Tuesday 25 June 2024

THE EXOTIC LIVES OF LOLA MONTEZ: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez
WHEN: 20 - 30 June 2024
WHERE: Chapel Off Chapel (Loft)
WRITTEN BY: Jackie Smith
DIRECTED BY: Moira Finucane
SET BY: Isaac Lummis and Joshua Weeks
LIGHTING BY: Gillian Schwab
PERFORMED BY: Caroline Lee, Piera Dennerstein, Maple Rose, and Iva Rosebud

Maple Rose, Iva Rosebud, Piera Dennerstein, and Caroline Lee - photo supplied

Full disclosure - I saw The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez in its premier season in Ballarat in 2017. As auspicious as that occasion was, resonant with the goldfield's heritage of the woman in question, I am going to blaspheme and say I had a lot more fun this time around. The original season was performed on the beautiful big proscenium arch stage of Her Majesty's Theatre but returning to Lola's (and Finucane & Smith's) burlesque roots, this thrust stage - pun intended - version of The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez at Chapel Off Chapel has a contagious joy and deshabille not possible in the more formal theatrical surroundings. 

Lola Montez (Caroline Lee) is an Irish woman who explored the world using her charms and her wits to beguile European nobility, the daring folk of California, and the brash Australians of the 19th Century. A woman brave enough and determined enough, to live life on her own terms Lola Montez became famous for her Spider Dance, and she and her troupe were not only talked about in their own time, but as Finucane and Smith tell us, she is still talked about today!

The original production did play with the burlesque genre with Holly Durant playing Lola's burlesque avatar and ensemble and other abstracted concepts. In this iteration of the show, Moira Finucane (director) has expanded this idea and Lola now has her troupe surrounding her, serenading her, and supporting her in her daring endeavours. Joining in the fun and titillation are burlesque artists Maple Rose and Iva Rosebud. Adding a bit of class to these saloon shenanigans is opera star Piera Dennerstein (who also kicks up her leg in a mighty fine Can Can).

I felt the original show was a bit long and wordy, although this was no reflection on Jackie Smith's incredibly clever and hilarious script. That production did have an artistic gravitas and beauty which was unforgettable too.This time around I didn't notice the time go by and was far too busy hooting and hollering at the women on stage as they entertained us all and each other. I also felt the energy of the other women lifted Lee to new heights whilst also adding a softness as she gazed adoringly at her women being everything they could be just as she was doing herself.

You might think the story of Lola Montez ends sadly with her body ravaged by syphilis, and very likely dying in poverty. Finucane and Smith refute this narrative though, celebrating Lola's energy, spirit, and the magnificence of choosing a life of freedom rather than gendered repression. The final line of The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez rings with the echoes of history and will continue to resonant across a future yet to come. Lola Montez is not a role model for the patriarchy, but she is THE role model for women everywhere, of every time.

4.5 Stars

Sunday 23 June 2024

BLOOD IN THE WATER: Theatre Review

WHAT: Blood In The Water
WHEN: 20 - 30 June 2024
WHERE: La Mama Courthouse
WRITTEN BY: Jorja Bentley
DIRECTED BY: Tansy Gorman
DESIGNED BY: Bethany J Fellows
LIGHTING BY: Georgie Wolfe
SOUND DESIGN BY: Callum Cheah
PERFORMED BY: Chris Koch, Lana Schwarcz, Mia Tuco, and Karlis Zaid
STAGE MANAGED BY: Steph Lee

Mia Tuco, Chris Koch, Lana Schwarcz - photo by Darren Gill

It is sadly rarer than you might think but Blood In The Water, now playing at La Mama Courthouse, is a thoroughly engrossing play from start to finish. I guarantee you will not look at your watch once to see how much longer this is going to go on.

Written by Jorja Bentley, Blood In The Water is a play which investigates the life altering effect on a family when the son is accused of rape. Riffing off similar concepts to Duck Duck Goose, Blood In The Water takes a more intimate approach, focussing on the family. It delves deep into the murky waters of public perception, child rearing, and motherly love.

Bentley's script is almost impeccable. It keeps the ideas swirling and expanding, the characters shifting and evolving, and the relationships pushing and pulling across the hour and a half in which the tale is told. We never meet the son - the accused. We don't need to. The story is not about what he did. It investigates what is revealed about the people who are closest to him - or who thought they were closest to him - his family.

The story revolves around his mother Ruth (Chris Koch), his younger sister Jen (Mia Tuco), his stepfather Ruben (Karlis Zaid), and his aunt Sal (Lana Schwarcz). Ruben is a local politician who is running for Mayor, and he uses all of his political pull and questionable morality to keep everything quiet and try and keep his stepson out of jail. Ruth is ripped apart as she chooses which child to support and creates a narrative for herself which allow her to continue to fight for her son. Jen wallows in the morass of paparazzi pressure, online bullying and parental abandonment whilst trying to finish her schooling. Aunt Sal (Ruby's sister) is the port in a storm, objective outsider, and sisterly ear, trying to keep reason, logic, and safety front and centre in an ever-widening abyss of despair and distress.

Tansy Gorman has directed the show well, and helped the actors find great depth and nuance in their characters. It is this authenticity of performances which keeps the audience engrossed. The one thing which gets in the way of the show is that it seems as if neither Gorman nor designer Bethany J Fellows understand the power positions on a stage and this weakens the audience connection preventing the show from being truly cathartic.

The set is stunning, with golden hued cloths creating a faux proscenium set up of 2 sets of legs and borders and then a full cloth across the upstage wall. The problem lies in the impressive dinner table which takes up centre stage (and because of its size, most of the playing space). 

Centre stage is the most powerful place on stage. NEVER give it to a piece of furniture! As well as this, Gorman never uses down stage centre which is the second most powerful place on stage. Instead that just remains a black well of darkness with a couple of throw away scenes played in front of the proscenium in the far left and right corners. Just about everything else is played behind or beside the table. Once you put something between the actor and the audience the relationship is immediately weakened. Luckily, in this show the story and the performances are sooooo good they survive these big theatrical missteps, and the show is still riveting.

The entire cast of Blood In The Water is strong, but Schwarcz and Tuco really keep the energy and tensions sizzling. Zaid and Koch do keep up with them, but Koch needs to work on articulation (which is a weird thing to have to say as she is a voice coach). Luckily there are captions for this play so if you miss anything you can read the words on the screen. The set is beautiful, despite my issues with the table, and Georgia Wolfe lights the show elegantly to match it.  Callum Cheah's sound design is subtle and effective.

Blood In The Water raises a lot of questions about parenting, families, and living through crises. At one point I did think it was a bit heavy on the mum blaming. I can't even begin to imagine how you would navigate this situation without making big mistakes and there is nothing in the play which addresses the biological father and his role in... well... everything! The only thing I didn't get was the closing line by Jen. I think it needs to be set up better to land with the punch it is intended to.

There is a huge amount of really good theatre on the stages of Melbourne this week, but Blood In The Water is up there with the best of all of it. Don't miss it!

4.5 Stars

Saturday 22 June 2024

THE LAST TRAIN TO MADELINE: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Last Train To Madeline
WHEN: 18 - 29 June 2024
WHERE: Meat Market Stables
WRITTEN BY: Callum Mackay
DIRECTION & AV BY: Hayden Tonazzi
DESIGNED BY: Savanna Wegman
LIGHTING BY: Spencer Herd
SOUND BY: Oliver Beard
PERFORMED BY: Ruby Maishman and Eddie Orton
STAGE MANAGED BY: Finn McLeish

Ruby Maishman and Eddie Orton - Photo by Liv Morison

It is rare in independent theatre to see sumptuous productions presented with all the quality of a major state theatre company because nobody has that kind of money. Somehow Fever103 has pulled it off with Callum Mackay's The Last Train To Madeline which is playing now at the Meat Market Stables.

The Last Train To Madeline is a coming-of-age story. Perhaps influenced by the title, at first it feels like it is Maddy's (Ruby Maishman) story. Maddy is an 8-year-old girl who pretends her dad is Bruce Springsteen which is why he is never home. He is always away on tour. She steals a video camera from a classmate, Luke (Eddie Orton). He figures it out and after negotiating their way out of the incident they become playmates. The plays cycles between the ages of 8 years old, 17 years old (when they are young and in love and planning their escape), and 23 years old when Maddy returns to find Luke happily ensconced in a quiet, 'normal' life.

About halfway through the play I realised this isn't Maddy's story at all because she never gets the space to develop any real insight into herself or her life. She is the manic pixie dream girl trope created to activate Luke's life and choices. Does it matter? Not really. And it is true to say there is nothing new or original about the story or the characters either, but that doesn't matter either, because the play does what it does really well and the actors are top class. Do I have a little niggling resentment of the traditional 'Eve' portrayal of the female screwing up the male's life? Yes, but I am fighting thousands of years of history when I try and break that down.

Savanna Wegman's set dominates breathtakingly and provides an isolated playground for these two characters to explore themselves and each other out of the prying eyes of society and acceptability. Ostensibly a concrete overpass from a long disused railway line reminding us of the history of Wangaratta where the story is set. The shape also references the streamlined facade of our modern bullet trains. All of this feeds into the long-standing tropes of trains and travel and the vagabond. 

This metaphor is one of the base concepts in American film making and just about everything about this production including the topic, structure and - most especially - the sound design kept reminding me of Sofia Coppola's work. If this play was a film, it would be the kind that would win awards at film festivals. This feeling is enhanced by the very cinematic sound design by Oliver Beard.

The Last Train to Madeline is directed well by Hayden Tonazzi. My one wish is that he hadn't given away all of the secrets of the set within the first couple of scenes. What it meant is that the play struggles to build truly intimate moments and the audience has nothing left to learn about this world as the play progresses. 

Part of this is Wegman's problem too because the set lacks any dynamic elements to allow the story to expand. Rather than all the greenery upstage, that space could have been much more cleverly calculated by both the director and the designer - perhaps have a more St Kilda influence... Spencer Herd's stunning lighting design works hard to carry the burden of maintaining a sense of reveal and newness in the latter parts of the play, but we already know what there is and how the space can be used so there is a 'more of the same' sense to the final scenes which makes the play feel a bit longer than it is.

Having said all this, as a theatrical production The Last Train To Madeline is about as perfect as you are going to get. It is visually stunning, has sophisticated performances and design elements which are fully realised. This production has evidently had money and time and the audience is the winner. 

4.5 Stars

Thursday 20 June 2024

MEDIOCRE: Cabaret Review

WHAT: Mediocre
WHEN: 30 May - 1 June 2024
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Riley Street

Riley Street
Some cabarets are secret little bombs of wisdom. This is what Riley Street's cabaret Mediocre, playing at The Motley Bauhaus, has turned out to be.

You already get a sense of where Mediocre is going to take you when you see 'Everything Is Fine' plastered across the keyboard, with the word fine falling off at the end. Then Street walks in with a box of goodies and the words 'No Really It Is' written across it'. Not entirely reassuring but it is enough to make you settle back in your seat waiting to hear more.

At first Mediocre plays out like a bunch of other cabarets. Street bumbles through app dating which becomes even more complicated when they realise, they are actually looking for a same sex relationship. Street goes on to describe one of the most uncomfortable dates I have heard so far. It is the kind of date which is only funny with the passage of (a lot of) time.

Street then goes on to discover they are ASD which clears a whole lot of confusion up but doesn't seem to make life easier. This is where the genius and incredible insight in Street's work shines through. After the diagnosis things should start working because now you know what is happening and can 'fix' everything, right?

What Street comes to understand is that a diagnosis does not mean there is a cure. It doesn't mean there is a magic pill which fixes you or your circumstances. You still have to live life and nothing about how life works changes just because you figure out why everything doesn't make sense to you. Street learns that managing an illness, or disease, or disorder just means you know why things are hard. Hopefully that eases some of the anxiety and you may be able to find strategies, but it doesn't make the problems go away.

Amidst all this, Street reveals themselves to be a much better than mediocre musician and singer. We cry along with them as they tell a heartbreaking tale of cruelty as the opportunity of a lifetime is unfairly stolen away with that fateful diagnosis. This straw that broke the camel's back in a long list of frustrations and fortitude. 

Hovering in the background is Street's family. As with most people in their independent years, Street's relationship with Mum and Dad is rocky and faced with challenges and misunderstandings. Dad is always there, though, with a bucket full of platitudes and Mum is there too even when Street can't always see her.

Mediocre is a cut above the average cabaret. Street comes to the stage with an open heart and an open book on their life. The honesty of the pain and confusion is balanced artfully with humour, some clever audience participation, and a pocket full of songs sung by a very talented singer. 

You probably missed this season of Mediocre because it was only on for 3 nights but hopefully it is coming back again, perhaps in a festival or just for a return season. If it does come back I highly recommend it.

4 Stars


LA BELLE EPOQUE - Theatre Review

WHAT: La Belle Epoque WHEN: 10 - 20 July 2024 WHERE: Theatreworks (Acland St) WRITTEN BY: Future D. Fidel DIRECTED BY: Budi Miller DESIGN BY...