Thursday, 13 October 2016

Matchstick Theatre's TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard

Matchstick Theatre's True West by Sam Shepard

If a sample of independent Melbourne theatre companies can be believed, True West is Sam Shepard’s most produced play. If there’s not one production every year, there’s probably two.

As the first production for the brand new company, Matchstick Theatre, it’s still a solid choice. Co-founders and actors, Michael Argus and Charlie Mycroft, play the two brothers, reunited in their mother’s house on the edge of the desert.

It’s easy to see why this play is done so often: one set, two strong central roles and a simple, gripping premise – how far will each brother go to one-up the other? And which brother can win the arguments over Old West versus New West or business versus art?

Argus takes the role of Lee, the unpredictable drifter. As the wild man, Argus comes close to overplaying the chaotic younger brother. But throughout the show, he settles into the role and he finds more nuance in the script as it goes.

The role of Austin requires more restraint and Mycroft delivers. It’s easy to let a character like Lee carry the show, but Mycroft does some really subtle character work as Austin early on – setting the stage for his fall later in the play.

Jacob Battista’s set and costume design really grounds the production; this is 1970s America, with the decor and fake grass to match. The set is naturalistic almost to a fault, but with the right moving parts so we can watch time and destruction wear away at the family home.

Director Alice Darling has a light touch; this production gives the sense she got out of the way of the text and the actors and allowed them to play.

This is a solid start for Matchstick Theatre; two strong performances of a classic text. A tried and true west.

True West is open at Metanoia Theatre until Oct 22. Book here.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Melbourne Fringe: The Maze

Melbourne Fringe: The Maze
I was following a woman. I had just seen Essential Theatre’s all-female production of Julius Caesar and I was walking along Queensberry Street, back towards Arts House and there was a woman up ahead of me. I wasn’t following her. We were just walking in the same direction, but she didn’t know that. Maybe I was following her?

I am always conscious of that. That someone might think I’m following them, especially after dark. Sometimes I fall back or if I’m already too close, I hurry past. This night, I crossed the road. That’s where I wanted to be, anyway. And we kept walking in the same general direction, but now it was clear I was no longer following her. If she even noticed at all.

Was she wearing headphones? I think she was wearing headphones. Headphones are a concern because they can get you killed or theycan get you harassed. No wait, that’s not that fault of the headphones. Or the woman.

I had time to drop into the Festival Club for a drink before I saw The Honeytrap’s The Maze. By the time I met creator Kasey Gambling outside Joe Taylor’s on Errol St, I’d had three drinks over a few hours. Kasey asked if I’d been drinking. I instinctively said, “A couple.” I always say a couple.

Kasey was concerned for my safety. The Honeytrap had me sign something to absolve them of responsibility, but The Maze is about street harassment. Random lewd behaviour and comments. Aggressions, both micro and macro.

Could I run in the shoes I was wearing? Could I use my umbrella as a weapon? It was a cold night, but someone could use my scarf against me.

Kasey pointed to a woman at a tram stop. I had to follow her but keep my distance. Kasey gave me an ipod nano to listen to; it scored my trip through North Melbourne with the thoughts of the woman I followed, with the conversations she had with the men who passed her, with misguided talkback radio discussions about women’s safety.

I love immersive theatre. Everything from Punchdrunks’ Sleep No More to Fleur Kilpatrick’s The City They Burned. Give me non-conventional theatre spaces and surprising outdoor works, too.

I followed the woman, trying to keep my distance, but also to keep up. Looking around, both consciously knowing how suspicious I must look, and also getting dropped into the head of a stalker. “If I stay far enough back, maybe she won’t notice I’m following her...”

The first laneway she walked down was one of the same I walked down a week earlier for Infinitum. This space that in the dusk had seemed so magical, was now shadowed and threatening. Someone is following her. Is she worried about me? Or is there someone following me following her?

I think there are five actors involved in The Maze, but I’m not sure. The men recurred but there was a woman or two on the trip through chilly, late night North Melbourne that crossed our paths once or twice. And then, of course, there were just people on the street. Walking alone or two together. A car slows down and then drives off.

You never know what is part of this kind of site-specific immersive work. An automatic light that had seemed magical in Infinitum felt like a scare moment; was someone watching her from inside that building?

The technical aspects of the work are quite remarkable; the timing of the dialogue is spot on. The judicious use of silences on the walk is quite unnerving, too.

Late in the piece, as the tension rises and I’m at a remove from the performers, Kasey approaches again and takes my headphones away. The next part of the experience happens from the back seat of a car and The Maze gets even more difficult to navigate. At least, at this point, I feel less like a stalker and more a passenger, content to absorb what this woman tells me about her experiences.

The end of The Maze is abrupt and unnerving. You’re left alone with your thoughts. You are an audience of one and have no one to talk about your experience with. The performers are no longer around to applaud or to thank. And you’ve stepped into an experience which would terrify most people if it was really happening and, to all intents and purposes, it really was.

There was a woman being stalked through the streets of North Melbourne. And I was following her. And instead of falling back or crossing the road, I kept close and hoped no one got the wrong impression.

After an eighty-minute all-female Julius Caesar, watching a creative team rework Shakespeare’s classic for women, I was immersed in the story of how many women feel unsafe in public spaces. I didn’t plan it, but it was quite a brutal theatrical one-two punch.

There will be reviews of Julius Caesar and The Maze up at AussieTheatre soon.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Melbourne Fringe: Deja Vu (And Other Forms of Knowing)

Photo by Sarah Walker
Last year, Andi Snelling had a bicycle accident; an hour before, she somehow sensed it was going to happen. Deja Vu (And Other Forms of Knowing) is a response to that moment and to all those moments in our lives where we only have intuition or gut-feeling to go on.

Andi’s sold-out show at last year’s Melbourne Fringe, #DearDiary, delved into her past – reading from diaries she has kept all her life. The show was text heavy, pulled directly from her observations of the world around her – at whatever age she was when she experienced them.

This new show is a much more difficult piece to pin down, but no less memorable. We may have laughed at her teenage angst last year, but this year we are grappling with present-day Andi and her attempts to understand the ways we know things without truly understanding them.

The key to this piece is movement; Andi has such an impressive control of her body. The opening scene has her writhing under a swathe of black material, and then emerging from that cocoon. In a way, it’s a recreation of the accident, with arms and legs unnaturally twisted and outstretched.

As the show moves onward, we are treated to a music score and soundscape that is unnerving, even as it samples a song like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – which is usually so comforting. The recurrence of this song communicates so much, without Andi ever saying a word. It’s odd but hilarious.

Every scene is visually striking, with Andi dressed and lit by designer Victoria Haslam. Director Danielle Cresp is collaborating with Andi again and they have such a strong working relationship; Cresp’s guiding hand allows Andi to shine without this very personal show ever feeling indulgent.

If the show itself is about instinct, then so must an audience trust their own instincts in reaction. There’s a delicious sequence where Andi observes the audience, writing her thoughts on a small blackboard. It captures so much about the interaction between an audience and performer, without her having to vocalise a thing.

And movement, of course, is key to our everyday communication and how we are able to sense things without really knowing them. We can understand what Andi’s feeling because of the way she holds herself or the way she withdraws from us or even, in moments, hangs as if suspended, like a puppet on broken strings.

Deja Vu means “already seen” and while you might understand what that phrase means, you’re unlikely to have already seen a show like Deja Vu (And Other Forms of Knowing).

Tickets on sale here.

Melbourne Fringe: AussieTheatre reviews

Follow the links to Fringe Festival reviews of mine posted at - I'll keep adding to the list as the festival continues...

The Awkward Years
Bye Melbourne, It's Been Fun!
Onstage Dating
Not Another Indie Cabaret
The Maze
Julius Caesar
Black is the Colour

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Melbourne Fringe: Andre Tonight!

Andre DiVenuto has a dream. A dream to host his own tonight show on Foxtel. He’s planning to record a pilot episode with his band, Bryan Jovi – they do Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi covers – but they have gone missing. And he’s waiting for his special guest Sam Neill to arrive from Tullamarine. Nothing is going to plan.

I was enticed to see Andre Tonight by the talent involved – writer and actor Chris Ryan and director Mark Leonard Winter. As the press release reminds us, they worked together on the brilliant Thyestes but I’m not sure that’s exactly how to pitch this show, a parody of tonight shows; Rove, as Andre explains, but darker.

The format of the night show is hackneyed. It’s barely changed in fifty years. There’s a band and there’s a special guest. And the “things go wrong behind-the-scenes” genre is one of my least favourite things. But Andre Tonight transcends this set-up because it’s not just a parody of tonight shows, it’s an insight into our obsession with fame and trying to become famous.

Ryan’s dressed in a terrible suit with an impressive bald spot; he looks tired and when Andre describes himself as “double nervous,” Ryan shows us exactly what that could mean.

Putting the show in the Comedy section of the Fringe Festival guide is a bit of bait-and-switch; they’re selling you a parody but giving you something much more fresh and exciting. Andre’s double nerves make you feel for him, while he tries desperately to entertain the audience that have shown up for his taping.

Early in the show, after it’s clear Bryan Jovi isn’t coming, Andre wonders if there might be anyone in the audience who can sing a little and play the keyboard. A woman stumbles from the audience, hair across her face, an almost-finished glass of red wine in her hand. She spits out her name “Meg” and falls onto the stool behind the keyboard.

In a shock to no one, “Meg the Egg” wows the audience, and while Andre continues to wait for Sam Neill, his real special guest is actually singer/songwriter, Megan Washington.

Ryan’s performance is filled with neat touches and his script brings a very Melbourne feel with references to Epping, Gumbaya Park and Clark Rubber. There’s a moment late in the show where Andre’s dream is slipping away and he’s sitting there, forlorn, eating dry Milo straight from the can. It’s hilarious and pathetic all at once.

Winter’s direction is loose without letting the show get out of hand; you don’t want this show to be too silly or too serious.

Andre Tonight is on late night, every night of the Fringe Festival, except Mondays. It’s a great way to end a Fringe binge – in the company of a sharp script, a smart actor and an exquisite singer.

Melbourne Fringe: Infinitum

The audience wait on the steps of Arts House; this is not unusual for the Fringe Festival. Nothing’s unusual for the Fringe Festival, really. But waiting on those steps to be taken somewhere has become a pretty regular occurence. When every room and venue and space in North Melbourne is full, sometimes the audience needs to be led first and be allowed to find the performance.

Infinitum, by award-winning choreographer Gareth Hart, plays out in the lanes and alleys and carparks hidden behind the North Melbourne Town Hall. We stand and watch a van reverse out of a driveway. Is this part of the performance? A Fringe Festival volunteer pokes her head around the corner and quickly steps away...

We’re a small crowd of a dozen, being led down these back streets, contemplating these spaces without any context. What will we find here? What will we see? And hear? Is walking down Errol St without knowing where we’ll end up a part of the performance? Yes. Absolutely yes.

A man in an laneway dances. We move away from him, led to a spot that’s not quite optimal. We can’t quite see what’s going on. As an audience, we’re used to sitting in rows and taking up limited space.

There’s another man, untangling cables, sweetening the soundscape. There’s the noise of North Melbourne nightlife, and now there’s a new sonic expression cutting through the din of the places that surround us.

Soon, though, the dancer and the sound designer untangle those cables and the dancing affects the sound design. The dancer drags a microphone along the ground and we are hearing the asphalt and the pavement. The microphone cord twists and spins around the dancer’s body – and the audience begins to spread out, to relax and to find a new vantage spot.

And then both performers move on and we follow... while local residents peek through windows  and motion-sensing lights, which are just part of the local infrastructure, blink on and off, becoming part of the performance.

There’s something thrilling about discovery at the heart of Infinitum. We’re looking at places we’d hardly ever take a second glance of. The show makes us hear things we wouldn’t usually absorb. Hart’s movement is delicate and considerate of his surrounds; he welcomed a car into the carpark where he danced, though the driver reversed away.

I’m seeing a few shows that are set outside during Fringe this year. Last night was overcast, the light of the day giving way to night, but Gareth Hart and Rod Price lit up the back streets of North Melbourne with beautiful movement and a soundscape that complemented and heightened the palpable air of excitement on this opening weekend of Melbourne Fringe.

Infinitum plays at dusk until Friday 23rd of September. Tickets on sale here.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

My History with and the Future of STAR TREK

I saw the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation live on a Saturday night in 1991 because I wasn’t invited to a high school party all the cool kids were going to. How much does that make me a cliche? The nerd at home watching Star Trek. Not that this is burned into my mind at all.

Honestly, though, I am what I am. Before that, I was a big Star Wars fan and never that interested in Trek. For some reason, I was more fascinated by the fact a TV show from the 1960s had come back from the dead as a series of movies and now a spin-off series than I was about actually watching that show which had Mr Spock in it.

Also, to be fair, how exactly was I supposed to watch Star Trek in the 1980s? Was it re-run on television? Did fans trade VHS tapes? How was I even supposed to find these fans without the internet?

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap”. I didn’t see any of the original series until the mid-90s, though I did catch up on the original cast’s big screen adventures before that.

The Next Generation was my introduction into the franchise and, in some ways, into the genre of science fiction. Star Wars, it turned out, was more space opera or science fantasy. My fear was that Star Trek was going to take the science too seriously. That somehow it would be space without the fun.

But “Encounter at Farpoint”, which I recently re-watched on Netflix, because that is how you can binge-watch every Star Trek series ever now, is quite a bit of fun. It’s got a space jellyfish in it and a barrier at the edge of the universe and a bunch of interesting concepts and characters. I distinctly remember being captivated by the idea of Data being Pinocchio – wanting to be a real boy.

Once I started watching Star Trek, I read Frank Herbert’s Dune and the works of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Okay, okay, Dune I read because the film was directed by David Lynch and earlier in 1991 my sixteen-year-old mind was blown by Twin Peaks. 1991 was quite a year for me and television redefining itself after years of watching soap operas and sitcoms.

Star Trek was the key to many of the friendships I made after high school. It was what got me into roleplaying. It was what got me into fan clubs and going to conventions. And when I realised I wanted to be a writer, the first spec script I ever wrote was an episode of Deep Space Nine called “Believing”. It centered around Kira and recovering repressed memories from the war with the Cardassians.

(Did you know that Paramount took unsolicited spec scripts for all their 90s Trek series? That is pretty unbelievable to think of now. The possibility of getting sued these days would be astronomical. And the number of scripts they’d get now would be impossibly high.)

Watching the 90s Trek series in Australia was tricky. Channel 9 went from airing it in prime time – 7:30 on a Wednesday – to trapping it at 11pm on a Thursday night. Its greatest indignity was the fact it ran after The Footy Show, which always ran overtime, sometimes ridiculously late. So I’d set a three hour tape to run from 11pm to 2am and that would catch The Next Generation  or Deep Space Nine and as much of The Late Show with David Letterman as possible.

I saw some Trek episodes early, because by the mid-90s, I had friends who had friends who had contacts – and we could enjoy Voyager only weeks after it originally aired. Instead of months or years, if we waited for the local networks to screen it.

I was pretty obsessed and I would buy the official magazine and was a member of the local fan club, AusTrek. I even wrote a story for their newsletter about Captain Picard being feasted upon my an alien slug, before I even knew what fan fiction was. And I wrote a defense of Deep Space Nine, which was controversial among some Trekkies because it was set on a space station and didn’t “trek” anywhere. Boy, nerds got upset about the weirdest things back then.

Deep Space Nine became my favourite of the series because it did what I wanted television to do – tell continuing stories, rather than press the reset button every week. Before that, television was comfort food. I used to get excited by two-part episodes, but my steady diet of soap meant I liked a continuing character arc, too.

The format of the Star Trek franchise – new planet every week - almost begged for it stay traditional. But as television changed in the 1990s, so did Trek to an extent. Yes, I’m still a big fan of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew, but it’s nowhere near the love I have for Captain Sisko and the complicated crew and denizens of Deep Space Nine.

After a while, I got a bit Trekked out. I parted company with Voyager before they made it home. I sampled Enterprise but quickly switched it off. And I thought I’d put my fannish tendencies in the past until JJ Abrams resurrected the feature film series in 2009. And I still have a complicated relationship with the series after that.

There are elements of every one of the shows I love and while I’ve only been watching for twenty-five out of fifty years, I recognise the half century legacy of the show is rather phenomenal. I may not have been born until nine years after the original series aired, but I still came into the show back at a time where most of its history was lost in the wilderness.

In January 2017, Star Trek Discovery premieres and I cannot wait. It’ll air in Australia on Netflix, so instead of waiting years and watching it post-midnight, I’ll be able to wait hours and watch it after work. To go boldly where so many have gone before, fifty years into the future after Gene Roddenberry first dreamed of a more evolved humanity reaching out into the vastness of space.