Sunday 29 October 2023

HAMLET: Theatre Review

WHAT: Hamlet
WHEN: 20 October - 4 November 2023
WHERE: Mycellium Studios
WRITTEN BY: William Shakespeare
DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Opolski
DESIGNED BY: Leah Downey
COMPOSITION BY: Chris Collins and Michael Fenemore
LIGHTING BY: Liam Mitchinson
PERFORMED BY: Claire Baldwin, Megan Davis, Anthony Edward, Gilbert Gauci, Ryan Fahlbusch, Michael Fenemore, Charlee Liddell, Rouzbeh Nadjar, Don Nicholson, Anastasia Sidorova, and Alayne Wright
AV BY: Regan Wood
STAGE MANAGED BY: Eleni Rogers

Charlee Liddell and Michael Fenemore - photo by Bernie Phelan

I can't believe I am saying this, but I have finally seen a production of Hamlet I quite enjoyed. Staged in the cold depths of the Mycellium Studios carpark, the concrete finishes, low roof, and echoing chamber really suits this play because it becomes viscerally understandable how these people are so enmeshed in each others lives and how believable it is that they can feed on each other in frenzies of paranoia. This particular iteration of what must surely be the most over-performed play in Western history is presented by AVID Theatre.

So first, let's deal with the elephant in the room. You all must have figured out by now that I am not a fan of staging the plays of William Shakespeare in a modern Australia. This a two-fold issue for me. The first is that I think bringing a play alive on stage gives it power and efficacy, and Shakespeare's plays are full of misogyny, racism, and cultural appropriation. This does not mean I want Shakespeare cancelled. I am very happy for his writings to be studied as a point of academia, just not staged and presented as part of a canon. 

Secondly, to stage a Shakespearean play in modern times usually requires a lot of editing and 'adapting' to make it meaningful and link it in to current conversations. In my opinion as a playwright myself, I believe once you do this, you are not presenting Shakespeare's work at all. Instead you are passing off something you have plagiarised and selling it as an authentic product to get people to see the story you want to tell, but which you don't believe people would actually pay to see. You might be right, but that doesn't make it right.

Director Nicholas Opolski's Hamlet is surprisingly close to Shakespeare's original. Whilst there are probably edits all through the text (or perhaps not), the glaring removal is all reference to Fortinbras. It may have been deemed irrelevant but by removing it the logic of the play is damaged. The King (a wonderful video (Regan Wood) cameo by Opolski) died a month ago, yet all the young lads who came for the funeral are still here to see wooing and the wedding of Claudius (Anthony Edward) and Gertrude (Alayne Wright) rather than returning to their studies and other activities. Why? And the guards are tense and on watch. If this is a time of peace, why?

Regardless, young Hamlet's existential crisis is the meat of the play and Michael Fenemore does a good job with the complexities of the character even if he is too old for the role. Yes, I know, it has been done so many times before. In fact, it is rare for Hamlet to be cast age appropriately which is a shame because so much of what Hamlet is and does only makes sense if he is a rash, over-energised, over-sexed teenager with no life skills. It is also a whole lot of creepy when paired which whatever young innocent is cast as Ophelia (in this case, Charlee Liddell). You may just be starting to understand some of the problems of staging Shakespeare in modern times around about now ;)

This production of Hamlet has all of Hamlet's peers (except Laertes (Ryan Fahlbusch)) cast as sexy, long-legged, long-haired brunettes. This had the potential to be an act of genius, particularly with a younger Hamlet, but the restraint in this area leaves the show in a sadly PG state although it still does titillate the imagination. Two of my favourite performances in this Hamlet are from Liddell who creates her Ophelia with the lightest of brush strokes, and Claire Baldwin who is an energetic Horatio and a grumpy young Rosencrantz full of attitude.

My other favourite is Don Nicholson as Polonius. What a scurvy knave this ass is indeed! I would have liked a touch more oil in the performance but he balances between evil and comic very nicely indeed.

All of the mistrust, machinations, and bloodshed take place in a cold, concrete cemetery. These people are the ghosts of people long dead buried, told in the burial ground in which they have lain for centuries. The thrones and furnishings are tombstones in the mausoleum of treachery. Designer Leah Downey has created the world of this play with, again, the lightest of touches, but everything is exactly what it needs to be, and the cast manage the scene changes with no break in pace, keeping the world alive. I don't love the costumes as much, but there is a certain logic to most of them. I was not convinced by the Japanese flavour of Claudius' great coat or Gertrude's Kimono dressing gown.

The sound is minimal, but when it is used the compositional bites created by Fenemore and Chris Collins are powerful and raise the stakes every time. Liam Mitchison's lighting is literal, but creates great atmosphere in such a snow cold, white space. I mentioned the ghost of the King earlier, but it is worth saying I really love how this was done here.

There is so much to love in this production of Hamlet which continued to surprise me all the way through. I found that I did not mind sitting through over two and a half hours for this show at all. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes is well staged thanks to the help of fight director Lyndall Grant

The other thing I enjoyed was how much of the text was revealed, particularly in a space so inherently reverberative. I understood every word in every line except for Edwards. He needs to slow down and speak slightly softer. In this space over-projecting is the worst thing you can do to be heard. It had previously passed me by unnoticed that Shakespeare used the word 'goop' for example. 

It had also never before occurred to me to question who wrote the love-letter to Ophelia. I don't know if it was a deliberate intention by Opolski, but I got a thrill of surprise when the new idea occurred to me. I had several of these small little 'wait, what?' moments which are part of what made this production so enjoyable and intriguing to watch.

I suppose that one of the points of restaging shows is not only to let it reach new audiences, but also to perhaps reveal new nuances and unrealised ideas along the way. Most productions of Shakespeare tend to rest on tradition or gnaw away so roughly at the original there are not even all the bones left on the carcass. AVID Theatre's Hamlet has found a sweet spot between the two. If you must go and see a Shakespeare, this production of Hamlet is the one to go and see.

4 Stars

Thursday 26 October 2023

MINUSONESISTER: Theatre Review

WHAT: MinusOneSister
WHEN: 17 - 21 October 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Anna Barnes
DIRECTED BY: Marni Mount
DESIGNED BY: Jodi Hope
LIGHTING BY: Tom Vulcan
COMPOSITION & SOUND DESIGN BY: Ethan Hunter
PERFORMED BY: Miela Anich, Damon Baudin, Shontane Farmer, Maiah Stewardson
STAGE MANAGED BY: Ella Campbell

Maiah Stewardson, Shontane Farmer, and Miela Anich - photo supplied

Melbourne Fringe 2023 has been an amazing blend of all the styles and modes of performance you could possibly think of. I have only been able to see the tiniest fraction, and the Festival finished for my at The Explosives Factory watching Doublebluff Theatre's presentation of MinusOneSister.

MinusOneSister, written by Anna Barnes back in 2013, won the Patrick White Playwright's Award that year and has had several seasons across Australia since then. Earlier this year, as part of the coursework for her Masters in Directing at VCA, director Marni Mount staged this play and the team were so pleased they found a way to do a return season in the Fringe Festival.

MinusOneSister sits of the architecture of the Greek tragedy (as written by Sophocles) Electra. In Sophocle's Electra, Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing her daughter Iphigenia in order that the fleet could sail to Troy and bring back Helen. You may remember the production Cygnets in this very same theatre earlier this year, which was a retelling of the Helen/Clytemnestra relationship. 

Iphigenia (Miela Anich) had 3 siblings - Electra (Maiah Stewardson), Chrysothem (Shontane Farmer), and the son Orestes (Damon Baudin). In Sophocles' telling of the story, Electra was traumatised by the death of Agamemnon and Orestes was sent away. Both plotted revenge and eventually came together to make it happen. The spur for the play for Barnes was the question of why couldn't Electra kill her mother herself? Why did she have to get Orestes to do it for her? Whilst I think there is no real reason, and that Electra was just a vehicle for the patriarchal story it can be fun to ponder such questions.

Trying to tell the tale through a modern lens (because apparently we can't just tell modern stories), Barnes has placed the family somewhere in Australia and embellished it with social media, eating disorders, and boardrooms. To channel the chorus, the story is told by all four characters intermingling lines and subject tenses which gives it an intriguingly cubist construct. 

Whilst the play has a lot of impact, riffing on violence in its various forms including rape, homicide, bullying, eating disorders, etc. it is not a specific retelling of Electra. In fact, in the course of filling in unknown and unknowable details I felt like Barnes replaced the sacrifice of Iphigenia with the abduction of Helen when she was a little girl. It probably doesn't matter. It is all fiction and there are no IP concerns lol. To be honest, I love that it doesn't shy away from exposing the violence. There is too much of that in theatre IMO.

As I mentioned earlier, MinusOneSister is directed by Mount who you may remember from the blockbuster Trophy Boys earlier this year. This play is another 4-hander and Mount plays with the actors in the space - a traditional end stage this time - with as much skill and creativity as the earlier play. Unfortunately, the structure of the text in this play doesn't really allow the audience in through the cracks to explore emotion so sadly the impact is not quite there.

Jodi Hunter's set is stunning and incredibly clever and versatile (even if she did miss the cubist gift in the writing). The stage is all white with only the grain in the marble flooring intimating the cracks which will tear this family apart. This tale has a lot of blood, but you are left to stain the whiteness in your mind as the story progresses. The pastel colours of the costumes refuse to interfere with the work our imagination is doing as the family retell/witness/report/experience the events under examination. 

Tom Vulcan's lighting has the occasional literal moment, but most of his creativity lies in shadow play and the furnishing are created and then recreated and then recreated again. Normally I hate this much fiddliness with set, but the design and direction make it work incredibly well. Ethan Hunter's sound is good, but perhaps not quite the driving force he created for Bleached earlier this year.

The acting ensemble is excellent. Stewardson gives us a surprisingly strong and confident Electra considering her incarceration for an eating disorder. Perhaps a touch more vulnerability would have allowed us to care for her a bit more. Anich, as the minusonesister, has an intriguing presence throughout. Farmer is intriguing as the little known sister Chrysothem and also does a great job in a cameo as Clytemnestra. 

Baudin won me over very unexpectedly as Orestes. Within going into childishness, this "baby CEO" presented an innocent blank slate the story wrote itself onto. Whilst I think the story got silly when Orestes is sent to an overseas boarding school, Baudin maintains his character's visage and growth until the ultimate moment of tragedian inevitability. The play goes into an epilogue but it doesn't reference anything from the Oresteia which was a bit disappointing.

MinusOneSister is an interesting play using interesting storytelling techniques. This production is excellent on all levels and is only let down by the problems in the script. I hope this team comes together again soon with a script which will really let them all sing!

4.5 Stars

Friday 20 October 2023

BACK POCKET: Theatre Review

WHAT: Back Pocket
WHEN: 16 - 22 October 2023
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus (Black Box)
WRITTEN BY: Nikki Viveca
DIRECTED BY: Maeve Hook
COMPOSED BY: Lore Burns
LIGHTING BY: Kyra Ryan
PERFORMED BY: Chelsea Crosby, Sophie Gould, Isha Menon and Jalen Ong

Chelsea Crosby, Isha Menon, Jalen Ong and Sophie Gould

How can you not settle into a show with the opening line 'A queer dove into Time's back pocket...and Time strolled on.'? Jalen Ong (a clown/sprite) is sleeping on a platform covered in an oversized patchwork quilt as these words settle into the space. Here we are, in Time's back pocket too. This is the beginning of a magical tale about finding peace and beauty in a dystopian obsessed world. Back Pocket, presented by Tart Theatre Collection as part of Melbourne Fringe, is that warm hug and meditation on gentle joy we all need in our lives. You can get your metaphorical hug at The Motley Bauhaus.

Back Pocket is a dream of a space where you can do and be anything you want without your development being interrupted by the challenges and harshness of 'the real world'. Four clownish sprites (Chelsea Crosby, Sophie Gould, Isha Menon, and Ong) relax and play and discover and love in Time's back pocket in an intriguing blend of written lyrical passages (Nikki Viveca) and physical theatre.

Directed by Maeve Hook, Back Pocket does have a narrative arc although it meanders through that arc in joy and peace, revelling in the characters being carried by Time rather than having to march alongside it. The story is simple in it's complexity. Jalen wakes up in the pocket and, one by one, the other clown/sprites reveal themselves. There is the hint of a breakup being the catalyst, but essentially the four characters move in together. 

We begin to understand the intention of Back Pocket with the unpacking of suitcases and the joy and detail in pulling every piece out and telling it's story. One of them (Crosby) is reluctant to unpack. "I don't unpack until I have been somewhere for 4 months", but with some gentle modelling and an irresistible array of cat pix, she reveals something impressively gasp worthy. 

Through an array of textual excerpts, some glorious composition (Lore Burns), gentle clowning, and physical games and explorations (Kyra Ryan's lighting plays with them too) we see these four characters settle into fun, play, love and peace as they heal and become whole in preparation to leave the pocket. But do they really have to leave, or can we all be in the pocket with them?

A purest might comment that Ong is the only true physical theatre performer, with the litheness and agility which comes with formal dance training. I don't accept that, though, and as I inferred in the past with my review for Exposed, you do not have to be technically proficient in the traditional way to create physical works of great beauty and grace. What you need is heart, and intention, and authenticity. Hook draws this out from all of her clown/sprites. 

It is inspiring to see everyday people expressing themselves in forms and practices they are usually excluded from because they don't fit a privileged restriction called 'high art'. Ironically what it means is the truth and integrity of the ideas can be absorbed so much more easily because we can identify with the bodies up on stage. None of this diminishes the quality of the art created. In fact, it elevates it. This is real high art.

Feel good shows are quite rare these days. For some reason we have become addicted to sharing stories of pain, sorrow, and despair. In Back Pocket the question is asked 'why can't we look at things through rose coloured glasses?' Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all did that?

4.5 Stars

Tuesday 17 October 2023

SPUNK DADDY: Musical Theatre Review

WHAT: Spunk Daddy
WHEN: 16 - 22 October 2023
WHERE: The Butterfly Club (Upstairs)
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Darby James
DIRECTED BY: Casey Gould

Darby James

With a name like Spunk Daddy it is easy to assume this Melbourne Fringe Festival offering by Darby James is going to be a laugh a minute, lewd hour of traditional cabaret.  In this show you do get all those jizz jokes, but James has something to tell us about sperm donation and the end of the world. This little piece of theatre is not just a cabaret. It is a fully formed mini-musical.

I first came across James last year when he presented his comedy show Protein. After seeing both shows I get the impression James had a bit of difficulty finding his centre after coming out of lockdown. I know I did, and there is something oddly comforting in seeing that other people were struggling too.

In Spunk Daddy James is a salty seaman negotiating the stormy sea of sperm donation. James is a cis gay man who doesn't really want a family. What he wants is time to write his musicals and money to pay for food. An ad pops up on Facebook. He has something the world wants to buy. After talking with family and friends he signs up. What follows is a tale of apathy which becomes ignited into social conscience with each fill of the cup.

I said Spunk Daddy is a mini-musical and by that I mean he tells his tale with more song (all original work!) than spoken narrative. The repertoire includes power ballads, recitative, and there was even a sea shanty. Who can resist joining in with a sea shanty? We all certainly couldn't!

I've always assumed sperm donation is an uncomfortable act - as evinced by the song 'Vulnerable' - which then disappears into a void of done, dusted and forgotten. For James this assumed meaningless act becomes the catalyst for an existential crisis for him and the world. 

Questions about whether he wants to meet the people who use this seaman's semen to procreate, and finding out that when the child turns 18 they can access his information get James thinking about the moral conundrums he has started by selling his viscous sexual by-product. Will the child want to be in this world and will the planet cope with more humans populating the planet? 

This all sounds very deep and it is, but Spunk Daddy is funny and heartwarming. James brings his trademark soft and silky performance style, and his songs are great fun. And yes, there are lots of double and triple entendre which will make you giggle through the whole 50 minutes.

Unfortunately on opening night James was recovering from a lurgy, so we didn't get the full vocal power and range he is capable of, but as the show went on his voice warmed up and I was swept away with the revelation of a beautiful tenor range. I reckon later audiences are going to have an even better experience than I.

The program says the show was directed by Casey Gould, but I find myself wondering if that really happened. I say that because my one criticism of Spunk Daddy is that James didn't really use the stage or his body well. The set dressing of a big ship wheel, ropes, treasure chest, etc were very pretty indeed, But beyond standing and sitting on a crate, not much happened. I do think nerves were in play on opening night, which is pretty normal.

Having said that, who cares? The story is wonderful, meaty, and funny and the man can sing. What you get with Spunk Daddy is a very funny mini-musical for the price of a cabaret show and you will talk about the ideas in this show for days.

4 Stars


Sunday 15 October 2023

LEATHER LUNGS: Happy Ending - Cabaret Review

WHAT: Leather Lungs: Happy Ending
WHEN: 12 - 15 October 2023
WHERE: Trades Hall (Common Rooms)
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Leather Lungs

Leather Lungs

Every so often you go along to cabaret and get blown away from the moment the house lights go down to when they come back up. It's not as often as we would wish, but one such experience is Leather Lungs: Happy Ending at Fringe Hub, Trades Hall.

Leather Lungs has a 4-octave vocal range (for real!). Leather Lungs has the vocal power and grit of Aretha Franklin, the sweet vocal lightness of Mama Alto, and the deep baritone of James Earl Jones. Leather Lungs also has jokes coming a mile a minute, enough cartoon voices to do his own Warner Brothers cartoon show, and enough pathos to bring the room to tears.

Leather Lungs: Happy Ending starts like a lot of other drag cabaret shows. The artist comes on stage with a power melody, there are sparkles and spangles as well as an array of ass jokes and splayed legs. Right from the start though, we know Leather Lungs is something special because this artist does not hide their talents. None of them (wink, wink).

If I had to find a criticism, it would be that Leather Lungs does all of their vocal gymnastics from the very first to the very last song with a couple of notable exceptions I will mention later. All the vocal talent and gymnastics are brought out right away and in a way, this means we have nothing left to look forward to except song selection and what is hopefully a good yarn (and it is, believe me).

The power of the vocals belies the vulnerability of the person singing and it is breath-taking how generous Leather Lungs is with their personal story of horrific domestic abuse. They counteract this with intensely joyous and loving stories about their family in Aotearoa which begins by explaining that mum makes all their costumes. Leather Lungs cries honest tears of love as they talk about leaving their nephew behind before breaking into the most glorious - and funniest - version of 'Old MacDonalds Farm' you are ever likely to hear.

There are two songs in this show which really stood out to me because of their honesty and simplicity. These two songs have no gimmicks. The first is an ode for their parents who are in the audience, and the second (ABBA's 'The Winner Takes It All') is an homage to survival.

Leather Lungs hits all the bangers including 'It's Raining Men' and 'The Voice'. I suspect 'The Voice' is standard repertoire but it couldn't be more powerful or potent at this point in time in Melbourne and Leather Lungs demands (theatrically, of course) that we take part in the song, just as we are about to take part in the biggest decision of the century for us.

Leather Lungs is an amazing vocalist and an outrageous and authentic performer. You will have to look far and wide to have a night so rousing and yet elegant in places.

4.5 Stars


Saturday 14 October 2023

FOR LOVE NOR MONEY: Theatre Review

WHAT: For Love Nor Money
WHEN: 11 - 22 October 2022
WHERE: Trades Hall (Meeting Room)
WRITTEN BY: Angus Cameron
DIRECTED BY: Justin Nott
PERFORMED BY: Clarisse Bonello, Matthew Connell, and Alexander Lloyd

Matthew Connell and Alexander Lloyd - photo by Chelsea Neate

I often get frustrated by the Fringe 45 formula and I have really enjoyed how some shows in the late timeslot this year have allowed themselves permission to expand beyond that and give their shows some of the time they need to develop and resolve. For Love Nor Money, showing in the Meeting Room at Fringe Hub, is one of those shows. Presented by Victorian Theatre Company, this new play expands to almost an hour and half which makes it a real and satisfying night of theatre.

Love Nor Money, Angus Cameron's latest play, follows the love triangle of Mel (Clarisse Bonello), Liam (Alexander Lloyd), and Ryan (Matthew Connell). The play does not follow the natural timeline of their intersections. I don't know how much of the structure was workshopped in rehearsal, but in a post-dramatic arc, the play follows the fluctuations of the relationships - the highs and lows, the connections and the disconnections.

Mel and Liam are a couple. She is an emerging film director and he is an up-and-coming poet (or he thinks he is...). They have been a couple for a long time but it is a relationship which regularly includes a third. Mel notices someone (Ryan) one night and convinces Liam that Ryan might complete a new menage a trois.

Ryan is a political aide but to a certain extent, in this iteration of the play, that is somewhat irrelevant. What is important is that he is a source of money. That comment might give you a slightly wrong impression about the play though - or perhaps the correct one. His clothes set him apart in this production. As the play progresses and the characters are revealed, as well as the circumstances of their coming together (remember I said it is not chronologically linear), I find myself wondering how much of Mel's interest was piqued not only by a pretty man, but also by a man so obviously of means? 

The actors are of the finest calibre. Connell plays the metamorph with skill, revealing little yet being an agent of great impact on the triangular relationships in all of their manifestations. His ambiguity is the catalyst from which Mel is able to take her career leap of faith, his money is what facilitates this. I very much enjoyed how Bonello balanced the play of emotions which underpinned the conflict between her ambitions and her need for human connection. 

In many ways, Liam is the only emotionally honest character and Lloyd's portrayal of vulnerability in a world too fast and too entrepreneurial was heartbreaking. It was also delightful to see those social and emotional stereotypes of man and woman inverted. We need to break them down. Women can be ambitious and men can be vulnerable. Thank you Angus!

Justin Nott as director is a good match with Cameron's writing. They share an artistic ouvre and work in similar creative spaces. There is a small schism though. Nott sits firmly in the realm of post-dramatics and this dominates in this production. I think, though, that Cameron's writing is more post-truth and I wonder if some important sub-text has been left unrevealed in this production of For Love Nor Money. That may also be a result of fitting the show into the Fringe construct. I would love to see another iteration of this play where Cameron explores the politics of Ryan and the poetry of Liam a bit further although I realise that is generally not the timbre of this playwright's past work.

Nott has made some really clever choices. The staging keeps the three characters locked in a tight triangle together - a rather literal interpretation with fluro lights defining the space and only a chair at each point. I mentioned earlier about how much I liked the costuming, but I found the scene changes too long and repetitive. Music filled the void but it was disconcerting to hear the theme for Vikings in this context. That music is too iconic and pulls us out of this story and into that one. Eventually, in the second half of the show, the scene change music did change into strong driving, less recognisable stings. This worked much better, but in my opinion the time wasted changing costumes would have been better spent exploring sub-text, and building breathing space into the rapid-fire dialogue, interrupting the rhythm to emphasize intention.

That probably sounded like I didn't enjoy For Love Nor Money but I really did. I loved the ideas in the play and I really enjoyed the characters. They are modern, and they are meaningful. They make hard choices and they live and love with passion. They are us and they are now. Be very afraid of that...

4.5 Stars

Thursday 12 October 2023

FLUSH: Theatre Review

WHAT: Flush
WHEN: 10 - 14 October 2023
WHERE: Queen Victoria Women's Centre (top floor)
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Isabella Gilbert
DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth Walley
STAGE MANAGED BY: Dylan Lines

Elizabeth Gilbert - photo supplied

Tinder shows abound and they generally follow a formula. Flush, on the other hand, goes much deeper, connecting climate change and 400 years of literary history with intensely minute detail of Tinder hook ups nobody wants, but all of us can relate to. Flush is being presented at the Queen Victoria Women's Centre as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

The top floor of the QWVC is a small space, but a full glass wall with double doors opens onto an open roof space. Isabella Gilbert (performer) uses this adjunct cleverly, providing her with a space to play and extend and expand in the dance segments of the show, which is in effective counterpoint to the intimacy of her connection to the audience for the spoken sections. 

The show opens with Gilbert in a dance sequence in silhouette. The doors are closed and we are disconnected which creates a curious, voyeuristic intrigue. The choreography is opaque at the start of the show, but it slowly reveals itself as the show progresses and we get peaks into who Gilbert is and was.

The intimacy of the space is perfect for the spoken sections of the show. When inside the room, Gilbert tells us stories of an array of horror/comedy Tinder hook up experiences. Her writing is hyper-naturalistic and the minutia of that style is perfect for such a small space. Gilbert constantly refers to dripping and intersperses her recollections with references to David Attenborough's Frozen Planet TV series. Suddenly the white dance floor covering the carpet starts making sense.

Sometimes, after a particularly icky date/hook up, you feel very dirty and channelling Lady McBeth is a very natural progression. This is not the last we will hear of the bard. Despite reciting a common misconception about Shakespeare 'inventing' new words, the story becomes an apt and witty vehicle to demonstrate the absurdity of the male ego and has the audience in gales of laughter. 

Elizabeth Walley (director) has helped Gilbert navigate the space well, and some of the imagery created by Gilbert with one prop towards the end is almost breath-taking and outrageously funny all at the same time. I didn't really like the costume but it is probably just a matter of taste. The music is loud and insistent and it's energy drives the subtext of frustration. Frustration about men, frustration about climate change, frustration about the limitations of our human body.

Flush is a comic dating show with a difference. With Flush Gilbert doesn't just bring honesty. She brings heart and horror and hope. Hope for something better. Hope for something different. Hope for a future and a world to live that future in. 

Flush is text book post-dramatic theatre. It juxtaposes minutia with grand ideas. The banal and the erudite sit side by side in this very intelligent piece of dance theatre. It was a very happy surprise to see the layers Gilbert has built into Flush.

3.5 Stars

Tuesday 10 October 2023

ZAFFE: Event Review

WHAT: Zaffe
WHEN: 5 - 15 October 2023
WHERE: Malthouse Theatre (The Tower)
CONCEIVED & DIRECTED BY: Stephanie Ghajar
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Taj Aldeeb, Jean Bachoura, Rawya El Chab, Camille El Feghali, St├ęphanie Ghajar, Ayman Kaake, Julia Landberg, Hadi Moussally, Meena Shamaly, Mia Shouha, and Lara Week
DESIGNED BY: Ayman Kaake and Lara Week
LIGHTING BY: Giovanna Yate Gonzalez
STAGE MANAGED BY: Julia Landberg

Meena Shamaly and Jean Bachoura - photo supplied

What is the one thing everyone loves more than a wedding? The wedding party, of course! Zaffe brings you all the fun of a big nuptials event without bothering with the silly detail of someone getting married. Head to the Malthouse Tower this Melbourne Fringe season for fun, dancing, and (hopefully) a little bit of the wedding cake. 

With Zaffe director Stephanie Ghajar and her collaborators allow us the opportunity to experience an ancient culture in its moment of great celebration. The word zaffe is from the middle-east and it refers to a celebratory event which includes music, dance and public participation. A zaffe can take place when escorting important people but is at it's most rousing when it is a wedding party. 

The host, Meena Shamaly (after some rousing call and response) tells us it is a procession. Indeed, as the night goes one we certainly do proceed through activities served like menu courses, until we find ourselves leaving the building, following a Pied Piper out the door. It was almost a shock to suddenly realise I was exiting the building. Now I know how those mice felt!

One of the things I find fascinating about old cultures such as that of the Lebanese, is their understanding that joy and sorrow are just two sides of the same coin at any moment in time. Shamaly explains this, whilst rousing us into a state of primed expectation, exhorting us to dance because we may not be here tomorrow.

On the night I went, Zaffe began late just like every wedding I have ever attended. The wedding cake hadn't arrived and rumours about where it was abounded throughout the night. I'm pretty sure I got 3 different stories whispered to me from people around the room! 

Zaffe had all of the elements of any wedding including announcement about people parked in the wrong spot and we had the wedding band. Camille El Feghali played the Qanun whilst Taj Aldeeb sang a 'completely original' repertoire which all sounded very familiar...'Fever' perhaps, amongst others? They both made sure to spruik their business every chance they got. Oh, and the subtitling was fall on the floor laughingly funny!

Jean Bachoura brings us back to earth gently as he displays family photos. Reminding us that a wedding is about family and the generations before us. He points to the family matriarch in a picture full of people and tells us about how she was one of only 12 out of 40 family members who survived the death marches of the Armenian Genocide at the start of last century. People who know death, know how to party and 'Ammo Jean' brings the fun back as he tries to sell us on his 'not-financial financial advice' business.

Meena Shamaly serenades on the Oud, Rawya El Chab teaches us how to make tabouli, and the wedding cake still hasn't arrived. Salma Zahore invites us to get up and bellydance to techno-trance (if you have a hip scarf bring it and revel in a chance to cut up the dance floor), and yes, the Macarena makes an appearance too. The Lebanese community start dancing in a circle reminding me of the Greek Zorba or perhaps a strange Conga Line for those of us less familiar with these types of traditions. Big drums are promised and big drums ring out around the room.

Eventually the tone settles along with the guests as a hakawati (Ayman Kaake) entrances us with a tale of family and history. He ceremoniously brews a warming beverage to share with the people sitting at his feet.

The night progresses until it is over. A marvellous procession just as Bouchera promised. Remote family members are projected onto the screen across the evening, interspersed with suspicious advertising and links and QR codes to family services. The film work (Hadi Mousally) is very funny and the tables are glorious, decked out with battery operated candles and glorious flowers strewn across stark white table settings. The evening is a rise and fall of voice, bodies, and emotions. 

Zaffe is everything. It is family, community, fun, remembrance, laughter, song, and food. I am going to mark it down a tiny bit for accessibility though. Some people couldn't get up and join the fun on the dance floor and those people missed out on...THE WEDDING CAKE!! Noooooooo! But seriously, Zaffe is an invitation to understand and celebrate Lebanese history and culture. And don't forget your hip scarf ;)

4 Stars

Sunday 8 October 2023

DUCKY'S THEATRE OF THE INTERNET: Theatre Review

WHAT: Ducky's Theatre of the Internet
WHEN: 4 - 8 October 2023
WHERE: Long Play
WRITTEN & PERFORMED BY: India Alessandra
DIRECTED BY: Bronya Doyle
India Allesandra - photo by Syd Farey

What a fascinating, confusing and contradictory place the world has become with the arrival and embracing of the internet. There is so much screaming about privacy in a world where such a thing is perhaps now one of the luxuries of the rich, but to be seen amongst all the hubbub takes Herculean effort and a personal surrender akin to (and sometimes aligned with) sex working. It is into this fray that India Alessandra takes us with her Melbourne Fringe show Ducky's Theatre of the Internet, playing at Long Play.

Ducky (India Alessandro) has a OnlyFans page and, after an absence of a year, is back with her first 24 hour live stream. With her phone and ring light on a selfie stand in one corner of her bedroom, in a leotard straight out of a Jane Fonda video, and with the most ridiculous platform heels on the planet, Ducky settles in to entertain her fans and answer all their questions for 24 hours - all for the price of a donation and a click on her link and bio.

It is not explicitly stated in the show which makes it a bit confusing until you figure it out, but Ducky is a music artist. I say it is confusing because the night involves a lot of overly sexualised dancing and OnlyFans is known to be something of a sex shop. 

This is not accidental on the part of Alessandra. Alessandra is deliberately interrogating the space women on the internet inhabit in our sex sells pop culture. At one point, somewhere around the 15th hour, Ducky speaks to her hyper-sexualised photos and how they need to be that way to cut through miasma of wannabe influencers. Ducky's Theatre of the Internet constantly references the push-pull of that space, whilst also subtly crying out about a world where if you aren't an influencer then are you anything at all? 

As the hours go by, Ducky's Theatre of the Internet exposes just what a marathon those durational streams are and just how much work and energy goes into doing them. Respect to those women out there doing it for whatever reason!

Alessandra is a self-confessed devotee of Lana Del Rey and a lot of Ducky's story arc riffs off Del Rey's controversies of 2020 although she is not named specifically. Just like Del Rey, Ducky has made inappropriate commentary which caused her to be cancelled, which explains the year long absence. Ducky is back though and not apologising for anything (just like Del Rey). At one point she even quotes part of the famous tweet which got Del Rey in trouble.

Perhaps the weakness of this show lies in Alessandra's unwillingness to be direct and present a clear point of view. Whilst she writhes around the floor and responds to the lovers and haters and urges them to click on link and bio, it is a bit unclear what position (if any) she takes on OnlyFans and the culture it inhabits and promotes, or Del Rey. As such, the ending is a bit disappointing and a big opportunity has been missed by Alessandra and Bronya Doyle (director) to let us into who Ducky is when the selfie light turns off. The on-line persona only makes sense if we have a sense of who the off-line person is IMO. By that I don't mean we need any more time with Ducky offline. I mean we need that moment to have more intention.

Alessandra is quite brilliant as Ducky and the choreography is really on point. The videography does just enough without taking over the show and the dramatic structure is excellent. You can't take your eyes off Ducky, even when she accidently falls asleep. The dramaturgy (Ivana Brehas) is excellent.

One thing Ducky's Theatre of the Internet does really well is remind us that everything we see on-line is performance. Do not look to the digital landscape for reality. Everything is a show and all of us engaging online are putting on a costume and playing a role. When we are online we are 'on'. This is not real. This is not us. There may be moments, but they are quickly covered and hidden. That is how you survive and throw off the inevitable trolls - for as long as you can.

3.5 Stars

HOT FAT CRAZY - Cabaret Review

WHAT: Hot Fat Crazy
WHEN: 4-8 October 2023
WHERE: Trades Hall (Music Room)
WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY: Thomas Bradford and Eadie Testro-Girasole

Thomas Bradford and Eadie Testro-Girasole - photo supplied

Tommy (Thomas Bradford) and Eadie (Eadie Testro-Girasole) are a powerhouse new comedy team on the Melbourne circuit. This year they debuted an explosive new cabaret at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and they have brought it back for a short return season at Fringe Hub as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Hot Fat Crazy is a jam-packed 50 minutes of great songs, hilarity and sock puppets.

I first came across the work of these two fabulous performers in 2018 with Bradford's musical Tinder Tales. Hot Fat Crazy sees the pair lean into their strengths and their performances are high energy and faultless.

Hot Fat Crazy sees Eadie's character writing in her diary as she reminisces about her time in a psychiatric facility. Everything seems quite normal for that first minute of the show. It is when she discards the diary that things fall down the rabbit whole of outrageous surrealism. The diary (Bradford) comes back with a whole lot of attitude and the first banger of the night 'Welcome to the Psyche Ward' explodes, as do the audience - with laughter.  

We go on to meet Trish (Bradford) and Trish (Testro-Girasole), the ward nurses as well as a whole bunch of other patients and characters. Oh, and did I mention the sock puppets? Georgia Gurr and Cat Woodfield are the puppeteers and they were amazing both as puppeteers and also in their cameos towards the end of the show!

After witnessing Eadie's in-patient sex romp we also travel down a time lapse into characters of the past. I mentioned earlier that this show is surrealist so the 'journey' Eadie takes does not need to make sense. Just go with it. 

Here we come to the one part of the show which shook me and upset me, and I really hope they change it. Testro-Girasole sings a sexy siren song about Mothman, her homophobic cat. The song is brilliant and she is brilliant singing it. Along the way though, Mothman (Bradford) comes out into the audience and incites a full on audience chant shouting 'ban gay rights'. I assume this is meant to be ironic and at the end of the song Tetro-Girasole says "he is allowed to say that, he is gay". For me though, the entire incident was terrifying. 

I hope the people in the room didn't really think that, and were just going along with it, but it scares me to see how easily a group can be incited and how few of them were able to resist joining in if they really didn't think that. I consider myself a sophisticated consumer of theatre and I assume nothing hateful was meant with this song and the way it was arranged and performed, but I don't think it was contextualised well enough and I left this show feeling scared and incredibly sad. To be honest, I wasn't able to enjoy the rest of the experience, but I know there was some fabulous work after that song.

The show continued with all of the amazing energy and talent for comedic performance as had been displayed up to that point. In particular, 'Magnet Wizard' was heaps of fun and the sock puppet band was delightful.

Up until the cat song, I was on my way to giving this show 5 stars. I can't ignore the horror that song caused me though, and I can't support a show which says those things and performs them in such a way. I do think Tommy & Eadie are going to be a comedic force in the future. Keep an eye out for them.

2.5 Stars

Friday 6 October 2023

BEARDIFUL: Cabaret Review

 WHAT: Beardiful
WHEN: 7 - 22 October 2023
WHERE: The Butterfly Club/Digital Fringe
WRITTEN & PERFORMED BY: Sarah Jay

Sarah Jay - photo supplied

Nobody likes to be the first person to arrive at a party, but lucky for me Sarah Jay came through the door to make me laugh and cry, and she warmed the cockles of my heart with her first ever solo show, Beardiful. Produced by Picked Last For Sport, Beardiful is playing at The Butterfly Club for the first week of the Melbourne Fringe Festival and is then available On Demand as part of Digital Fringe.

Whilst Jay is flying solo this time around (and the nerves do show), you will probably remember her from other superb Picked Last For Sport shows such as Creatures of the Deep and 2 Proud 2 Prejudiced. Beardiful kicksoff with  a rousing little number about just how hairy we women are, accompanied by the ukele. Instantly we are transported back to the fun and wit of previous shows, supported by her visage which would look at home in the throne room of the Queen of the Dwarves in the Lord of the Rings movies.. 

Somewhere in all the fun we get a slight sense that this solo show might just have a slightly sharper edge to it as Jay slides us into the endless and unfruitful life we women lead being hair shamed by society. It doesn't take long to find out Jay is taking us on a potentially more serious journey than a standard comedy cabaret would provide. 

Jay transitions from the nascent hairs growing in our armpits and on our chins (and other places), to talking about 'becoming a woman'. The red dress becomes meaningful as mentruation is explored but don't be put off by this. Beardiful has a lot of heart and one of the more beautiful stories - and funniest songs - is the tale of how the addiction she and her school friends had for Mills and Boon novels grew into a lifelong bonding book club. Teenage tingles have turned into complicit gales of laughter but the sharing of experiences over time is a pearl in the oyster of life.

Books lead to tingles, tingles lead to boys, boys lead to men. That is the tale society tells us about our journey into womanhood. Jay is here to tell and sing us a much more convoluted story. We always hear the first time you have sex it might hurt, but what is going on if every time continues to hurt and how can you tell anyone about it if nobody, not even doctors, want to listen? It might interrupt the social narrative and how can we allow that to happen? Keep it quiet. Keep it a secret. Pretend. Always pretend to be enjoying sex. That is what women do.

Across the hour that Beardiful graces our lives we learn about debilitating conditions which come with having holes and ovaries. Jay reveals important truths about vaginismus and devastating admissions about the role polycystic ovarian syndrome. Along the way she lays open her heart and soul as we walk with her through the tale of trying to get pregnant.

We talk about 'authenticity' a lot in the theatrical realm, but the rawness and honesty of Jay's story is a pain almost too hard to bare. Don't worry though, it is padded with humorous songs and a generosity of giving. If you are the lucky live audience member you will even get a song written just for you. The magic of this song is the sincerity in which Jay delivers it to you, and only you. 

This song of generous love brings us out of Jay's great sadness and speaks to the spirit of a world I want to live in. This superb dramaturgy (created in collaboration with Sonia Di lorio) is what makes Beardiful shine and allows the audience to leave with love filling our hearts and a smile on our face. 

3 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 ...