Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Theatre: Medusa

Renegade Productions and Bow and Dagger
Written by Finn O’Branagáin
Directed and sound design by Joe Lui
Set and costume design by Ish Marrington
Lighting design by Kristie Smith
AV design by Clare Testoni
Performed by Moana Lutton, Jacinta Larcombe, Jess Moyle, Mani Mae Gomes, Michelle Aitken, Andrew Sutherland and Sandy McKendrick
Blue Room Theatre
Until 3 November

The greatest compliment you can pay Medusa – or, certainly, the one its writer Finn O’Branagáin and director Joe Lui would most appreciate, I suspect – is that it is “splitting people”.
That’s at least what a friend texted me as I donned running shoes and easy-to-wash clothes for 75 minutes of self-proclaimed uncomfortable (you get to stand through the performance), loud and messy theatre.
My friend meant that people were either loving or hating it – I’m firmly in the latter camp – but, perhaps unconsciously, she expressed a deeper truth about the show; it splits you.
Its physical discomfort is paralleled by a psychic one; the action, a raging female blood-haka, is a sensory assault; Lui’s choreography and Clare Testoni’s audio visual work, while tight as a drum, are disconcertingly out of synch; the actors, semi-naked, daubed in paint and blood, are pungent and self-aware, the noise, woman-made or recorded, is percussive and intrusive.
Medusa is quite deliberately, a sensory overload.
O’Branagáin, Lui and Testoni are all fascinated by mythology, and their body of work is shot through with it. Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon monster of Greek mythology whose gaze turned men to stone is an almost inevitable metaphor of female oppression and rage for them.
She represents the quintessence of woman-as-monstrous and woman-as-deadly, the touchstone of misogyny and revulsion, the physical and psychological anathema to the orderly patriarchal world view.
Of rape, and murder.
(There were times when I couldn’t help thinking of Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop preening in front of the “Ditch the Bitch” caricature of Julia Gillard – it’s a wonder they didn’t put snakes in her hair.)
The ensemble of young women (Moana Lutton, Jacinta Larcombe, Jess Moyle, Mani Mae Gomes and Michelle Aitken), one androgynous man (Andrew Sutherland), and an older, homeless woman (Sandy McKendrick) beat on drums, floors and punching bags, chant, rage about the stage while Testoni’s images charge around them.
It’s a remorseless and exciting barrage, often seemingly formless and without narrative, but its messages get into your head like drumbeats.
Especially effective is the interplay between McKendrick’s monologues, filmed live from an adjoining room (you can wander over to watch her “live”) by Sutherland and projected scratchily and unstable on the walls of Ish Marrington’s scribbled set.
When McKendrick enters the main room, perched on a gopher like a dilapidated queen, wounded by life and defiant to the end, while the names of victims of the Medusa-myth flash up around her, the purpose of this ramshackle, rumbustious, divisive piece is delivered, whole and unmistakable.    

Friday, October 26, 2018

Theatre: In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

by Sarah Ruhl
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler
Set and costume designer Alicia Clements
Lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw
Vision designer Mia Holton
Composer and sound designer Ash Gibson Greig
Performed by Rebecca Davis, Stuart Halusz, Kingsley Judd, Tariri Mavondo, Jo Morris, Tom Stokes and Alison van Reeken
Heath Ledger Theatre until November 4
Jo Morris, Stuart Halusz and Rebecca Davis
 There’s A Hit – A Palpable Hit – In The Next Room
It’s an entertaining (if likely apocryphal) historical factoid that the first appliance of the age of electricity was the venerable and handy vibrator; it was certainly in wide use in doctors’ rooms as a copacetic for female hysteria – in other words, to cure that which ails you by the bringing on of orgasm – quite soon after those ACs and DCs started running through Edison’s wires.
The American playwright Sarah Ruhl has bounced off all this with In the Next Room, a witty, playful peek into domesticity and its pitfalls, the role of women in marriage and society, and quite a bit more besides.
Along the way she neatly avoids all of the traps of prurience and earnestness lying in wait for her, and the result is a wildly entertaining and intelligent piece of popular theatre.
It would be anyway, just on the strength of the text, but this production is lifted to its very considerable heights by the skill and talent of its creative team and cast.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler, the director, has accurately assessed Ruhl’s play for what it is; a modern take on Restoration Comedy, almost a bedroom – well consulting room – farce, and he plays it elegantly through the covers. He’s much assisted by his designer Alicia Clements, whose cutaway two-way-mirror set is wholly successful – quite inspired in fact –and allows the action to move from room to room seamlessly and often hilariously. Her costumes, which are removed, replaced and got inside with great regularity, are authentic and sumptuous.
Ash Gibson Greig has composed music that perfectly fits both the play’s acoustic era and electrical subject, and Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting is subtly effective throughout, even when dealing with the tricky task of switching set lighting on and off like an electric lamp.
A cast this well provisioned, led, dressed and lit has a great opportunity, and they go to town on it. There are terrific supporting turns by Tom Stokes as the ardent but diffidently amorous artist Leo Irving (who gets a different, and squirm-in-the-seat, kind of vibration), Tariro Mavondo as the African-American wet nurse Elizabeth who introduces a suite of issues as relevant today as they were in postbellum America, and Kingsley Judd as the straight-laced but sympathetic husband of one of the patients of the New Machine.
Alison van Reeken, who stepped into the cast at late notice (as she is often asked to do), is glorious (as she always is) as Annie, a Ma Clampett nurse who gets swept up in all this tomfoolery.
The story revolves around the practice of the good doctor Givings, and Stuart Halusz gives a perfectly pitched performance as the medical technocrat oblivious to the torrents and torments of those around him. He’s in pretty good shape, too.
The play belongs to its leading women, and Rebecca Davis, as Catherine Givings, and Jo Morris as her husband’s patient Sabrina Daldry, both give career performances.
Morris is electric (sorry) as Sabrina, and she makes her I’ll-have-what-she’s-having scenes ­– she develops quite a hankering for her little buzzing friend – a tour-de-force.
Davis rarely gets the opportunity to show her range, but she does here, and her ability to slip easily from farce to genuine emotion is the touchstone for the production’s stance, and its success.
There’s much talk around about the sparse opportunities for seasoned professional actors in the current Perth theatre. There are reasons for it, and I don’t intend to argue the whys and wherefores in a review of one show.
This one, though, reminds us that the talent is here, and in spades. You can help by the easy act of seeing it when you get a chance as enjoyable as this is.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Cabaret: #Val: A Glitery Ode to Queer Men and their Mums

John O’Hara
Accompanied by Andrew Kroenert
Downstairs at the Maj
13 – 15 September
John O’Hara. What a guy!
Raised on the Canning Highway Avenue of the Stars (Dave Faulkner at the Manning end, Dave Warner at the Bicton end), O’Hara schooled at Melville Primary and John Curtin College of the Arts, studied at WAAPA and has gone on to star on stage (Cats, Rocky Horror, Wicked, Priscilla) and cabaret, all over the place.
He’s back home, in more ways than one, with #Val: A Glittery Ode to Queer Men and their Mums, the story of his growing up, his coming out and the songs that helped him do both.
Those who’ve seen him on the Maj’s basement stage before, in Dedications (2015) or last year’s A Very Merry Christmas (there were plenty of comebackers in the audience – always a good sign) would have known they were in for a fine time in the company of a dead snappy performer.
I think they’d have also known they were in for more than that – because O’Hara’s cabarets are rare commodity in that glittery world. They are about things.
A fair swag of the songs of #Val are, in a sense, predictable. Gaga’s Born This Way, Scissor Sisters’ Let’s have a Kiki, an all-time gay anthemfest  (I Will survive, Raining Men, Strike A Pose, Dance With Somebody…), George Michael’s Freedom, even the Barbie theme song, Get Your Sparkle On (we did).
But it’s the songs we don’t expect, and the way he gets inside them that we’ve never heard before, that makes O’Hara such a compelling performer. Who’s gunna to do the little tearjerker Baby of Mine from Disney’s Dumbo, Cher’s gun-totin’ Turn Back Time, or, of all things, Farnsy’s You’re the Voice?
But he does, and owns them all big time.
And when everything he’s trying to do and say comes completely together (much credit due here to his accompanist – well they’re a duo, really, Andrew Kroenert), in heartbreaking, revelatory versions of TLC’s Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls and Sia’s Titanium, it’s like you’ve never really known what they’re about until now.
That’s the strength, but also the one weakness, of #Val. The story of a gay boy growing up and into is skin, his relationships (with his fabulous mother, of course, his straight brother, his absent father) is funny, sweet and makes all the points it needs to.
The extrapolation into the history of the LGBIQ struggle way back to the Stonewall Uprising and the death of Marsha P Jackson is understandable and legitimate, but it confuses O’Hara’s narrative and dangles him on the crumbly edge of polemic.
But what the hey. That’s just me. John O’Hara, “Australia’s John O’Hara”, gives as good an hour as you’ll get to spend on this side of the footlights.
Don’t miss #Val. Don’t miss anything he does.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Theatre: The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish

Created and performed by Frieda Lee and Sam Hayes
Blue Room Theatre
Until 22 September

The sea, the things that swim in it and those who catch them is the world of Frieda Lee’s The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish. It’s a powerful and cruel world, and Lee’s play is a striking, heart-wrenching response to it.
Her play is shaped like a parable, and within it the horrors of modern quasi-slavery,  and the fragility of life and family are explored.
She tells the story of a little fish (Lee) the wife and the mother of the child of the fisherman who caught him (Sam Hayes).
They are the little fish, and their inconsequential, expendable lives are buffeted by the avaricious, the capricious and the brutal (many of the incidents are drawn from the real-life stories of indentured fishermen in Thailand and other South-East Asian countries).
Lee is both the little fish and the narrator of her story, and she weaves the dual role together effectively. She is an actor of great passion and intelligence, and gives a memorable performance.
Her husband Hayes plays six supporting characters as well as the fisherman, and demonstrates his versatility as well as his power in the performances.
Hayes has the rare gift of being genuinely menacing on stage (as he showed to frightening effect in last year’s A View from the Penthouse, which, incidentally, returns in an extended version with a stripped-down title later in the Blue Room Season).
In Little Fish he also shows his capacity for tenderness and arch comedy.  Hayes is an actor I’d go a long way to see.
The quality of the performances, well supported by Maeli Cherel and Étain Boscato’s set and costumes, Isaac Diamond’s sound and Phoebe Pilcher’s lighting designs, drives the story of Little Fish to its fateful conclusion.
There are some rough patches along the way ­– a diversion involving  a capricious wealthy woman and her boyfriend who take Little Fish in is overlong and meandering, and I felt the show needed more of a sense of the sea to give it mystic and mythic power – but The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish remained engaging and engrossing theatre.
And the ending is absolutely shameless. You’ll adore him! 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Theatre: TILT 2018

WAAPA  3rd Year Performance Making Students
Blue Room Theatre
Until September 8

(l-r) Zachary Sheridan, Tamara Creasey, Christopher Moro and Elise Wilson in Cookies and Cream
The forays by WAAPA’s Performance Making course’s graduating class to the Blue Room Theatre for the double-head TILT programme have become an annual highlight.
That’s in part for their own sake – eight short pieces over two nights with the freedom, expressiveness and self-indulgence (not always a bad thing) that, maybe, will never come again, will always reveal some delights.
It’s also a window into the future; what these young theatre-makers are interested in, and how they deliver it to audiences, will more than likely be the matter and method of the independent stage in time to come.
There’s a very direct pay-off from that – along with a trap for young players. Some of the best (or, more correctly, more substantial) Tilt bits have quickly gone on to become fully-fledged productions at the Blue Room, albeit with mixed results.
The problem, the challenge anyway, is converting a 25-30 minute piece into the hour or so alternative theatres, fringe festivals and the like trade in.
Sometimes these short shows are exposed as skits when a longer format calls for more character development and a more sustained narrative. Sometimes they leap that tall building with a single bound.
Last year’s showstopper, The View From the Penthouse, is a case in point. It’s slotted to return, with a longer running time and a shorter title – just Penthouse – at the end of next month in the Blue Room.
From what I saw last year, I’d advise you to crawl over broken glass to see it – but that trap is baited and waiting.
So, to this year’s Tilts.
Courtney Henri and Jordan Valenti’s play-within-a-play about street performers, a flying whale and surface tension, Fluke, was deftly managed and sweet, without quite nailing its allegory or compelling our attention.
Evelyn Snook, in her Work in Progress, certainly does. A small, sad portrait of a girl battling depression and inertia (“Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you do today is breathe”), it’s beautifully written and winningly performed.
The evening’s closer, and its most striking performance, was Girl & Thing, a kinetic, sometimes frightening dance piece devised and performed by the busy Henri and Marshall Stay, who also delivered an impressive video and sound design (with Ash Lazenby). Henri is an extraordinary sight, diminutive, a shock of hair and a frenzy of movement, sometimes defying your senses to keep up with her. I’m tempted to wonder whether Henri and Stay always knew what they were saying in Girl & Thing, but if the language they used to say it was sometimes incomprehensible, the effect was certainly mesmerizing.
I’m cheating. The best was first, not last, but I’ve saved it anyway.
Cookies and Cream (or, as its writer Zachary Sheridan and director Amelia Burke would have it, “however the diddly is done”) is everything you could want in forty minutes of alt-theatre. Smart, screamingly funny, did-she-really-SAY-that-ish, snappy, crackly and poppy, it’s the antidote to whatever ails you.
And, among the terrific cast of Sheridan, Christopher Moro and Tamara Creasey, a star is born in Elise Wilson – anyone who loves the work of The Last Great Hunt’s fabulous Arielle Grey is gong to really love this gal.
Cookies and Cream will be back. You can bet on it.
The second programme (which ends this Saturday 8) may not have a firecracker like Cookies and Cream, but it’s textually more substantial than the first.
The opener, The Painfully True Story of the Show we Couldn’t Make, devised and performed by Noemie Huttner-Koros, Karina White and Snook is a backstage procedural about, as the title suggests, the difficulty – and even the validity – of nice, young, white folk making theatre about people without their privileges. It’s a good and worthy idea, blunted by an overabundance of long, meaningful looks and some lengthy, problematic recorded segments that had plenty of verbatim but not enough theatre.
Dad is Isaac Powell, Jarryd Prain and Stay’s emotional paean to those strange creatures that fathered us. It’s, perhaps, a little repetitive, but it sneaks up on you, building bit by bit to a touching, insightful kind of father-son catharsis – and a pillow fight. It’s performed with energy and commitment and should both extend and tighten up nicely if it goes around again some time. The pillows are inspired.
Clare Testoni has made quite a splash over recent times with her combination of shadow puppetry and fairy tale-telling, and it’s a lode that Chloe-Jean Vincent, co-creator Madeleine McKeown and co-writer Valenti mine effectively in Where the Woodsman Cannot Find You. Working with the fairytales The Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, Vincent and fellow performers Henri and Stay deliver a multi-media take on the stories, and the head of the girl imagining them, that is tightly-drawn, funny and sometimes genuinely scary.
Who knew the story of Ada – Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and, some claim, the writer of the first computer programme? Wikipedia, naturally, the writer and director Huttner-Koros, clearly, and now all of us who saw her smarty staged and delightfully composed little bioplay about this extraordinary (Queen) Victorian woman. Played with corseted good grace by McKeowyn, well supported by Snook, Burke, Creasey and White, Ada is another tilt that could easily re-emerge as a fully realized-piece in a Spiegeltent near you sometime soon.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (★★★★½)

By Simon Stephens
National Theatre of Great Britain
His Majesty’s Theatre
Until August 18

 All serious theatre is an exploration of the human mind and its mysteries, and good theatre attempts to illuminate, but not explain, it and them.
Explanation is a task for lectures, illumination for the stage.
That’s what makes Simon Stephen’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time among the best of plays.
It’s the story, adapted from Mark Haddon’s much-loved novel, of a courageous 15-year-old, Christopher Boone (Kaffe Keating), who triumphs over the weaknesses and deceits of his parents (Stuart Laing and Emma Beattie) and the terrors of loneliness and alone-ness to achieve what seems an impossible goal, and at least begin to repair the mess those around him have made.
This is as fine, entertaining and insightful a couple of hours as I can imagine, and it would be curious of you to miss it. 

Read the complete review in The West Australian

Theatre: Julius Caesar

By William Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
August 8-11

Julius Caesar is a problematic play, and this is a problematic staging of it.
I’m not quite sure why Bell Shakespeare have taken it out on the road so soon (seven years) after they last mounted it, and I couldn’t find anything in particular compelling about it to have forced their hand.
Whether we’re to make anything of its extensive gender and ethnic impartiality (five of the historical and original male characters are played by women; Caesar by an African American), there’s nothing especially ground-breaking about it – indeed a major “drawcard” of Bell’s last crack at Caesar was the casting of Kate Mulvany, who also delivered a terse, concertinaed adaptation of the script, as Cassius.
Which leaves us with the problems of the play, and how Bell dealt with them, and it’s a mixed report card.
The elephant in the room (okay, allow me a little Hannibal joke) is Julius himself. The play is mistitled, of course – it should be Antony and Brutus, but Shakespeare obviously was saving the latter part of the title for Cleopatra. Julius is, after all, merely the victim of the play’s pivotal moment, and that happens fairly early on in the piece.
Before it, he does nothing other than ignore some ultimately good advice, change his mind a couple of times (so much for being “as constant as the northern star”) and wander into a one-way knife event.
He’s barely more important, either to his play or the parade of Shakespeare’s characters, than Duncan in Macbeth, and no-one has ever thought to re-name the Scottish Play after him.
Bell’s last Caesar, Alex Menglet, played him like an ailing Russian oligarch, which was a bit comic but made some useful points about the unsuitability of any individual to claim the entire apparatus of a modern state for themselves.
I could find no similarly useful points in Kenneth Ransome’s awkward portrayal of the general who  would be king.
On the other hand, Sara Zwangobani’s Mark Antony did bring something to her role. She stripped Antony’s great “friends, Romans, countrymen” of much of its rhetorical flourish and left it as the prowling, snarling incitement to slaughter it is.
Perhaps the production’s best – and most surprising – moment was the argument and reconciliation between the conspirators Brutus (Ivan Donato) and Cassius (Nick Simpson-Deeks) in IV.iii. They squabble and flatter each other like the doomed children they are while the pincers of the vengeful Antony and ambitious Octavius (Emily Havea, effective as a Prince on the cusp of her purple reign) close in on them.
From the end of Antony’s speech on, the playing out of Julius Caesar is as weakly constructed and written as anything in Shakespeare.
To their credit, Donato and Simpson-Deeks at least made it worth sitting through.