Sunday 28 January 2024

TRANSWOMAN KILLS INFLUENCER: Theatre Review

WHAT: Transwoman Kills Influencer
WHEN: 27 Jan - 4 Feb 2024
WHERE: La Mama Courthouse
WRITTEN BY: Dax Carnay
DIRECTED BY: Emmanuelle Mattana
DESIGN BY: Filipe Filihia
LIGHTING BY: Chiara Wenban
AV DESIGN BY: Jordan Hanrahan
SOUND DESIGN BY: Owen Kelly
PERFORMED BY: Dax Carnay, Khema De Silva, John Marc Desengano, Ryan Henry, Emily Joy, Sancha Robinson, and Vateresio Tuikaba
STAGE MANAGED BY: Finn McLeish

Vateresio Tuikaba and Dax Carnay - photo by Darren Gill

Transwoman Kills Influencer is not a show title you can look away from and the same can be said about most of the actual show. Written by Dax Carnay, Transwoman Kills Influencer is having its debut season at La Mama Courthouse this week as part of Midsumma Festival.

Transwoman Kills Influencer is an intriguing piece of writing, not just because of the topics, but also because of the way it reveals its layers. The play you think you are watching at the start is perhaps not the play you realise you saw at the end. Carnay is not afraid of the fraught social topics surrounding gender expression, however she is much more concerned with the human beings who sit underneath all of that fear and confusion.

Using the Rashomon Effect, Carnay shows us a moment when it seems like the world is falling apart for the protagonist Denise played by Carnay. There are four other people involved in that moment - Bryle (Ryan Henry), Jen (Khema De Silva), and Alejandro (Vateresio Tuikaba). Transwoman Kills Influencer retells the story over and over from each person's different perspective and reveals a little bit more context to the story as it travels.

Denise - a transwoman - is the General Manager of an advertising agency. Jen is the Account Manager who was passed over for the GM job. Bryle is the drag queen Executive Assistant. Alejandro is the uber masculine social media influencer and a big client for the agency. Alejandro is pulling out his account and Jen is in a panic because this will cause the business to fail. Suddenly Alejandro is dead. Whodunnit?

As the story is pieced together, we learn about the complexities of the interpersonal relationships, character flaws, misunderstandings and general ignorance. The true art of this play though, is that bigger and broader high stakes public debate is torn away to reveal the people hiding underneath it with all their flaws, complexes, and imperfections. The play starts with stereotypes but, for the most part, it ends with real people and that is what makes it magnificent. 

The one exception to that is the character of Bryle. We never get to see much of Bryle beneath the overt drag persona. Maybe we don't need to. That character doesn't seem to be very integral beyond emotional support for Denise. In some ways I felt the unremitting overt clownishness of the portrayal of Bryle actually got in the way of the show and it's intentions, but I could also say the same about the portrayal of Alejandro. 

According to an interview I did with Carnay and Emmanuelle Mattana (director) for What Did She Do? this character is supposed to represent toxic masculinity, but the portrayal was way too camp and clownish to really make that work. Luckily the cameo by John Marc Desengano fills a rather big gap in that regard. It is not the acting. All of the actors are magnificent. I just think Mattana hasn't smoothed their performances so that they are all acting with the same contextual balance. The women in the show, however, have worked out that earnest/clowning balance to perfection.

Oh, and I hate the accents. Fake accents are sooooo 20th century! They are completely unnecessary, totally distracting, and they disconnect us from the deep truths within the play.

In Transwoman Kills Influencer Mattana has demonstrated a strong capacity to harness production elements to support the ideas. The set (designed by Filipe Filihia) is clever and captivating, although I do think some costume elements for Denise are not well resolved. Mattana has a background in film making so it is no surprise that the AV (Jordan Hanrahan) elements are incredibly well done. Perhaps the opening sequence is a bit too long? It is hard to tell though because the show had a delayed start on opening night so that might have impacted my perception a bit. I also would have like a bit of police investigation framing the start, rather than just creeping in at the end. We all love a bookend.

To be honest, I didn't notice the sound (Owen Kelly) which tells me it did what it needed to do perfectly. The lighting (Chiara Wenban) was also fine, although there was a smoke machine pumping hard throughout for absolutely no reason whatsoever. 

I get so annoyed with lighting designers these days. Every other single element of theatrical productions is chosen to be there or not be there with such great care, but lighting designers just smother everything with smoke and rarely think of dramatic purpose, intention or meaning. There is nothing in this lighting rig which smoke enhances except the upstage area at the start and end of the play. Most of the rig are fresnels so the lighting is not defining the architecture of the space. This means we don't need to see the beams and the only thing the smoke in this show does is draw our eyes up to the lighting rig rather than watching the stage and the story. It defeats the suspension of disbelief so integral to theatre making. Lighting is a dramaturgical art and theatrical smoke is NOT benign for actors or audiences which means choosing to use it is a big thing!

Anyhooooo, back to the play. Transwoman Kills Influencer is not a play which insists it has answers. Instead, it is a fun packed hour or so which explores social debate and earnestly searches for real thoughts, real feelings, and real people. The content will evince strong reactions at times, but also allows for a 360 degree investigation. 

We often find ourselves asking what does Post Truth mean? I heard somebody explain it well recently. It is truth with context. Transwoman Kills Influencer is truly a Post Truth play.

3.5 Stars

Thursday 4 January 2024

CLAIRE COME HOME: Theatre Review

WHAT: Claire Come Home
WHEN: 2 - 6 January 2024
WHERE: Theatre Works
WRITTEN BY: Amelia Newman
DIRECTED BY: Sarah Hartnell
PERFORMED BY: Sam Dolan and Lucy Orr
LIGHTING BY: Hannah Willoughby

Lucy Orr and Sam Dolan - photo by Phoebe Ann Taylor

You might think seeing a show which is billed as being about someone who tried to commit suicide is a bleak way to start the new year but fret not, dear pundits. Claire Come Home, playing this week at Theatreworks, is - rather surprisingly - not about Claire at all. In fact, the script really doesn't reveal Claire until around 10 minutes in. Rather, this newest black comedy by Amelia Newman is more of an interrogation about the holes caused by unexpected absences and the way the people standing next to those holes try and make sense of the inky abyss (and the people) they suddenly find themselves standing next to.

Claire is the central character of Claire Come Home only in the sense that she is the centre point of the two characters we meet on stage. Jared (Sam Dolan) is Claire's live-in boyfriend. Beth (Lucy Orr) is their housemate and has been Claire's best friend since grade 7. Anyone who has lived in share housing knows this is a recipe for disaster, but the play starts in the simple space of housemate untidiness, who drank the last of the milk without replacing it, and you owe me your share of the cost of... Everything seems pretty normal. Eventually we come to learn Claire is in hospital because she attempted suicide and suddenly all of those little irritations start to reveal nuances of tension, worry, confusion, and pain.

Claire Come Home is written in a picaresque style, utilising short and sharp scenes which director Sarah Hartnell interrupts with black outs and the sound of camera shutters which is designed to give us the sense of flicking through a photo book of moving images (social media reels perhaps?) which is reminiscent of the 1970s but stays just the right side of contemporary... just! This photo album construct is reflected in the white, geometric borders of an alcove style set which mimics the white borders you used to get on old photographs and which, in the digital era, you can add as a filter to your JPGs (there is no design credit for this show). Within that frame is a kitchenette and a large sofa barely remaining upright as a 2-metre pile of unfolded laundry at one end threatens to tip itself and the couch over. We've all met that pile of laundry. Admit it!

Jared spends a lot of time pedantically trying to defeat that pile of laundry. Beth spends a lot of time jumping around it restlessly and completely ignoring it. Jared and Beth appear to have been housemates for a while, but with the connecting presence of Claire missing from their lives for now, these two people have to finally spend time facing each other instead of her and find out who they really are. 

Along the way, Newman looks at questions of contagious ideation, endemic emotional isolation, and follows a range of ideological and cultural links to the question of death and life. This is not a straightforward journey and tries to activate post-modernist linkages between radical concepts. Whilst not always successful, there are certainly ideas and themes which will excite post show discussion including Roland Barthes, Samuel Beckett, Mary Shelley, Julia Gillard, dead wildlife, and lost jewellery amongst other stuff. 

The lightness this kind of philosophical leaping brings helps keep the pace and tone upbeat, but it also makes the play feel longer than it actually is. I would love to weigh in on all the debates, but this essay would never end and if this is what I find myself talking about then I have start to question whether the point of the play has become too obscure - or alternatively the play has no point? Did Barthes win the day or has Newman misinterpreted his concepts as an underlying principle of semiotics?

Regardless, this would be a much stronger work if there were some longer scenes which allowed the important interpersonal issues people face when they are connected to a person who finally decides that are not coping and try a radical solution. I wanted a deeper exploration of ideation transference, of the conflict facing Jared because of the similarities of mannerisms between Claire and Beth, of how and why both of them are using obsession to manage their emotions. Claire Come Home has the potential to be a powerful work if Newman can find their way out of the obsession with art and focus on story. In many ways I think this is what I was trying to say about their other play The World According To Dinosaurs too.

Whilst I always rail against couches taking centre stage, Hartnell has been careful to ensure that the object is used in as many ways as possible and so I forgive. Orr really takes this as a personal challenge, and I don't think I've seen the human body take on so many shapes as she struggles to settle herself. Orr has amazing performance skills including body, face, and vocal dynamics and texture. I would say, though, that her next stage of professional development needs to be voice training. The people past the first row need to hear all the lines. Luckily this show has surtitles for accessibility because even in the fourth row I was struggling to catch all her lines. Dolan is a much more centred performer and is a nice foil to Orr's manic pixie dream girl energy.

Claire Come Home suffers slightly from its unfortunate low budget but you certainly get a sense of the intense visual's Newman must have been imagining as they wrote. There is - as advertised - blood dripping down the walls, but it is very underwhelming, and I was curious about lighting designer Hannah Willoughby's choice to go with pinks rather than the command of a deep blood red. This is not a play for subtleties although I loved the absence of a smoke machine. If you come and see Claire Come Home you return to a time in theatre when it was about the actors and the stage, and not about toxic wisps of distraction everywhere you look. Okay, I admit it, I really wanted smoke to ooze from the couch in the Frankenstein scene... 

Claire Come Home is a great start to the 2024 Melbourne theatre year. The ideas are strong, performances are strong, and production values are high within budget constraints. Newman is a playwright who will have a long career creating powerful theatre. They just have to shake off those trying too hard mittens which we all have when we begin creating our art. 

The art of semiotics is to engage in communication through the use of signs and symbols common to both sender and receiver. The Barthes discussion in this play is accurate but without context. What matters most is what the receiver takes from the signal, but what is the point of the writer if there is no idea to be transferred? On the other hand, Beckett had no concept of a world where man and woman were not biologically defined so how can his Waiting For Godot restrictions even have any meaning in 2024? And was Frankenstein the monster or the scientist? Oh dear, my head hurts. And this is why you have to see this play!

3.5 Stars

As an aside, I want to give a 500-star rating for the commitment to accessibility for this show. This should be the minimun standards for every theatrical event!

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

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