pretty redundant and if they aren't running the show it becomes hard to justify their presence from a dramaturgical point of view. Yes, they started this amazing phenomenon known as Disney, but why wouldn't you give them character and purpose in a retrospective of this nature? 

Perhaps all the conceit elements fit better with an American audience. It doesn't really matter though. Nobody is there to see that stuff. All we really want are the movie excerpts and they ring out like a carillon. You also have to love the commitment to pack as much as they can into the two hours we are there.

Disney On Ice: 100 Years of Wonder truly does fit the 'spectacular' mould. The kids will have all the fun in the world and be singing and dancing and waving their wands. Parents can sit back and relax, knowing this show and the ongoing content available will enchant their children for at least the duration of the school holidays. Luckily Disney is committed to positive messages in their content so let the kids have their fun.

5 Stars


Sunday 25 June 2023

BLEACHED: Theatre Review

WHAT: Bleached
WHEN: 22 June - 1 July 2023
WHERE: Bluestone Church Arts Space
WRITTEN BY: Laura Collins
DIRECTED BY: Ruby Rees
PERFORMED BY: Lansy Feng, Madeleine Magee-Carr, Megan Mitchell, Anthony Pontonio, and Eva Rees
SET BY: Moya Lucy
LIGHTING BY: Oliver Ross
SOUND BY: Ethan Hunter
STAGE MANAGED BY: Zadie Kenney McCracken and Jarman Oakley

Megan Mitchell and Anthony Pontonio - photo by Sarah Clarke

Last night I saw Bleached at the Bluestone Church Arts Space, presented by WIT Inc. Back in March I reviewed Trash Pop Butterflies, Dance, Dance, Paradise! and to be honest I feel like just saying read that review and then I can just go off and have a cup of tea. I won't do that though because they are different plays presented by different companies and some aspects of Bleached deserve exceptional praise.

As with Maki Morita's Trash Pop Butterflies, Laura Collins' (writer) Bleached is a dystopian post-dramatic dramatisation of humanity's existential crisis in the face of the impending climate change crisis. Although the two plays have different writers, to be honest it is very hard to tell. Both plays use a broken short, sharp, sketch structure to jump from idea to idea with multi-narrative layers which are usually designed to reiterate the point of the play from different perspectives. Sadly, both plays are so over-laden with ideas, topics, details, and minutiae delivered in such an angry, shouty way that the audience gets tired, stops following and just turns off. This is exactly what you don't want to happen with call to action plays!

Bleached takes its name from the bleaching of the coral. Comparing Australians to cockroaches, Collins lambasts us by comparing us to cockroaches racing around the world in a last, mad attempt to see all of the world's attractions before every country goes into lockdown. This concept is strong, especially with the Victorian extended experience of lockdowns and also the travesty of tourism which happened just before the Uluru protections were implemented. 

In Bleached, all the world is losing its colour and backpackers are racing to chase the last vestiges, completely oblivious to the fact they are hastening the white out. A countdown of countries closing their borders sits in counterpoint to the countries the backpackers have visited and the ones they are still trying to get to. As I said earlier, this concept is incredibly strong but the script is so full of 'stuff' it is hard to process and the characters are poorly defined which means that, although intellectually this makes sense, it is impossible to engage with them on any kind of empathetic level. 

Even if we could, why would we want to? According to Collins' script all relationships are a power imbalance and the people we love most do mean things to us. Bleached give us very little to like about ourselves and no hope at all for people or the planet. Things don't even turn out well for the rats! Oh, and it is very shouty...

This brings me to the direction. Bleached is a hard task for any director and sadly Ruby Rees doesn't have the skill to surmount the dramaturgical challenges Collins' has created. It is hard to follow who is who on stage in Bleached. In the olden days this would have been solved with hats. Whilst we are beyond that now, Rees could have used costumes better to help us follow. I note there is no costume designer credited so all I will say is the absence is evident by way of confusion of styles, lack of unified aesthetic and poor definition of characters.

Apart from the costumes, the rest of the production elements are pretty outstanding. Moya Lucy (set designer) has created a diamond cut white playing space representing the melting polar caps. The rear walls are textured with with white plastic and brown cardboard trash which is littering our planet and killing our world. It is a powerful aesthetic. I just wish she had allowed more depth in the playing space to give the cast and director more space to work with. 

The big stars of Bleached are Oliver Ross (lighting) and Ethan Hunter (sound). If you saw the recent production of MOTH at Theatre Works you will understand the quality of the work these two designers have created. Whilst Pajanti and Verhagen have very different aesthetics, the work of Ross and Hunter is as intimately engaged with the creation and driving forward motion of Bleached as the more experienced pair were for MOTH.

The performances in Bleached are good although I didn't understand some of the characters. Nimo (Lansy Feng) was a complete mystery to me - not her fault. On the other side of the spectrum, the two characters which I felt I connected to most were Anika (Megan Mitchell) and Gab (Anthony Pontonio). Madeleine Magee Carr did a lot of shouting. I don't know how much of that was direction and how much was actor interpretation, but it was irritating and off putting - especially in her big monologue at the end. Eva Rees (Santa/Bohdi) is strong but, again, I didn't understand her two characters. I don't even want to speak about the interpretive dance moment. Just get rid of it!

Bleached is a play which sits on a great idea and the team has worked hard on this production. What I wished for was some humour and some compassion. It is hard for the audience to stay and watch/listen for an hour and a half and then go off and create change when all we have experienced is a barrage of anger and despair. If you want to create hope you have to give at least a glimpse of something to hope for. Bleached doesn't even allow us to believe in love...

2.5 Stars

Saturday 24 June 2023

SOCIAL DANCE: Theatre Review

WHAT: Social Dance
WHEN: 21 June - 1 July 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosive Factory)
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY: Laura McKenzie
PERFORMED BY: Anna Burgess, Pascale Fester-Bell, Andrew Hwang, Heather Valentine, and Sam Zawadi
AV & SOUND BY: Tim Palstra
Sam Zawadi and Anna Burgess - photo by Farrow Photography

Family dinners are always fraught and the one being held by the Spittles at the Explosives Factory over the next week or so is no exception. But Social Dance this dinner party is an exception! The Spittles have invited 30 or so people to join them for an introduction to their new social etiquette instructional series in the hope of getting sign-ups for the whole package.

The Spittles are a family who appear to have great wealth and the mother, Suzie (Anna Burgess) in particular, exudes an aura of social superiority along with her Toorak tones, power suit, and viciously high heels. Her long suffering husband, Grahame (Sam Zawadi), is ineffectual in calming her down as she stresses over uncooked chicken, a family curse, and the need for everything and everyone to be perfect at all times. The son, Toby (Andrew Hwang), is late and Charlie (Pascale Fester-Bell) is sulking. Thank goodness the French exchange teacher, Pascale (Heather Valentine) is here to settle everyone down...or is she?

In Social Dance Laura McKenzie has tried to create a wonderfully silly farce which slides into magical realism. In a show filled with family secrets, poor communication, and a desperate need to 'keep up with the Joneses' there are moments of great hilarity. In an interview McKenzie describes the show as silly and she absolutely achieves that in the combination of characters and circumstances. Social Dance has all of the ingredients of good farce.

I know I keep saying this, but I am going to keep on doing it until theatre makers listen. What Social Dance needs is good dramaturgy. It needs script dramaturgy and an experienced theatre director would have helped too because McKenzie evidently doesn't have an understanding of spatial power on a stage and it is evident the cast are not strong in this area as well - which is not a comment on their 'acting'. All the characters are very fully formed and recognizable as archetypes which is what makes farce work.

Social Dance has powerful pre-performance framing. As you climb the stairs to the stage space a strong smell of something delicious baking fills the air and jaunty swing tunes are playing. As you mill, waiting to be seated, you will see the most amazing 40 seat circular table dressed elegantly for a formal dinner. A slide is projected on the wall announcing the title of the evening's presentation just as happens at all good corporate events.

Suzie and Grahame enter and invite us to sit and eat the bread roll provided. The first etiquette lesson begins as Suzie explains which roll is ours to eat - left or right. The slide changes and, rather than a food menu, we get the agenda of topics planned across the evening, including saying grace and place mat origami. As the characters enter and take there assigned seats around the table the scene is set. A sexual aura is detectable between Suzie and Patrice and the tension is palpable between Patrice and Grahame. Charlie evidently has secrets and Toby is completely befuddled by it all. 

Whilst the bones of greatness are there, this magnificent table becomes the death of Social Dance. Despite there being an exorbitant amount of centre stage available for the performers in the middle (the table is built like a doughnut), for the entire evening the cast just skirt around the outside and shout across the room at each other. Oh, and there is no dancing - which would have been a great use of that centre abyss by the way. There is so much potential for Charlie and Toby to slink under the table and have a real confrontation in the centre, or for Grahame to move in and confront Patrice or console Suzie, etc. Instead the cast are mostly disconnected from each other and we become disconnected from them.

I also struggled with the slide into magical realism - partly because farce has no realism so when you try and make an argument that oysters are the same as humans or that people can turn into falcons the brain has nowhere to go to join the dots together. The world created in the farce - a Toorak lampoon - doesn't have a place for those things to exist in.

A few years ago I saw a show which had a similar set up as Social Dance. Blood Is Thicker Than Hummus had the same idea of family disfunction and the communion created over a dinner table. What that show did, and what Social Dance needs to do, was invite us to care about the characters. As funny as the archetypes are in Social Dance, we don't have enough reason to care about the characters. Except maybe Grahame... This is partly the writing, but in particular, the staging means we never get to connect.

I have to say I loved seeing the Collins St Falcons. I remember watching the chicks hatch a year ago and watched as their mother tried - and failed - to get them to eat a dead bat. It was great to see what strong and beautiful young birds they have grown to become over the past year.

Social Dance looks fantastic and you can tell the cast is having a great time. They just need to develop the skills and techniques needed to allow the audience into the show. At the moment it feels like a bunch of kids playing their own little game around the grown-ups table. 

2 Stars


Monday 19 June 2023

GRAND THEFT THEATRE: Theatre Review

WHAT: Grand Theft Theatre
WHEN: 17-24 June 2023
WHERE: St Ambrose Hall
CREATED BY: Ponycam and David Williams
PERFORMED BY: Claire Bird, Ava Campbell, William Strom, Dominic Weintraub, David Williams, and Hugo Williams
Ava Campbell, Claire Bird, Dominic Weintraub, and William Strom - photo by Wild Hardt

When someone asks you 'what is the best show you have ever seen' does a name instantly spring to mind or does your mind stutter and flutter as you try to sort through the jumble of memories and half formed recollections, struggling to land on a single event? Ponycam and David Williams put this question under the microscope in their show Grand Theft Theatre which is having a reprise season at St Ambrose Hall this month.

Commissioned by Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2022, the premise of Grand Theft Theatre is simple. The ensemble literally got together, everyone shared the moments in theatre, dance, and some film which left them with the strongest images or touched them on the deepest level - either emotionally or viscerally. All of these recollections have then been mashed together with a strong dramaturgical eye. The result is a loving, touching, and hilarious ode to contemporary performance making and performance makers across Australia and internationally as well.

With the breakneck pace and moral ambiguity of the video game Grand Theft Auto, 2 hours of our lives speed away as we laugh, groan and applaud the spoils of this creative team's heist. Nothing is off the table and nothing is sacred. Pina Bausch, Gob Squad, DV8, and Forced Entertainment are mashed in with Ridiculusmus, Nicola Gunn, Post, and Cam Venn - and sooooo much more.

Just about every post-modern acting/dance trope is covered in Grand Theft Theatre. I did love the mashed choreography of the opening sequence and, in that very Forced Entertainment way, we are helped to identify the movement with the troupe/artist who made it iconic through prompt cards. The re-enactments of Oedipus Schmoedipus and the opening sequence of Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! had me almost falling on the floor with laughter. The best thing about this laughter is you can be both laughing at the troupe but also laughing with them. 

I tend to get grumpy about theatre for theatre people, but I am giving Grand Theft Theatre a hall pass because it is theatre for theatre goers. As an audience member you don't have to have seen all the shows to have a good time, although your best connections will be with those you have seen. You will also have a great time if you know the artists' works even if you don't know the show itself because the whole point is what makes these works (or etudes is perhaps the more correct term) memorable is their identifying distinctness. One fun little easter egg is the performance is in 5 acts so even Shakespeare gets his little nod of acknowledgement.

You will have fun regardless. There is the opportunity for completely pointless audience participation. If you are quick you can literally get 'The Best Seat In The House' but it won't matter because as with all good post-dramatic theatre, you will be moved about willy nilly. Good luck finding your original seat after each of the 6 minute intervals. If you have a committed Jessica Fletcher attitude you could read through the names of performance greats on the back of the chairs to find yours, but somebody else may already be sitting on it, sipping a gin and tonic and munching on a warm pretzel... Did I mention the free tequila shots at the final intermission? 

Grand Theft Theatre is a hoot. I haven't had so much fun in a long time. One of the things which makes it funny is there are few boundaries. The ensemble are willing to go almost as far as the original artists, regardless of the cleaning required by the end of the show. Grand Theft Theatre is a multisensorial feast which titillates mind, memory, and gag reflex. 

Most importantly, Grand Theft Theatre is an act of love and awe. Every in-joke the audience was left with after watching the original artists becomes an out-joke shared by the community who remember it whilst watching this show. We probably were never in the same room at the same time, or even the same country when we saw it, but it is an experience shared and an idea communally contemplated.This is the genius and incredible significance of Grand Theft Theatre. The show is a gift for the audience and all of the audiences from all of the shows referenced.

Oh, and it's bloody funny!

5 Stars

Saturday 17 June 2023

BROADWAY DIVA: Cabaret Review

WHAT: Broadway Diva
WHEN: 13-17 June 2023
WHERE: The Butterfly Club (Upstairs)
CREATED BY: Carly Fisher and Olivia Ruggiero
DIRECTED BY: Carly Fisher
PERFORMED BY: Mark Bradley and Olivia Ruggiero

Mark Bradley and Olivia Ruggiero - photo supplied

There is something so relaxing about dinner style cabaret which makes the soul sing along with music. This is what Broadway Diva, currently being performed at The Butterfly Club as part of an extended tour, gives us. We don't get the dinner, but what this show does give us is a Rat Pack quality hour of song any smoky 1950's restaurant would be proud of.

Whilst we don't get the comfy booth and waiters on hand with endless champagne at the ready, Broadway Diva gives us a songstress extraordinaire (Olivia Ruggiero), a pianist (Mark Bradley) of the highest quality, AND a shiny white baby grand piano! I know! How did they get it up all those stairs???

I mention the piano because anybody who knows music knows these people mean business. The difference in tonal quality between a grand piano and an upright is immense. Grand pianos bring depth and gravitas which is exactly what a classically trained vocalist like Ruggiero needs to match her skill and the diversity of her performance. Oh, and it looks hot!!!!

Broadway Diva is a show which brings old time glamour to a musical medley which spans musical theatre standards, opera classics, and modern surprises. All of this is performed with a big bag full of personality and humour by Ruggiero.

I can't express how relieved and excited I was when Ruggiero hit her first high note and I realised I was in the hands of a real singer. It is still ridiculously rare for cabaret/musical theatre performers to bother training in bel canto and also for opera singers to explore the world of musical theatre. As a listener, I have to say my heart sored when I realised Ruggiero was not going to struggle and go squeaky in those moments when voice meets our bodies.

Ruggiero has no qualms about any of it as she places Jesus Christ Superstar right next to Gianni Schicchi and reveals how both genres are but sisters on a spectrum. The truly glorious moments of Broadway Diva are those times when Ruggiero hits her soprano stride. The mic is retracted as her lungs are allowed to carry those musical vibrations straight to our ears and into our soul. These are the moments when the piano and the voice are most in simpatico and those are the moments when we close our eyes and live in pure sound and beauty.

Having said that, the musical theatre medleys are fabulous. They are jaunty and saucey and Ruggiero delivers them with wit and a cheeky smile. Her version of 'Me and The Sky' is obviously one of her favourite moments and so it becomes one of ours. My favourites were 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' and 'O Mio Babbino Caro'. Ruggiero's rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream' was intensely satisfying too.

I rarely find myself wanting encores at dinner style cabarets, but at the end of Broadway Diva I wanted to stand up and beg for 'On My Own' and 'Requiem'. I thank director Carly Fisher for cutting 'Defying Gravity' from the playlist. Many people would disagree with me but, like 'Creep', it has been done and done and done and done and done and if I hear either of them one more time, I may turn into an axe murderer.

Broadway Diva is exactly the kind of show which gives us time, space, and motivation to release the stressors of the day and just bathe in an aural bath of beautiful music. Add to that a cheeky cocktail or balloon of bubbly and suddenly we have a chance to remember times gone by - a time when life was slower and having fun was a priority, not an imposition. 

Broadway Diva reminds us what glamour looks like and sounds like. Indulge yourself.

4.5 Stars



Wednesday 14 June 2023

LITTLE BROTHER, BIG SISTER: Theatre Review

WHAT: Little Brother, Big Sister
WHEN: 7-18 June 2023
WHERE: La Mama Courthouse
WRITTEN BY: Michel Paul Tuomey
DIRECTED BY: Cathy Hunt
PERFORMED BY: Adam Cass and Myf Powell
LIGHTING BY: Shane Grant
SOUND BY: Jess Keefe

Adam Cass and Myf Powell - photo by Darren Gill

Awareness plays are always interesting in that they are generally about conveying information which makes them dramaturgically specific. Little Brother, Big Sister, currently playing at La Mama Courthouse, technically is an awareness play about schizophrenia. This play, however, breaks the mould because rather than being information laden and schizophrenia focussed, Little Brother, Big Sister is an autobiography of a man just trying to live his life.

Little Brother, Big Sister is written by Michel Paul Tuomey (Adam Cass) and tells the story of his life so far. It tells us how the onset of schizophrenia changed his life. Possibly even more important, it explores his relationship with his sister, Karen (Myf Powell), across all of the changes. We visit them as children and are with them as they discover their creative talents - Karen is a painter and Michel has the urge to write. 

We watch as Karen moves to France and Michel tries to settle in Byron Bay. We see how the sudden onset of inexplicable episodes - later to be confirmed as schizophrenia - disintegrate Michel's independence and eventually result in bringing Karen back to support the family. We watch as each parent passes away. 

It is not all doom and gloom though. Play and humour are hallmarks of these siblings and the play ends with both Karen and Michel taking their first steps into independent futures and following their artistic dreams.

Whilst Karen is technically the visual artist in the family, Michel has quite a lot of natural talent with a bent for surrealism (perhaps not surprising). This talent is in full view with his own artwork forming a strong part of the show. Director Cathy Hunt has cleverly taken that aesthetic and the creative team have done a wonderful job of supporting this.

The space created by designer Kris Bird includes easels strewn around, and a photo wall casting a long white shadow on the floor, and cubes and stools for sitting. As the show progresses art is revealed -  both Michel's and other art by Elyss McCleary. The lighting (Shane Grant) was less successful but apparently there were projector problems on the night I saw the play. It is hard to assess how the lighting would look with the projections. I confess I was mentally begging for a touch of McCandless to give a bit of texture and visual relief.

At this point it is important to note that Hunt has directed this production with a neurodivergent audience in mind. This means it is generally well lit, and there are no sudden or loud sounds or lighting changes. Jess Keefe's sound is simple and sparse, but effective for setting scenes such as the night club.

One of the bigger issues - particularly because of the length of the play is the blocking of the actors. Tuomey's play has been written as mostly exposition. Hunt has the cast spending most of the time speaking directly to the audience, which becomes tedious. I think there could have been some fun had with how and when exposition is used in society - school, court, medical suites. There is quite a lot of humour in Little Brother, Big Sister, so there is definitely room for more play in this regard. A better use of vertical space would have been a relief. 

Cass is brilliant as Michel. His performance is complex and honest, full of confusion and joy. Powell is new to the show so I don't know how the role of Karen has transformed from the original production. I have to admit I did not like this interpretation. I felt Powell was presenting in a Play School kind of style and I did not believe for one second she was a painter. Part of the problem is Karen's costumes are just wrong. I don't know how much has been modelled on the real Karen, but this is theatre so I wanted to see paint splattered overalls and paint brushes tucked into a top knot. That sort of thing. 

All of this takes me back to the idea that Hunt could have and should have found more fun and more dynamics. This show starts in innocence and wonder and ends in hope and positivity and the production needs to take us there in all of it's elements. Especially if we are sitting there for two hours.

I feel torn by Little Brother, Big Sister. I love the story and I love the use of Surrealism. I also applaud the accommodation for neurodivergence and I believe it had no negative effect on the art of the work. It just needs more dynamics in the direction and Hunt and Powell need to dig deeper to find all of the beauty and incredibleness of Karen. It is there in the writing so trust it. I am also a bit sad I didn't get to see the show with all the projections. I can just imagine how amazing it would have looked.

3 Stars


Friday 9 June 2023

THE CULTURE: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Culture
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WHEN: 7 - 17 June 2023
WRITTEN BY: Laura Jackson
DIRECTED BY: Bethany Caputo
PERFORMED BY: Mina Asfoor and Laura Jackson
LIGHTING BY: Capri Harris
SOUND BY: Charlotte Leamon
STAGE MANAGED BY: Colleen Willis

Mina Asfour and Laura Jackson - photo by Aden Meser

Domestic violence has always been a serious problem and right now it is red hot across community support organisations in Melbourne. In Powersuit Productions' play The Culture, currently ending it's international tour at the Explosives Factory in St Kilda the question is asked, 'How do intelligent and insightful people find themselves in these kinds of dangerous situations?'

The Culture, written by Laura Jackson, is a study of a pair of lifelong friends who are torn asunder by domestic violence. They went to school together. They went to Prom together. They live together as housemates. They even podcast and livestream together. The pair have an ease and synergy in their relationship which any romantic couple in the world would dream of having. The fly in the ointment of every best friends drama is the dating scene.

Katie (Jackson) and Will (Mina Asfour) are chaos energy integrated when the play begins. They bounce of each other like electrons and protons hurtling around to make an exciting atom - their podcast and vlog 'Don't Get Me Started'. This pair are woke and put the word active into activists. It's all in fun though. There is the usual blah-de-blah about dating apps which is just enough on the right side of cute to not make you yawn. The depth of their trust does emerge when Will accidently lapses into revealing a dark secret about date violence when he was at school and before he came out as gay.

Meanwhile Katie meets Kale at a bar and he gropes her. Katie is all 'ooh, get out of my face dude' which Will applauds when she recounts the incident at home. In a plot twist, Kale ends up working with Katie and at a work function Katie decides to have drunk sex with him because he is hot. Somehow this drunk sex turns into a relationship.

Over time we watch Katie withdraw from Will, start dressing differently, and they start finding themselves podcasting and vlogging on their own. Will wants his friend back but even Katie's voicemail message becomes replaced by Kale's voice. Katie stops indulging in her Cherry Ripe addiction and the silences between the friends widen just like the physical distance. They literally become ships that pass in the night...until one of Katie's vlogs ends in vision of Kale hitting her to get her to stop.  

This vlog entry turns viral and Will decides it is time to spring into action. He tracks her down and begs her to talk with him. The dilemma he faces and which we all know about is how do you get someone in a domestic violence situation out? How do you get past their sense of shame to reveal what is really going on? How do you help them become safe?

This is an answer nobody has, but The Culture models a fantastic version of friendship and support with which to try regardless of the outcome. The first and most important step, in my opinion, is to stop talking about the victim and start talking about the perpetrator. If you go and see The Culture you will see how it is done and how good it feels to hear those words. Apparently one woman in every three experiences domestic violence so all of these dilemmas should be familiar to the audience.

The script is pacy and well structured although I think it takes too long to get to the relationship with Kale which means there is not really enough time to reveal the development of 'symptoms' of Katie's experiences with Kale. Quote of the year goes to Will saying "We are royalty, he is lettuce!" I was intrigued by the little micro-aggressions Will imposes on Katie along the way. I would have liked this woven into the story a bit stronger because it is another prong in the domestic violence discussion we don't think about or even recognise and it adds a layer of complexity when Will tries to help Katie in her more obvious situation.

The attention to the stage design is impressive although there is no designer credited. My one complaint is the couch had centre stage - the big power position. Nobody has come to see a play about a couch. Most of the really important, insightful stuff happens at the podcast nook so it would be a much stronger set up if that was centre stage. Director Bethany Caputo really needs to consider this next time. The sound (Charlotte Leamon) really is quite perfect and the lighting (Capri Harris) is great.

Jackson and Asfour are energised and agile actors and really bring to life a friendship we all dream of. As I said earlier though, perhaps the biggest flaw in the play is that too much time is spent establishing this friendship and going for the laughs, which means the real story doesn't have the time or space to reveal itself in the creeping way it really happens. Towards the end of the play all the bad stuff is just thrown at us. This is powerful but, for me, it caused me to become detached rather than drawn in.

The Culture is a wonderful piece of theatre telling an important story and doing it very, very well. Also, they are partnering with Safe Steps and will match donations up to a $2000 cap which is another reason to see the show and learn more about this hideous epidemic which is so hard to bring out of the shadows.

4 Stars

Sunday 4 June 2023

HE: Theatre Review

WHAT: He
WHEN: 2 - 17 June 2023
WHERE: Red Velvet Underground
WRITTEN & PERFORMED BY: Rodrigo Calderon

Rodrigo Calderon

I found it! The gem every theatre critic dreams of. That little piece of magic hidden in the most unexpected place. This year it is the show He, written and performed by Rodrigo Calderon, and currently being presented at Red Velvet Underground in Brunswick.

He is the story of a man, of men, of love, and of the sea. Crawling onto the beach a sad, tired, wet man sits and talks to Mother Ocean who has just birthed him. She has been with him through all of the saddest and most difficult moments throughout his life. This man does not want to be there with her, yet here he is. Here she is. Here they are, facing each other once more. A stalemate in the tug of war of a lifetime.

This is not a calming relationship. This man has been fighting for life against her irresistible forces since he was a child - a child who nearly drowned before he could learn to swim. Mother Ocean stood by and watched as this sensitive young boy learnt horrible jokes from his drunken fisherman father. She lapped in deceptive calm as love taught him to dance in her waves. So many lives across the history of time have disappeared into her depths and he asks if she can even remember their names. 

Perhaps she will remember this one which got away, though? The one with the temerity to face her and question her. Or perhaps not. Probably not.

We meet this man in a time of mourning. He is struggling to remember his grandmother's recipe for a favourite fish dish. She served this dish when he was a boy who barely escaped being drowned in Mother Ocean's waves. 

We meet his father, a man of toxic masculinity. A man who should be the boy's tower of strength, but in a moment of drunken homophobic insensibility brings his son's world crashing down on him. The pain does not stop there, but these are secrets you have to go to the show to find out.

What I will tell you is He is blindingly fantastic on all levels. The writing is glorious, the words and ideas lapping in poetic repetition drawing us into the story like the sand drawn back into the ocean with the tide. Across the course of the play these waves of words are gentle, playful, mournful. They swell to terrifying tempests and swirl into deep and deadly maelstroms. 

It is not just the writing though. Calderon is a master actor and physical theatre afficionado. In particular he is a Suzuki practitioner. If you have ever wondered how to use Suzuki in performance, come and see He and you will understand. He is an absolute masterclass in Statues!

He will have you laughing, crying, gasping in outrage, and lost in despair. In the end, it will leave you sharing the delirium of community and dance. It is one of the most beautiful love stories ever written. It is one of the saddest too. 

As Calderon tells us, humans are fragile. How much strength do we need to stay alive? Or is it just pure luck? Perhaps that is a question only Mother Ocean can answer.

5 Stars

THE ROOF IS CAVING IN: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Roof Is Caving In WHERE: La Mama Courthouse WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024 WRITTEN BY: Matilda Gibbs with Jack Burmeister and Belle Hansen ...