Tuesday 28 May 2024

KOAL: Theatre Review

WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024
CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford
DIRECTED BY: Trey Lyford
PERFORMED BY: Jacinta Yelland

Jacinta Yelland - photo by Ashley Smith

Our planet is suffocating, and our country is dying. What the wildfires aren't burning, the floods are washing away. Environmental disasters run parallel to the societal catastrophes human beings inflict on one another and all this is building up to what has to be some great conflagration in the near future because things can't keep going the way they are... Although based in Philadelphia, Jacinta Yelland has dug deep into her Australian roots to create KOAL with Trey Lyford and this show packs a punch in just over an hour. Riffing off that tiny Koala which survived the bush fires in 2019, referencing the endless mining disasters we experience in this country, and looking to Yelland's own family history of indentured servitude, KOAL journeys from funny to frightening in the blink of a baby koala's eye.

The show begins with a young girl dancing around a tree but soon we hear crackling and just about every Australian knows that sound. Fire. The girl runs off and we see a koala. Suddenly we are at a zoo being welcomed by a wildlife warrior with very strong resemblances to a certain Australian zoo dynasty. The zookeeper wants to introduce us to a koala and assures us the fire is very far away so we can ignore it. 

Then we meet Stevo, a miner. He goes down a cave to check methane levels but there is a cave in. The fire rages on and smoke starts to fill the room. Meanwhile the young girl is trying to attend school but doesn't meet the dress standards - shoes...

KOAL is a towering inferno performed with incredible skill by Yelland, who is a very highly trained physical theatre performer. Her characters are well-defined and performed with great nuance. The three stories arc to a delightful, if devastating, crescendo under the boughs of the gum tree which has held centre stage the whole time. I remember reading a long time ago that the reason there are so many eucalyptus trees in Australia is because they are more resilient to fire. Over the millennia more fragile native plant life has burned away, but the gum trees stand strong and tall because of their oil content. Even though it is toxic to them, that same oil is in the very leaves which keep our koalas alive. There has to be some kind of metaphor in there somewhere... but I digress.

As Yelland morphs from character to character and weaves her stories together, the tree at the centre of the stage morphs along with her. Payton Smith has created the perfect travelling set. In all there are 3 ladders of different sizes, and they are all strewn with brown paper woven to represent bark (paper bark?) or rock as needed. Gum leaves poke out here and there to the satisfaction of the little koala. I always hate ladders on stage but, to be honest, I didn't even realise that is what it was until part way into the show as it starts morphing into trucks and caves and kitchens and all sorts of things. Perhaps towards the end all the fiddling becomes a bit too much, but the show is just short enough for it to avoid becoming tiresome. Ethan Mentzner's compositions and sound design are faultless and take us everywhere the story needs to go very powerfully indeed.

If I do have a criticism (and yes, I do have one), I feel like the Indigenous story is the least elegantly realised and integrated into the overall structure of KOAL. The work assumes the audience has read all of the publicity material and, to be honest, I thought it was a story about refugees until I remembered what I had read. On the bright side, this play works if you read it that way and this is a very current and urgent interpretation. On the sad side, the stories of the Stolen Generation are important, and we miss an important part of the storytelling if it goes by without being noticed. I am surprised Lyford (director) didn't pick up on the ambiguity but perhaps, given he is not Australian, he didn't realise there could be another interpretation. It would be very unfair to expect international artists to be up to date with Australia's constant shameful social policies.

KOAL is equal parts delightful and a dystopian nightmare. Emerging from the embers the characters leave it to us to work out if catastrophes are a thing of our past or the only thing we have to look forward to.

4 Stars

Tuesday 21 May 2024

THE WORD: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Word
WHEN: 17 - 26 May 2024
WHERE: Abbotsford Convent (Magdalene Laundry)
WRITTEN BY: Michael Carmody, Nadja Kostich, Michele Lee and Ensemble
DIRECTED BY: Nadja Kostich
COMPOSED BY: Allara Briggs Pattison
SET AND COSTUME BY: Matilda Woodroofe
LIGHTING BY: Richard Vabre
PERFORMED BY: Spike Angwin, Grace Annan, Sunday Bickford, Kleopatra Dukas, Harris Tate Elliott, Noray Hosny, Oscar Munro, Jackson Reid, Harriet Turner-Brown, Vito van Hout, Frankie Lee Willcox
VIDEO DESIGN BY: Michael Carmody

Ensemble - photo by Jason Cheetham

Words... We give them. We speak them. We take them back. We forget them. We write them. We erase them. We colonise them. We lose them. We find them. We learn them. We honour them. We ban them. They are clumsy and imprecise, yet they are the most sophisticated communication system we have ever designed. We are who and what we are because of them and in spite of them. The St Martin's Theatre Youth Ensemble have spent a long time exploring them and they now have an (almost) undergraduate level of understanding of semiotics and - more importantly - a brilliant piece of theatre now playing at Abbotsford Convent, called The Word.

The Word has been crafted over a year and a half under the tutelage and guidance of an incredible array of industry creatives. What shines through the strongest in this show, and IMO is perhaps the greatest achievement, is the cohesion of the ensemble as well as their centredness and confidence in what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it.

The Word is physical theatre, but it is not the kind which is high powered and aggressive. The performers rarely stand still, but their movements and journeys around the space is gentle and controlled. They find themselves within some kind of archaeological archive. The space is strewn with pottery and busts on wooden plinths which are moved around as story and context shifts and changes. Within this archive the ensemble explores their relationships with language, heritage, and community. 

The words themselves are released into the space in the form of video projection (Michael Carmody), dialogue, monologue, poetry, song, breath and silence. The words BEFORE, AFTER, and NOW slide into each other across 2 large cloths defining the boundaries of the corner stage configuration. These words, the artefacts littering the stage, and the energy and youth of the ensemble tell us immediately that what has happened and what is happening are all integral parts of what is yet to come.

Two groups form. An ancient feud. Somebody said something but nobody remembers what, exactly. Sides have been taken, but if you don't remember what was said anymore should you change sides? Should there even be sides? Modern day apps are full of tick box answers to questions but what if nothing suits so you have to tick 'other'? Can you really explain how you don't fit in a box in just 180 characters? Can words be that meaningful and precise? Somebody doesn't like a word. Should we ban it? Do we understand the ramifications of doing so? Do we understand the ramifications of letting the word stay? 

Nadja Kostich (director) has led this marvellous ensemble into a maelstrom of humanity and together they have created a beautiful map - or is it a maze? Helping to connect language to feeling and emotion Allara Briggs Pattison (composer) has, with absolute genius, created a sound scape which takes us into the deepest heart places and subliminally helps us understand why words are important to us as individuals, us as a community, and us as a collection of communities. The journey includes original songs by two cast members which are breath-taking! 

The movement sequences created by Bridget Fiske (choreographer) keep the space, the air, and the ideas ebbing and flowing and allow the words to shift the dust on a musty history of communication and the lighting sculpted by Richard Vabre (lighting designer) reveals and hides in a playful yet edifying manner. All of this plays out on an evocative museum style palette created by Matilda Woodroofe.

When you enter the performance space, you are offered the chance to write down some words that are important to you. Words that you love or hate, your first word, words you have been introduced to. This small act of pre-performance framing is integral to how deeply you become embedded in the concepts held in the show. Along the way we also learn the history of the Magdalene Laundry itself which 'speaks' so strongly the tale being told in it right now. 

This is not a show about answers. The Word explores ideas. It explores ideas about words and ideas framed by words. You will leave The Word wiser than when you entered the building, and you will be glad this happened.

4.5 Stars

Monday 13 May 2024


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
DIRECTED BY: Belle Hansen
SET BY: Belle Hansen and Brigette Jennings
PERFORMED BY: Joanna Halliday (violin), Daniel Kim (clarinet), Joshua Mackie (trombone), Linus Finn Mackie (guitars), Bek Schilling, Marlena Thompson, and Karen Yee (Keys)
STAGE MANAGED BY: Brigette Jennings

Marlena Thomson and Karen Yee - photo by Daren Gill

Rare is the person, these days, who hasn't had a share housing experience of some kind or another. For those of us who have been there/done that several times over it reveals itself to be a very changeable situation which can include the best of times and the worst of times. You can end up with life-long friends, people you never want to see or speak to ever again, and potentially even situations which include police involvement. To that you can add the many, many permutations of property manager and questionably habitable lodgings you might encounter, and it becomes no surprise that the Frenzy Theatre Company bring us a surrealist montage to explore the experience in The Roof Is Caving In currently playing at La Mama Courthouse.

Riffing off the theatre classic The Odd Couple and following the saturated colour palette of Barbie, The Roof Is Caving in is the story of two students who find themselves cohabiting for the first time in a less than well maintained after apartment complex.  We meet Bronwyn (Bek Schilling) and Hester (Marlena Thomson) as they are being handed over the key by an overly welcoming property manager (Joanna Halliday). After skulling the welcome wine, Halliday makes a quick exit and the two new tenants face their first dilemma - there is only 1 key for the apartment... 

In the ensuing negotiation of who will be the Keeper of the Key we discover Hester is the pedantic character and Bronwyn is the slob. My one big disappointment is that I really wanted Schilling to settle into their archetype like everyone else in the show. Instead, they kind of play the Everyman but that isn't right for the hyper-surreal tone of this production. 

The great delight of the play is the banda/chorus including everyone else in the cast. Whilst Bronwyn and Hester tug and pull to find a way to co-exist amidst unwashed dishes, unfinished laundry, very thin walls and late-night love interests, the ensemble pop up in the shower, the fridge, the window - just about everywhere playing the soundtrack of the lives of these two young women. It is true that their jaunty and sometimes dark jazz is a bit loud in the space but it is so good who cares? 

They also play all of the other characters in the play and they are brilliant. Joshua Mackie's handyman almost brought me to tears with his incompetence and Karen Yee as the neighbour is suitably domineering. Halliday is absolutely terrifying in a bunny boiling kind of way as the property manager and Daniel Kim has found so many ways to use a fridge which doesn't involve food it is positively mind boggling. Linus Finn Mackie plays Bronwyn's boyfriend and he is great but I couldn't quite work out his architype.

The entire ensemble keeps the tension building and the music and dance breaks work well for the most part. Perhaps the one moment it doesn't work is possibly the most important one - the housewarming party. There is soooo much work put into building up the party and the jeopardy the party puts the housemates in, but instead of keeping the tension going when the property manager turns up, Belle Hansen (director) let's it fizzle into another dance break which means we lose the thrill of the crescendo when the worst thing that could happen does happen. 

The Roof Is Caving In is a great script (Matilda Gibbs) and Jack Burmeister (composer) has written wonderful music for the banda and cleverly interwoven other sound elements to create atmosphere as intense and the colour palette. Hansen has made sure the cast keep the pace up and they use the space and their bodies and each other incredibly cleverly. Unfortunately, the show is about 15 minutes too long and because the crescendo stutters we really do feel it towards the end. 

The set (Hansen and Brigette Jennings) is detailed and clever. I would have liked the logic of the apartment to be as influenced by surrealism as everything else in the show is, but that might be a step too hard. How good would it have been with a sideways shower and a bed up a wall or something like that though???? There is no lighting credit, but I do think colour temperature was used well too. This show also wins the award for best and most appropriate use of a smoke machine since the end of lockdowns too ;)

The Roof Is Caving In is a wonderful and fun nightmare which is just a little too close to reality to be entirely comfortable. It is so exciting to have the live instruments in the space and the performers so cleverly integrated into the entire structure of the performance. 

4.5 Stars

Saturday 11 May 2024

THE BRIDAL LAMENT: Performance Review

WHAT: The Bridal Lament
WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
SET BY: Al Joel and Emily Borghi
LIGHTING BY: Govin Ruben

Rainbow Chan - photo by Sarah Walker

Song cycles are always rather unpredictable performance modes for audiences. The question becomes one of whether the music stands as musical exploration or whether it stands as storytelling. The Bridal Lament which is produced by Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and in its third iteration, this time at Arts House, is a song cycle which has Rainbow Chan exploring her Weitou cultural heritage both as part of a diaspora and also as part of her own authentic musical signature.

Chan's family left Hong Kong aroung the year the British lease of the territories expired in 1984. A millennia earlier, ancestors had left the mainland to settle into a walled village in what was to become known as Hong Kong. This agrarian culture are the people of Chan's matriarchal lineage. 

Centuries ago, weeping and wailing became formalised ritual as part of the Chinese people's relationships with their gods. It was also one of the few ritual forms which imbued women with magical/mystical agency in a patriarchal domination which takes the breath away to even try and conceive. For some time preceding the Cultural Revolution the celebration of marriage through wailing and lamenting became established in folk culture. As part of holding on to the past whilst marching inexorably into the future, Chan has revisited one of the communities in Hong Kong which still contain women who lived these experiences, women who learnt and performed these laments as part of their life events. Chan's mother was not one of these women, but her grandmother most certainly was.

There is a certain dark humour lurking within the implied horror lying under the current of these laments which Chan has resurrected. Young girls spend years learning these songs in the full knowledge they are going to be sentenced to a life of exile with people they do not know to live out a fate they have no way of foreseeing. A life in which they will have no personal agency at all. Once the matchmaker has done their job, the bride to be sits in a loft and sings her bridal laments for three days. Her feet may never touch the ground again until she is wed. 

What is left unsaid in Chan's show is that these laments are not actually for the family although it is the family who listens. They are for the gods. This period is a liminal state for the young woman who is trying to seduce the gods into making sure her fate is not as terrible as it possibly could be. It is no coincidence that in these traditional laments the groom is called the 'King of Hell'. The young woman is about to leave everyone and everything she knows to live with someone with that title and once this lamentation ritual is complete, she is expected to never cry again!

In Chan's The Bridal Lament she sings those laments to us in a blend of Weitouhua and English. Traditional chants are mixed and blended and melded with Chan's own brand of electro-pop. Parallelling the story of young brides preparing for their journey into the unknown, Chan gently weaves in the tale of her own family's exodus and how she finds herself part of the modern diaspora. Director Tessa Leong has worked with Chan to craft a thoroughly engrossing piece of theatre to accompany Chan's playlist. The explored social traditions are echoed gently in the slightly assonant tunings of Chan's music which whisper to us, the people in her new home, of the cultural dissonances of the past which make an excitingly different here and now.

The Bridal Lament looks to the past but connects women of a bygone era to those of today. As Chan tells us, these laments are a form of rebellion. They are a call to resist their fate as best they can. Chan, herself, is the embodiment of the success of that rebellion despite the distance in time and location it has taken to achieve it. As much as we might want to wallow in the victory, Chan reminds us that it is important to remember the pain of the past. How can we know who we are if we don't know who we have been? This is true of all of us, both within our individual cultural histories, but also within the history of the community we now find ourselves a part of.

Chan is accompanied by animations created by Rel Pham and shares the stage with a magnificent crystalline installation designed by Al Joel and Emily Borghi referencing rain, tears, cleansing. It is the carriage carrying the bride to her new husband. It is the mouth in a mouth, a whirlpool... it is hui.

Chan is still developing both vocally and musically, but as the music in The Bridal Lament moves into her own pop style you can clearly see the artist she is destined to become. On a stage filled with large architectural structures Chan does not disappear or get overwhelmed. Chan is destined for larger arenas but right now what we get in The Bridal Lament is the authentic origin story. Perhaps this fate is not one Chan should resist..

4.5 Stars

KOAL: Theatre Review

WHAT: KOAL WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory) WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024 CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford DIRECTED BY: Tre...